For 18 years, Mark Karen has worked behind the camera, carefully framing shots on movies and television shows from “Titanic” to “Star Trek: Voyager.”
But the 45-year-old Los Angeles resident sees a bleak picture of his own future.
The reason: a proposed contract change that for the first time would remove a requirement that camera operators like Karen be used on feature films. Instead, the new contract would allow directors of photography, commonly known as “DPs,” to operate cameras on features and episodic television shows.
The seemingly innocuous concession -- contained in a draft contract for Hollywood’s so-called below-the-line workers -- has roiled the ranks of camera operators, who have worked hand in glove with DPs since the days of talkies.
“It means I’m going to be out of a career,” Karen predicted.
Many in the tightknit community of camera operators fear a plot by movie studios and the media conglomerates that own them to cut costs by eliminating their duties, potentially saving about $450 a day on each film and TV shoot.
The concern is shared by many DPs, who say the change could double their workload and distract them from their primary task: to compose the shot and give directions to camera operators and others on the crew. A camera operator is in essence the DP’s right hand, executing his or her vision of a shot and watching for technical glitches, such as errant shadows or smeared makeup.
“It’s an abomination,” said Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, of the proposed contract. “Camera operators have been part of the crew for over 80 years. To suddenly just swipe that aside in a notion to pinch pennies is completely wrongheaded.”
J. Nicholas Counter, who speaks for the major studios and is their chief negotiator with the guilds, declined to comment on the matter.
People close to the studios, however, say the goal of the provision is not to eliminate camera operators but to ensure flexibility to allow certain filmmakers to get behind the camera when they want to. Currently, the union that represents camera operators can grant waivers to allow that to happen, but it has refused to do so, fueling tensions with the studios.
The issue has created a rare fissure between the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, and its parent union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The umbrella union negotiates contracts on behalf of 18 West Coast locals that represent behind-the-camera trades such as grips and costume designers.
In December, the international alliance negotiated a proposed three-year contract for those locals that included a 75-cent hourly wage raise, as well as an increase in health plan contributions and additional pension benefits for retirees.
A month later, however, the cinematographer guild’s national executive board took the extraordinary step of unanimously voting against the contract, citing the provision on camera operators.
Last week, the board mailed letters to the union’s 5,700 members, urging them to reject the contract. The vote results will be tallied by March 9.
“On feature films, it is possible that no camera operator will be hired,” the board warned in its letter. “This has greater implications than the loss of jobs. It will change the way films are made.”
Despite the discontent, cinematographers won’t have enough dissenting votes to block the overall agreement. That’s because only one other guild in the alliance, prop makers’ Local 44, has voiced objections. The remaining 16 locals are expected to endorse the contract. Still, the decisive rejection by the union’s leadership was a rare setback for Thomas Short, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
Short, who rarely encounters dissent within his ranks, declined to comment.
An avid believer in negotiating with the studios long before a contract is up, he has shown little interest in returning to the bargaining table to address the camera operators’ concerns. In a recent letter, Short warned camera operators and other Hollywood craftspeople that if they rejected the contract they would be choosing to strike.
Camera operators dispute that assessment, saying they could work under the existing contract until the current one expires in July.
“No one wants a strike,” said David Frederick, president of the Society of Camera Operators, a nonprofit organization that promotes the trade. “But we do not want to go to work under this [new] contract.”
The controversy has its roots in a grievance Local 600 filed last year against Warner Bros.
Warner had asked the union to allow Steven Soderbergh to act as both DP and camera operator during the filming of “Ocean’s Twelve.”
Local 600 refused, citing staffing requirements, but Soderbergh, for creative reasons, took on both roles anyway.
The union then filed a grievance against Warner Bros., saying it failed to obtain a waiver. The studio later paid $17,000 to settle the matter.
Warner Bros. declined to comment, as did Soderbergh.
Caught in the crossfire is the cinematographers guild president, Gary Dunham. As a member part of the negotiation team, he said, he decided to support the proposal only because producers promised to seek more damaging concessions if this one was removed.
“I’ve been getting a hundred e-mails a day on this,” said Dunham, who now opposes the agreement. “It’s a huge issue for the members.”