The US strikes may be over, but for much UK crew, the work drought is continuing.
For the UK workers who were on high-budget US shoots that were in production when the SAG-AFTRA strike commenced in July – the likes of Disney’s Deadpool 3 and Warner Bros and Netflix series The Sandman – they have been able to get back to work pretty swiftly.
But for those who weren’t already on a big US production, few have booked much work.
“Before, crew thought their phone was broken,” says Spencer Macdonald, Bectu’s national secretary of London production and regional production division, of how the lines went dead duirng the strikes. “Now [the phones have] started ringing again, but I wouldn’t say it’s ringing off the hook. It’s similar to Covid – when production started going back, it didn’t immediately go berserk, it did take a few months to go back. It was like a bullet out of the gun after that.”
A Buckinghamshire job centre – close to Pinewood Studios – has been “inundated with everybody from every department,” reveals a crew member who has signed on. “The dole [unemployment] office is full of crew.”
When production dried up over the summer, some crew managed to find work on commercials, however these gigs were few and far between, as the advertising industry also faced a downturn. Many established below-the-line workers either signed on for state benefits, depended on spousal and family support, pillaged through savings or took on additional work outside of the industry, such as cleaning jobs, to make ends meet. Now work is starting to trickle through, but there is not enough.
“There have been very few interviews,” says one hair and make-up designer, who has two weeks of work on a TV series after Christmas. “Those I am going for, the competition is just so high. It’s been catastrophic, to say the least. It doesn’t feel like Covid – during Covid, nobody was working so there was that camaraderie. But because there are jobs, it feels like a personal thing. This has knocked me for six.”
“It’s probably been the worst time I’ve ever had,” says a prosthetics specialist, who has had some work doing pick-ups on a feature since the strikes ended, but nothing longer term.
There has been no government support offered to the UK’s out-of-work industry and no comment from the US studios or streamers on the issue of paying retainer fees to employeees on projects put on hiatus. Applications for the Film and TV Charity’s stop-gap grants for urgent financial need skyrocketed by 800% over the summer months. Even with additional funds allocated by the charity, and a further £250,000 raised from corporate partners, the charity has had to apply new eligibility criteria to its grants applications to ensure those with the most pressing need receive its support.
The Film and TV Charity has noted a reduction in applications to its stop-gap grants since the strikes ended. At its peak in September, the fund handed out over £250,000, which has now dipped to around £75,000 per month. However, this could also be owing to the stipulation that industry workers can only apply for a stop-gap grant once every 12 months, so many now still may be in need, but are no longer eligible.
“Over 2023 we’ve seen a 263% increase in grants applications, fuelled by an 800% increase across the summer months when US strikes, the production downturn, and the cost-of-living conspired with one another,” said a Film and TV Charity spokesperson. “Production remains depressed across all genres and applications are currently at double where they were this time last year. We are expecting further increases as the energy price cap goes up after Christmas.”
For productions that were able to start shooting during the strikes with cast under Equity contracts, the end of the SAG-AFTRA work stoppage has caused some complications. “We have had a few crew jumping off our job to go back to previous jobs they were working on, and we’re anticipating that we’ll lose more in the new year as well,” reveals a production manager working on a series. “It’s maybe because the role they had [before] was more senior, or they were offered more money. It’s hard chopping and changing.”
In terms of rates, little appears to have shifted so far as a direct consequence of the strikes. UK creative industries’ union Bectu reached out to its members to find out if they have any evidence that agreements have been undermined, or rates have been changed. Results of the survey showed several productions not always paying the Bectu recommended rates, but no evidence of productions cutting rates when they had already been agreed. Rates on some jobs had been reported as being static this year, or below what they received on equivalent level productions in the previous year.
“If it does get as busy as it did before [post-Covid], it’s going to be a seller’s market,” says MacDonald. “I presume people [crew] will be in the driving seat when it comes to negotiating their rates. We are looking at trying to agree rates with Pact. We said we’d try and do it with a few grades to start with, and if it’s successful we’ll roll it out [further], so you don’t have the situation where one side is being held hostage with the rates. It goes both ways.”
