The Strike That Could Paralyze Hollywood

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S1: When Anousha Sakoui first started hearing about the Instagram Account Story Stories, it felt like a secret.

S2: So I would be talking to sources and they would say, Oh, by the way, have you seen this? So it was definitely building, definitely getting attention.

S1: The stories on this account. They offer a glimpse behind the scenes of TV and film sets in post after post below the line workers, makeup artists, costume designers and audio technicians. They reveal the punishing labor conditions that make your Netflix habit possible. Anousha covers the entertainment industry for the L.A. Times. So for her, these kinds of tidbits are reporting fodder.

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S2: You know, I thought it was very interesting because people don’t usually in Hollywood, you know, they don’t really talk negatively about their situations too much publicly because of the sort of fear of recrimination.

S1: Most of the posts here are simple screenshots of direct messages white text on a black background. They managed to be dramatic anyway.

S2: There are a huge variety of stories. Many of them are quite startling, like one had an account of one of the crew being, you know, having died on set and the rest of the crew being told to sort of like carry on working while paramedics dealt with the person who had passed away. I think from a sort of heart failure or something like that,

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S1: long hours are a constant complaint, mostly because of the drives home workers face once they wrap up. A few commenters even started sharing grim tips for how to stay awake behind the wheel. After a 15 hour day stuff like blasting the air conditioning on your feet or chewing gum, or my favorite rolling your long hair up into your car window so that if you start to nod off, you’ll get jerked awake.

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S2: The thing that is so shocking is that this issue has been going on for decades and people have died, you know, so it is a issue that is very common, it seems, of having to drive after long hours and, you know, people worrying about their safety, you know, getting getting home.

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S1: But this account is not just a place to vent. The IAEA in IAEA stories is short for international alliance, as in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees IAC for short. That’s the union that represents below the line workers, and this year, IATA contract is up for renegotiation. One more thing its workers just voted to authorize a strike.

S2: Some of them remember a time when there was very much a family environment. And so to producers that were known like Clint Eastwood for having a crew that didn’t necessarily need to work very, very long hours or, you know, they had time to have home life and a family.

S1: Now, if you work in Hollywood, Apple or Amazon are likely to be your bosses, which means a lot more work for sure. But the glitz and glamour have also gotten a lot more grueling. So. We’ve laid out how tough it can be for people who are working behind the scenes. What are the odds that things are going to change anytime soon?

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S2: Well, it seems like they will have to if producers want to carry on making content. There is a sort of unending thirst for new TV shows and new movies.

S1: It sounds like you’re saying right now the workers have a little bit of the upper hand.

S2: Right, exactly.

S1: They do today on the show, tens of thousands of entertainment workers want you to know your streaming habit has got consequences. Will they walk out on the job? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. The story of this looming Hollywood strike, it turns out to also be a pandemic story. Here’s how When COVID hit in the spring of 2020, California and New York went on lockdown. Film sets got shot just like everywhere else. That meant behind the scenes workers got an unexpected break.

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S2: Production was shut down pretty much nationally from about March of 2020 until the summer of June, July, and then it started to ramp up. I mean, right now we’re at levels that are way surpassing pre-pandemic levels because

S1: the industry is just trying to catch up, right?

S2: Yeah, it’s a combination of catching up and also just huge demand for to feed a huge amount of different streaming platforms. We have so many different platforms now to feed with content.

S1: The combination of the sudden shutdown and then the subsequent and equally sudden ramp up in production gave a lot of workers pause, especially because, according to Anousha, it was clear to people on set that the studios had plenty of money to throw around and that had tangible benefits.

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S2: 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.

S1: So it sounds like a couple of things were happening at once, which is we were all sitting at home. Netflix saying. 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.

S2: It was seeing that that money could be could be found and spent and conditions could be made so that they had shorter days and also that they were then also put under increasing pressure when production started back up because, you know, suddenly that 10 hours that people thought was going to be consistent, maybe through the pandemic as quickly evaporated and people were back to 12, 14, 16 hour days, 18 hour days I’ve heard people talk about recently has become very common. They’ll start off. You look even at the beginning of the week on a Monday. Let’s talk about Jennifer 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 four a.m. to get to the set in enough time for actors to be made up and ready to shoot at seven 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 seven or eight p.m. The actors are guaranteed 12 hours break time in between days and 54 hours over weekend, and the shoots are really designed to accommodate those rests. Crews, on the other hand, you know, 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 7:00 8:00 Tuesday, you start a bit later because the actors don’t come back until, you know, 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 work,

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S1: so she’s working till at least 11:00 p.m.

S2: Yeah, mostly like, you know, maybe one and then has to, you know, clean up, empty, you know, wrap the work up for the day and she’ll say that she won’t get home until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. So that’s how that kind of feeds through to what they call a frat today, which is really it’s a Friday shoot, but it’s half of Saturday or Sunday morning.

S1: The pandemic impacted entertainment workers in one more way. It’s sped up the industry shift to streaming services that meant more work on set, but it wasn’t actually all good news.

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S2: On one hand, we’ve seen the pandemic help the stock prices of media 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 cruise remains discounted. So, for example, residuals, which is the fees that are earned through re-use of shows or films like whatever 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. You know, if it’s if a show is going to be on Netflix, that’s it.

S1: 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.

