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So.Carolina Actress, Vying "Runaways,' Stirs Politicos

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So you consider government unresponsive to your concerns? Don't tell Deborah Schimel.

The Mt. Pleasant, S.C. actress, upset about the multi-billion-dollar U.S. runaway production issue, decided to do her duty this summer by mailing a form letter-on Carolina Film Alliance letterhead-to Washington, D.C. and a couple of state capitols.

Guess what? Among the usual bills, junk literature, and personal correspondence Schimel-like most Americans-finds in the mailbox everyday, she began to spy official government envelopes. And, ripping each one open, she discovered a variety of powerhouse letterheads and signatures: U.S. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transporta-tion Committee; Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the Senate's president pro tempore; even the arts' major federal nemesis, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). She also rated missives from the Carolinas' two governors, the South's Jim Hodges, and the North's James B. Hunt Jr.

Whew! But that's not all. Hollings also enclosed a letter from U.S. Commerce Secretary William M. Daley, responding to Hollings' communication sent in reaction to Schimel.

"Canadian incentives for film production have raised concerns in the U.S. film industry, and the Commerce Department would like to be of assistance in resolving these matters," Daley informed Hollings. "We are working with the Carolina Film Alliance to assess the issue and determine whether these incentives would be considered subsidies inconsistent with the WTO [World Trade Organization] Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.

"We will carefully investigate the position of the Carolina Film Alliance, and I will fully inform you of the results of our review."

Now, the Carolina Film Alliance is, according to Schimel, a "fledgling, loose organization of well-meaning talent" along with a few film pros, business and civic reps, with no budget. It possesses a Mt. Pleasant post office box and phone number.

So, would the federal Commerce Depart-ment really follow through? Yup.

In late June, Schimel's telephone rang. The caller: Heather Giles, a policy analyst for the Commerce Department's Subsidies Enforce-ment Office.

"I did a kind of mental double take," Schimel recalls to Back Stage. "I'm not sure I remember what my first words were. Probably, "You're asking me?' "

Schimel finally gathered her resources. "Eventually I said something like, "Let me see if I understand what's happening here. With all of Hollywood, New York, and assorted film industry big guns to choose from, the first person the government calls to tell it what is going on is...Debbie Schimel in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.?"

It's not, of course. U.S. runaway film production is a top priority for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which has been extolling the issue to its 95,000 members, and federal and state officials nationwide. A SAG and Directors Guild of America study released earlier this year cites $10 billion lost from the 1998 U.S. economy due to runaway production, primarily to Canada. Guild reps will be in Seattle in late November when the WTO convenes.

But the Commerce Department's Heather Giles, on instructions from her government, was dutifully responding to the squeaky-wheel correspondence in front of her.

"I've got your letter, so you're the person I'm starting with," she told Schimel.

It was obviously a good place to start, because Schimel understands the positive local economic impact of filmmaking in the Carolinas.

"There's so much money at stake in all the ancillary businesses that relate to film," says Schimel, who has performed a large role in one independent film and background roles in three others. "Once a film comes to town, many people are employed and many businesses make money because the film is being produced. There are local make-up people and tech crews, food service. Then people have to rent places to live, have to eat out, go to the doctor, use the dry cleaner. From the head down to the toes, people in town make money."

Interestingly enough, SAG is hoping to make the same point as its members meet with their local Congressmembers around the U.S. during the Congres-sional recess later this year.

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