‘What About Us?’ Strikes Leave Other Hollywood Workers Reeling

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By Ketrin Agustine

‘What About Us?’ Strikes Leave Other Hollywood Workers Reeling

The lives of hundreds of thousands of crew members have been upended, and even a deal between the actors and the studios might not help much in the short term.

Katie Reis has been a Hollywood lighting technician for 27 years, rigging equipment for movies like “Independence Day” and TV shows like “Quantum Leap.” But she hasn’t had a paycheck since May, when the first of two strikes — screenwriters, then actors — forced cameras to stop rolling.

Ms. Reis, 60, has since been turned down for jobs at Target and Whole Foods. She is now looking into seasonal work at the mall.

Her son Alex, a high school senior, recently had to go without new shoes for the start of classes. “If I go into Alex’s college fund, I have probably four, five months left,” she said. “But then I have nothing.”

The recently settled screenwriters’ strike and the ongoing actors’ strike have upended the lives of hundreds of thousands of crew members — the entertainment industry’s equivalent of blue-collar workers — and many are growing desperate for work. Caught in the crossfire for more than five months, they have drawn down savings accounts that in some cases were already diminished because of the pandemic. Some have been unable to afford groceries. A few have lost their homes.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, for example, which represents 170,000 crew members in North America, estimated that its West Coast members alone lost $1.4 billion in wages between May and Sept. 16, the most recent date for which data was available. The extreme loss of hours worked, in turn, hurts funding for pension and health care plans.

Even if entertainment companies and the actors’ union come to an agreement soon — which became less likely after the collapse of negotiations this week — production is not expected to return to normal until January at the earliest, in part because of the time it takes to reassemble creative teams, a process complicated by the coming holidays. Preproduction (before anyone gathers on a set) for new shows can take up to 12 weeks, with movies taking roughly 16 weeks.

“I’m trying to manage my panic because it’s not going to be over when the strikes are over,” said Dallin James, a hairstylist who counts on red carpet premieres and other studio-related work for about 75 percent of his income.

Dallin James, a hairstylist, said that workers like him were “collateral damage” in the Hollywood strikes.Philip Cheung for The New York Times

The Writers Guild of America, which represents 11,500 screenwriters, reached a tentative agreement with studios on Sept. 24 and soon called off its 148-day strike. Writers have celebrated their new contract as the equivalent of winning a Super Bowl, describing the pay raises and improved working conditions they secured as “exceptional.” The Writers Guild said on Monday that its members had ratified the contract with 99 percent of the vote.

The actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, appeared to be closing in on a deal of its own after being on strike since July 14, clearing the way for Hollywood’s assembly lines to grind back into motion for the first time since May. But talks between the guild and the studios broke down after a session on Wednesday, creating more uncertainty. The actors have asked for wage increases, including an 11 percent raise in the first year of a new contract; a revenue-sharing agreement for streaming shows and films; and guarantees that studios will not use artificial intelligence tools to create digital replicas of their likenesses without payment or approval.

Cue whipsawing emotions for entertainment workers who didn’t have a say in the strikes and who won’t be receiving a pay increase when they return to work.

“I understand why they had to go on strike,” Mr. James said. “On the other hand, what about us? We haven’t really been considered in all of this. It feels like we’re collateral damage.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains with unions on behalf of the major entertainment companies, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

More than two million Americans work in jobs directly or indirectly related to making TV shows and films, according to the Motion Picture Association, a trade organization. That includes writers, actors and other “above the line” creative personnel, along with studio executives. But a vast majority of entertainment workers contribute in more humble ways. They are set dressers, camera operators, carpenters, location scouts, painters, costume designers, visual effects artists, stunt doubles, janitors, payroll clerks, assistants and chauffeurs.

A big-budget superhero movie can easily employ 3,000 people, with the cast numbering fewer than 100, including credited extras.

Gabriel Sanders, a longtime boom mic operator in Georgia, has started teaching fitness and yoga classes.Audra Melton for The New York Times

“It’s desperate — our crews are really suffering,” said the actress Annette Bening, who is the chair of the Entertainment Community Fund, a nonprofit that provides emergency financial assistance and other services to workers in the industry. “These are people who are hard working, who have a lot of pride. They are not used to being in a position of having to ask for help. But that’s where we are now.”

With her husband, Warren Beatty, Ms. Bening has been among the celebrity donors to the fund, which has distributed more than $8.5 million to roughly 4,000 film and television workers since screenwriters went on strike. (That breaks down to $560,000 a week, compared with about $75,000 a week before the strikes.) The organization also hosts online workshops to help Hollywood workers navigate eviction notices, among other topics.

“This is going to have a long tail,” Ms. Bening said. “We still expect a significant increase of inquiries in the coming months, even once work resumes.” (Ms. Bening, a four-time Oscar nominee who stars in the coming Netflix film “Nyad,” about the marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, has walked picket lines with other actors in recent months. She said the actors’ strike was “imperative” given the deterioration of working conditions and compensation levels in the streaming era.)

Other Hollywood nonprofits have also been distributing money and holding food drives, including the Motion Picture & Television Fund and the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, a charity that provides financial assistance to workaday performers. The foundation, which is associated with the actors’ union but is run independently, has been processing more than 30 times its usual number of applications for emergency aid, or more than 400 a week.

Starting on Sept. 1, Los Angeles-area workers enrolled in the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan were allowed to withdraw up to $20,000 each for financial hardship. By Sept. 8, workers had pulled roughly $45 million, according to a document compiled by plan administrators that was viewed by The New York Times. A spokesman for the plan said no updated information was available.

Robin Urdang, a music supervisor in Los Angeles whose credits include “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and the film “Call Me By Your Name,” has no pension plan to fall back on. To pay for living expenses, Ms. Urdang has been dipping into money she had been saving for a down payment on a house.

“It’s depressing,” she said, adding that she typically works on four to seven projects at once. Ms. Urdang is still working a bit, including on a series for Amazon that was past the filming phase of production when actors went on strike. But she spends much of her day crocheting sweaters and reading books.

Even so, Ms. Urdang said she sympathized with the writers and actors. Streaming has also changed her fortunes considerably. She used to do a lot of work on broadcast television, where an episode would go from script to on air in two weeks. (Most music supervisors, who select and license songs, are paid half their fee at the start of production and the other half when episodes are completed.) Now she does the same amount of work, but the payment schedule on an eight-episode streaming show is spread out over a year.

“So I understand where they’re coming from,” she said.

The studio shutdown has been felt most severely in California and New York. The strikes have cost the California economy alone more than $5 billion, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom. But the strikes have also darkened soundstages across the country, as well as in Canada and England. Georgia, for instance, has three million square feet of soundstage space.

Gabriel Sanders, who lives in Decatur, Ga., with his wife and two daughters, is a longtime boom mic operator who has worked on films like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and series like “Law & Order: Organized Crime.” As the strikes have dragged on, Mr. Sanders has turned to teaching fitness and yoga classes. “It’s good for my soul, but it doesn’t pay very well,” he said.

His wife, Carey Yaruss Sanders, a voice instructor, has started a pet-sitting and dog-walking business to help make ends meet.

Mr. Sanders said there had been “a lot of internal fighting” in the crew community about the strikes, with some people, like him, cheering on the actors and writers and others saying, “Enough already, we just need to get back to work.”

“I have no resentment — do what you have to do to protect your rights,” Mr. Sanders said, referring to the strikes. “But that doesn’t mean it has been easy.”

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