Lights! Camera! ID?

I have a particular affinity for anyone who works in movie or TV production, and not just the folks in front of the cameras.  Some of the hardest-working people in any industry I’ve come across are those who labor intensively upon demand, work dawn till way past dusk under intense pressure almost every minute, and yet, at least to moi, are often far friendlier and more accessible that the executives that by definition I was always associated with.  Maybe it’s my anything-but-entitled upbringing, or maybe it’s my own passion for creatives of any sort.  But many of my happiest days have been spent on lots and locations just schmoozing with crew.

Which is why I share with one of my more ardent readers the concern that was recently brought to my attention by this recent disturbing narrative authored by the LOS ANGELES TIMES’ Kaitlyn Huamani:

After more than two decades in the industry, Keith Dunkerley still loves nothing more than working on a set. The 47-year-old director of photography and camera operator, who’s had consistent work since he moved to Los Angeles 23 years ago, said his is “the best job in the world.”

Since the writers’ and actors’ strikes last year and the slow restart of production, though, Dunkerley said his work opportunities look quite different than in past years: He has worked only 18 days during the first five months of 2024.

“People outside the business don’t understand this is not a factory,” Dunkerley said. “It’s not like, ‘OK, the strike’s over, go back to the factory, turn the lights on and get the machines going.’ A lot of us knew it’s going to take some time to ramp things up.”

While Dunkerley supported his family through savings and odd jobs as a handyman on TaskRabbit during the strikes, the sluggish rebound has been difficult for him. He’s recently made more than 60 calls to friends and industry contacts to look for prospects.

What Dunkerley is experiencing is a part of the massive ripple effect of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes that is still affecting tens of thousands of people working in entertainment and adjacent industries. Crew members, especially, have been hit hard.

Huamani then recounted many similar stories.  For as much coverage of the struggles to make ends meet that the rank and file of the creative unions whose own existential crisis received last summer, there was only brief mention of the equally crucial folks on crews that were also impacted, sometimes even more dramatically.  Those workers, largely represented by IATSE, faced their own come-to-Jesus moment at the end of last month and were able to make progress on discussions for their own agreement, which expires July 31st but appears not to be in any serious danger of resulting in another shutdown.  But the lingering damage from last year, not to mention the disruptions of COVID and the failings of so many would-be platforms, have taken their toll.

Huamani’s colleague Christi Carras attempted to put a positive spin on this in a followup story:

Los Angeles’ portion of the domestic film and TV economy shrank last year amid devastating industry struggles, but it remains by far the most powerful entertainment player in the United States.

According to the latest Otis College Report on the Creative Economy, released Thursday, the City of Angels posted a 27% share of domestic film and TV employment in 2023 — down 8% from 2022 but still way ahead of its fiercest competitor, New York, which made up 12% of the entertainment workforce.

Except LA doesn’t have someone like Doug Steiner in any of their neighborhoods.  A profile that dropped on THE CITY by Greg David points out the upside that NYC is offering:

The cavernous Brooklyn Navy Yard building, once a machine foundry, is the length of a football field and has 58-foot-high ceilings. Today, it is filled with scaffolding, as real estate developer Doug Steiner spends $95 million to add two more sound stages to the Steiner Studios complex there.

He had planned on beginning the renovation a couple of years ago, but the success of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel delayed the project since it was using the unrenovated space and he didn’t want to force such an important client to relocate the intricate sets its crew had built.

Ticket sales for theatrical releases during Memorial Day weekend, a bellwether for the start of the crucial summer season, were the worst in 30 years, the pandemic’s 2020 aside. In The Bronx, the Concourse Plaza Multiplex Theater shut for good last week, the most recent of several recent multiplex closings in the city, leaving only one cinema for the entire borough.

Still Steiner is forging ahead. 

“They will be stages 31 and 32,” he said matter of factly.

There are also other more daunting reports out there whose results Huanami shared:

FilmLA, a nonprofit that tracks on-location permitting in the city, released a report in April that revealed a slow bounceback in production after the dual strikes.

Paul Audley, the president of FilmLA, said these findings are startling when considering that film and television production saw a “retraction” at the start of 2023 in anticipation of the looming writers’ strike.

“What we’re facing is a combination of effects of the studios, as well as the streamers, cutting back not only the number of series they produced but in some cases the number of episodes they’re producing for shows,” Audley said.

And she also shared the story of one Heather Fink which squarely lays a lot of the blame on not just the platforms and the degree of competency their decision-makers have shown:

Fink said working in sound for 14 years was “honestly one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my life,” and that she feels uneasy about the future. One of her primary concerns is the increasing number of productions moving away from L.A. and California to states or countries that offer better tax incentives for production — a phenomenon dubbed runaway production.

“I’m so afraid that there isn’t going to be a job to even be concerned [about] what the conditions are,” Fink said.

California offers $330 million annually in film tax credits, but other states looking to build up their status as production hubs, like New York and Georgia, provide more attractive incentives and programs with higher or unlimited funding. New York’s cap is $700 million and Georgia currently does not have a limit.

It’s not just limited to the U.S. and scripted content.  FOX has elected to move production of the overwhelmingly majority of its game and competition series to venues outside the country.  Several folks I personally know who were milling around the Quiz Show Expo last weekend were racing home to pack for 15 days in Ireland to produce two more seasons of THE FLOOR.  Ireland also happens to be where current network honcho Rob Wade eminated from.  I guess the idea of having Rupert pay for a trip home didn’t end when I left the company?

Its station group productions have now relocated to Georgia, where they are leasing studio space from the Atlanta PBS affiliate to produce several hundred episodes of game shows.  Fremantle produces the syndicated strip version of FAMILY FEUD down there as well despite having just built a state-of-the-art facility in Glendale, California where its CBS productions LET’S MAKE A DEAL and THE PRICE IS RIGHT now eminate from.  That’s how dramatic the savings apparently are.

So I can empathize greatly with the degree of angst and nervousness I encountered from the workers on the Paramount lot I visited yesterday.  The grateful crew that was happy to be in the midst of a busy production cycle for the first time in years.  Many were even going to work between tapings of FRASIER (season two is even better than season one, BTW) on long-postponed pilots.   They were already in what they offered was an atypically upbeat mood when I informed them that the decision on the studio’s fate that was supposed to come down yesterday in the wake of the Paramount annual shareholders’ meeting was tabled and the employee town hall that had been scheduled for today postponed until June 25th.  They were so grateful to learn this they invited ME to share their crafts services lunch.

I haven’t had one of those in quite a while.  And I’ll tell you, it was every bit as filling and reasonably healthy for both my gut and my wallet as ever.  And for these folks, even more so.

So, Gavin Newsom, you really want my vote?  Let alone those of the thousands of YOUR constituents that live day-to-day and hand-to-mouth in perpetual anxiety?

Find your own Doug Steiner, or at least offer him a reason to look beyond Brooklyn.  Then call your donors who run the studios and platforms and give them a legitimate reason to stick around.

I bet if you did that, you’d get invited to even more crafts services lunches than me.  And trust me, the ahi I had was every bit as good as anything you imbibe in at, say, The French Laundry.

Until next time…

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