Hollywood may well go dark again.
Production on films and television shows may come to a grinding halt if behind-the-scenes workers strike to protest what they say is a grueling workload created by the industry’s voracious appetite for content.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees scheduled a strike authorization vote for Friday after talks with the film and television producers broke down over wages, working conditions and the compensation paid for working on streaming shows. If IATSE’s 60,000 members strike, it will be the first time Hollywood’s production crews have staged a walk-out since World War II.
“People are tired. People want to be with their families. People want to sleep,” says G. Victoria Ruskin, a New York-based assistant art director who switched careers because she could no longer endure the 12- to 15-hour days of working as a set designer for films and television shows.
The last time there was an industry-wide production halt — a 100-day writers strike in 2007 — the Southern California economy lost an estimated $2.5 billion and thousands of camera operators, costume designers, prop makers and others represented by IATSE suffered lost wages totaling $254 million.
The crushing work schedules at the center of the contract dispute are a byproduct of a booming content economy that has finally returned to full production this August after the disruptions caused by the pandemic. The demand for fresh content to lure subscribers to new streaming services is helping fan a production frenzy. Global spending for new programming is projected to reach $225 billion this year, according to researcher Ampere Analysis, up $60 billion from five years ago.
One union member described a “culture of oppression Olympics,” where workers would brag about their ability to endure 12-plus hour days.
“The unsafe hours that we work are no longer tenable,” IATSE Vice President Michael Miller said at a weekend rally in Hollywood, where masked union members gathered to paint slogans of support and union symbols on cars. “It’s no longer a badge of honor to work two consecutive 16-hour days and brag about how little sleep you got.”
ATSE is seeking mandated rest breaks during production to ensure its members have time to eat and get off their feet, as well as weekends off. It’s also seeking improved pensions benefits and health coverage, and calling for an end to the concessions the union agreed to in 2009, as producers tested new economic models for so-called “New Media” content to be distributed over the internet. The success of Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ illustrate the “experiment” is working.
“They’re successful and they’re growing and we want our share,” Miller said at last weekend’s rally, eliciting boisterous cheers from a crowd of union supporters.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade group sitting on the opposite side of the table, says it began negotiations with IATSE months ago by stressing that the industry is still recovering from the economic fallout caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a posture that implies it couldn’t afford to give the union everything it demanded — though producers say they agreed to longer rest breaks and increased wages and benefits (with minimum rates increasing up to 19%).
“The IATSE came to the bargaining table with several priority initiatives including addressing its pension and health plan deficit, longer rest periods and meal breaks, wage increases and outsized minimum rate increases for specific job categories,” the producers said in a statement. “The AMPTP listened and addressed many of the IATSE demands.”
A key sticking point is compensation for streaming shows. IATSE is seeking its share of the billions the major media companies are investing to create viable services — a compensation issue that has echoes of Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson’s legal battle with Disney over her payday. The actress says Disney’s decision to simultaneously release the movie in theaters and on its streaming service undermined the theatrical box office, and her anticipated multimillion pay.
One lighting technician with 25 years experience said Netflix paid him $10 an hour less than he’s earning on a CBS network sitcom. “Why are we giving the streamers this experimental rate?” he asked. “Obviously, the experiment is a success.”
The producers seem unwilling to surrender the New Media designation, though the AMPTP offered an 18% bump in the rates paid for content made for Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. The producers also offered to cover the nearly $400 million pension and health plan deficit. The union’s health care costs have traditionally been funded through residuals, a source of revenue that’s largely disappeared in the streaming era.
“In choosing to leave the bargaining table to seek a strike authorization vote, the IATSE leadership walked away from a generous, comprehensive package,” the producers said in an emailed statement.