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“Below-the-line” workers are the makeup artists, costume designers, audio technicians, and other crew members working behind the scenes in Hollywood to make your streaming habits possible. And lately, they’ve had enough. After years of putting up with punishing labor conditions, they’re speaking out on social media, sharing stories of long hours, low pay, even deaths on set. Their union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, is prepared to go on strike if the studios don’t agree to a contract with better worker protections; a major production shutdown could occur as early as next week. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Los Angeles Times entertainment industry reporter Anousha Sakoui about how the streaming boom pushed TV and film crews to a breaking point and what a strike could mean for viewers. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: The story of this looming Hollywood strike turns out to also be a pandemic story. When COVID hit in the spring of 2020 and California and New York went on lockdown, film sets were shut down, just like everywhere else. That meant behind-the-scenes workers got an unexpected break.
Anousha Sakoui: Production was shut down pretty much nationally from about March of 2020 until the summer, June, July, and then it started to ramp back up. Right now we’re at levels that are way surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
Because the industry is just trying to catch up, right?
Yeah, it’s a combination of catching up and also just huge demand to feed a huge amount of different streaming platforms.
And this made it clear to people on set that studios had plenty of money to throw around—which had tangible benefits.
They saw producers willing to throw money at anything to get back to work and that the money was there for them to have a 10-hour day.
So we were all sitting at home Netflix-ing, and at the same time there was COVID, which was causing restrictions in the production. And so those things combined to give the workers both this power and also this desire to draw the line.
Right. It was seeing that money could be found and spent and conditions could be made so that they had shorter days, and that they were then also put under increasing pressure when production started back up. Suddenly that 10 hours that people thought was going to be consistent, maybe through the pandemic, quickly evaporated, and people were back to 12-, 14-, 16-hour days—18-hour days recently has become very common.
Let’s talk about Geneva Nash-Morgan, who I spoke to for a story that we did. She is a seasoned makeup artist, worked on films like Planet of the Apes, some of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. She might start her Monday leaving her house around 4 a.m. to get to the set in enough time for actors to be made up and ready to shoot at 7 a.m. They will then shoot a 12-hour day, so that’s kind of the average day that’s considered. Then she has to take their makeup off, and she then gets to get home around 7 or 8 p.m. The actors are guaranteed 12 hours’ break time in between days and 54 hours over a weekend, and the shoots are really designed to accommodate those rests. Crews, on the other hand, they might have eight to nine hours, 10 hours between days, but nothing is guaranteed for the weekends, so they have no minimum weekend turnaround. So on Monday you’re getting home 7, 8 o’clock. Tuesday, you start a bit later because the actors don’t come back until 12 hours later, and that carries on throughout the week until you get to Friday, when Geneva would start work, say, around 11 o’clock in the morning, and the next day she would carry on. So you have at least 12 hours worked.
So she’s working at least until 11 p.m.
Yeah. Mostly 1 [a.m.], and then has to clean up, wrap the work up for the day, and she’ll say that she won’t get home until 4 or 5 in the morning. So that’s how that kind of feeds through to what they call a Fraturday—it’s a Friday shoot, but it’s half of Saturday or it’s Saturday morning.
The pandemic also sped up the industry’s shift to streaming services. It meant more work on set, but that wasn’t all good news.
On one hand, we’ve seen the pandemic help the stock prices of major conglomerates jump massively, and we’ve seen the pandemic help streaming companies really rack up their subscriber numbers. But the contributions to the pay and benefits of crews remains discounted. So, for example, residuals, which is the fees that are earned through reuse of shows or films, like whenever they rerun somewhere—streaming has eroded the amount of money you get through that kind of reuse because structurally you’re not really reselling it. If the show’s gonna be on Netflix, that’s it.
So having Seinfeld that I can stream on Netflix is going to make less money in residuals for the workers than if I was watching Seinfeld at 7:30 p.m. on my local Fox affiliate or something like that.
It’s more that, say, when Seinfeld first started, it was obviously on broadcast television. And now, however many years later, it’s being shown through very many different forms of distribution, and each time it’s been shown, the creators of that show have made money. So actually, that show is a key example of how you can make a lot of money through syndication. But if you take something like Ted Lasso, that’s on Apple, it’s just probably going to stay on Apple. You’re not going to see it on Netflix. If you do, it probably won’t be for a very long time. You’re not going to see it on another platform, so there’s no reselling of it.
