How Hollywood Is Bracing for Another Shutdown as IATSE Strike Threat Gets Real

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“It’s obviously not the best timing for the industry but, you know, that’s when strikes are most effective,” one director tells TheWrap

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Photo illustration by TheWrap (Getty Images

Will they or won’t they? Only the hairdressers know for sure — along with gaffers, electricians, prop makers, set decorators, generator operators and tens of thousands of other IATSE members who may go on strike this Monday, plunging Hollywood into yet another round of production shutdowns just as the town was starting to recover from nearly a year of crushing COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Oh, there’s going to be a strike, that’s what I’m hearing,” one veteran Hollywood director predicted Thursday. “It’s obviously not the best timing for the industry but, you know, that’s when strikes are most effective.”

If the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees does strike — and IATSE has set a deadline for a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for 12:01 a.m. PT of Oct. 18 — some 60,000 below-the-line crew members will be walking off sets not just in Hollywood but in New York and Chicago and wherever else in the country content is being created.

Or at least some of them will. Because, at this writing, there’s still quite a bit of confusion about exactly which of the union’s 150,000 members and precisely which productions will be impacted, since over the years IATSE has signed a web of side deals with various partners that could potentially save some sets from being shut down. Most live productions, for instance, like sports and news, won’t be caught up in the work stoppage, but what about “Saturday Night Live”? Or the late-night talk shows? Pay-TV productions have their own IATSE contract that’s not up until next year, but what about projects for affiliated streamers like HBO Max? There’s still so much up in the air that many IATSE members tell TheWrap they have no idea if they’ll be going to work on Monday, even if there is a strike.

“There’s going to be a lot of questions flying around this weekend over what people need to do on Monday,” one union member told TheWrap. “Everybody’s willing to strike but they just want to make sure they’re not in one of those productions that is exempt because of these little splits in the different contracts.”

One thing is certain, though: The prospect of a strike, even one with cutouts for certain productions, is filling an already battered Hollywood with an all-too-familiar sense of dread — and with good reason. 

“A strike now that lasts any significant length of time will compound the challenge on the theatrical side going forward,” notes Jay Tucker, who heads up the Center for Management Enterprise Media, Entertainment and Sports for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. “It would also interrupt production of TV series that were already delayed or shortened during the pandemic — at a time when audiences are clamoring to see the return of characters and storylines. It’s hard to overstate the breadth and impact of a strike.”

Still, the studios and networks don’t seem to be stockpiling content or even rushing projects to the finish line, the way they did before the last writers’ strike in 2007-08. Indeed, there doesn’t appear to be any disaster preparation going on at all, at least not anything visible to the public, with much of the town simply shrugging its shoulders and waiting to see what happens. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” one production insider told TheWrap, describing about the only precaution apparently anybody is taking.  

“IATSE holds all the power, and they know it. The vote for a strike was overwhelming, so the union has total support of its members,” Gene Del Vecchio, adjunct professor of marketing at USC’s Marshall School of Business, told TheWrap. “The union also knows that they may not have another situation like this for a long time with member needs to be met and studios in a weak position due to the lingering effects of COVID. The time to threaten a strike is now, or said another way, never let a crisis go to waste. So the union has the upper hand.”

One reason Hollywood might be so fatalistic about the future is that the town has already been so beaten down by the pandemic, there isn’t much energy left for a full-on freak out. Another possible reason is that a lot of folks, especially on the creative side, are very sympathetic to IATSE’s demands, which focus on higher wages (especially on streaming projects), longer lunch breaks and hard rules on the number of hours that a shoot can last during one 24-hour period.

The producers argue that buckling to IATSE would open a floodgate to other labor demands, especially as producers brace for contract talks in 2023 with SAG-AFTRA, the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild. And with box office still reeling from the pandemic, they argue Hollywood can’t afford to yield to IATSE’s demands.

But others in the film community don’t see it that way. “There’s definitely a need for some overhaul of things,” said actor Dan Stevens, who recently finished work on the upcoming Starz limited series “Gaslit” and said he had “fascinating” conversations with the project’s crew members as the strike vote loomed. “It’s really good that it’s on the front of everyone’s minds and is a hot topic of conversation.”

The director added, “You’re with these men and women every day on a set. They’re enabling you to make the movie you’re trying to make. You watch a guy drag a 14K Xenon [light] and the grips getting it on a stand and running these heavy cables — they do that all day every day. All I carry onto the set is a script in a binder, but I’m still limping home on Saturday morning, exhausted. But these guys are humping all this stuff all the time. They never get a break. They’re being worked to death, especially now, with the streamers and their hunger for new stuff. And all they’re asking for is a life. Because right now they don’t have one.”

Jeremy Fuster and Steve Pond contributed to this report.