Saturday, June 10, 2023

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

Production of “Untitled J&L Project” shuts down due to the writers’ strike. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON — As writers picket in larger cities, such as Hollywood and New York, regarding the film industry’s fair pay standards, its aftereffects are trickling down locally.

Wednesday afternoon, Mary Toffolon, the special events supervisor for the City of Wilmington, sent a notice that upcoming shoots for the “Untitled J&L Project” have been withdrawn beginning May 23, “due to the writer’s strike.”

READ MORE: Joshua Jackson returning to Wilmington to film Ava DuVernay series

Filming is scheduled to continue Friday, May 12, on Princess Street. Yet, permits submitted for May 23 at Prost Biergarten downtown, May 25 at Reggie’s 42nd Street and May 26 at Grinders Café are no longer active. 

The strike from the Writers Guild of America went into effect May 2, shuttering numerous production companies dependent upon scripted content. It has affected Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Paramount, NBC Universal, and Disney, among others.

The WGA represents 11,500 writers, 98% of whom voted to strike when surveyed in mid-April. The guild maintains writers are paid 23% less today, when adjusted for inflation, as compared to 15 years ago. Picketers say it’s due to the rise of streaming services. Though budgets have ballooned for streamers, the pay hasn’t kept pace. 

For instance, the WGA reports a first draft non-original screenplay goes for just over $63,000. That is 1.2% of a $5-million budget or 0.3% of a $20-million budget.

To put that into perspective, Fox’s series “Welcome to Flatch,” which filmed last year in both New Hanover and Pender counties, had a budget of $26 million for season two’s 13 episodes. 

Half of WGA workers now are paid at the guild minimum as compared to a third 10 years ago. The guild maintains the streamers have become accustomed to using smaller staff, frequently referred to as “mini rooms,” where fewer writers work for shorter stints.

WGA member George R.R. Martin (“Game of Thrones”) reminded writers in a blog post ahead of the strike, that as of midnight on May 1, all existing scripts “must be shot EXACTLY as they were … Not a word can be changed, cut, added, not a scene can be altered.” 

It is the industry norm for edits to be made on series and films as they are in production.

The “Untitled J&L Project” is written and directed by Emmy Award-winning and Oscar nominee Ava DuVernay (“Scandal,” “Queen Sugar”) who was captured on a Twitter video Tuesday in front of Paramount Studios in L.A. with protestors. DuVernay was recording “Reno 911” actor Niecy Nash singing “I Will Survive” as part of “Picket Line Karaoke.”

STARZ announced it was launching DuVernay’s 18-episode series, starring Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff, last year. It signed on for three seasons. 

“Untitled J&L Project” began filming in Wilmington on March 27 and is scheduled to be in town through the end of August. To date, it has set up locations at The Rusty Nail, Jackson’s Big Oak BBQ, and across multiple downtown streets. 

Port City Daily reached out to STARZ to find out how many people are employed on the series and to inquire whether the shut-down will last through the duration of the strike. No one responded by press.

The last writers’ strike in 2008 went for 100 days; the longest strike on record is 153 days from 1988, according to the WGA.

The strike isn’t helping Wilmington’s industry; it has been a slow year in film compared to 2021 and 2022, which brought in more than $500 million in economic investment combined. The “Untitled J&L Project” is the third production filmed so far in the Port City in 2023.

Jamie Lynn Spears’ “Zoey 102” for Nickelodeon wrapped in February, while Honey Head Films’ independent film, “A Bigger Piece of Sky (aka The Confession),” was also in production earlier in the year. 

Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Film Commission, said though he is still receiving interest about projects coming to the area, “few are moving forward” due to circumstances surrounding the industry.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers continues to bargain on behalf of studios, streaming services and networks. 


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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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