Entertainment Industry

Category: Local Television

Directors win improved pay and benefits for network news and sports workers

Everyone is talking about deflation, but not for those who work in unionized news and sports jobs at the networks.

The Directors Guild of America said Monday that it reached an agreement with the major networks providing wage and health plan increases for directors, assistant directors, production assistants and others who work in news and sports at ABC, CBS and NBC and a number of their owned TV stations.

The proposed three-year contract, which was approved by the board Saturday and awaits a final ratification vote by members, covers about 1,000 guild staff and freelance members. The tentative agreement includes a 1% increase in the amount that employers contribute to the union's health plan, annual 2% wage increases in the second and third year of the contract and guarantees that the DGA will have jurisdiction over secondary digital channels.

"It's no secret that the past few years have been extremely difficult for local stations and news operations, with severe declines in advertising and revenue,'' DGA President Taylor Hackford said in a statement. "Despite this challenging climate, the Negotiations Committee successfully achieved a number of gains, which I think is an indication of the extremely high value our members bring to news, sports and operations."

Acknowledging the tough climate for bargaining, negotiations chair William Brady said he and his colleagues were able to "fend off a series of onerous proposals and secure a solid agreement."

-- Richard Verrier 



Writers Guild worries about news degradation under Comcast-NBC Universal

The quality of television news could deteriorate further under a Comcast-controlled NBC Universal, the  Writers Guild of America East warned Wednesday in letters to key Washington officials overseeing the government's review of the proposed merger.

"True investigative reporting has almost vanished completely from commercial on-air news or has often been reduced to sensationalized, trivial coverage of no lasting significance," Michael Winship, president of the guild, and Lowell Peterson, executive director, wrote.  "Instead of a town square where ideas flow freely, the news business becomes more like a shopping mall dominated by a small number of megastores. This thwarts the public's ability to engage in robust, well-informed discussion of the critical issues of our times."

The guild, which represents thousands of writers  in film, television, radio and digital media, sent the letters to Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski; Christine Varney, the assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division; and U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

The consolidation of Comcast's entertainment assets with NBC Universal "would result in a single company producing content and acting as sole distributor of that content -- both on cable and online -- for tens of millions of Americans," Winship and Peterson wrote.

As a remedy, they recommended that Comcast be required to "contribute significant resources to the production of truly independent content."  Funding, they said, should be allocated through the Corp. for Public Broadcasting or "another entity to be established for this purpose." They suggested that Comcast set aside $10 million a year over a 10-year period -- or $100 million -- for funding. 

"It is imperative that this further consolidation of control be counterbalanced by a commitment to broaden the programming available to the public," Winship and Peterson wrote.

Comcast quickly responded, saying it was up to Congress and the "public broadcasting community" to devise funding strategies.

"Comcast has already pledged to make local news and other local programming available to consumers at more times and on more platforms than ever before and to facilitate and encourage the creation of new local programming and to add even more independent networks to our video systems," Sena Fitzmaurice, vice president of government communications for Comcast, said in a statement. "We’ve committed that the NBC owned and operated broadcast stations will produce an additional 1,000 hours per year of local news and information programming for distribution on traditional and new media."

Though the guild's suggestion was "a thoughtful proposal," Fitzmaurice's statement went on, "it ignores the fact that, taken as a whole, the range of public interest commitments already made by the combined companies promises to deliver more diverse programming and more independently produced programming than any entity has ever committed to before."

-- Meg James

Crafts training program opens doors to Hollywood

Hollywoodcpr A few years ago, Jonathan Caballero was sitting in a prison cell, pondering his bleak future as he served time for a robbery conviction.

He could scarcely have imagined the journey that brought him to a sound stage in Culver City last week, where he and his fellow crew members were preparing to film a mock scene taken from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The classic tale of second chances could easily apply to Caballero’s own life, but he was thinking about more practical matters: how to position the camera dolly and track correctly so the camera operator could properly frame a shot of two actors sitting at a table.

"I’ve come a long way," says the 23-year-old, who was helping to set up the scene for a classroom exercise. "If I didn’t have this program, I’d be in jail or probably dead.”

Caballero is among 200 students enrolled in an entertainment arts training program at West Los Angeles College that teaches the nuts and bolts of filmmaking to an underserved audience: predominantly low-income students who can’t afford film school but want a shot at working behind the scenes in Hollywood.

The 18-month program, which offers courses in such areas as costume design, set dressing and lighting, is run by a nonprofit group called Hollywood CPR, which stands for Cinema Production Resources. Funded through private donations and government grants, the group works with local unions to provide job-training opportunities for underprivileged youth looking for careers in the technical aspects of filmmaking.

