Saturday, September 30, 2023

Local film workers discuss industry strikes ahead of SAG-AFTRA rally

Film industry vets, unions and allies will rally at Thalian Hall’s Innes Park on Saturday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., in support of workers on strike. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON — Supporting fair contracts and standing united. 

READ MORE: Dark Horse preps for strikes’ end, invests at least $20M on 2 new state-of-the art film stages

ALSO: Film industry writers’ strike affects Wilmington’s only series currently in production

That’s what film industry workers and union organizers are trying to make clear this weekend during a rally slated to take place at Innes Park at Thalian Hall. It will be emceed by Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists members Jerry Winsett and Allie McCulloch. Other SAG-AFTRA talent scheduled to speak include Banks Repeta, Jane McNeill, Elle Graham and Keith Flippen.

New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple — a SAG-AFTRA member for 44 years — is on the schedule as well.

“Everyday that the strike continues hurts our local economy and forces the skilled labor force in our region — over 2,000 jobs in NHC alone at the height of film and TV activity — to look elsewhere to make a living, which hurts us all,” Zapple wrote to Port City Daily Friday. 

Other union members will be in attendance, including Yzosne Riley of ATU Local 1328 and Lynn Shoemaker of IATSE 491 and president of Southeastern NC Central Labor Council, both of which support the event.

“We want to bring them all — the unions — together because we’re stronger together,” Shoemaker said.

Hundreds are expected to turn out, not only in support of SAG-AFTRA but also for the Writers Guild of America. The rally comes as the strike from the WGA marks 100 days since shutting down a good portion of productions nationwide. 

“The Untitled Joshua + Lauren Project” — by award-winning writer and producer Ava DuVernay — put down the pen in Wilmington mid-May, 10 days after the WGA took to the picket lines. By proxy, it laid off hundreds of workers, many local, from the only series rolling cameras in the Port City at the time. 

Jeff Loy was one. 

A film industry veteran for four decades, Loy has worked in myriad departments during his career: making props as a carpenter, helping dress sets, and for the last 20 years doing special effects.

On “The Untitled Joshua + Lauren Project” he said the writing was on the wall, so to speak, that the production would not see the finish line as the writers’ strike loomed. Only projects with fully completed scripts were able to continue rolling, but script changes are part of the norm while filming is underway.

“Some of its key people were deaf,” Loy said of the series, which was centered on a romantic relationship between Jack (Joshua Jackson) and Lily (Lauren Ridloff, a deaf actress). “So, I knew it would be hard for a writer who is not deaf to be able to write what the stream-of-consciousness is going to be signing — and that would likely require changes.”

Casting calls were disseminated welcoming background and extra actors from the hard-of hearing community.

Loy is part of the Wilmington Local IATSE 491 (the Local International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada) and serves on its board of trustees. It represents film technicians in both Carolinas and Savannah, Georgia. A charter member from the ‘90s, Loy has served as president and vice president of the Wilmington chapter.

Though Local IATSE 491 didn’t vote to strike — it’s not part of the writers’ or actors’ guilds — the trickle-down effect impacts its more than 1,000 members. Yet, Loy supports the strikers’ march to the frontlines to assemble for increased base compensation, staffing improvements, protections against artificial intelligence, and better residuals.

“They’re not asking for too much, just to survive,” he said, “just to be compensated for their work.”

Negotiations at the bargaining table have picked up again as of Friday between WGA and the trade association, Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. AMPTP represents more than 350 production companies, including Amazon/MGM, Apple, Disney/ABC/Fox, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Paramount/CBS, Sony, and Warner Bros. Discovery (HBO).

Loy believes the writers’ and actors’ requests were a long-time coming, as the streaming industry has changed the model for film and TV. He remembers a time when TV had 22-episode seasons; today, many average 12 episodes or less. 

“‘Revolution’ was the last 22-episode season I did,” Loy said of the show, filmed in Wilmington in 2012. “Since then, it’s been 10-episode shows, like ‘Good Behavior’ and ‘Under the Dome.’”

When seasons are shorter, it means job security lessens. Loy said a 22-episode season equals roughly a year’s worth of work, while six could be around three months. 

Streaming services also have knocked down royalty payments from what was accepted in traditional network television syndication. Writers and actors get paid for a domestic release and international release via streamers, rather than based on the number of people who view the content and ads aired alongside it, as done traditionally. 

“I can’t remember the last time I received a check for ‘House of Cards,’” actor Ed Wagenseller said. “I received residuals in the immediate year after it aired.”

He filmed the show for two days in 2017 for Netflix and was paid $2,300.

Unions are designed to help actors track residuals if they’re not paid appropriately. Wagenseller said he’s had to do this with principal character roles he’s taken on for commercials.