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S2: It’s more that say, when Seinfeld first started, you know, it was obviously on broadcast television. And now, however, many years later, it’s been shown through very. Many different forms of distribution, and each time it’s been shown, the the creators of that show have made money. So actually that’s that’s a show where it’s a key example of how you can make a lot of money through syndication. But if you take something like Ted Lasso, you know 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, 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 it.

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S1: So that money just goes away.

S2: So you just get one bite of the cherry as a as someone who created that content, whether you’re the writer, the actor or the crew. And for the cruise, 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 that’s going to be a deficit.

S1: Yeah, it’s the money and then the issues of overwork are so connected to like someone. I think it was you were writing about how there used to be seasons in shows. And 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 know, you can’t rely like, Oh, there’s going to be a summer blockbuster. It’s just all the time, right? And so that means there’s no time off.

S2: Yeah, it’s I think this is kind of felt across across the board. So seasons are shorter.

S1: So you see these little five episode runs, right?

S2: And so you may be working on it for about the same amount of time, but you’ll get either a few episodes so you’ll get paid less. And also it means that instead of maybe, you know, working for nine months on one project out of 12, you’ll have to do various jobs throughout the year, you know, to sort of make ends meet. And yeah, just that. I think that the hours people talk about that being longer hours, just the way some of these shows are shot.

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S1: When we come back, production crews have reached a breaking point and the studios, they aren’t rolling over. What happens if the union behind entertainment goes on strike? Anousha Sakoui says IAC has always been a union that somewhat reluctant to rock the boat. They’ve 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 they wanted to get back to the way things were before the pandemic. So for the first time, membership voted to authorize a strike.

S2: I mean, even getting to that point is, you know, historic variety. I think it’s the the results of that vote which were, you know, there was a 90 percent turnout and 99 percent of the membership voting voted in favor of it.

S1: I mean, I’ve never seen numbers like that right for any kind of election in any vote.

S2: So I think that, you know, that is a sort of double edged sword in some respects. So it’s huge support, overwhelming support, a mandate for the leadership to really push for the best deal that they can. They also had, you know, actors like Jane Fonda, you know, they had Seth Rogen. They had a whole raft of different people in Hollywood and politicians, you know, we’ve seen Bernie Sanders chime in giving their support for the workers. So now it’s like, OK, this this people want to strike. If they don’t get with, they’re not getting what they want. So there’s huge pressure to not cave. So I think, you know, really, that vote was a very telling moment for a lot of people in Hollywood.

S1: So we’re talking Wednesday morning, October 13th, and right before we started talking, the unions set a date by which they need to have an agreement or they will go on strike. It’s next week. It’s October 18th.

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S2: Yeah, yeah, it’s Monday.

S1: Where do negotiations stand?

S2: So they have been back at the table, the both sides for about a week. And you know, there has been progress clearly because they’ve said that they will continue with talks as long as there is progress. But they, you know, 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 that they know that they’re being serious about their plans to strike.

S1: What will it look like on Monday if a strike happens?

S2: I would expect picket lines in front of studios. And you know, we’ve already seen pictures on social media of crews having created strike banners, placards in readiness. You know, the other thing is that that will be a nationwide shutdown of production. The majority of, like, you know, TV dramas or films, they won’t be able to continue shooting. So that could mean that you won’t get to see, you know, the fate your favorite show that was planning weekly or that was maybe, you know, a movie that was maybe meant to come out with stop filming might get its release date shifted back even further.

S1: Well, it means caterers won’t get work. And, you know, the parking guy at the studio will have less to do. I mean, a lot of people having trickle-down effects

S2: this I mean, I haven’t got the numbers in front of me, but there are estimates for the number of workers directly engaged in working for entertainment. And then there are sort of indirect jobs, you know, prop houses, material and costume retailers, dry cleaners, caterers, drivers. You know, there were a lot of industries that are linked and that, you know, fueled this industry, especially in L.A. and New York.

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S1: I’m curious how now that we have a strike date, people in New York and California and even the workers themselves are beginning to prepare.

S2: Right. There’s a countdown clock currently on the ILC website, but you can see the wow and that really dramatic.

S1: Yeah, it is dramatic.

S2: Yeah. Look, I don’t think. I mean, they’ve been announced. It’s being very public about it. I don’t think anybody wants to strike in that union if they can avoid it. These are, you know, 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.

S1: So the workers would really be taking a hit.

S2: Yeah, but they seem ready to do that. But I spoke to some of the rally recently and you know, some were sort of saying that it might be just the opposite. It was unity to have a rest.

S1: This really shows how dire it is that folks are saying, Well, I’ll get a few days off.

S2: I remember when I first started to see on social media people being locals and individuals being very public and very outspoken about being willing to strike. I don’t know why I found that surprising, but it was surprising to me. It was it was like two tips, I guess you kind of speaking out against the studios and against your employer in a very public way. And, you know, in an industry where your employer can simply just not call you back to work. That seems risky, but you know, it’s something that definitely, you know, clearly from the results of the vote is a very motivated to get a deal and seem very prepared to strike.

S1: Anousha, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you so much for having me on your program.

S1: Anousha Sakoui is an entertainment industry writer for the Los Angeles Times. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Davis Land, Daniel Hewitt Mary Wilson and Elaina Schwartz were led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Go find me on Twitter. Say hello. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. Catch you back here on Monday.