Most crew Screen interviewed for this piece are cautiously optimistic about 2024. Christmas is traditionally a quiet time for production, with jobs expecting to start flowing in in January as post-strike schedules start to shore up, and there are hopes to be flat out working from around April.
“It’s going to be a budget Christmas. But I know I’m going to be rushed off my feet next year,” says one prosthetics artist. “It’s not all doom and gloom.”
There’s a niggling sense, however, that it won’t quite be comparable to the post-pandemic production soar, as studios and streamers tighten their belts. The combined spend by film and high-end television production (HETV) during 2022 reached £6.3bn, the highest ever reported, with inward investment delivering £5.4bn (86%).
“The last couple of years, the volume of shows being made at the highest band level, with all the strikes and money they’ve lost – my feeling is maybe there won’t be as many bigger budget shows being made,” says a second assistant director, who was set to start work on a modestly-budgeted film over the summer that was thwarted by the strikes, with the production start date now pushed by over a year.
While work may return, for many, the damage has been done, and is irreversible. Everyone Screen spoke to knows of skilled workers who have left the industry in this difficult period.
“It really upsets me. We’ve lost a lot of really good people,” says a production manager. “If you’ve got a family, you can’t risk being out of work for eight months and not being able to put a roof over your family’s head. We’re losing new people who could be trained up, we’re losing experienced people that have had enough. People aren’t prepared to carry on like we have been. The demands now are much higher than they ever were.”
For many the pause in work during the strikes has been a time to reflect on how demanding, draining and unsustainable life in the industry is.
“If you’re not at least thinking of other options, you should,” says a location manager, who has been offered a long stint on a feature next year, “but until I’m at work, and things have been going for a few weeks, you can’t know it’s in any way guaranteed.”
“It’s not like when you’re working, you’ve got the best life ever,” they continue. “Everyone in the film industry is 50, has got two divorces and doesn’t see their kids, and there are no women over the age of 35.”
According to the location manager, care and consideration for the well-being of below-the-line workers is worsening.
“In the last 10 years, the way that productions change everything at the last minute has got worse. Crews showed that they could, in Covid particularly, make the machinery turn, even if an actor got Covid and everything would be thrown in the air, the whole script and the whole schedule. We could change a shoot location on a Marvel film, a crew of around 500-odd people, in a day or two.”
A reduction in working hours is the key change that could make a great difference. “The hours are coming down on shoot days, but they’re still far too long. A normal shoot day I would expect to work 14, 15 hours, and I do less than some in my department. And you have to then drive [to and from home] on top of that. A lot of people run the risk of driving themselves into a wall every night.”
A lack of consistency and continuity in employment is a major barrier to accessibility. One below-the-line worker Screen spoke to has autism and finds hopping around daily work to keep some money coming in difficult. “I need to have things set up in my head, I can’t just go in and do a job and jump in and do different things all the time.”
The past six months have taken a huge toll on the mental health of the workforce. “I don’t have the zing I used to have,” says a hair and make-up designer, who hasn’t worked since May. “I don’t know how to be like I was.”
Many are fed up with the dependence on inward investment and US projects for work, with the dearth of UK production taking place in the UK made acutely apparent by the strikes. But they are in no position to refuse a studio or streamer gig.
“[Since the strike started] I’ve done a short as a first assistant director,” says one third assistant director. “I’m going to try to do lower-budget stuff, but as a first AD. I’m not looking forward to going back to the big budget [projects] after all that has happened. Going back to something with a little budget, but with more sense of control [is the aim]. But I wouldn’t refuse a contract.”
“[I’m] just quite aware that part of the reason there has been so much American investment in the UK has been because of the weak pound,” says the location manager. “If that changes, then that might disappear, or if the tax breaks change, it might be less appealing to shoot here. You’re going to be left with a large industry competing for a small amount of jobs.
“It’s a bit precarious, because we rely on one inward investor. It’s not like we’ve got inward investment from multiple countries across the world.”
“There’s only been partial acknowledgement [from the US] of the ricochet effect it had on us,” says one prosthetics artist. “Our industry is in a much worse state than the US. We need to put our foot down, but people also need to get back to work.”