As actors and writers strike continues, NYC freelancers brace for months without pay

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By Dan Sears

Thousands of film and TV crew members — nearly all freelancers — are out of work as writers and actors continue to strike, shutting down major media productions. For the crew members, that means little to no pay in an industry already known for unpredictable work prospects.

Joe Collins, a freelance cinematographer whose past work includes the shows “City on a Hill” and “Royal Pains,” said that since the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strike began in May, his income is “basically nonexistent,” aside from occasional residual checks from past productions. Within the industry, crew members have rallied around residual checks as a way of showing how negligible income from previous work can be.

Though Collins said he can lean on his spouse for financial support, the strike is challenging production crew members who lack enough work hours to pay for essentials or qualify for health insurance. He’s also at risk of losing his health care coverage.

“I’m very aware of the financial pain this is causing all union members across the board, especially my own crew,” Collins said.

Collins is among the thousands of workers in New York City’s film and television industry who were hired as so-called below-the-line crew — such as art directors, camera operators, hair and makeup artists — and make television and film possible in the five boroughs.

Prior to the pandemic, the television and film industry accounted for roughly 185,000 jobs and $18 billion in wages, according to a 2021 report commissioned by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

According to Johanna McCabe, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, the city issued 260 permits for media projects and recorded 125 projects last month — a nosedive from 757 permits and 173 projects over the same period last year. The office’s count includes films and television shows, but also includes other products like commercials and still photography.

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For Henry Dunn, a freelance art director who lives in Brooklyn and previously worked on shows like “The Sopranos,” the ongoing strike means indefinitely relying on unemployment pay and savings. But Dunn explained that as a freelancer, he always put money aside “for a rainy day.”

“Nobody’s guaranteed a next job,” he said, describing the volatility of the industry. “In fact, you’re not guaranteed next week’s work.”

But since production companies halted ongoing projects due to the labor strike, Dunn said many of his colleagues are struggling financially.

And Tod Maitland, a sound engineer who lives on the Upper West Side, said the $5,500 monthly rent for the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his family is a burden on his finances now that he’s out of work. He said the financial strain is making it harder for him to live in the city, and noted that he’s considering leaving the five boroughs.

“Anything can change at any time, but I didn’t see this coming,” he said.

The strikes began in May after negotiations fell through with movie studios and streaming companies represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Strikers cite fair wages, safeguards from automation and higher residuals from recorded show as key issues in negotiations.

Brooklyn-based photography director Laela Kilbourn said that productions had already been slowing down since mid-January, when whispers about a potential strike began spreading throughout the industry.

“Work that I thought might’ve happened this spring has gone away,” she said. “And the phone has basically stopped ringing.”

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Some industry insiders suggest that bringing economic hardship is part of studios’ strategies to quell writers’ and actors’ demands. The same economic turmoil is hitting the below-the-line crew members who make up the vast majority of the film industry.

Earlier this month, the Hollywood news site Deadline reported that a studio executive said “the endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” A spokesperson for the AMPTP said the anonymous executive was not speaking on behalf of the association or its member companies.

But in spite of the economic hardship they’re facing, production workers who spoke with Gothamist stood behind their striking actor and writer colleagues and noted that the strike ultimately helps everyone employed by studios.

Collins said he supports the unions’ demands because they are a backbone of the industry.

“I hope both SAG and the WGA are able to achieve the concessions that are vital to their existence and that provide a fair system [and] scale of financial reward for their members,” he said. “And I hope it happens ASAP. We are nothing without them.”

Maitland said he sympathized with the picketers’ requests, especially higher residual pay.

Kilbourn, who also hasn’t worked since the strikes began, said the escalation is necessary given all of the changes to the industry.

She said that in the 2000s, contracts between new streaming platforms and actors were generous to the platforms, which were “start-up, fledgling industries that nobody understood” at the time.

But now, as multibillion-dollar streaming platforms dominate the TV and film industry, crew members aren’t getting a fair share of the pie, Kilbourn said.

Plus, protections against AI and automation help cinematographers and other below-the-line crew just like they help writers and actors. For example, AI technology could be trained to operate cameras and edit videos.

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For some, the strike highlights questions about the sustainability of the industry as a whole.

Dunn hopes that studios will move toward “long-term investment into film and television” instead of “the quick buck, the fast profit and the huge payouts” to investors and media CEOs.

“People love to come home and watch what we do and what we create,” Dunn said. “I think that there is a market that will never go away. And I think that it’s a big enough pie that everybody should get their equitable share of it. I would just like the approach of the producers to take into account our end of it.

New York Public Radio has a collective bargaining agreement with SAG-AFTRA. However, our staff belongs to a different branch from the actors and writers and is not involved in either strike.

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