WILMINGTON — In protest of grueling hours, low pay and insufficient breaks, film crews are close to walking off sets, ceasing productions nationwide and possibly turning Wilmington’s EUE/Screen Gems Studios back into a desert.
Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) are voting Friday on a strike authorization. The entertainment labor union covers set decorators, gaffers, prop masters, grips, costume designers, location managers and more — all otherwise known as “below-the-line” workers because of the way their names appear on a top sheet of a film budget, underneath the directors, producers and actors.
The results will come out Monday, Oct. 4. What will happen after is unknown.
IATSE Local 491 business agent Darla McGlamery is expecting a “resounding yes” majority to the strike vote. At that point, the hope is that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) will agree to IATSE’s demands to prevent a true strike, McGlamery explained.
In recent months, IATSE has negotiated with AMPTP, the representative of major film and TV companies, for protections in its next contract covering 60,000 behind-the-scenes workers. But AMPTP recently announced it “does not intend to make any counteroffer.”
IATSE’s latest proposal, according to a press release, asks for reduced hours, higher wages, guaranteed breaks and equal pay on streaming projects as compared to other productions.
It’s unpredictable how long a walkout would last. IATSE has never gone on strike in its century-plus existence.
“There’s always chatter out there, but this has come to a head at this point,” McGlamery said.
The most comparable circumstance in recent years is the 100-day writer’s strike of 2007, which took place after AMPTP and Writers Guild of America disagreed on the sharing of profits from programs available on the internet. In Wilmington, “One Tree Hill” continued filming for weeks on already completed scripts, according to a StarNews article at the time.
To this day, the rise in online content is a point of contention in these debates between AMPTP and labor unions. In addition to poor work conditions and “unlivable wages,” workers on streaming projects are unsatisfied with the breaks platforms like Netflix still get. When streamers first stepped on the scene, the contracts gave them discounts in paying workers and providing benefits since the media’s future was blurry.
“Obviously streaming is not experimental anymore,” said union member Hannah Funderburke. “It’s not new media. It’s got bigger budgets than some of our major features. And so, especially seeing the success of it through Covid, it is way past time for them to stop treating it like experimental media on our rates and conditions.”
Streaming projects now make up the majority of shoots in Wilmington. In IATSE Local 491’s jurisdiction, about seven shows operating under the Theatrical and Television Motion Picture Area Standards Agreement are currently in production. One is by Hulu, two are from Netflix, three are Amazon, and one is Disney/Fox.
McGlamery said the union has made attempts to boost worker conditions for these projects during the past four cycles of contract negotiations, going back a dozen years. The AMPTP stood by the belief that the streaming was “experimental.”
“We are in complete and total disagreement at this point,” she said.
As the strike looms, a movement within the union is calling on members to cancel their streaming subscriptions to grab the attention of services through their wallets.
“STOP USING AMAZON,” a flier circulating social media reads. “WE ARE LITERALLY FIGHTING AGAINST JEFF BEZOS.”
The demands from the IATSE also come at a time when the pandemic has people re-evaluating their careers and rethinking their priorities. Behaviors are especially evolving amongst the younger workforce, a population IATSE and productions work together to recruit. They are also called “green people” in the industry.
“They think, ‘Oh god, film and television, it’s sexy,’” McGlamery said. “And then they get through their first week and you’re like, ‘This is hard.’”
Crews are regularly working 14- to 16-hour shifts up to six or sometimes seven days a week to bring a TV or movie to life within a certain deadline.
A lighting board programmer, Funderburke said the film hours get longer each year, while the turnarounds to return to set are getting shorter. Her longest day ever topped 22 hours this past year. She went in on a Friday and worked through the night into Saturday morning — a popular work schedule known among crews as “Fraturdays.” When they get off, they have Sunday to recoup before shooting resumes Monday.
“A lot of us will get home, we’ll have to decide whether we’re going to eat, shower or sleep, and you got to choose like two out of three,” Funderburke said.
She said overtime pay once dissuaded the employers from overworking employees, now she said they just budget for it. Further, breaks for meals or the bathroom are almost nonexistent: “It’s so incredibly taxing on the body and the mind,” she said.
