Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Bare Knuckles In the Limelight

If you know anything at all about Massachusetts, you understand that politics here is a contact sport --- and as with the roughest of contact sports, the biggest battles are about “turf.”

A great turf battle is has developed over who will be the “go-to” person for movie and television producers who are interested in bringing productions to Massachusetts.

In the red corner, wearing the paisley trunks, Robin "Duker" Dawson, current head of the Massachusetts Film Bureau. In the blue corner, wearing the pinstripes, is Mark "the Masher" Drago, Executive Director of Entertainment for the Massachusetts Sports and Entertainment Commission. I'm not much of a tout, but if forced to bet, I'd put my money on the guy with all the backing. How courageous, I know.

The battle began to get nasty last week when Dawson sent a letter to Governor Romney (obligatory copy to the press) in which she accused Drago of threatening people from Martin Scorcese's production company if they didn't come exclusively to him. In a meeting yesterday, the Governor's office, preferring to avoid internicine warfare, counseled them both to behave and get along.

This battle has all the intrigue, back room elbowing, back stabbing and score settling that you could reasonably hope for – here’s how it unfolded:

Back in 1994, after ten years working in radio and television (doing what I have not been able to ascertain), Dawson was tapped by Governor Bill Weld as Executive Director of the Mass Film Office -- an entity that had been created some 17 years earlier but had a lackluster track record.

By accounts (see
here and here), Dawson was doing a good job, establishing an aggressive "fee free" incentive program that was designed to overcome some of the expensive disadvantages of filing in Massachusetts. By her own account, the film office succeeded in increasing the econonomic impact of film activity by almost 1500%, from $ 5M in 1994 to over $73M in 2000, and corraling some Bigs, notably John Irving's Cider House Rules in 1997-1998. [I note that these accounts have all the appearance of promotion directed by the Film Office itself, and the entertainment press was happy to fall in]

But while Dawson appeared to being having success on the Hollywood end of her job, those that worked with her on Beacon Hill had difficulty with her personality, and she accumulated widespread and significant antipathy. This is the downfall of many a good worker who must inevitably rely on relationships "in the building" for survival. And I refrain from laying blame on any party. High places in government are frequently inhabited by large egos and/or small minds, and I have marveled more than once at the aptitude for chicanery that is present in all altitudes of intelligence. The path to political success can be treacherous indeed.

While Dawson was building her fiefdom at the Film Office (and accumulating enemies, if the whisperers are to be believed), Drago was working his own inside baseball game, as an advance man for Weld, then Cellucci. Some time in the beginning of 2001, he latched on to a position in the International Marketing Department at Massport. This attests to his superlative networking skills and ability to secure political support that is broad and deep -- skills that are preternaturally essential in Massachusetts. But he was only able to participate in a precious few international trade junkets before his department (hence he) was wiped out in post 9-11 budget cuts in November of 2001. Drago was back on the street.

But Dawson was hitting some serious bumps of her own. Reportedly, she had been receiving information from people in the film business all along that the local Teamsters union was "exceedingly difficult to work with" (my words, in what can only be called understatement). Hard as that is to believe, she apparently found it significant enough to attempt to warn her bosses, Governor Weld, and then Governor Cellucci, of the problems. Now I'm purely guessing here, but since the President of Teamsters Local 25, George Cashman, was a close ally to both Weld and Cellucci and also sat on the Massport Board of Directors, I'm not sure they listened quite as well as they might have.

But if the Governors weren't listening, the feds sure were. By the begining of 2000, the U. S. Attorney's office and the Labor Department's Office of Labor Racketeering were investingating allegations of shakedowns. In what must have been the least pleasant of experiences, Dawson was called to testify before that Grand Jury sometime during the beginning of 2002. Also during this time, she had been meeting with others who the U. S. Attorney's office was planning to interview, and well....apparently she put the cost of these lunches on her state-issued credit card. When she was called upon to reveal who these people were, she refused, at the behest of the U. S. Attorney's office (lest the names of potential grand jury witnesses to labor racketeering be divulged -- you know the drill in that case, don't you?).

If you have been wondering at all about just how much enmity Dawson had garnered to this point, here's your big tip:

When she refused to identify the names of the people she ate with, Governor Swift tried to fire her for misusing the credit card, and "someone" leaked the story to the press. While the U. S. Attorney's office intervened and saved her job (for the moment), Dawson was now identified in the press as a Grand Jury witness.

Wow. No good deed goes unpunished, I guess!

Do we know what happens to grand jury witnesses in labor racketeering investigations? Well, sometimes, they get
death threats. And that's what happened to Robin Dawson. She received a death threat on March 22, 2002, as she was attending an Oscar party at the Four Seasons Hotel to benefit the Massachusetts 9-11 Fund. Reportedly, officials at the Four Seasons hotel, where the gala was held, beefed up security because of the threat. She reportedly received other threats to her safety and was offered a safe house for her protection.

Now I assume it is purely coincidence and bad karma, but as the old saying goes, bad luck comes in threes, and the third shoe dropped soon after. As the Commonwealth fell into a precipitous budget abyss, budget writers looked for targets, and found one in the Mass Film Office. Four months after Dawson’s life had been threatened as a result of her cooperation with a federal Grand Jury investigating union corruption in the movie business in Massachusetts, legislative budget writers eliminated the Film Office. And there was no one fighting to keep it.

[ ed: Here's one way to spin the story so far: An official who, according to the trade press anyway, is doing a creditable job, seeking to warn her bosses about trouble brewing, "cooperating" with authorities who are attempting to root out corruption, loses her job. I don't believe it.]

