Last week, the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), which is negotiating a new contract with the confederation of film and TV producers, authorized a sector strike.
The union represents the film industry’s manual labor force: 60,000 prop makers, electricians, assistants, set designers, costume designers, editors, operators—all the workers in the “below the line” crews, who appear in the credits of films and TV series below the directors, screenwriters and cast.
The last major unrest in Hollywood was the writers’ strike in 2007-8, which resulted in the shortening of the television season and the emptying of studio film rosters. However, a crew strike has not occurred since the hot years of social unrest in the early days of the industry, between 1920-40. A strike by on-set personnel—which is publicly supported by many actors and directors—could bring the heart of global film and television production to a halt.
At the heart of the dispute are the increasingly extreme working conditions imposed by productions to cope with the demand that has been supercharged, especially by the proliferation of platforms and subscription services with their disproportionate appetite for content.
Filmmaking has always been a highly competitive industry with a high rate of precariousness, exploiting a largely freelance workforce that requires a minimum number of annual working hours to benefit from union protections and medical insurance. Over the years, unions have obtained some safety guarantees and limits on notoriously inhumane shifts, but it is common practice for studios to “run over” the limits, and set aside money for fines in the film budgets.
In this highly hierarchical industry, this neo-Fordism has exacerbated the already very unequal labor relations that prevail behind the glamorous scenes of entertainment, a situation that has now reached the limits of tolerability—especially with the push to catch up post-lockdown.
On the social media channels set up by the union, we find a rising tide of testimonies and complaints about the increasingly harsh conditions required by productions: shifts of up to 18 consecutive hours, skipped lunch breaks and worked weekends, with the related repercussions on families, personal relationships, health and an increase in workplace injuries due to exhaustion. In the union vote, 90% of members voted in favor of authorizing a strike.
Negotiations are taking place between the union and the trade association of the majors (the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), but the real counterparts in the dispute are mainly Netflix, Amazon and the other tech giants, who are increasingly the leaders of the industry and who have imported from Silicon Valley a notorious production approach based on precariousness, relocation and a marked dislike for unions.
The new models imposed on Hollywood by the platforms are upsetting established balances: contracts have to be rewritten with new clauses and the division of revenues needs to be revised to reflect profoundly changed distribution channels.
A few days ago, Disney settled a lawsuit brought by Scarlett Johansson, who was claiming that she was denied millions in royalties calculated on the projected percentage of box office revenues after the studio decided to distribute Black Widow only on the platform.
But while at the top actors and writers enjoy considerable bargaining power, the rest of the workforce is considered interchangeable. “They think they can just take the whole thing to Korea or some other country – they can replace us in no time at all,” the editor of a very successful series on HBO Max told me a few days ago.
The shock brought by the pandemic to established models of work (and exploitation), with changes such as remote work, is accelerating the arrival of glimpses into a future yet unknown.
The struggle by the workers who produce the global imaginary is thus a crucial conflict of the techno-pandemic era, perhaps the first tidings of a wider clash around post-work between the digital oligopoly and the remaining forces that seek to counter the expansion of the gig-economy model to every sphere of production and life.