“The Industry Is Not Back”: Bad News From Hollywood Crews

On March 4, major Hollywood crew unions began negotiating their health and pension benefits with studios and streamers, with Hollywood Teamsters head Lindsay Dougherty saying, “We will strike if we have to” during the talks. But some Los Angeles-area crewmembers say that, in the aftermath of the writers’ and actors’ walkouts in 2023, there doesn’t seem to be that much work to halt if their own stoppage is called.

Caught in a brutal industry contraction amid the demise of Peak TV, crewmembers describe an anemic return to production after the strikes, which is exacerbating problems for those who already had significantly fewer opportunities to work in 2023.

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“There hasn’t been any real work,” says one location manager based in L.A., who didn’t work for seven and a half months during and after the strikes. “The industry is not back. What’s back is a few things that are doing pickups or needed to restart from things that were shut down before May.”

Adds a set decoration buyer who has been out of work since March 2023, “I literally can count on two hands how many people I know that are actually working right now. That’s now. In January, it was even less.”

According to FilmLA president Paul Audley, whose office tracks production data in the Los Angeles area, so far this year permit and shoot day volume is down 14.3 percent compared with levels at the same time in 2023. (Audley notes, as several sources do for this story, that production pulled back in early 2023 prior to the strikes, which makes it an atypical benchmark.) However, in February, the film office saw increases in activity in shoot days for commercials and shoot days for feature films. “But what we’ve seen is a lot of fairly small-scale production. We haven’t seen the large films or in fact a lot of the series television return yet — it’s just beginning to come back,” Audley says. Some of the major projects that have filmed in the L.A. area in February include Peacock’s Bel-Air, ABC’s 9-1-1 and Netflix’s Selling Sunset.

Dougherty, whose union represents drivers, location managers, casting directors and other crewmembers, says that 42 productions are ongoing with her local’s crews at the moment. Meanwhile, in busier years like in 2022, the union saw well over 100 projects at the same time of year. Production levels usually pick up as pilot season gets into full swing, she adds, but it’s unclear what that period will look like this year: “Everyone’s kind of waiting to see what the new normal is, knowing that there is a contraction in the industry and knowing that the streaming bubble has popped and that the studios and production companies are spending less money than they have in recent years.”

Several crewmembers observe that the projects coming back tend to be network shows or projects that were mid-shoot or about to shoot before the strikes. “It’s either a series that was already greenlit before, or a show that was already in the middle of production when the strike happened. That’s really all we’re seeing,” says prop master Alicia Haverland (Hell’s Kitchen, The Masked Singer).

In New York City, at least one measure of filming activity is at relatively normal levels. The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, which tracks permitting through its office for films, TV shows, commercials, music videos, student films and documentaries shooting on public property (but does not keep tabs on filming on private property, such as studio soundstages) reports that in January 2024, 88 projects with permits were in production, as opposed to 77 in 2023, 102 in 2022 and 75 in 2021. Some major projects in the works in January included the latest seasons of CBS’ The Equalizer and NBC’s Law & Order SVU, while the sequel to Paramount’s Smile, Smile Deluxe, and Netflix’s limited series Zero Day have also started shooting. “We are seeing NYC’s film & TV production industry get back to work following the labor stoppages of last year,” stated the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Pat Swinney Kaufman.

Still, there’s a perception among workers that activity is sluggish even in New York. Veteran New York City location scout Eric Klein (Cat Person, Young Adult) believes there’s “definitely a bit of a slowdown” in the city, he says, with a number of members of his union — the Teamsters Local 817 — out of work. One New York City-based set dresser has been temping outside the industry and doing a few days as a production assistant while job opportunities have been thin on the ground. “It’s been a bummer because I’m so desperate to get back in there,” this person says. “I know a lot of people in my position who just ultimately quit [the industry] after a couple months. I’m still maybe holding out a hope a little bit, but I don’t know.”

Overall, production activity was down at the start of the year, according to Alex LoVerde, the co-founder and CEO of production tracking service ProdPro. His company has found that globally the number of scripted, live-action film and TV projects that were filming this January represented a 19 percent decrease from 2023 and 26 percent from 2022. (The data includes only those projects with budgets over $10 million, and excludes pilots.) In the U.S., the decline was even greater, with shoots for these projects decreasing 24 percent compared to 2023 and 38 percent compared to 2022. When speaking with his business partners about the state of production, he says, “I would say that we all share a pretty strong concern that there is going to be a new normal of restricted content spend.”

The slow ramp-up has compounded hardships that began for crewmembers during the strikes. Haverland lived in an RV with a partner for two months in the fall to save money, before moving into an apartment that is vastly different from her situation before the strike. “This whole situation has completely changed my life,” she says. “I went from having a three-bedroom, two-bath with a pool to doing a condo in Canoga Park. It’s a huge change.”

Mental health has been a struggle for some as well. One storyboard artist who regularly talks to peers in their field says they’re seeing “major anxiety and stress and depression. You go to bed at night and you feel stressed and you wake up in the morning and you feel stressed.” This person adds, “We’re sitting here going, ‘We don’t deserve this. We weren’t even on strike.’”

The set decoration buyer emphasizes the mental toll the situation has taken on her and her partner, who also works in the industry. “At this point, nothing else matters except for the mental anguish and crisis mode that we wake up to every day. And there’s not enough deep breathing or therapy that can help with this because we’re kind of cruising through depression right now. It’s absolute torture.”

Is there any hope for the months ahead? FilmLA’s Audley predicts that features will likely need another two to four weeks to start up, based on typical run-up schedules. The good news, he adds, is that the California Film Commission just announced it has granted tax credits to some large projects, like Disney’s The Mandalorian & Grogu, which could help boost industry employment. But overall, “it’s just a really tough year to predict because there’s still a lot of uncertainty up in the air and real questions about where production will locate in 2024 worldwide. It hasn’t settled out yet,” he says.

In the meantime, crew members who are still underemployed are waiting to catch a break. Says the storyboard artist, “I just want people to understand what film workers are going through.” They add, “The strikes ended and we’re still getting crushed.”

This story first appeared in the March 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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