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.
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.”
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