So you just get one bite of the cherry as someone who created that content, whether you’re the writer, the actor, or the crew. And for the crews, they don’t get a residuals check like a director or actor. Those fees go to fund their health and pension plan. And so with streaming taking up more of production, but yet delivering less in terms of revenue, that means that you’re putting those plans potentially in jeopardy. And clearly there’s going to be a deficit.
And the issues of overwork are connected. There used to be seasons in shows, so you could at least have a reliable break even though you were working crazy hours. But now, with streaming services, there’s not that big fall TV rush. And you can’t rely on a summer blockbuster—it’s just all the time, right? So that means there’s no time off.
Yeah. I think this is felt across the board. Seasons are shorter, and so you may be working on it for about the same amount of time, but there are fewer episodes, so you’ll get paid less. And it means that instead of maybe working for nine months on one project out of 12, you’ll have to do various jobs throughout the year to make ends meet. And people talk about there being longer hours, just the way some of these shows are shot.
You say IATSE has always been a union that’s somewhat reluctant to rock the boat. It’s never authorized a strike before. But this summer, contract negotiations started to stall between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The studios wanted to get back to the way things were before the pandemic. So for the first time, membership voted to authorize a strike.
Even getting to that point is historic for IATSE. The results of that vote were there was a 90 percent turnout and 99 percent of the membership voted in favor of it.
I’ve never seen numbers like that in any kind of election.
In any vote. So I think that is a sort of double-edged sword in some respects. It’s huge support, overwhelming support, and mandate for the leadership to really push for the best deal that they can. They also had actors like Jane Fonda, Seth Rogen, they had a whole raft of different people in Hollywood and politicians—we’ve seen Bernie Sanders chime in—giving their support for the workers. So now it’s like, OK, people want to strike if they’re not getting what they want. So there’s huge pressure to not cave. I think really that vote was a very telling moment for a lot of people in Hollywood.
So we’re talking Wednesday morning, Oct. 13, and right before we started talking, the union set a date by which they need to have an agreement or they will go on strike. It’s next week, Oct. 18.Where do negotiations stand?
They have been back at the table, the both sides, for about a week. And there has been progress, clearly, because they’ve said that they will continue with talks as long as there is progress. But the president, Matthew Loeb, has said that things are not going as fast as they need, and this sort of draws a line in the sand for them to be able to say, OK, look, we need these concessions by this date, I guess so that they know that they’re being serious about their plans to strike.
What will it look like on Monday if a strike happens?
I would expect picket lines in front of studios, and we’ve already seen pictures on social media of crews having created strike banners, placards, in readiness. The other thing is that there will be a nationwide shutdown of production. The majority of TV dramas or films won’t be able to continue shooting. So that could mean that you won’t get to see your favorite show that was landing weekly, or a movie that was maybe meant to come out or start filming might get its release date shifted back even further.
And caterers won’t get work, the parking guy at the studio will have less to do, a lot of people having trickle-down effects.
There are estimates for the number of workers directly engaged in working for entertainment, and then there are sort of indirect jobs—prop houses, material and costume retailers, dry cleaners, caterers, drivers. You know, there are a lot of industries that are linked and that fuel this industry, especially in L.A. and New York.
I’m curious how people in New York and California and even the workers themselves are beginning to prepare for a strike.
Yeah. I don’t think anybody wants to strike in that union if they can avoid it. These are, again, people who are not getting paid that much necessarily, might not have been able to build up a buffer. There is no emergency strike fund that they’ve announced. You can’t claim unemployment if you go on strike in California.
So the workers would really be taking a hit.
Yeah. But they seem ready to do that. I spoke to someone at a rally recently, and some were sort of saying that it might be just an opportunity to have a rest.
That really shows how dire it is, that folks are saying, “Well, I’ll get a few days off.”
I remember when I first started to see on social media locals and individuals being very public and very outspoken about being willing to strike. … It was surprising to me. You’re speaking out against the studios and against your employer in a very public way. And in an industry where your employer can simply just not call you back to work, that seems risky. But clearly, from the results of the vote, crews are very motivated to get a deal and seem very prepared to strike.