”I wanted to help kids in need find their way and I felt that teaching entertainment crafts was a good way to do that,” says Kevin Considine, a former set dresser and prop man who launched the charity in 1997.

Considine wanted to address what he saw as a dearth in vocational training: Schools have severely cut arts education programs, studios have long since abandoned apprenticeships to train workers in crafts, and film schools focus mainly on the more highbrow aspects of filmmaking such as writing, directing and editing.

By contrast, Considine wanted to focus on teaching basic skills needed on the set, such as set lighting, scene painting and working with props.

"We don’t train anything pie in the sky," Considine added. "We want real."

Following a successful pilot program developed with various crafts unions, Hollywood CPR began offering an accredited training program at West Los Angeles College in 2008. Operating out of an aviation training facility on the campus, the program has a dozen instructors, all of whom are industry veterans. The curriculum is hands-on: each class makes a project, such as building a set for a crime show, and students spend one semester doing internships on movie and TV productions.

Students also learn fundamental workplace skills, such as showing up on time and respecting the pecking order on film and TV sets. Hollywood CPR has trained more than 475 students since its inception. The rigorous program has a high drop-out rate -- between 30% and 50% --  but contends  about 60% of its graduates have gone on to work in the industry.

"It’s a vitally important pathway to below-the-line jobs," says the group’s chief operating officer, Laura Peterson.

Many producers praise the program for opening doors in an industry that has been notoriously tough to break in to without having connections or a degree from a top film school.

"It brings in a whole group of people who would never have a shot at the film industry," said Geary McLeod, a cinematographer on the CBS show "The Mentalist" who has worked with a half-dozen graduates.

Film producer Scott Budnick said that the students he worked with were "more eager to please than any other person on the crew: they work harder, they hustle more, they’re just grateful." Budnick was so impressed with one graduate he hired as a prop assistant on the blockbuster comedy "The Hangover" that he recruited him to work on his latest film, "Project X," also directed by Todd Phillips.

The student, Isidoro Avila, 26, has worked on a string of big Hollywood movies, including "Iron Man 2," since graduating from Hollywood CPR in 2007. He’s moved up from prop assistant to set dresser and now makes $33 an hour -- a far cry from the near-minimum wage he once earned at a warehouse in  Ontario.

"Honestly, this program just changed my life," Avila said. "If it wasn’t for these guys, I don’t know what I’d be doing. Every day I go to work with excitement."

-- Richard Verrier

L.A. gets a bite of the Big Apple

Newyork It was a scene that would have surely made New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg cringe.

On Monday afternoon, dozens of mock New York yellow cabs and buses, along with NYPD police cars and Lincoln Town limos with New York license plates, cruised down Spring Street in front of City Hall. A giant crane hoisting two 20-foot lighting screens diffused the bright sunlight casting down on the faces of actors Rob Morrow and Maura Tierney. In all, 179 extras and 37 vehicles were enlisted for an unusually elaborate scene for the upcoming ABC drama “The Whole Truth.”

The TV series, chronicling the way a case is built from the point of view of both prosecutors and the defense, is set in New York. Yet, it’s being filmed in Los Angeles and is one of two new dramas, along with Dick Wolf’s latest “Law & Order” spinoff, that began shooting here on city streets this week, giving a much-needed boost to local television production.

“The Whole Truth,” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer Television and Warner Bros. Television, is the latest New York-themed series to film in the City of Angels, joining “CSI: NY” and the former long-running sitcom “Seinfeld.” For its part, New York lured away ABC TV’s show “Ugly Betty” from L.A. two years ago, creating an uproar in the local production community.

“The Whole Truth" is certain to heighten the rivalry between the cities and, along with "Law & Order: Los Angeles," help blunt the steady falloff in dramatic TV production over the past year due to the proliferation of reality TV, competition from other states, and the cancellation of locally produced shows, including the long-running series as Fox’s “24” and CBS’ “Numb3rs” and “Heroes”.

Although filming on the streets of Los Angeles jumped 16% across all categories (including commercials and features) in the second quarter, spurred by the state’s tax incentive program and economic recovery, filming of TV dramas fell 38%. Early indications, including a strong pilot season, suggest local TV drama production will pick, up in the second half of the year. NBC is putting on more dramas to fill the 10 p.m. slot after moving Jay Leno back to late night.

“We lost a few really location heavy shows and we’re glad to see incoming dramas utilize L.A. locations,’’ said Todd Lindgren, spokesman for FilmL.A. Inc., the nonprofit group that coordinates film permits for the city and much of the county. “We’re hoping these productions will help restore some health to the dramas category.”

