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Writers Strike: How Below-the-Line Crew Would Be The Biggest Losers

At the negotiation table between writers and the studios, there's an unrepresented group that also has skin in the game: below-the-line crew.

Writers Guild of America Members Carry Picket Signs in Front of Warner Bros Studios in Burbank California Usa On 14 January 2008 While the Strike is Prolonged Due to Lack of Negotiations Warner Bros Has Announced It May Lay Off As Many As 1 000 Employees As a Result of the Work StoppageUsa Cinema Writers Guild Strike - Jan 2008

The 2007-08 WGA strike.

Mccarten/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

It’s easy to empathize with the Writer’s Guild of America, whose members may soon stop working on film and TV scripts if there’s no new agreement with studios by May 1. They’re fighting for larger contributions to the WGA’s health insurance plan, which has been running at a deficit for years, while studios want higher premiums, benefit cuts, and an increased annual earnings minimum for writers to qualify for coverage. However, there’s one group with nothing to gain, and everything to lose, if a lengthy strike hits Hollywood: below-the-line crew.

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The ripple effect of a writers’ strike could put thousands of cinematographers, costume designers, production designers, prop masters — and the people employed in their departments — out of work. While studios have enough big-budget productions in the queue to last the summer, for many TV shows and movies the music stops immediately. One unit production manager who spoke to IndieWire estimated that roughly 150 people could be impacted on a single show. On a low-budget indie production, there’s usually one or two writers — and about 80 crew members.

With 12,000 WGA members, working writers are a rarefied breed compared to the number of working crew members. The number of film and TV crew members is difficult to estimate across multiple crafts and regional unions, but when the Governor’s Office of Motion Picture & Television Development recently announced its extension of the New York State tax credit, stats revealed that since 2011 more than 1,000 film and television projects submitted applications to the program, generating nearly 1 million hires in the state.

And while writers may get sizable paychecks that carry them until the next gig, below-the-line crew are a more workaday bunch who rely on weekly freelance wages. The same goes for drivers, equipment rental houses, and catering companies that lose out when film and TV production grinds to a halt. (The previous writer’s strike is estimated to have cost the Los Angeles economy $2.5 billion.)

The WGA began voting to authorize a strike on Tuesday, and all signs point to that authorization going through. “I’ve got a whole plan for this strike,” Stephanie Allain, a producer on Netflix’s “Dear White People,” premiering April 28, told Vanity Fair. “I have all these scripts stacked up, ready to go. The winners are going to be the people whose scripts are ready.”

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While writers have good reason to fight for their rights, and it’s encouraging to see robust collective bargaining activity during the Trump administration, it’s important to keep in mind that at the negotiation table between writers and studios, there’s an unrepresented group with skin in the game.

Additional reporting by Chris O’Falt

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Comments

ADP

As a cinematographer, I realize this is true, but I have to stand with someone who feels that they are being mistreated. We’re all in this together, and if they collectively feel it’s worth stopping work over, then I am behind them.

Cutter

As an editor working in TV, a strike right now would really hurt me and my family a lot. But if we don’t stand up for what we believe is right, especially when studios and networks and their CEO’s are raking in record profits, we all lose. I support the WGA.

Alycia

I stand with the writers. Though I feel for the crew Bering on both sides I dont want production to go down just when it’s getting a high again however as some one said we are all in this,together and as a writer and performer I understand not letting mangement win. If they strike I stand with the writers. As a sag/Aftra member I stand with the writers guild of America!

Josh

This just shows how cruel the AMPTP’s position is. The studios made $51B in profit. The WGA is asking to share in a measly 1/3 of 1% of that, roughly $150M per year. As you mentioned, the last strike cost $2.5 Billion. So the AMPTP is willing to put all those people out of work and lose billions just to send a message to the actual creators of their content to “know their place.” That’s a ruthless lot of producers if you ask me. I support the writers here. Studios don’t care about anyone — below the line or otherwise — if they’re not shareholders.

Rachel

When the teamsters, IATSE, art directors, cinematographers, directors,editors, animators, sound editors, etc, etc, want to strike I hope they aren’t vilified by this. Also without the writers none of this possible. It always starts with the script. Follow the money!

