Unionized crew members are not on strike. In 2021, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) negotiated for about five months with the AMPTP before reaching an agreement, avoiding the first national strike in the union’s 128-year history. (The next round of contract talks will likely occur in the spring or summer of next year, as the union’s basic agreement expires July 31.) But until the actors and studios can reach a fair deal, all that the crews can do is wait.
Every crew member interviewed for this story reiterated to me more than once that they support the strikes and were in complete solidarity with the actors and writers. But as Marissa Shoemaker, a nonbinary camera assistant from Oklahoma City, describes it, the situation has been “chaos.” “It’s just torturous,” they say. “I haven’t worked most of this year, minus two months, and it’s been really, really hard. Your life starts to feel empty because you’re not providing for yourself anymore.”
“People are losing their houses,” says Mitchell Jarrett, a New Orleans–based location scout and manager. “I don’t think we have a way to help out, and it’s frustrating.”
Clara DeWeese is a photographer as well as a set dresser for Paramount’s neo-Western drama Yellowstone. She lives in Butte, Montana, and speaks for herself and other crew members around the country when she says, “We’ve just been holding on, kind of being strung along, since May. We’re hurting really bad. Even before the strikes, the volatility of the industry does not consider the labor at all.” Her unemployment benefits ran out in April.
“Nobody was prepared for this,” Shoemaker says. “We don’t make enough money as it is to have huge savings just lying around, especially people who live in more expensive cities.” Shoemaker tells me they’ve never been in a financial situation this terrible. “I don’t know why the hell I worked my ass off for a decade to be just as broke as I was when I was in college. All my momentum that I worked hard for is gone. Same with everybody else, and it’s disheartening.” Shoemaker, Jarrett, and DeWeese are all members of IATSE. None of them have dependents, so crew members with children or other family to take care of are probably even worse off.
Jarrett, 42, is also a member of the Teamsters union. Originally from Georgia, he’s been in the business for around eight years. More than a decade ago, he and his brother made an independent film called The Taiwan Oyster (2012), which premiered at South by Southwest. After years of dipping in and out of the industry, he finally committed to it full-time in 2015, leaving behind the restaurant business, where he was a manager and, at one point, a restaurant owner. This year, “work definitely slowed down. There has been next to nothing here [in New Orleans] all year long. Nothing.” Jarrett was lucky enough to work on a show in Texas for a month, but left that job early to return for the final season of another show he’s part of. But then the writers’ strike started. “I don’t think there’s any chance we’ll try to shoot anything before the end of the year,” he says. Jarrett recognizes that he’s fortunate: He worked a lot last year (it was “brutal”), and had planned to take some time off this year to relish Mardi Gras, which he hadn’t been able to for some time. “But I wasn’t planning on anything like this,” he says. He’s working on a commercial right now, which he’s thankful for, but commercials are “just not that much work, and it’s not enough to go around for everybody.”
Shortly after the writers’ strike started, DeWeese, 30, got a job for a couple of weeks on a movie that was permitted to shoot because its script had already been finalized. It’s the only film or TV industry job she’s had this year, and it helped her maintain some of her union benefits. “But I didn’t get paid for that job for two months because they ran out of money the last two weeks of production,” DeWeese says. She’s still upset about it. “Two months—after I haven’t worked all year! They still haven’t paid some people I know. It’s inexcusable.” Amid the strikes, DeWeese has decided to apply to graduate school; she wants to get a university professorship and teach photography. Although she’s very much enjoyed working as a set dresser (“I never had a job I liked before this. It’s the coolest job ever”), “filmmaking isn’t my ultimate passion” she acknowledges. And that’s to say nothing of its strains: “Relationships are hard to maintain, whether it’s romantic or familial. It’s a really volatile industry.”
Before the shutdowns, Shoemaker, 29, was working on a nonunion television show. The job was supposed to be two months long, but halfway through, the writers’ strike started. When, weeks later, the show got a waiver and resumed shooting, Shoemaker was not rehired. “When the show was shut down, they lost so much money that they couldn’t even bring me back,” she says. Since then, Shoemaker has done a few nonunion jobs that lasted a couple of days at a time, “but it’s just not enough to make ends meet.” They’re receiving unemployment benefits, but, they say, “just keeping your head above water and trying to maintain a good level of mental health is hard.”
After all, it wasn’t so long ago that many of these same crews had to stop work due to the pandemic. “We haven’t even really filled the coffers back from that,” Jarrett says. And besides, the entire world was going through some version of the same thing with COVID; this time around, the cease in work is specific to the film industry. It feels lonelier, and it’s definitely been going on for longer. In 2020, film and TV productions halted in mid-March and started picking back up again (albeit with new health protocols in place) in June.
DeWeese says she started hearing murmurs about potential strikes back in March, but according to Jarrett, studios were slow-walking projects “in anticipation” of the strikes as early as January. That, combined with an annual industry slowdown that begins around Thanksgiving and continues through December and into the new year, means Jarrett knows people in New Orleans who “literally have not worked a film job since November of last year.”
So even if SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP reach a tentative deal today, no big jobs are likely to start up in November or December, as Jarrett tells it. “They might prep,” he says, “but they’re not gonna start until January, February at the extreme earliest.” And if the actors’ strike is settled in January? Jarrett predicts people who work exclusively on set—camera operators, for instance—won’t get back to work until February, March, or even April. “I don’t really see the end in sight.”
To the people thinking that, in the meanwhile, crew members should just find different jobs, many are trying—but it’s not that simple. “Working on a crew, you have a very specific skill set that doesn’t really apply to 90% of the rest of the business world,” Jarrett says. What they do is also hard to communicate on paper. “Our résumés don’t even look the same. Here, you work a job for three months and that’s success,” he continues. For crew members who have worked in the business all their lives, or invested in film school, it can be hard to get their foot in the door elsewhere.
So what are the alternatives? “You go to Uber, Lyft, or go back into the restaurant industry,” Jarrett says. “There are very limited options and a lot of people are having to switch careers and find whatever they can do because they’ve got families.” (Last month, Rolling Stone published a story about crew members opting to work in retail.)
DeWeese tells me that she knows of crew members getting other jobs, and that she probably should too, but the minimum wage in the town she lives in is so low she’d rather cut into her savings and be frugal. There’s also the fact that “the second my job comes back, I’m going to my job—and most [employers] want people to stick around.” So while she waits, DeWeese has been dog-sitting, picking up the odd photo jobs, and working on a photography book to try to pay the bills. “But it’s getting dire. It’s just really stressful, more than anything, not having structure after nearly a year,” she says.