Dawson hit the street in late July, 2002, started up the Film Bureau, and generated very
positive publicity immediately.

Around the same time, Drago found his landing spot at the Massachusetts Sports Commission. He set about, almost immediately, to expand the Sports Commission’s mission, and by July of 2003 had succeeded in getting the Legislature to expand the Commission’s mission to include all entertainment -- including movies.

By November of 2004, Drago was named Vice President and Executive Director of Film and Entertainment, with great fanfare. The MSEC
press release announcing his promotion was replete with quotes of high praise from Governor Romney, Senate President Travaglini, and House Speaker DiMasi:

"It is vital that Massachusetts be a leader in attracting major sporting events, films,
and other entertainment projects which have a significant positive financial impact on our
state and local economies," said Governor Mitt Romney. "I am confident the focused
emphasis on film and entertainment, as part of the Massachusetts Sports & Entertainment
Commission's overall mission, will yield positive results. From an economic impact
standpoint, it is a growth area for the Commonwealth and so we support and encourage the
Commission's ongoing film and entertainment efforts."

"Mark is the ideal person to spearhead the Commonwealth's efforts to secure world-class
film and entertainment projects for Massachusetts," said Mass. State Senate President
Robert Travaglini. "His leadership and proven ability make him the perfect choice for
this position."

"Mark is a dedicated public servant who can help Massachusetts capitalize on the
tremendous economic opportunities in film and entertainment," said Mass. Speaker of the
House Salvatore DiMasi. "We are excited about the potential economic spin-off created by
the MSEC and look forward to Mark leading the film and entertainment division of the
organization, as he continues to reestablish the Commonwealth as the rising star of the
entertainment world."

MSEC's press release should have signalled to Dawson that she had no support left on the Hill. But not only did she not blink, she did what any self-respecting, bare-knuckles Massachusetts political insider with no remaining support does --- she tossed a bomb. But first...
She started her own operation and cranked up her public relations front:
Movie Maker 2004 Magazine named Boston the Third Best City in the U.S. in which to film, putting the praise directly on Dawson:

“It might seem quite a feat to go from nowhere on this list to number three. But if any city has proven that the dedication of just a few hard-working individuals can pay off, it’s Boston.

In July of 2002 the Massachusetts Film Office, one of the top film offices in the country (generating about $500 million annually) was closed down due to Draconian budget cuts. But just one month later, the reigns were retrieved by Robin Dawson and Laura Yellen, the Film Office’s former executive director and marketing consultant, respectively. The two created the Massachusetts Film Bureau, a private, nonprofit organization supported by local businesses, and have been keeping Boston moviemakers busy ever since.

Currently, Dawson and Yellen can boast about the more than $112 million that has found its way into the area as a result of six major productions, including Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon; Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile, with Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles; David Mamet’s Spartan, starring Val Kilmer and William H. Macy; Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s Stuck on You, featuring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear; and Rob Reiner’s Alex and Emma, with Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson.”

But Drago was undeterred and ginned his own PR grist:

Imagine News did a fabulous
puff piece on him, including gushing like this:

Why Drago?

Well, because Senate President Robert Travaglini and Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi have crowned him, and we need someone who is blessed by Beacon Hill. [ed.: wink wink]His office and his mandate have the support of Governor Romney. “Mark is the ideal person to spearhead the Commonwealth’s efforts to secure world class film projects for Massachusetts,” says Travaglini. “His leadership and proven ability make him the perfect choice for this position.”One of a film commissioner’s most important roles is to juggle complicated logistics and work with city and state officials. Mark Drago can call upon his wealth of contacts from years of public service to facilitate film production. His first order of business is opening doors.
and the coup de grace:
"Says Bill Weld, 'Mark was a great asset to my office when I was governor. He’s a real professional. He has tremendous interpersonal skills, integrity, and ability to work with diverse constituencies. Above all, he’s dependable.'"

He's dependable. Do you think Bill Weld was trying to send his former employee, Robin Dawson, a message? I do.

But if she still was listening, she wasn't learning, and pushed back:

Singing Dawson’s praise in an
interview with the Boston Globe’s Janice Page is star homie Matt Damon:

“Though much has also been made of dueling Massachusetts film offices that Damon says only serve to confuse the movie world at large, there is no competition or controversy as he sees it. His support lies squarely with Robin Dawson, former head of the now-defunct Massachusetts Film Office, who runs the nonprofit Massachusetts Film Bureau.

''I don't even know that other guy," Damon said of Mark Drago, director of film and entertainment at the Massachusetts Sports & Entertainment Commission. ''My personal opinion is you stick with somebody who knows the business and knows the people, somebody who's worked with all the A-list directors who've come in in the last eight or nine years. That's who everyone in town knows to call."
I love that. I don't even know that other guy. No wonder he's got an Academy Award.
So the two of them traded PR volleys for months, from November 2004 until last week, before Dawson lobbed the bomb, implicating unnamed people from Martin Scorsese's production company as complaining about strong arm tactics from Drago.
This tactic looks to me like the madman who points a gun at his own head and threatens to shoot the hostage. It's a scorched-earth approach that has a couple of results -- it confirms to your opponents that you are truly desperate, and it scares the crap out of the Hollywood people, who don't know, and don't care who they deal with. Both bad.
It seems fair that, under the circumstances, the Governor's office could demonstrate some gen-yew-wine leadership here, and tell Robin something like this "The Governor will be very supportive of your efforts to find a different position in the entertainment sector, but he cannot have you embarrassing the Commonwealth on this any further."
But apparently all they did was tell the two of them to "figure it out and stop fighting," so to speak, to which Dawson responded, "OK, but I'm still running the show."
This isn't over.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?