‘Worse than Covid’: Hollywood strikes leave UK staff ‘unable to pay rent’

At least 14 major film productions have come to a halt in the UK due to actor and writer strikes in Hollywood. Credit: AP

By Daniel Boal, ITV Multimedia Producer

Writers' and actors' strikes in Hollywood have already financially hit UK production crews harder than Covid, a union boss has claimed.

Thousands of UK production crew workers have been suspended without pay as the strikes put the brakes on at least 14 Hollywood movies being filmed in the UK.

Workers in the industry have been left to fend for themselves as streaming services and production houses stand off with writers and actors over pay and the use of AI.

US-led productions regularly come to the UK where it is cheaper to film and hire staff, but with filming on hold due to the industrial action, the jobs usually created here by the US movie industry currently don't exist.

Speaking to ITV News, Spencer MacDonald, national secretary of creative industries trade union Bectu, said the crisis facing production crews has largely been "invisible" due to media attention on A-list actors striking.

He said he has witnessed workers being suspended under clauses in “one-sided contracts” known as “force majeure” - otherwise known as an "act of God" - which means there are fewer legal requirements on employers.

He said: "Thousands of production crewmembers have been suspended from their jobs due to one-sided contracts.

"Workers are faced with the issue of staying on their contracts and not being paid until production resumes, or finding other work and potentially missing out on lucrative paydays.

"The difference this time for crews with production halting is there's no furlough like there was during Covid. There is a lot less financial aid available to people who are struggling."

'Jobs don't really exist at the moment'

Production staff speaking to ITV News have said the strikes have left them "unable to pay rent and bills" and have been seeking alternative employment outside of the industry.

One production worker, who wished to remain anonymous, had just finished production on a TV series before the strikes began and is now unable to find a job.

They said: "I have had to take on a temp job just to pay for my bills. Someone I know has had to take on overnight work at a biscuit factory just to survive.

British crewmembers are having to take up jobs outside of the industry to pay bills. Credit: Pexels

"Jobs don't really exist at the minute and the ones that do are being snapped up before you can even apply. There are people with years of experience who are coming down several levels just to get work and earn a paycheck.

"There is a significant difference in what I was earning and what I am now, it is just a case of managing to pay my bills at the minute, I'm not able to go out and pay for anything extra."

Another production worker, who had just finished on a production before the strikes began, said: "I wholly support the actors and writers strikes and the moderation of AI, but I also need to pay my rent. At the minute I have seen jobs come up and they have included the use of AI and I have opted not to take them, but at a certain point you have to consider your own wellbeing.

"I really love this industry, but the uncertainty and the way it has ground to halt, almost like it did during Covid, has made me re-evaluate my options."

Financial support for UK production staff 'a drop in the ocean'

There is a worry that if talks don't resume soon, talented individuals will leave the industry - potentially scuppering government plans to turn the UK into a cultural hub.

Mr MacDonald added: "The government has said it wants to turn the UK into a cultural hub, so it needs to look after those in the industry. There could be a situation where productions have picked back up and there aren't the people qualified to work on them. Construction crews could work in construction because they are all certified and I've heard of costume designers taking their talents to retail."

Strikes in Hollywood have left thousands of production staff in the UK suspended without pay. Credit: AP

There is support available for people in need, such as Bectu discretionary grants and grants from The Film and TV charity, but Mr MacDonald described them as a "drop in the ocean" compared to the financial difficulties that people are facing.

The Film and TV Charity announced an extra £500,000 to support UK film, TV and cinema workers in urgent financial need as the body had seen an 800% surge in applications for grants this summer.

A Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport spokesperson said: "We are engaging with industry to understand the impact of continued US strike action and continuing our support for the screen industries through competitive tax reliefs, investing in studio infrastructure, supporting innovation, and promoting independent content."

'Those striking are writers and actors from the US, but it is people here who are being affected'

A difficulty facing film production crews is that while they aren't striking, their jobs are being directly affected by industrial action in America - and it has caused a swell of competition in other creative production sectors.

A freelancer in the commercial production industry said: "Work in commercials has become more competitive because people from film are moving across. It often goes the other way, commercial producers moving over to longform but now we can't.

"The people striking are writers and actors from across the pond, but it is people over here who are being affected - mostly because it is cheaper to shoot here and employ people here."

Members of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (Sag-Aftra) have been on strike since July 14 after negotiations over new contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) broke down.

Equity General Secretary Paul W Fleming, speaks during a protest by members of the British actors union Equity in Leicester Square. Credit: PA

Equity general secretary Paul Fleming, who represents British actors who are not striking, said: “What we’re seeing is that the longer the dispute goes on, the deeper it will go and more intractable it will go, and the more the UK industry will get a cold – that is necessary in order to ensure that Sag-Aftra win.

“And in order to ensure that we are in the strongest possible position to win as big as Sag-Aftra is going to win in our own negotiations and through the coming months.”

He said Equity members are “annoyed, frustrated and upset” but the fault lies with studio companies.

Mr Fleming, whose union organised a solidarity protest with British actors Simon Pegg and Brian Cox in London in July, added: “Of course (members are) upset – it’s not with the unions in my experience – 30 odd days’ worth of strike action is not something you get hacked off about.

“But every day of your working life (being) screwed over by the same producers who are screwing over our comrades in the United States around the world means… that you tend to know who the real enemy is in this situation.”

Brian Cox and Simon Pegg at a strike in Leicester Square. Credit: PA

The chief negotiator of Sag-Aftra’s strikes acknowledged during a webinar that workers around the world are “hurting”.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said the “responsibility lies” with the AMPTP not having “negotiations or meaningful conversations” with his union.

He added: “Thankfully, they did finally decide to come back to the table with the Writers Guild over a week ago, those talks are ongoing.”

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) began industrial action on May 2 over similar issues including pay and the threat of artificial intelligence (AI).

Mr Crabtree-Ireland was asked about a report that Wall Street has asked the AMPTP to get back to work in 60 days or traders will start selling studio stock.

He replied: “A number of analysts have basically called out the CEOs for getting into this fight in the first place and said, ‘This is ridiculous, you should just pay your creative talent and move on and stop this dispute’.

“And so I think that is that is very telling, because let me just assure anyone who’s not familiar with them – they are not exactly union allies, as a general rule.”

He added that investors have said they will “move investments elsewhere, which obviously would potentially have a negative impact on stock prices”.

Mr Crabtree-Ireland confirmed that picket lines have been cancelled on Monday in Los Angeles due to a tropical storm and a 5.1 magnitude earthquake in the city.

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