“The union would fight and I would get my money,” he said. 

The local actor has been a member of SAG-AFTRA since 2018 though has been acting since he was a 27-year-old on “Dawson’s Creek” in the ‘90s. Acting has always been a passion, though he works two other jobs as well: as a theater professor at UNCW and in real estate. 

He takes around six jobs a year on set. The goal, he said, is to make acting his full-time work when he retires and has a pension.

“I do consider myself a professional actor, but I also realized that I chose to live in the Southeast — and this was before film really blew up on the East Coast,” he said. “Your acting career in 1995 meant you needed to go to New York or L.A. But I also wanted a different quality of life.”

Saturday’s rally in Wilmington intends to shine a light on all the working people currently out of jobs. Wagenseller will attend, not only for his own pay but for friends and colleagues who are depending on this as a full-time livelihood.

“I’m doing this for all the Jerry Winsetts, Peter Jurasiks, Paul Schneiders, Tony Reynolds — the people that don’t have another two or three extra gigs,” Wagenseller said.

“For me it’s awareness that we are your neighbors,” Loy said. “A lot of times people think that these are just movie people coming from out of town who make big bucks.”

Most people in the industry aren’t necessarily top-tier money-earners. And beyond actors being affected, the windfall of a work stoppage also envelops below-the-line workers — hairdressers, costume designers, camera operators, carpenters, gaffers, truck drivers and others. 

“I don’t have a boat. I don’t have an airplane. I don’t have a jet ski,” Loy said. “My car is paid for, my truck is paid for. They’re old but they run great. I don’t need a $70,000 truck; I don’t need a home on the bay.”

To make ends meet, he has been taking non-scripted jobs — not covered by unions, such as commercials, reality TV and game shows. He worked on YouTube influencer Jimmy Donaldson’s “MrBeast” in Kinston, North Carolina. He also has been helping with local theater productions.

“I’m keeping my head above water,” Loy said. 

Still, it’s a pay cut — familiar territory for Loy. It’s not lost on him that a day’s work can vanish in an instance in the film industry. It’s something he has seen before — such as when Carolco Studios took over De Laurentiis Entertainment Group production facility in 1989, now known as EUE/Screen Gems, in Wilmington. 

“Work just dried up,” Loy said. 

More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic affected the business. 

According to Darla McGlamery, business manager for Local IATSE 491, crews were getting back to work from Covid-19 in September 2020. Yet, many began “feeling the squeeze” on content creation last November, even before the WGA’s and SAG-AFTRA’s strike.

Wilmingtonian Andy Bader, part of the International Cinematographers Guild IATSE Local 600, said his biggest fear right now is tapping out his reserves. 

“I worry about not being able to make enough to take care of my kids,” he said. “We had all just gotten started again and we’d all burned through our savings already from Covid.” 

He has worked in film for two decades in the camera department as a digital imaging technician. Bader runs the computer side of operations behind the lens, making sure the camera runs safely and doesn’t lose data. He, too, was on the “J+L Project” when the strike began.

Like Foy, Bader has filled the gaps with a few nonunion jobs, including a documentary and commercials. He worked on one recently for the U.S. Army at Fort Liberty in Fayetteville, but it was a short shoot compared to his normal months-long project.

In the interim, he’s been taking odd jobs through Thumbtack, a home services website that vets workers to do home improvement jobs, IT repairs, or provide financial and legal services, for instance. 

“I put myself out there as a stand-in technical grandson for people around the neighborhood who may need help with their WiFi, for instance,” he said. “It’s kept me sane and helps with a little extra money for groceries.”

Though there has been a halt in productions, it has come with an interim agreement that allows IATSE and teamsters to work on independent projects in the $3-to-$8-million range, without ties to AMPTP studios.

“A perfect example: Hallmark,” McGlamery revealed. “They’re their own entity and our crews work on their productions all the time.”

She also used A24 as another example. The entertainment company agreed to all of SAG-AFTRA’s terms and have exemptions to film.

“If these small independent houses can figure out how to embrace their crews, the expectation is AMPTP needs to reexamine their approach to bargaining into the next wave of technological advances,” McGlamery said. 

Loss of work goes further than a mere paycheck, too; it also threatens union members’ health care. Union film industry employees must work a certain amount of hours to qualify for benefits. 

The Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans announced last week certain participants, who otherwise would not have enough hours to qualify for benefits due to the strike, will have extended eligibility. MPI is allowing them to do a one-time “hardship withdrawal” from their pension without being penalized.

“IATSE Local 491, along with all the Area Standards Locals have been lobbying our International to provide some relief regarding insurance premiums,” McGlamery wrote in an email to PCD. 

