The film and TV industry is one of the biggest industries in America that is still heavily unionized. Explaining why would take a book instead of an essay, and probably spout a lot of arguments besides. But it boils down to this: There always have been and always will be more people wanting to work in the industry than there are jobs for them to do. And everyone who has made it remembers the time when they hadn't yet. Collective bargaining where the collective actually includes everyone you'd want to hire to make a movie keeps the high supply and low demand from causing ugly practices.
In theory, anyway.
AMPTP: The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers
These are the collective face of the major studios. If you watched it in a theater or first-run on a given TV channel, it was made by an AMPTP member. The given unions negotiate with them over working conditions, pay rates, and suchlike.
IATSE: International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees
Represents the vast majority of film, TV, and live event crew members.
(Writers, Directors, Performers, and, oddly enough, Producers, are all represented by unions of their own.)
WHAT'S GOING ON?
IATSE's contract with AMPTP expired at the end of July and the extension expired September 10. As of Today (Sept. 21), they still don't have an agreement. AMPTP returned the last round of IATSE's proposals, more or less clearly indicating that they're not entertaining said proposals.
The big sticking points are working conditions (especially hours) and pay rates under new media contracts.
WHY HAVEN'T I HEARD OF THIS BEFORE?
Go high enough up the corporate food chain and 95% of all the news you hear is owned by a member of AMPTP. Nuff said.
WHAT KIND OF WORK CONDITIONS?
Long hours on film sets have almost always been a norm. People hired and equipment rented by the day means that producers have always wanted to get as much done as possible each day. There are financial disincentives for producers to do this, everything from old-fashioned overtime to having to pay people to take lunch late (or when they can while working). Unfortunately, this has gone on long enough that it's become cheaper to pay the overtime and penalties than add shooting days to the schedule. This means that 12 hour days have gone from regular occurrences to unspoken norms, while even longer days are regular occurrences. And that doesn't count commutes or actually sleeping.
Film crews are incredibly skilled people who work with a lot of hazards. Everything from heavy equipment to huge amounts of electricity. Adding fatigue to that becomes a hazard to everyone involved.
AND NEW MEDIA PAY?
A lot of people think "tiktoker" or whatever the latest anyone-can-use video service is when you hear "new media."
In this case, it refers to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, which in recent years have shifted from being online distributors to production studios in their own right. Projects created from top to bottom at streaming services are winning Oscars and Emmys in their own right.
Being new to that side of the industry is no longer an acceptable excuse. Amazon has been producing its own films since 2015, Netflix for even longer. There's no good reason a streaming service should be paying crew less than a traditional studio as an inherent part of the standard contracts.
SO WHAT GIVES WITH THE PRODUCERS?
This is pure conjecture on my part. But if I had to guess?
The industry went back to work before large swaths of the country did (October 2020). It did so with a lot of stringent and expensive testing, distancing, and PPE requirements as part of the union-approved protocols.
I spoke to a producer (who I won't name) that told me their production costs had gone up 25% to be compliant with the new protocols. That ain't chump change no matter how you look at it.
At the same time, while theatergoing is returning in fits and starts, box office numbers are still far behind what they were in 2019. Movie production is high risk, high reward investment, and a part of me isn't surprised AMPTP is balking.
The big caveat on that is, while production ground to a half for just over half a year in the wake of Covid, streaming services, the very producers balking at paying rates more in line with their traditional competitors, made bank from millions stuck at home starved for entertainment in the last year.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
As of Monday 9/20, IATSE began asking their locals for a strike authorization. This doesn't necessarily mean there's going to be a strike, just discovering if a majority of members approve of one.
WHAT WOULD A STRIKE LOOK LIKE?
Your guess is as good as mine. IATSE hasn't gone on strike in over 70 years.
Yup. You might have vague memories of WGA strikes back in 2007 and in the late 80's, but IATSE has generally found their workplaces favorable, if not ideal. The fact that that's changed should tell you how bad things have really gotten.
SO WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT?
At this point? Watching and listening, for the most part. Sympathizing with my IATSE friends who are in the middle of this as best I can.
I will say that even though I haven't been a union performer for long, I've logged my share of long hour days. At the same time, being a performer means I'm probably one of the last people to show up to set and one of the first to be allowed to leave. As far as I'm personally concerned, IATSE's points of contention are more than valid and need to be addressed.
Take care of yourselves out there.