The Instagram account IATSE Stories (@ia_stories) shares horror stories from film workers: A mother who rushed from the hospital to set after her daughter’s suicide attempt, fearing that higher-ups would assume it would interfere with her job if they knew; a wife whose husband had a pericardial cyst burst on set but was denied an ambulance so it wouldn’t affect the insurance; a sound crew member who suffered a knee injury from standing too long and interstitial cystitis from holding his bladder, but who “still feel[s] guilty when I want to take a bathroom break.”
As hours have stretched, the craft has lost people who fell asleep behind the wheel driving home from work. Perhaps most famously, cameraman Brent Hershman was killed instantly in 1997 when he crashed into a utility pole after a 19-hour day on the set of “Pleasantville.” His death sparked a call on the industry to reduce hours. More than two decades later, workers are still pleading for the same considerations.
“Every time something happens to a crew member, based upon long crazy schedules, we have come to the AMPTP and we said, ‘Hey, we got to do something about this,’” McGlamery said. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll try.’ And we’re just — we need our bargaining partners to step up.”
McGlamery suggests it is possible for productions to alter schedules and budgets to limit work to five days a week but, instead, they are “running individuals, technicians and artists into the ground trying to get it done quicker.”
So why don’t workers just quit?
Most workers are dedicated to their craft or sometimes hold pride in decades of experience, McGlamery said.
“When you watch a television show, you may not understand everything that goes into it, but I can tell you right now, somebody is thinking –– and it’s probably your gaffer –– about the light coming through the window on the face of the actor or actress sitting at the cafe,” McGlamery said, “and those windows have been tinted, those lights have been set, that director has said, ‘This is what I’d like’ . . . While you may not, with your naked eye, understand that your brain is like, ‘Oh my god, that is really pretty.’ That’s what’s happening. This is a craft.”
Troy Carlton worked in the industry for a decade as a grip and dolly grip but saw no path to rise through the ranks. He eventually quit the union in 2015 to make it as an independent filmmaker. Off and on throughout the years, he took on film gigs to spend time with old work friends.
“That’s really the only way that you can see these people. Just get back on set and work again. Because that’s all they do,” Carlton said.
Before he left the union, his work days sometimes reached 18 hours or even 20, Carlton recalled.
“There was no way for me to do anything else, period — it was my life — let alone try to make my way on the side as an independent filmmaker,” Carlton said. “I had to completely table that and everything.”
After working on a feature film, he would need to take a week off just to catch up on bills and other life responsibilities.
“I need to see what piled up. What have I neglected? What have I forgotten?” he said.
Carlton assumes current film workers will move on as he did if the strike does, in fact, happen. They won’t stick around and wait for the productions to resume.
“Some people will decide to do other things because they have to feed their families,” he said.
Funderburke said a lot of her colleagues are close to walking away. With the industry shuttered from Covid-19 half a year, it’s given workers time to reflect.
“We know how important our families are. We know how important our lives are, especially coming out of the pandemic,” she said. “We all learned a lot in that time about what was important in our lives. Now you’re really facing something where most of us are like, give us our lives back and our wages back, or we’re gonna find something else to do.”
Already, casting directors are struggling to hire vaccinated background extras amid a national hiring crisis.
And this all comes as the film business is peaking in Wilmington, partially thanks to streamers’ interest in the area. The Cape Fear region’s film business has overcome years of unattractive incentives and more recent threats from the pandemic to get to where it is today. At this point, the record for the most money ever invested in the state by film projects is about to break as it surpasses $400 million.
McGlamery said everyone seems in favor of a strike to stand up for their rights, but anxieties about the potential ramifications are endless.
“I wouldn’t be human if I weren’t nervous,” McGlamery said. “Are we at the edge of no longer having content created? I don’t know. I will tell you that consumerism will drive this, and the desire for the AMPTP to come back to the table and bargain with us once we get this strike authorization vote is important. That’s the piece. But we’re at a place now, that we have to have this conversation.”
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