Jonathan Littman, executive producer of “The Whole Truth” and president of Jerry Bruckheimer Television, said L.A. was the clear choice for the show. The company "works hard to keep their shows in Los Angeles in order to help the local economy and to keep industry jobs in town,'' he said. "It is also a huge advantage for us to be in close proximity to our actors and production team.”

 “The Whole Truth” is expected to feature on-location shots throughout L.A.,  including the scene in front of City Hall, which was standing in for the New York City Criminal Court in Manhattan. “We’re trying to make it like a busy New York street,’’ said location manager Veronique Vowell.

That included little touches like adding a New York newspaper stand and subway signs, injecting steam from sidewalk vents, parking a Con Ed truck in front of City Hall  and using cut brush and plants to conceal palm trees and banana leaves straddling the entrance.

“It’s a challenge,’’ Vowell said. “New York doesn’t have bougainvillea and palm trees.”

-- Richard Verrier

Photos: Crew members work to film a new television series called "The Whole Truth" with New York City taxicabs in front of City Hall in Los Angeles. Credit: John W. Adkisson / Los Angeles Times


All Trains Lead to Fillmore

On-location filming rebounds in L.A. 

"Happy Cow"bill aims to keep commercials in state

Griffith Park: location managers' paradise

Hollywood has Georgia on its mind

Independent filmmakers opens a window on filmmaking process

"Transformers" takes over L.A.'s streets

Universal Studios backlot gets a makeover

Captain America will be filmed in...London?


Winter Olympics, Conan O'Brien settlement put a drag on NBC Universal earnings

NBC Universal is relieved that its winter financial wipeout is finally over.

Parent company General Electric Co. on Friday released its first-quarter results, which included, as expected, substantial losses generated by NBC's coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Although GE posted a 32% drop in earnings, the company nonetheless beat analysts' expectations.

GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt said there were signs the economy was improving, along with the industrial giant's profit margins -- except for a couple of problem divisions.Immelt

"NBC, because of the Olympics, was a drag on margins overall," Immelt said.  

NBC Universal's operating profit of $199 million was down 49% compared with the first quarter of 2009. Revenue of $4.32 billion for the quarter was up 23% compared with the year-earlier period, but it was about flat when ad sales for the Olympics were excluded from the results.

GE executives warned investors several months ago that it would lose as much as $250 million on its coverage of the Vancouver Games -- but it did not turn out as bad as first feared. NBC ended up losing $223 million on the Olympics, GE said. 

"In the end, the sales were better," explained GE Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin. Ratings were 14% higher than for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. The television network took in about $800 million in revenue related to the Olympics in February, Sherin said. But that wasn't enough to cover the $820 million that NBC paid the International Olympics Committee for the TV rights, let alone the enormous costs of production and a workforce to broadcast the 17 days of events.

And then there was the Conan O'Brien effect.

Sherin donned his own comic hat, telling Wall Street analysts: "You might have missed this, but we did a lot of shuffling of the lineup in the first quarter. You may not realize it, but we are reprogramming at 10 p.m." 

NBC's late-night squeeze play -- canceling Jay Leno's failed prime-time show, moving him back to 11:35 p.m. and bumping O'Brien out of his coveted "Tonight Show" time slot -- was costly.  GE did not break out the amount shelled out to get rid of O'Brien (although sources have said NBC paid $32 million to O'Brien and an additional $15 million in severance for show executives and crew members). GE did include the peacock's fiasco as a negative in NBC's results, titled: "Conan O'Brien departure and settlement."

Since canceling Leno's prime-time show in February, ratings at 10 p.m. have been up 45%. And, Sherin said, "Jay Leno is back in late night and he regained his No. 1 position." 

NBC's Los Angeles-based movie studio, Universal Pictures, continued to deal with duds. "Box-office results for movies did fall short of our expectations," Sherin said, but he said that was partially offset by scaled-back spending on movie marketing. DVD sales were encouraging, with Universal selling 5 million units, led by the comedy "Couples Retreat."

On the upside, the television advertising market continues to show signs of recovery. Local television ad sales were up 15% in the first quarter, Sherin said, and some NBC network and cable channel ad sales were up as much as 20% over ad rates that were established last summer. That's a hopeful indicator as NBC Universal heads into the all-important advertising sales season next month.

