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Open letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger re: SAG talks

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To: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

Re: Screen Actors Guild talks

GOVERNOR, YOU were so inspiring when talking about the American dream back in 2004. Remember?

At the Republican convention, you told everyone what a great place this country is. You reminisced about how when you immigrated here, you heard a speech by Richard Nixon and it was "like a breath of fresh air," a phrase not usually associated with our 37th president. You promised that India and China would never surpass us because "America always moves ahead."

Then came one of your best sound bites: "To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don't be economic girlie men!"

There's no way you're an economic girlie man, Mr. Governor, and that's why we hope you'll do something about the long-term economic pressures that are tilting Hollywood to the precipice of another strike.

Now, look, your administration has many other problems; for instance, there's that tiny matter of the state government being $15 billion in the hole and running out of cash soon if a budget isn't passed. Hey, sorry we brought it up!

But as a onetime box-office champ, it can't have escaped your notice that contract talks between the Screen Actors Guild and the studios aren't going well. Actors could walk off the job by the end of this month, and, in fact, the business may already be suffering a "virtual strike," with production of television series and films slowing to a trickle until the labor picture resolves. The entertainment business, a strong driver of the Southern California economy, is still recovering from the three-month writers strike that ended in February. Many people believe the industry can't afford another work stoppage. Certainly many of its ordinary workers can't.

People have seen "The Terminator" and your other movies, and maybe they still dream you're an action hero in real life too. Maybe they think you could barge into the negotiating room, smash the bargaining table with your bare fists and snarl, "I'll be back."

That's not going to happen. We saw how you handled the writers strike, which was something of a master class in political avoidance.

When the writers walked out, you initially said you couldn't get involved because a federal mediator was on the case. Then, as if to tamp down allegations of do-nothingism, you said you'd meet with officials from the Writers Guild and the studios. You lamented the strike's economic damage. In the end, though, your participation added up to not much. Your press secretary described your involvement to us as "low-key."

It was, frankly, kind of a girlie man performance, Mr. Governor. But your reluctance was understandable. Generally, politicians do themselves and their constituents no favors by horning into the middle of nasty labor disputes.

And you may have even less reason to get involved in the actors' talks. It's easy to see how your own membership in SAG could create awkward moments if you tried to guide the union and studio leaderships to a deal. The moguls who showered you with those multimillion paydays in the 1980s and '90s really didn't want you around during the writers negotiations, so they certainly won't be clamoring for you now.

Yet there is a big contribution you could make to stabilizing Hollywood's future, something that could be part of your legacy. You could use your bully pulpit to do something about the exodus of TV series and films to New York and about 40 other states. That's the "runaway production" that continues to send industry jobs elsewhere. Two recent examples: ABC's "Ugly Betty" and "Life on Mars" decamped to New York in large part to take advantage of tax incentives recently passed by that state. The laid-off staffers at "Ugly Betty" even bought an ad in a trade paper begging you to do something.

Of course, you don't need an ad to educate you about this issue. You already know all about it. You've been talking about leveling the playing field for California entertainment producers since you came to office in 2003.

And you're still talking. During a visit to Riverside this month, you said that your friend Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico had ribbed you about how "stupid" California was being for letting entertainment jobs slip away. "We are losing billions of dollars in revenues because those productions are all moving outside the state," you said.

Yet talk is, as they say, cheap, and we're no closer to any sort of economic stimulus package today than in the past. That's not entirely your fault. Your fellow Republicans, who usually cheer for anything that sounds like a tax cut, have complained for years that entertainment tax incentives amount to handouts for David Geffen and his pals.

And in August, this newspaper's editorial board argued that Hollywood tax incentives would end up subsidizing productions that were never at risk of leaving California in the first place. Using that logic, why not just solve the current budget impasse by hiking taxes on every company doing business in the state?

The problem is that runaway production is becoming an increasingly serious competitive issue. People are losing their livelihoods because other states are willing to do things their home state isn't.

You understand all that, and yet your leadership on this issue hasn't been very muscular. You've let opportunities slip to take your case directly to the people -- a tactic you employed often early in your administration.

Some say the clock's already run out. "The time to get this through was during his first year in office," Dan Schnur, a former top aide to Gov. Pete Wilson and Sen. John McCain who now teaches at Berkeley, told me. "In his first year, he was a governor in the middle of a honeymoon. Now, he's a fifth-year governor in the middle of a $15-billion budget deficit. . . . It's impossible."

To your credit, you haven't given up. Your office says your budget proposal is going to include an economic stimulus package for California film and TV production, although the details are "up in the air," according to your spokesman Aaron McLear.

That's all well and good, but the entertainment industry, already battered by the forces of globalization and technology as well as years of dubious investment decisions by the studios, may need a bit more than just a "trailer bill" on the back of an already troubled budget. You need to get out there and argue your case.

Let's think of this in bodybuilding terms. The entertainment industry, where you made your personal fortune, has lost a lot of muscle. It needs help packing some meat on those biceps and quads. It needs a motivator like you to avoid a girlie man fate.

Don't you want to pump it up?

The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@latimes.com

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