Rachel

Vilified LIKE this…

Emily

I echo what Josh said and just want to add that none of this is mentioned in the article. The article is framed like the Writers are the ones with the power and that is not the case at all. Strike is a last resort when studios are being totally unreasonable. Shame on the authors here to frame this as if writers are going to harm everyone. It’s union busting. Call this what it is Imdiewire- Greedy Corporate Money Grab- that is destroying our middle class industry workers.

Jess

Seems like a piece planted by the AMPTP. It’s not just money the WGA is fighting for – it’s basic protections in the new 10 episode model. Writers are stuck under exclusivity and can be forced to be jobless for 6+ months even if the show doesn’t come back. Also, whem they decide to do a longer schedule per episode, this below-the-line crew gets paid the extra weeks. The writers aren’t.

That’s what writers are fighting for: to not let the massive companies take advantage of them. And that’s something that’s important to below-the-line crew too. Because it’ll happen to everyone.

Groucho Marx

What does the Trump
Administration have to do with the strike. I’m not a fan, but I’m getting tired of this type of journalism. Stick to the topic

Elizabeth

The tone of this article implies the writers are to be held responsible for below the liners losing work. I, as a union prop master, stand by the WGA and their right to fight. The producers guild would pay us ALL peanuts if they could get away with it.

Indie wire sucks

IndieWire is so consistently anti-union and has always been. Despite claiming to champion independent artists they seem to know nothing about the ways that workers in this industry have been able to lead decent, middle class lives. The person who wrote this clearly didn’t read any of the Guilds materials relating to the strike. If they had they would know that the lack of big pay checks to carry people between jobs is the real problem. I know it probably seems all cool and antiestablishment to see the unions and the studio as equivalent big old Hollywood institutions but that is far from the case. Typical unthinking liberal hipster bullshit. Your doing the studio’s work for them now – nice job, scab.

Charlie Nanutti

Bullshit. The writers are the only wants to strike each and every time. Their greed is costing families their homes and there’s security. Greedy greedy greedy writers.

    Bestboy

    Are you a producer? As a group, the producers made $51 billion in profits last year. That’s profits, not gross. And their response when asked for an increase in contributions to keep up with rising health care costs was that they should cut benefits instead. How can you possibly call the writers greedy in that situation?

Ras the Exhorter

Wow! Is the GOP secretly funding IndieWire or is the author from a Confederate state?

First off, below-the-line crew are covered by IATSE, a union, and they get deserved protection, so to disingenuously claim they’re helpless and going to be victimized by the WGA is criminal.

Second, the article quotes a UPM, a BTL crew position covered by the DGA, and the DGA fails to bargain with the WGA thus ceding a disproportionate amount of power to the AMPTP.

Third, Les Moonves, CEO of Viacom, makes $60m A YEAR and he and his ilk had the gall to ask for rollbacks in the pension & health.

Four, BTL gets paid the same amount for their work regardless if the show is on cable, network or streaming. Writers do not; fractional money on cable and streaming. And because of the shorter seasons, writers have taken a PAY CUT of 23% the last two years.

All the “labor” must stand together.

    V

    I agree with you on most of these points, however you are wrong about BTL crew making the same pay regardless of the medium. That is not even remotely true. Ask your payroll accountant to see her EP Paymaster book and you’ll see.

    Richard Arthur

    First, there’s no mention of Post-production, and the dozens of facilities that deliver picture and sound services that are mostly not covered by IATSE. Writers, directors, actors, producers get the attention. Most people I know have no idea of the number of people that work below the line. Unable to work through two huge writer’s strikes, all I see is greed, hatred and ignorance. There’s failure on both sides.

    David

    This is untrue. The DGA has always invited the WGA to align with us. We research and negotiate over 1/2 year in advance. This is once again the WGA not being prepared to align with us and negotiating at the last minute. Get your facts straight.

    David

    You are ignorant of the landscape and the actual situation. Might I ask, are you WGA? Have you had a script produced recently? Or are you just bitter. The DGA has offered to encompass WGA and SAG (prior to the last Writer’s strike). When has the DGA gone on strike?????? Only once for less a day… because we research and sit down to negotiate almost 1 year in advance of contract expiration. It’s the WGA and SAG that head out on their own, last minute and then blame

    X Spot

    What do you mean by this, can you or someone explain to a lay person? :
    “First off, below-the-line crew are covered by IATSE, a union, and they get deserved protection”

David

Unite!! But The WGA chose to not unite. Now they are threatening a strike… really?

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