Internet campaign against “Cold Mountain” for choosing Romania as its American stand-in.
By John Horn
Times Staff Writer
February 4 2004
At first glance, “Cold Mountain” looks like a quintessential American story a Civil War drama set in North Carolina filled with traditional U.S. mountain music. But the movie is being condemned in an Internet and e-mail campaign for hardly being American enough.
A number of unheralded show business veterans are blasting the Miramax film in a widespread electronic campaign that very well could be hurting the film both at the box office and in the Academy Awards. “Cold Mountain,” which received seven Oscar nominations last Tuesday, also has been targeted by the cinematographers’ union, which refused to host a December screening of the film because it wasn’t made in the U.S.
Among “Cold Mountain’s” e-mail critics is production designer Ann Champion, who worked steadily in Hollywood for 20 years until hundreds of movies and TV shows started saving money by relocating to Canada and other countries. Champion says she hasn’t had health insurance for years and doesn’t know how she’ll pay her February mortgage. So when “Cold Mountain” fled its North Carolina setting to film in Romania, Champion finally had enough.
“I want the industry back here in America,” says Champion, whose credits include “Cagney & Lacey” and “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.” Even though Champion wasn’t up for a “Cold Mountain” job, she was raised near where the fictional story takes place. “So it really became a personal thing,” she says.
The debate over so-called runaway productions echoes the fray over numerous U.S. companies, from jeans maker Levi Strauss & Co. to air conditioner manufacturer Carrier Corp., moving operations to distant lands to boost profits. There is growing resentment within working class Hollywood over a production exodus that many estimates say is costing the local economy billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs. Legislation aimed at blocking foreign production subsidies and boosting domestic rebates have yet to bear fruit.
“‘Cold Mountain’ is the culmination of a lot of frustration,” says Gary Dunham, a camera assistant with 25 years experience who has forwarded an e-mail critical of the film to dozens of industry colleagues. “People are very, very angry. There really is no reason for [filming in Romania]. It’s just greed.”
The e-mail and Internet campaign has been propelled by the Film and Television Action Committee. The organization, whose leaders include Dunham and Champion, works to curtail runaway production through legislation, lobbying and education. Its website, www.ftacusa.org, currently features the article “What Americans Need to Know About ‘Cold Mountain.’ ”
“You can send a message that these economic losses and artistic choices compromised in the name of saving money are not acceptable to Americans,” the article says of the movie. “Do not contribute to ‘Cold Mountain’ profiting literally at your expense by buying a ticket.”
The article, which includes addresses and fax numbers of the film’s producers, also was forwarded to 5,000 people on the FTAC’s mailing list, says the group’s chairman, production designer Brent Swift. “And then other groups picked it up and forwarded it in an e-mail chain.”
A similar article denouncing “Cold Mountain,” from the United States of America Coalition of Film and Television Workers, has circulated via e-mail. The coalition is aimed at members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which governs many production jobs.
While it’s impossible to quantify the impact the “Cold Mountain” campaign has had on the film’s ticket sales or award chances, anecdotal evidence suggests the effort against the Nicole Kidman-Jude Law film has spread. Just before Christmas, Mark Levinson, “Cold Mountain’s” dialogue replacement supervisor, was chatting with his Berkeley mail carrier.
“And somebody else on his route told him he wasn’t seeing ‘Cold Mountain’ and was telling people they shouldn’t see it because it was filmed outside the U.S.,” Levinson says. Levinson, who has collaborated with “Cold Mountain” writer-director Anthony Minghella on three other features, called the filmmaker to relay the news. “He was pretty much speechless,” Levinson says of Minghella’s reaction.
Albert Berger, one of the film’s producers, says he “really doesn’t know” if the e-mail and the Internet movement has hurt the film or cost it a best picture Oscar nomination. “But it is upsetting to me,” Berger says.
“We want more than anything to make movies here,” Berger says from the Northern California set of the Richard Gere movie “Bee Season.” “The real focus should be on how can the government make moviemaking here more affordable. Miramax went out on a limb to make this movie. We tried everything we could, but the movie would not have been made had we not gone to Romania.”
Minghella and his production team scouted a number of locations both here and abroad before deciding to film much of the $80-million movie in Romania. Several factors prompted relocating overseas.
First, Minghella felt modern American development threatened his need for natural, sweeping 19th century vistas. Second, the director needed four seasons of weather, which was more likely in southeastern Europe. Third, moving overseas would save Miramax millions just as its financial partner on the film, MGM, was dropping out of the production. Within a few weeks, Romania’s Carpathian Mountains had replaced North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountain range.
“Cold Mountain’s” producers say they spent some $18 million during several weeks of filming in the United States. About half the film’s actors are American, as are many of its crew members, Miramax says.
It’s still not enough for the film’s critics, who say such a distinctly American movie should have remained at home. “The producers of that movie betrayed us, and they treated us like manure,” says director of photography George Dibie, president of the International Cinematographers Guild. Dibie says a variety of union workers offered to cut their “Cold Mountain” fees by as much as 30% to keep the production from going to Romania.
Miramax approached Dibie’s ICG about a December “Cold Mountain” screening in which Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale would answer questions from some 600 ICG members. Such screenings are common among many Hollywood unions in the weeks leading up to the Oscar nominations, and can help generate enthusiastic buzz and awards momentum. “They begged us to show it. We refused,” says Dibie.
Those criticizing “Cold Mountain” make clear they are not upset by movies that film in other countries for artistic, rather than economic reasons. Consequently, they are not complaining about “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which was made in New Zealand, or “Lost in Translation,” which was filmed in Japan.
But FTAC says it is about to launch a letter-writing campaign against director Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man,” a movie about American boxer Jim Braddock that will film in Toronto later this year. “This is intolerable,” an FTAC letter to Howard says. “Instead of promoting the great American film industry, you are participating in its destruction. Have you so much money and fame that you can turn your back on the people and the industry that gave you the opportunity to succeed?”
“Cinderella Man” producer Universal Pictures declined to comment.
Miramax says the real problem is that the U.S. government does not offer the same kind of rich economic incentives, which range from tax refunds to sale-leaseback deals, that make filming overseas so financially attractive.
“We take the runaway production issue seriously, and have been very active in lobbying for federal legislation to make us competitive for future productions,” Miramax spokesman Matthew Hiltzik said.
“The thing that is most disturbing is that this has nothing to do with the film,” says dialogue replacement supervisor Levinson. “Awards are either about quality or they are not.”
As for Levinson’s mail carrier, he eventually bought a “Cold Mountain” ticket. “He liked it,” Levinson says. “Too bad he’s not an awards voter.”
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