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Strike casts uncertain light on future.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

It's hard to gauge how the contract dispute between a local production company and crew members working on "The Sisters" feature film will affect future efforts to lure moviemakers to Lane County and the rest of Oregon, industry observers said Monday.

Earlier in the day, about 15 crew members shouted slogans and hoisted signs, but could do little else as replacement workers drove past the Chambers Media Center's electric gates.

The substitute workers arrived a day after 65 members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees went on strike to protest the Chambers production company's refusal to sign a union contract.

Work on the movie, based on Anton Chekhov's classic play "The Three Sisters," began in mid-April and is expected to end this weekend with wrap-up shoots around town and at the Chambers complex in north Eugene.

Production company President Carolyn Chambers said she doesn't know if the legal dispute will hinder future efforts to attract films to her soundstages. "It's one more obstacle, but I don't know how big it is," she said. "There are certainly a lot of nonunion crews out there wanting to work."

Oregon has been home to a number of union and nonunion films in recent years, with smaller films more likely to use nonunion crews, said Veronica Rinard, executive director of the Oregon Film and Video Office. Some films smaller in scope than "The Sisters," such as director Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" filmed in Portland, have used union crews, she said.

Larger films aligned with established studios - such as the $25 million "Without Limits" movie distributed by Warner Bros. and filmed in Eugene eight years ago - use union crews as a matter of course, Rinard said. "Without Limits" depicted the college career of University of Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine.

At $5.5 million, "The Sisters" is something of a "tweener" film, neither low-budget nor blockbuster, Rinard said. "It's at a level which to my memory we've not had here for three or four years," she said.

"The Sisters" has been touted as one of several recent or impending productions that suggest a resurgence of filmmaking in the state. The outlook should brighten even more next year, Rinard said, when legislation takes effect setting up a rebate to filmmakers of 10 percent of expenses incurred in Oregon, such as labor, equipment and services. The production must spend at least $1 million and the rebate is capped at $250,000 per film.

Production on "The Sisters," meanwhile, should finish on schedule and on budget, Carolyn Chambers said. While unsure of the exact number of replacement workers, "we were able to fill everything we needed," she said.

The replacement workers - grips, gaffers, camera operators, makeup artists and other support crew - are nonunion, with about half from out of state, mostly California, Chambers said.

She said most or all of the locked-out workers were paid more than union scale, and that all signed individual contracts agreeing to work in a nonunion shop. "We made deals we felt were very honorable," she said.

Many of the movie's original crew members have already packed up and headed home, said Charlie Carlsen, business manager for IATSE Local 488 based in Portland. Those who remain, he said, will continue to walk picket lines in front of the Chambers complex and at exterior shot locations around town until the film's production comes to an end.

"We'll be where they are," he said.

Union leaders said they went on strike because they wanted Chambers to provide a "health and welfare" benefit that would help cover health insurance costs. They said production companies with budgets and actors comparable to those on "The Sisters" routinely provide such benefits.

But Chambers said that's not true. "There are movies done with much higher budgets and many more stars that are nonunion," she said.

Chambers said the union local went on strike at the insistence of international leaders "who basically don't really want to see Oregon develop a movie industry because of the competition."

Stars in "The Sisters" - including Rip Torn, Chris O'Donnell and Mary Stuart Masterson - belong to the Screen Actors Guild and operate under a contract that requires them to report to work.

However, the film's actors support IATSE's position, said guild spokesman Seth Oster in Los Angeles. The guild also issued a statement that described as "unacceptable" Chambers' decision "to use a replacement crew rather than bargain an outcome acceptable to both sides."

None of the back-and-forth provides much solace to people like Greg McMickle, a propmaster from Portland with 25 years in the business. McMickle, on the picket line Monday, said he and others who went on strike probably won't even see their names in the completed film's ending credits.

"Usually, whoever finishes the shoot gets the credit," he said.

Paul Carter / The Register-Guard


Motion picture technicians picket outside Chambers Media Center Monday. Some technicians plan to strike until production on "The Sisters" ends.
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Title Annotation:Entertainment; Carolyn Chambers doesn't know if the dispute will affect her production company's ability to attract filmmakers
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 11, 2004
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