Disquiet on the Set

A Case Study In Minor Politics And Special Interests In The Naked Pueblo's Film Industry.
By Dan Huff

TUCSON'S $20-MILLION-a-year film industry has recently come under threat of backsliding into the same morass of insider dealing, cronyism and bad politics it was cleansed of a decade ago.

The sad part is, during the last decade the city has done a good job pulling in feature film and commercial business, thanks to the impartial guidance of Tom B. Hilderbrand, executive director of the Tucson Film Office.

Created in 1986 by then-City Manager Joel Valdez, the Film Office has largely succeeded in one of its major goals, which was to eliminate complaints from Hollywood producers about the grasping, wheeler-dealer, "give-my-cousin-a-job" approach taken by some members of the old Tucson Film Commission and their cronies, as well as complaints from local merchants, non-Film Commission members, who found themselves cut out of the loop when the big-spending film companies came to town.

"There were some very bad aspects to the Film Commission," Mayor George Miller recalls of the old system. "People who were on the Commission, it seemed they were directing some of the business from the film companies to their business. Not like anything illegal, but there was a lot of bitching about the fact a couple of the hotels were getting a lot of business--that sort of thing."

The political threat to Hilderbrand's decade-long record of professional dealings with Hollywood became evident at the December 16 City Council meeting.

That's when Vice Mayor Michael Crawford--a relatively inexperienced Ward 3 Democrat appointed to the post when previous occupant Tom Saggau flaked out--tried to shove some unsolicited "help" down Hilderbrand's throat.

Crawford pushed hard for the Council to hire a marketing expert --the "right person," as he stressed several times during the meeting, indicating he had a candidate already in mind--to sell Tucson as a film location. (A Crawford aide also told at least one out-of-state film official they had "somebody in mind" for the new marketing post.)

Crawford proposed the new hire work not under Hilderbrand, whose knowledge and contacts in the film industry are extensive, but under the city's Office of Economic Development. Furthermore, Crawford maintains the proposed marketing expert should be paid the same as Hilderbrand, who's making $47,500 a year.

Crawford made his motion despite the fact a full audit of the Film Office was underway, and despite the fact the audit team had yet to release its report and recommendations. It has since done so.

On the surface, it appeared merely to be a ridiculously ill-timed move on Crawford's part. But since nothing is ever simple in Naked Pueblo politics...

IT SEEMS CRAWFORD had been listening to longtime Hilderbrand critics--the very cronies and good old boys the Tucson Film Office was created to tame--as well as to representatives of unions responsible for a recent, massive dip in film revenues in many cities outside southern California, including Tucson.

Crawford says at least 10 people came to talk to him about the film industry when he was first appointed to the Council. The Councilman mentioned two of his visitors--Bob Shelton, former Old Tucson impresario; and a representative of Blue Heron Productions, whose employee roster includes Danny MacCallum, son of former state Office of Film Development director Bill MacCallum.

Bill MacCallum and Shelton have sparred with Hilderbrand for years.

During his official tenure as head of the Arizona Film Office, MacCallum and Hilderbrand routinely traded accusations of lack of cooperation and lack of communication.

The likable Shelton, 74, who married into Hollywood's powerful Loew family, is somewhat of a local sacred cow because he developed the dilapidated Old Tucson movie lot, built in 1939 for the movie Arizona, and still owned by Pima County, into a going tourist trap.

Since his retirement in 1992, Shelton's been clumsily angling to get back into the film/tourist business here--preferably at taxpayer expense. Earlier this decade, he created a minor flurry of publicity by proposing to use land near the Santa Cruz River for something called Colonial Tucson, an Old Mexico theme park.

The proposal went nowhere, but the indefatigable Shelton hasn't given up.

And apparently he's still got some political clout--a mid-level city bureaucrat was somewhat chagrined recently to find himself squiring Shelton around the Avra Valley. The bureaucrat had been ordered by higher-ups to help Shelton check out city-owned acreage as a possible site for a movie soundstage.

Crawford says Blue Heron officials insist a soundstage is sorely needed to boost film revenues here.

