Coronavirus is hurting film crew members

As businesses continue to close because of the coronavirus, the economic impacts of COVID-19 are being felt by just about everyone. But in Hollywood, some are feeling it more than others – especially the below-the-line crew members who serve as the industry’s lifeblood. The coronavirus is hurting film crew members as well as big studios, and the worst part is that there’s no end in sight. As one TV executive told Variety, “there’s no road map for this.”

Impact on Crews

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I worked as a production assistant and “background artist” on several productions, so I feel the pain of the thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of people who are currently in that position, finding themselves without work as their productions shut down. Most of the film and TV industry’s workers are essentially glorified day players who are often classified as as part-time employees who regularly put in above average work weeks but don’t receive benefits or paid sick leave. They’re nomads, and the lucky ones jump from one project to the next in order to meet union requirements for insurance. It’s a tenuous job even in the best of times, and the effects of the coronavirus have already been devastating.

While the recent boom in scripted content seems great in theory (more jobs!), it has occasionally meant that, even before the coronavirus outbreak, those jobs were lowering their wages for workers, making life more difficult for many of these employees – a lot of whom are already living paycheck to paycheck. Now, tons of workers are left in a state of uncertainty: not only are productions shutting down and possibly not resuming at all, but these workers don’t know whether the federal government or the individual studios or production companies they work for will come through for them in this dire time of need.

But while no official plans have been put in place yet, it seems discussions are happening right now about how to move forward. Variety says that the growing consensus appears to be “that crew members who are not under long-term contract to a given production will receive at least two-to-three weeks of “straight time” paychecks, or a 40-hour week.” According to Variety:

Multiple sources said Disney’s sprawling TV group was looking at three weeks of pay as a starting point. Warner Bros. is believed to have committed to two weeks of full pay for full-time employees who have been furloughed amid the shutdowns, including tour guides and food service workers. It’s not clear if that policy will extend to production crew staffers. Netflix is said to have committed to a minimum of two weeks of pay for crews in the U.S. and Canada on the shows that the internet behemoth produces in-house, such as “Stranger Things.””

But while that may be a good starting point for some, those payments won’t come close to being equivalent to what many of those workers would normally make, because crew members often work 60 to 100-hour work weeks at the peak of the year. And what happens after those checks for two or three weeks of 40-hour pay are issued? The future isn’t exactly rosy.

Impact on Studios

For those who are feeling extra hardships right now, I suppose there may be some solace in the fact that major studios aren’t escaping this scenario unscathed. One analyst estimated that “every day that Disney’s domestic parks are closed costs the company $20 million to $30 million” – a massive chunk of the company’s annual earnings. Theme parks, experiences (such as cruises) and consumer products (merchandising) made up nearly half — 45% — of the company’s operating income last year.

And while the prevailing wisdom seems to be that the studios who have launched (or will soon be launching) streaming services are well-positioned for success as everyone hunkers down at home, the economy may have something to say about that. WarnerMedia is about to launch HBO Max in May, but that streaming service’s industry-high subscription price of $14.99 per month probably isn’t looking so hot in the face of a potential recession. Consumers are going to have to start making some serious decisions about what they consider “must-have” entertainment, and our current situation means they could be more choosy than they would have been otherwise. Factor in all the money the company has spent to acquire streaming rights to content like Friends and The Big Bang Theory, as well as the cash spent developing its own original programming, and it’s possible that HBO Max could be a disaster in the making.

And that’s not even mentioning the notion that Lionsgate, MGM, and STX may not be able to withstand the long-term disruptions we’re facing, or how even more mergers or acquisitions could consolidate the industry even more and further change the landscape as we know it.

Being alarmist isn’t going to help anything right now, but I think it’s important that people know just how seriously COVID-19 is affecting the world of entertainment, and the personal impact it’s having on all of the people whose names scroll past while you wait to see a new post-credits scene. The entertainment industry as we know it is shifting under our feet, and it could all look very, very different in just a few months.

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