It’s easy to dismiss the Hollywood strikes as petulant luvvies terrified by the real world. When the likes of Brian Cox, Andy Serkis, Hayley Atwell, David Oyelowo, Simon Pegg, Naomie Harris, Imelda Staunton and Rob Delaney gather in Leicester Square to deliver blood-curdling speeches in support of striking US actors, it can seem faintly ridiculous.
And yet, the longer the strike goes on, the more harm it’s doing to the UK economy. Since the Screen Actors Guild walked out on July 14, joining the Writers Guild of America on the picket lines, Hollywood – the world’s oldest and richest entertainment industry – has simply shut down. The money Los Angeles was expecting to pay for film and TV shows in 2023 was estimated at $240 billion (£190 billion) – roughly the turnover of Google, almost twice the turnover of Ford, and four times the turnover of Boeing. With London the world’s third largest production hub, studios across the country, and film and TV crews usually rated the best in the world in industry surveys, a chunk of that was headed our way.
In 2022, according to figures from the BFI, inward investment from Hollywood on films and high-end television was £5.37 billion. LA studios spent £3.62 billion making TV over here whilst UK companies spent £632.7 million. With films, the US spent £1.74 billion in UK studios and locations whilst domestic films accounted for £173.6 million. In 2023, the rate of investment was similar in the first quarter of the year, suggesting that a second-half shutdown will lose us almost £3 billion.
The UK’s biggest studios host major US productions, all of which are now on hold. These include Deadpool 3, which has been filming at Pinewood, Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice sequel, the Brad Pitt Formula One drama Apex, the next Mission Impossible film and the movie version of the hit musical Wicked, whose Yellow Brick Road set now lies in ruins in the Buckinghamshire countryside. TV shows in production and now under threat are season two of Andor and Eddie Redmayne’s The Day of the Jackal. For the electricians, labourers, camera crew and sound technicians, almost all of whom are freelance, this came as a sharp financial shock.
“We all knew it was coming,” says a focus puller who works on studio blockbusters. “There’s always a couple of actors on set who get cosy with the crew, so they’d be feeding back the gossip around the negotiations. The film I’m on, some crew had a couple of extra days to make sets safe but most of us were just sent home on that day, told don’t come in tomorrow. The studios are calling it a hiatus, so we’re still under contract but we’re not getting paid, and we’re not allowed to work for anyone else. Some crew provide their own equipment and some studios have refused to let them remove it from the set. So they’ve lost both work and equipment.”
In theory, only shows where cast and writer are members of the SAG or the WGA are affected. In practice, thanks to an effective closed shop in Hollywood, no British talent with eyes on American studios or streamers wants to be known as a strike breaker. This is especially true for writers – since 1941 the WGA has controlled who gets a writer’s credit on a production. No credit, no residuals, so while the likes of Jack Thorne, Russell T Davies, Simon Beaufoy, James Graham and Sharon Horgan have all downed pencils in solidarity, it’s fair to say they’re downing pencils to ensure they have a career when the strike ends. Although the UK arms of US streamers like Netflix and Amazon are not “struck companies”, with some UK productions where contracts are negotiated under terms set by Equity (the British actors’ union), individual SAG members are “too scared to work”, according to one producer.
As a result, Philippa Childs, head of Bectu, the trade union supporting staff and freelancers in the sector, says there’s been an almost total shutdown of filming. The problem with Hollywood’s enormous inward investment, she argues, is that it impacted the UK’s own film and TV production, now so reliant on US money that a purely British production is “almost non-existent. As a result our members are working in bars, shops and supermarkets because they’re desperate.”
And ancillary services that rely on US money, like the UK’s world beating post-production sector that does everything from grading – ensuring colour tones are consistent – to CGI, are rapidly heading into the buffers.
“We had an immediate impact from the actors’ strike,” says the boss of one London-based post-production company. The company works on “dailies” for a couple of films – the footage that they’ve shot on the day that need processing and editing. “Those have stopped coming so for half the company there is nothing to do,” he explains.
Pre-Covid, the loose grab bag of industries overseen by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport accounted for one tenth of the UK’s GDP, according to DCMS figures released this April. Between 2016 and 2019 the creative industries massively outgrew the UK economy, expanding at a rate of 22.8 per cent against an overall rate of 10.4 per cent.
In a December 2021 report aimed at justifying screen sector tax relief, the British Film Institute commissioned Olsberg SPI to analyse the overall economic contribution film and TV make to the economy. The report broke down the spend of a £100 million Hollywood feature film, showing that only 39.83 per cent of its overall filming budget is screen-specific – that is, spent on paying people and companies that exclusively work in film and television. Alongside the cash flowing to obvious supporting industries like music, fashion and beauty, some 40 per cent of the budget went to areas like training and education, utilities, travel and transport, security, finance, legal, health and medical, construction and local labour.
There’s a wider, intangible impact of filming grinding to a halt. While stories of Barbie, shot in Leavesden Studios near Watford, causing a global pink paint shortage were greatly exaggerated, the film did empty south east London-based paint company Rosco’s supplies. And then there’s movie tourism – with international fans booking UK holidays to visit locations or watch their favourite shows shoot. In 2019 the BFI estimated that inbound tourists spent just under £600 million on film-related tourism.
The reboot of All Creatures Great and Small, for instance, has an audience of 10 million or more on the US PBS network. When the show shoots in Grassington, which poses as Darrowby, the cast say it’s like “doing theatre” as so many US fans turn up to watch filming. On location for the third series, Nicholas Ralph, who plays vet James Herriot, met families who had booked UK holidays just for the chance to stay locally, get to know the village and see the action. And when the strikes end, the money may come flooding back.
“There’s been so much growth, especially in streamers, that they have taken the opportunity of the strike to have a reset and rein stuff in,” explains Ed Waller, editor-in-chief of industry bible C21 Media. “It doesn’t look that likely that things will return to pre-pandemic or even pre-strike days once it’s called off. There’s likely to be less US investment for some time to come.”
Bectu is calling on the Government to ensure that, when the money does return, there will be an industry waiting. “It’s a freelance industry and we need to support them or we’ll lose them,” says Childs. “One of the great appeals of the UK is the talent of the crew. If they go, we’ll see less money coming in overall. That’s billions of pounds and thousands of jobs that may go overseas unless we’re ready.”