On Aug. 3 the IATSE 491 international president, Matt Loeb, and its fund directors agreed to keep coverage in place for any crew member that has worked five days in the first three quarters of the year so members won’t lose coverage in the fourth quarter.

Similar measures were taken during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, at that time everyone, including producers, were on the same page.

“Covid sucked for everybody, and everybody wanted to get back to work, and was willing to help out one another,” Bader said.

This time is different. A report from Deadline that came out in mid-July regarding the strike quoted an anonymous studio executive saying: “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

AMPTP has denied supporting such allegations.

For Bader, the longer the strike carries on, the more anxiety arises over how the industry will bounce back, particularly as autumn nears. Most films shutter during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“January and often February are pretty slow months for us,” he said. “I’m also worried about the amount of work that’ll come after. I believe there’s been a big investment in streaming, but I’m not convinced it’s worked.”

According to PwC’s 24th annual Global Entertainment & Media Outlook, streaming services brought in $49.4 billion in 2022 and is forecast to reach $75.5 billion by 2027 in the United States. Wordwide, it’s projected to be a $2.7 trillion industry in the next five years.

Though the revenue is increasing, the growth rate is expected to decline, according to the report. It shows a 6.8% drop in the next five years, due to inflation’s effect on subscribers as streaming competition heats up and rates increase. The market ballooned by 35.6% user growth in 2020, when Covid-19 had most people tuning in from home. The trend grew by another 19.5% in 2021.

That viewership growth benefited Wilmington, which had a banner year in 2021. It raked in more than $300 million, with the state bringing in more than $400 million total due to film spending. 2021 had more than 27,500 employed by film in the state.

The FilmNC Office indicates projections of $67 million in 2023 year-to-date spending — $192 million less than what was brought in during 2022. It also shows film has provided roughly 5,475 jobs compared to last year’s 16,265.

“It’s a sharp decline,” according to FilmNC Office director Guy Gaster who said this time last year, on Aug. 11, the state had announced five projects to bring in at least $241 million and around 16,000 jobs.

It’s hard to quantify how much money the state has lost overall due to the strike. The few calls that are coming in are from productions in the “research phase,” Gaster said.

“But, really, how do you quantify what’s being lost if it’s not even being asked for?” he stated.  

Still, he’s confident once an agreement is in place between producers, writers and actors, the engine will run again. However, it will take a minute to warm up; cameras won’t just turn on.

“Even if you look at the ‘The Untitled Josh and Lauren Project,’ there’s gonna be some prep that has to be done to get ready again, you have to make sure crew is available still, as well as those actors and actresses and directors,” he said. 

If the strike lifts closer to the holiday season, he said there is a chance the normal slow winter could be busier than expected. 

“Some projects, I would assume, might not be able to start filming but definitely would love to go ahead and get on the ground and start pre-production,” Gaster said.

Wilmington has only had a handful of productions rolling in 2023. Paramount+ filmed “Zoey 102” in January, with STARZ’s “The Untitled J&L Project” setting up in March. Independent and local film house Honey Head Productions was rolling “A Bigger Piece of Sky (aka “The Confession)” earlier in the year, and just last month, an HGTV spinoff show of “Good Bones” shot the production a few days in town. It will resume Aug. 16 and 17, according to City of Wilmington film permits.

Johnny Griffin, the Wilmington Film Commission director, said at the groundbreaking of Dark Horse Studios’ two new film stages on Aug. 4, the area was on track to have another stellar year before the strike. It was expected that the third season for Amazon’s hit “The Summer I Turned Pretty” would return.

He said calls have still been coming in for when the strikes end. Dark Horse owner Kirk Englebright added last week he also has been in discussions with projects, though couldn’t divulge more details.

In the meantime, relief has been offered to workers across the industry through various funds.

Loy said the IATSE 491 trustees recommended to its executive board to offer a one-time relief check to members in good standing. The board voted during the pandemic to give every member who was current $500.

“It’s not much, but it adds up when you have thousands of members,” Loy said. “It can at least help pay a light bill.”

A vote has not been taken yet. It’s a “wait-and-see” approach, McGlamery said.

The SAG-AFTRA Foundation has an emergency assistance program in place. According to its website, applications are ticking up to 100 a day and eligible applicants must be able to prove financial crisis and the inability to pay basic living expenses to receive monetary help. 

The Entertainment Community Fund and Local 600 has started a hardship collective.

“Local 600’s core principles include that all workers have the right to be compensated fairly, provided with sustainable benefits, and ensured of safe working conditions,” according to a spokesperson. “We strongly support the WGA and SAG-AFTRA in their fight for a fair contract.”

IATSE also has a list of organizations accepting donations to help those affected. 

The SAG-AFTRA Washington-Mid Atlantic Wilmington Rally will take place from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. downtown at the corner of Princess and Third streets.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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