By Ariane Lindsay
In recent weeks, behind-the-scenes production workers in film and television have threatened to strike. Strikes rarely occur in the film industry; the last major labor protest was organized by the Writers Guild of America in 2007-08. Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) are dedicated to their craft and normally do not engage in formal protest. If the union votes to strike, it will be “the first nationwide strike in the 128-year history of the alliance” (The Guardian).
Established originally in 1893 to represent the interests of certain film production workers, IATSE expanded its scope to include television in the mid-twentieth century and later, network streaming in 2009. The economic magnitude and growth of network streaming has increased significantly over the past decade and is an important element of the current labor agreement. Behind-the-scenes workers, in particular those below-the-line, include camera operators, script supervisors, sound and lighting technicians, set and costume designers, makeup artists, stunt doubles, among others. The union’s demands highlight set safety, fair pay, as well as hours – particularly on long shooting days.
Because films are typically budgeted on the basis of the number of shoot days, hours per day have become exceptionally long and can reach as many as 12 to 14. Too often, there is a repeat of the same shoot length the following day. Long and repeated shifts contribute to fatigue and can lead to safety concerns. Fundamental safety on the set is essential to prevent injuries and death. Although the exact cause of the accidental shooting on the set of Rust has not yet been determined, this tragedy demonstrates clearly the consequence of inadequate safety policies and procedures.
As with many global businesses, COVID-19 has exacerbated many problems that were already faced by the film and television industry. Production has backed up, and repercussions continue to be felt nearly two years on. Movies and television shows slated for release in summer and fall of 2020 and early 2021 were pushed back. It remains unclear when scheduling and production will return to normal. Meanwhile, consumers of video content who were confined at home, soon realized that there was little new content to watch. This shortage in supply of content combined with greater demand for entertainment has created a challenge for an already highly stretched industry.
Freelance behind-the-scenes workers always have been somewhat in limbo as to when they will find their next job. Unlike the labor force in other fields, a large number of IATSE workers do not have 9-5 jobs. Although some employees can work remotely, most below-the-line workers cannot. Production tasks and activities often must be done in-person and on set. This is important when understanding IATSE’s demands in the context of this potential strike. The workers want to ensure that they will have a more stable job environment in the future. The members’ demands include improved safety measures, pay raises, health care, pension support and more frequent breaks, both during and between shoots.
Members of ISATE voted to strike unequivocally. “The union announced that 90% of the 60,000 IATSE members who received a ballot voted, and that 98% of those ballots were cast in favor” (Time). According to USA Today, the below-the-line workers received support from many prominent Hollywood above-the-line figures, in particular producers, directors and actors, including Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Jane Fonda, and Seth Rogen, among many others. The potential walkout is against the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers (AMPTP). Members include Disney, Sony, Warner Media, Viacom CBS, NBC Universal, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple, which have a combined market capitalization of nearly $2.5 trillion.
Although a potential strike still can happen, it appears a deal has been reached that is acceptable to both sides. The tentative agreement, which covers the next three years, provides for a 3 percent annual increase in wages, food and rest breaks during each shift, a 10-hour break between daily shifts, a 54-hour break over the weekend, and improved working conditions and pay on streaming productions. AMPTP also agreed to fund a $400 million deficit in ISATE’s health and pension plans (Variety). The terms were worked out by ISATE’s president, Matthew Loeb, and AMPTP’s president, Carol Lombardini. Both have a long history of working together, negotiating labor agreements since 2009. The producers support the deal. It is now up to Loeb to deliver a vote by the production workers to ratify it. Formal approval will come in stages, with the final vote soon thereafter.
If a strike does occur, this could potentially stunt industry growth as it would impact films, network television, and streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu (which are a major sources) as well as work stoppage further hampering production schedule delays caused by COVID. However, “a number of popular premium – cable productions – and so-called low-budget theatrical fare,” (USA Today) as well as commercials, would not be hindered as they have a separate labor contract which does not expire until 2022. In short, most, but not all productions would be affected. Everyone plays an important role in developing a movie, and working together ensures all components can combine to create a successful production.
The economic consequences here cannot be ignored. A work stoppage affects directly the below-the-line production workers and the above-the-line stars. Actors do not work without cameras, sets, or costumes. Directors do not work without actors, it is an interdependent system. Moreover, there is a direct impact on the related economy. As reported by USA Today, “the film and TV industry produces more than 2 million high paying jobs that in turn funnel nearly $50 billion annually to businesses wherever content is being created” (USA Today). Combined with the effect on jobs and profitability at the studios, a strike is best avoided. As Loeb said to his membership following the tentative agreement, “This is a Hollywood ending.” Let’s hope so.
Stay tuned for the vote!
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.