Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Fight for a Workers’ Hollywood

Even before the recent tragic on-set death, film and TV workers were organising to improve conditions in Hollywood – their fight pits them against not only film studios, but global tech giants.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) struck a tentative deal with film studios on 16 October, averting a strike that could have shut down Hollywood. Credit: Getty Images

In the early months of the pandemic, as lockdowns dragged on, many of us turned to streaming services for their seemingly unending libraries of content to pass the long hours of isolation. We shamelessly consumed the life story of the Tiger King and watched Emily make her way in Paris with a growing desire to get back to some semblance of normality, but we rarely considered all the workers behind the camera who are essential to film and television productions. Yet, as production resumed, they made sure people knew the role they played on set and how the working conditions they’d been forced to put up with were no longer acceptable.

These ‘below the line’ workers, as they’re known, are represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (better known as IATSE) in the United States and include makeup artists, set designers, editors, cinematographers, and many other professions. The contract that covers many of them expired this year and their union was renegotiating with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents the major studios, but they made it clear that they needed a better deal.

During the pandemic, workers had gotten a break as productions had shut down to avoid the spread of Covid-19. Given the strikes breaking out in the United States and the uptick in resignations, it appears many workers have reassessed what they’re willing to tolerate at work, and IATSE workers were no different. They launched an Instagram account where they told stories of their treatment on set, including not being able to attend important family events, working incredibly long hours that occasionally bled well into the next day, and even falling asleep at the wheel when driving home afterward.

On 21 October, the world got a first-hand look at exactly what film workers were talking about when cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, a member of IATSE Local 600, was killed on the set of Rust after Alec Baldwin was handed a gun with a live round that he was told had been cleared by the assistant director. It came after complaints by workers of long drives to and from the set after 14-18-hour days, very low rates that often weren’t paid on time, and other safety issues that caused the camera crew to walk off and be replaced with non-union workers just hours before the fatal incident. While many are still mourning, it’s hard not to see Hutchins’ death having an impact on IATSE workers’ thoughts on their next contract.

While union negotiators made reasonable demands, the AMPTP was initially unwilling to budge, so in early October workers voted to authorise a strike with nearly 99 percent of members in favour. That seemed to push the studios’ negotiators to start making real concessions, and on 16 October, just two days before the strike was due to start, IATSE leaders announced a deal had been struck. But some members feel the new contract simply isn’t good enough, and if they vote against it, a strike could be back on the table.

Even if this is the end for IATSE workers’ contract negotiation, it likely isn’t the end of a growing battle in the film and television industry over fair compensation and workers’ rights. Last year, new agreements were signed with the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, but there were fears both would go on strike. It may simply have been for the pandemic that they didn’t, and their contracts will expire again in 2023. At the centre of conflict is the same thing that became essential during lockdown: streaming services.

Streaming is Changing the Industry

It’s hardly an understatement to say that streaming is reshaping not just how we consume entertainment, but also how it’s made and the business model behind it. Amazon and Netflix were early to the game, launching their streaming services in 2006 and 2007, respectively, but in the past few years the number of services has taken off. Some of the most notably recent additions were Apple TV+ and Disney+ in 2019, but there are even more options in different international markets.

In the mid-2010s, it was common to see streaming, and Netflix in particular, praised for providing a platform to diverse and experimental productions that might otherwise have had a difficult time getting made. But it very quickly became clear that was little more than public relations, as those same diverse shows, often made by women, were much more likely to be cancelled. Meanwhile, the entry of tech companies into film and television production spurred a new wave of consolidation as media corporations needed to adjust to fend off their highly capitalised competitors.

As the business side of things was being upended, there were natural consequences for workers. Higher production budgets benefitted some of the big names on prominent productions as companies like Netflix and Amazon sought out prominent directors and major stars to come to their platforms and offered them big upfront deals. This is important because when productions are made for streaming, there are rarely any residuals. In the past, a movie would be released in cinemas, then there would be additional revenue from rights sales and home video releases that would be shared with key talent and workers, but when a movie or a show is made for Netflix, it just sits in its catalogue in perpetuity.

This doesn’t just impact productions made by tech companies, but as the entire industry moves to that model, there are other ramifications. For example, last year there was a big backlash when WarnerMedia decided to release its 2021 slate of films on streaming on the same day they hit cinemas and earlier this year Scarlett Johansson sued Disney for doing the same with Black Widow. Top-tier talent often have clauses in their contracts that link compensation to box office performance, so a same-day streaming release undercut ticket sales and reduced their potential payday. In those cases, Warner and Disney paid up, but that’s not guaranteed to continue in the future.

Workers behind the camera also don’t have the clout of actresses like Johansson and felt the squeeze as the industry shifted and consolidated. New entrants like Netflix could use non-union labour, and even when they did, productions for streaming services paid lower wages because they’ve fallen under a ‘New Media’ category since IATSE’s 2009 contract. Since streaming had not yet established itself as a major force in the industry, it was given an exception with the understanding it would be fixed if the model took off – but that step never happened. For example, in July 2021, Apple was still taking advantage of a lower rate category available to streaming productions with fewer than 20 million subscribers despite being one of the most valuable publicly traded companies in the world.

Similarly, residuals are not just for major directors and movie stars; they help fund the health benefits and pensions of IATSE workers. Yet the lack of residuals and lower rates paid by streaming productions has left a deficit in the workers’ health and pension fund. The new tentative contract would cover the $370-million funding gap, but does not appear to ensure streaming productions pay enough into the fund to stop it from dipping again in the future. AMPTP’s solution seems to be doubling the number of hours needed for pension credits, and while they withdrew that proposal this time, you can almost be certain it will come back in the future.

The Fight for Film Workers’ Rights

The tech companies playing a growing role in entertainment by controlling of distribution through their platforms and having vast sums of money to spend on programming are also incredibly hostile to organised labour. Just in the past few months we saw Amazon defeat a union drive at an Alabama warehouse, Apple retaliate against a leader of the #AppleToo movement as part of a broader crackdown, and Netflix fire the organiser of a walkout over the company’s response to concern about the transphobic jokes in a recent comedy special.

The global nature of companies like Netflix and Amazon makes them more resilient to labour action because they have projects in many different countries, so the pipeline of content can continue flow even if some of them get disrupted. No one should be surprised to see them bring that same pressure to their film and television productions, but a more consolidated industry also gives more power the traditional media conglomerates. In recent years, Disney has used its box office dominance to squeeze more favourable terms out of theatres, and there’s concern that the growing reliance on visual effects on major productions is sidelining unionised set and costume designers, for example, in favour of non-union VFX workers.

IATSE was formed all the way back in 1890 to represent theatre workers and ensure they have fair pay and benefits. According to pseudonymous critic Film Crit Hulk, Hollywood unions have been essential to winning ‘the most basic protections and assurances in an industry absolutely defined by its temporary gig-ness’. But as companies like Uber have worked to roll back workers’ rights, you can be sure streaming platforms would like to do the same in film and television. Even if IATSE workers don’t go strike this year, the fight for the rights of workers in film and television isn’t over yet.