However, Mel Swope, senior vice president for MGM Worldwide TV, recently advised the City Council there are much better ways to spend taxpayer money than to build a soundstage that's sure to go unused most of the time.

Also, former city manager Joel Valdez points out Tucson is only 45 minutes away by air from Los Angeles' abundance of soundstages, and rushes can be here overnight.

If a soundstage were a money-making idea here, Valdez says, private enterprise would have quickly stepped in when Old Tucson's soundstage burned down in April 1995. "But they (Old Tucson officials) were using it mostly for indoor picnics," Valdez observes.

Hilderbrand is not opposed to a soundstage--as long as taxpayer money doesn't go into the project.

But getting back to Shelton's recent taxpayer-assisted foray: The hapless city bureaucrat tells The Weekly it appeared Shelton was looking to build not just a soundstage, but another old-western-type tourist attraction on the city-owned acreage, judging by the way they were eyeballing the dirt for possible streets and building sites.

A former Tucson film commissioner, Shelton makes no secret of the fact he thinks he'd make a great replacement for Hilderbrand.

Blue Heron's connections to the Arizona Film Office are a tad troublesome, too.

First, industry insiders wisecrack there's not a film made in Arizona that Bill MacCallum takes credit for bringing here that his son Danny hasn't worked on--apparently referring to the kind of insider favoritism the Tucson Film Office was designed to eliminate.

Secondly, according to daily newspaper articles and city files, the Arizona Film Office--which the elder MacCallum headed from 1972 to 1994, and which he still represents on occasion--has at least a 20-year history of irking Tucson officials through its insider favoritism and by simply not telling local officials when a film project is coming to our area.

IT HAPPENS EVERY time someone new ascends to a position of power in local government--the self-interested lobbyists and longtime political losers scurry out of the woodwork, probing the new kid for weakness to exploit as they attempt to cajole, sweet-talk, or whatever him into voting their way.

In Crawford's case, the film-flammers succeeded spectacularly: During a recent interview he said he'd like to see a film commission reinstated here.

Of course, that's not surprising, given Crawford's apparent political naiveté and the fact that his first official act was to sell his soul to special interests and the Growth Lobby. Among Crawford's "accomplishments" cited by his critics both on and off the Council:

• He carried the water bigtime for a private waste transfer station, thus allowing private haulers to take all their garbage out of the city's landfill--which means the city loses tipping fees--and haul it to a private landfill near Mobile, Arizona, at a greater profit for them and lost city revenues. Thanks to Crawford's vote, the local tax-paying, yard-cleaning jockey must pay more to dump his trash.

• He pushed hard for the so-called Knapp rezoning, which put two gravel pits, one landfill and an asphalt batch plant in a residential area on the northwestern edge of the city.

• He also pushed for Civano, the solar village, which critics complain is really just urban sprawl with a happy face, a slick trick to drop big bucks into infrastructure on Tucson's perifery. Creating infrastructure for Civano, they point out, would also benefit legendary land speculator Don Diamond's massive Rocking K development.

• He's been more than willing to pursue the proposed privitization of Tucson Water, a move critics charge is nothing more than a massive sell-out of our community's most valuable resource to private development interests.

• He worked to stifle and kill a recreational lake for inner-city kids at the Kino Recreation Center, but he's always supported the Growth Lobby's call for a Central Arizona Project terminal storage lake and recreational complex on the far west side.

• He supported a proposal to raise bus rates, thus forcing poor, inner-city riders to subsidize more affluent riders on the less-traveled routes on the rapidly developing outskirts of town.

The theme that keeps coming up in Crawford's career, his critics charge, is his willingness to compromise Tucson residents' quality of life for the benefit of the powerful few.

FOR SOMEONE OF Crawford's special-interest bent and lack of political experience, Hilderbrand and the Tucson Film Office may have seemed an easy target.