Cable television once again was NBC Universal's top performer. USA, Bravo and Syfy had strong results, and Oxygen turned in its best ratings ever. Profit at financial news network CNBC was up 7%, and MSNBC "had a few milestones," Sherin said. MSNBC, he said, beat CNN in prime time for the quarter. 

Overall, General Electric generated first-quarter net income of $1.87 billion, or 17 cents a share, compared with $2.75 billion, or 26 cents, for the year-earlier period. Revenue was down 5% to $36.6 billion.

"In media we have a negative, but we think our worst quarter is behind us," Immelt said. "We should see growth at NBC U for the remainder of the year."

-- Meg James

Photo of Jeffrey Immelt by Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg News

Early signs of brighter picture for local production in 2010

Lessgloomy The picture couldn't have been bleaker for on-location film and TV shoots in L.A. last year, what with the sharpest decline in overall production since tracking began back in 1993.

But while the grim outlook isn't likely to change any time soon, there are early indications that at least 2010 won't be as bad.

Glimmers of hope emerged from the latest batch of data from FilmL.A. Inc., the group that handles film permits for the city and most unincorporated areas of the county.

Overall production days (defined as crew's permission to film a single project at a single location over a 24-hour period) rose 13% last week compared with the same period a year ago. And, more significantly, for the first time in more than six months, the increase occurred across all major production categories: film, TV and commercials.

Commercials, which strongly rebounded in the second half of last year as the economy showed signs of improving, led the way with a 23% year-over-year gain last week.

Feature-film production, which took a nose dive last year as studios scaled back the number of movies they released and crews fled to cheaper destinations, rose 16%, continuing a rebound in the fourth quarter of last year after California's new film tax credit program began to kick in.

Among the new features filming locally is "Burlesque," a drama distributed by Sony's Screen Gems starring singers Cher and Christina Aguilera, and "Cedar Rapids," a comedy from Fox Searchlight starring Sigourney Weaver and Anne Heche.

Also, L.A.'s largest sector -- television -- may be stabilizing after plummeting more than 30% in the fourth quarter of 2009, when networks cut programming budgets and saved costs by shooting more on soundstages rather than on location. TV shoots for such shows as "NCIS," "The Office" and  "24"  climbed 6% last week, after a 98% jump in the week ended Jan. 10.

Although it's too early to say how long the upswing will continue, film-industry officials are encouraged, albeit with a dose of caution.

"We hope this is an indication of an improved climate,'' FilmL.A. spokesman Todd Lindgren said. "There seems to be some optimism in 2010 that an improved economy, coupled with the state incentives, will start to lift the production numbers and that each category will see a benefit."

-- Richard Verrier

Production plummets in L.A. in 2009

It may have been a banner year at the box office, but 2009 was a complete dud for local film and TV production.

Overall, on-location filming on the streets of Los Angeles plummeted 19% last year, the steepest year-over-year decline since tracking began in 1993, according to data from FilmL.A. Inc, the nonprofit group that handles film permits for much of the L.A. area.

The production sector, a major employer and key facet of L.A.'s signature entertainment industry, was buffeted on several fronts: by a deep recession, which caused studios to release fewer movies and advertisers to curtail spending on commercials; a protracted contract dispute earlier in the year with the Screen Actors Guild; and the continued outflow of film and TV work from Southern California.

Hardest hit was feature-film production, which had been steadily falling over much of the last decade as L.A. lost jobs to Canada and, increasingly, other states such as New Mexico, Louisiana and Michigan that offer lucrative tax credits and rebates to filmmakers.

California's newly adopted film tax credit program helped to blunt the downturn, with production activity increasing by double digits in the second half of the year. About 50 productions have qualified to receive about $100 million in tax credits since the state program debuted this summer.

Nonetheless, the uptick wasn't enough to keep features from falling 30% for the year overall. Feature films accounted for 4,976 permitted production days (defined as a crew's permission to film a single project at a single location over a 24-hour period), the lowest level since 1993 and less than half what it was a decade ago. [Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the lowest level since 2003.]

Television, the largest sector of the production industry, also had a bad year, with production days falling 17% to 15,933 production days. That dip reflected fewer pilots being shot last year as well as a decline in reality TV programming, which the networks had relied on heavily to fill their schedules the year prior, during the 100-day writers strike that ended in February 2008. On-location filming for TV dramas also fell as networks saved money by shooting more on sound stages rather than on-location, and by NBC's ill-fated decision to move "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno to prime-time TV, thereby making less room on their schedules for scripted programming.

Commercial production also dipped in 2009, with production days falling 12% to 5,292, as advertisers scaled back spending due to the recession. That was the lowest level since 2000, when actors who work in commercials went on strike. In a bright spot, however, commercial activity has picked up in the second half of the year as the economy shows signs of recovering.

