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Sound Stages Are Seen As Sanctuary From Picketers

It’s commercial producers’ latest tactic in their ongoing quest to avoid being hassled by protestors in the 11-week-old strike by actors against the advertising industry: Shoot commercials in the sanctuary of private sound stages, rather than on city streets. “Sound stages are a more controlled environment,” said Morrie Goldman, a spokesman for the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. “You don’t have people shouting to disrupt your shot.” Industry insiders say Universal Studios Inc. has as many as five sound stages running full tilt to keep up with demand from commercial producers. However, word leaked out in the tight-knit entertainment community, prompting protestors to picket that site. Universal officials were unavailable for comment last week. Raleigh Studios, which has sound stages in Hollywood and Manhattan Beach, is reportedly doing a brisk business in commercials as well, but officials there did not respond to requests for interviews. Greg Krizman, a spokesman for the unions (Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), said no one can tell how much work is flowing to the private sound stages, but that’s precisely why commercial producers are going there. It isn’t necessary to apply for a film permit when filming on a set. “It’s impossible to track,” he said. It has become evident producers are going to great lengths to hide their activities, Krizman said. Some producers are taking out numerous location permits with the city to confuse union members, while others are claiming to be shooting documentaries or industrial films when they’re actually shooting commercials. “It’s deliberately falsifying information,” he said. Some 135,000 SAG and AFTRA members nationwide are striking over the way they’re reimbursed for commercials that run on cable TV. Instead of being paid a one-time fee, they want to get paid for each time an ad runs, like they do for spots aired on broadcast networks. Advertisers, on the other hand, want to extend the flat-fee system. They’re also concerned that if they give actors residuals for cable TV commercials actors will expect the same treatment for ads in the budding Internet sector. But not all sound stages are benefiting from the strike; some are reporting a bit of slowing. Los Angeles Center Studios in downtown L.A., for example, depends on commercials to help fill in the gaps during slower summer months, but this year commercial work has fallen off, said Steve Smith, a partner. “Commercials are certainly not our bread and butter. For us it’s great for infill between motion pictures,” he said. “But this summer is noticeably quiet.” Los Angeles has experienced a decline in commercial production days, or the number of days commercials were shot in and around the city outside of sound stages. There were only 420 permitted production days for commercials in May, down from 544 days in the same month in 1999, according to the EIDC. Meanwhile, the number of permitted production days further declined to 277 in June, way down from 529 during the same month last year. But observers say the decline may have been exacerbated by the mislabeling of permit requests by commercial producers. At this point, no one can say when the strike may be resolved. Talks between the advertisers and the actors broke off April 14, and while federal mediators summoned both sides for a meeting in New York on July 20, observers expect the strike to draw on for weeks or maybe months to come. That has industry officials concerned about the long-term damage caused by a relatively narrow dispute. Runaway production was already a problem, but they fear the commercial strike will only exacerbate the situation. “Every time a (commercial) project goes up to Canada, Australia or Czechoslovakia you’re training those crews (in those other countries). It becomes easier the next time around,” said Goldman. Officials with the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, a trade group that represents 280 commercial production companies, confirmed that the strike has some members turning to private sound stages while others are moving their productions abroad. “Our members want to keep working here, but they’ve had to look at alternatives,” said Steve Caplan, a spokesman for the association. The danger of losing commercials, even in the short term, is that it fuels the growth in out-of-town locations of the support services needed to make movies, TV shows and commercials everything from prop and lighting services to caterers and even lumber for set construction, said Caplan. “The people who are really dependent on this (L.A.-area commercial production) are the vendors, suppliers and crew members,” said Caplan. “That’s really who we’re concerned about.”

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