After reaching a high of $28 million in 1994, the local film industry's annual revenues crashed, reaching only $12.6 million in 1996. It was a nationwide phenomenon, due entirely to maneuvers in Hollywood, where union bosses--chiefly from the Teamsters and the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees--realized their southern California-based members, who comprise the bulk of the film industry's support and technical workers, increasingly were losing money and family time to out-of-town productions.

So the bosses ordered picketing, strikes and slowdowns around the country, secure in the knowledge that while out-of-Hollywood shoots are generally much cheaper, the economic advantage to low-budget producers of movies-of-the-week and the like rapidly evaporates with labor strife and demands for higher wages from the yeomen in the hinterlands.

The Phoenix Business Journal reports revenues statewide dropped precipitously, while Phoenix Film Office Director Lucy Marshall also cites a big drop there as well. Dawn Keezer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Film Commission, reports revenues dropped from an average of $15 million to roughly $8 million. She says when it comes to domestic filmmaking, it's pretty much the same story outside of southern California.

Charging blindly--or perhaps not so blindly--into a situation which was largely out of anyone's control, Crawford ordered his staff to call various film offices around the nation, seeking data to reinforce his assumption that Tucson needs to hire a film-marketing person.

Never mind that former city manager Valdez had decided, based on his detailed study of the industry at the time he persuaded the City Council to create the Film Office, that marketing was unnecessary. Even today Valdez maintains marketing Tucson as a film production site is a waste of money.

"When I went out to Hollywood to research this issue, people in the film industry told me, 'You don't have to tell us about Tucson. We've known about it since Arizona.' So why waste your money doing that when they already know what's here?"

He adds that even the folks who shoot lesser projects and commercials are well aware of what Tucson has to offer.

Pittsburgh's Keezer, generally considered the current queen of American municipal film site marketers, and herself a former California film commissioner, said Crawford staffer Greg Foster called her five times trying to get a copy of her marketing plan. Keezer also said Foster told her they had "somebody in mind" for the new marketing job.

Keezer eventually refused to provide her plan. She said she had the uncomfortable feeling Foster was working against Hilderbrand, a well-respected figure within the industry. As one Hollywood observer has noted, movie people--even folks on the periphery--tend to build their careers through professional loyalties to one another, and Keezer is no exception. It's a model of deportment city politicians might consider emulating.

During the course of one conversation, Keezer said, Foster claimed Hilderbrand was not cooperating with Crawford's requests for information and was refusing to return calls.

"That's not true," Hilderbrand responds. "That's outrageous. For me not to return a city councilperson's calls or meet their requests for information would be a dereliction of my duties."

Asked whether he'd talked to Hilderbrand, Crawford at first said, "I've sent him memos trying to get information out of him. I can't get anything out of him." But when asked to confirm that statement seconds later, Crawford said, "Yeah, I sent memos to the city manager's office, requesting Mike Brown when he was here, and Louis (Gutierrez) when he got here."

Actually, that appears to be one misstatement compounding another: City files contain an October memo from then-city manager Mike Brown answering Crawford's request for information on how film revenue statistics are compiled.

During the same interview, Crawford added, "Tom has never come to see me, either. I know he's went to see other council members. He's never come to see me."

Another apparent misstatement. Says a bewildered Hilderbrand, "I don't know what he's referring to. In the year and a half since he's been on the Council, I've never made a personal visit to another Council member."

It's one thing for a Council member to promote a political agenda for the benefit of special interests; it's quite another for him to speak carelessly--or lie--about the job performance of an all-but-defensless city employee while in pursuit of that agenda.

It should be noted that a short time after Hilderbrand made his rebuttal to Crawford's no-visit statement, Hilderbrand finally did begin contacting Council members to determine what sort of lobbying effort was underway regarding the Film Office. He's also sent a letter to all Council members, including Crawford, saying he's available to discuss the auditor's final report. As of February 25, Hilderbrand said, Crawford's office had not requested a meeting.

Ironically, both men work in the same downtown building, and Crawford must pass the Film Office to get to his own desk.

At any rate, by the time Foster, claiming to represent the City of Tucson, got around to calling the Alaska Film Office in early February, he was giving the impression to director Mary Pignalberi that, in her words, "They were trying to get some info to help Tom."