-- Richard Verrier

On Location: Tutoring location managers on local schools and other film sites

Novemberchart When it comes to local filming, out of site often means out of mind.

And that's the last thing Los Angeles needs as it struggles to keep productions close to home.

So FilmL.A. Inc., the nonprofit group that handles film permits for much of the region, is launching a website today that features a catalog of schools and other government properties available for filming.

The site, called LocoScout, bills itself as a "new kind of location library," replacing an existing film library that had limited search capabilities and data.

Among other things, the new site allows location managers to search for photographs of specific schools and their facilities, such as gyms and cafeterias, and available parking.

Eventually, the library will be expanded to include photos of all government properties, including city and county parks, that are available for filming.

The service, which is free, debuts at a time when the city is facing mounting pressure to take steps to keep production from fleeing to lower-cost cities and states. Notwithstanding the introduction of California's film tax credit program in the summer, activity for on-location filming in L.A. in the first eleven months of this year declined more than 31% compared with the same period a year ago, while shoots for television and commercials fell 15% and 16%, respectively (see accompanying chart for latest figures).

"It's one of the ways we're trying to make the L.A. region more film friendly," said Todd Lindgren, spokesman for FilmL.A. Inc. "A lot of times people may go to the same location over and over again and not be aware that there are equally attractive alternatives."

-- Richard Verrier

L.A. schools are learning the Hollywood game


L.A. schools are getting an education in Hollywood: It pays to be film-friendly.

Half a dozen films and TV series filmed in the Los Angeles Unified School District this summer, contributing nearly $1 million in revenue to the district. That's double the amount of film revenue the district collected this time last year, according to FilmL.A., the film permit group that has its own manager who coordinates filming in schools.

"We are seeing more family and school-situation scripts being penned and scenes filmed,'' said FilmL.A. spokesman Todd Lindgren. "School officials also are recognizing that filming revenue can offset some of their budget challenges."

The LAUSD charges $2,600 a day in use fees, with $2,000 going to the school and $600 that the district distributes among other schools. That does not include custodial fees or any donations that schools many receive from filming.

"The Secret Life of the American Teenager," the popular ABC Family drama starring Shailene Woodley, Daren Kagasoff and Molly Ringwald, will shoot a dance scene next week at John F. Kennedy High in Granada Hills (see accompanying chart). The show, in its second season, normally films exterior shots at Grant High School in Van Nuys, but the gym was booked that week, said location manager Mike Beche.

Kennedy High was eager to accommodate, Beche said. "They've moved volleyball games for us. They've gone way beyond what they should have."

"The Secret Life" is just one among several TV series that have filmed in L.A. schools this summer. Among them: "Three Rivers," the CBS drama about organ transplants;  "Men of a Certain Age," the TNT series starring Ray Romano; and the Fox comedy "Glee."  (The best-known high school TV show, "90210," mostly shoots its school scenes in Torrance and El Segundo, but also films in LAUSD schools.)  The just-released movie "Fame," an update of the 1980 musical, was shot at Le Conte Middle School in Hollywood. 

"When schools are flush with money, they are not as film-friendly," Beche said, "but all these schools need money and they know we're a great revenue source."

-- Richard Verrier

L.A. not forgotten in new Bruckheimer series


On Wednesday, Christian Slater and other stars of the new crime drama "The Forgotten" will converge on a parking lot in Echo Park that will actually stand in for a municipal tow lot in Chicago (see accompanying chart).

The latest series from Jerry Bruckheimer, which debuts on ABC tonight, is about a team of amateurs who attempt to solve unusual crimes. The story is actually set in the Windy City but is filming in various locations throughout Los Angeles.

That may seem odd, given the growing pressure producers face to keep budgets low by using out-of-state film incentives, such as 30% film tax credit offered in Illinois. That would seem all the more attractive given that "The Forgotten" wouldn't qualify for California's new film tax credit, limited to new series created for basic cable TV, or series that are returning to the state.

But Bruckheimer, whose production company is based in Santa Monica, has a long history of staying close to home. All of his TV shows, including the "CSI" series, "Cold Case" and "Dark Blue," the new crime drama on TNT, shoot in the Los Angeles area.

"I like to keep the business here,'' said Bruckheimer, who is producing the show, which has a crew of 143, with Bonanza Productions and Warner Bros. Television. "It's getting harder and harder because the economy is tough, and the studios are really squeezing us in every budget. [But] "we've got great crews here, and we love working with them."

-- Richard Verrier


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