Pignalberi added officials of the Arizona Film Development Office have always admired her colorful approach to marketing.

CURIOUSLY, the "Right person" Crawford appeared to be favoring for the marketing job he was trying so hard to create at the December 16 Council meeting, Harvard-educated Lorna Soroko, a former L.A. showbiz attorney, would seem to have at least a small connection to the Arizona Film Development Office as well.

In all fairness to Soroko, City Council members she's met with describe her as extremely bright. She says she fled Los Angeles because she fears earthquakes, and knew virtually no one when she arrived here more than a year ago--a story corroborated by a friend, Tucson native and former Tucson Citizen sportswriter Allison Hock, now a successful screenwriter based in West Pasadena, California. Hock describes Soroko as "one of the good guys," not at all the grasping, back-stabbing political type one tends to find in the tinseltown jungle.

Perhaps Soroko, in her effort to make it in her newly adopted--and far more seismically stable--community, just fell in with the wrong crowed.

Patricia Wiedhopf, an aide to Tucson City Councilwoman Janet Marcus, recalls being introduced to Soroko more than a year ago, during a meeting with Debrah Howard-Jacob, a representative of the state Department of Commerce, when Howard-Jacob had come to discuss Civano, the solar village project.

Howard-Jacob's recollection of her first meeting with Soroko is conveniently sketchy, but she vaguely recalls Arizona Film Development Office Director Linda Peterson Warren, a Gov. J. Fife Symington III political appointee, introducing her at film-related function a year ago.

Soroko says she attempted to contact Hilderbrand, but never got through to him. Hilderbrand says he can't recall ever getting a message from Soroko, but notes the Tucson Film Office sometimes gets 100 calls a day. His secretary, as well as the previous woman who worked in the office, can't recall such a message, either.

Crawford recalls meeting Soroko at the opening of Councilwoman Molly McKasson's new Speedway office. McKasson speaks highly of Soroko, as do all council members who've met her. It's an open question, however, whether McKasson would be allowed to vote to hire Soroko, since McKasson's husband makes his living building sets for the film industry.

SO THERE YOU have it, a brief case study in minor politics in the Naked Pueblo--which, despite its exploding growth and the millions changing hands in dozens of trades and industries, including film, is really just another small town.

At its December 16 meeting, the City Council, led by Janet Marcus, deflected Crawford's stab at creating the marketing job in Economic Development. She wisely pointed out it would be best to wait until the auditor's report was available. It was just one of many items on the agenda, and the Council members quickly moved on to other matters.

Crawford now says it was merely his intention to take advantage of a vacancy in Economic Development, and that details could be worked out after the audit report was issued.

"I was trying to get a marketing position in the Film Office," he maintains, saying the city is "losing millions" compared to other cities due to lack of film marketing.

But Mayor George Miller, who says it's difficult to know how the city is doing compared to other municipalities, paints a different picture of Crawford's maneuver:

"Mr. Crawford felt there was a position available there (in Economic Development), but the Economic Development team felt it wasn't appropriate because they didn't have enough knowledge of this whole business of filmmaking. So they didn't think they should take it on."

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the auditor's report on the Tucson Film Office at its March 24 meeting. The report notes budget cuts over the years have hampered the Film Office's ability to market Tucson. It does not call for the city hire a marketing expert; instead it recommends Hilderbrand be given an additional secretary, so that his current secretary can be promoted to assistant status, thus freeing Hilderbrand for additional duties, including marketing.

Meanwhile, the film business in Tucson appears to be rebounding a bit. Three major Hollywood projects are filming here--MGM's TV pilot for The Magnificent Seven, Danny Glover's Buffalo Soldiers, and Kevin Costner's The Postman. Hilderbrand estimates these productions will spend as much in the next three months as Tucson made during all of 1996.

And Michael Crawford is expected to announce his intention to run for the Ward 3 council seat sometime in March. Unless a decent candidate comes forward to run against him, he'll probably win. TW

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