‘It’s a Mess’: Studios, Unions Grapple With Pay for Production Crew Members Amid Shutdowns

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After a tidal wave of more than 70 TV and film production shutdowns last week, Hollywood’s major players spent much of Monday sorting out the tricky question of how long crew members will be paid during the unexpected dark period.

Industry sources said the issue of how to handle obligations to crew members was the subject of a great deal of email and text traffic on Monday among studio executives, producers and Hollywood union officials.

Multiple sources at major studios said a consensus seemed to be emerging 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. After that, the picture of compensation for crew members typically hired on a daily and weekly basis is as murky as the question of when life in the U.S. may return to something like normal. On Monday, President Donald Trump announced a 15-day guideline for social distancing.

For most actors, writers and directors, compensation terms for an unexpected shutdown are spelled out in personal service contracts as well as in aspects of collective bargaining agreements — although there will surely be fights to come over the interpretation of some of that fine print.

For many below-the-line crew members, long-term contracts are a rarity. But the job market for experienced crew members has been frothy for years in the Peak TV era. Workers in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other production hubs had reasonable expectations of enjoying steady employment this year amid a steady increase in the number of TV series, made-for-TV movies and films going in front of the cameras.

But the nearly across-the-board shutdown of projects in production in the U.S. and abroad that began last week has come as a shock to members of IATSE, the Teamsters and other workers who expected to stack paychecks and work credits necessary to maintain union-provided health insurance.

In anticipation of hard times to come, IATSE on Monday urged its members to step up the pressure on Congress to ensure entertainment industry workers are included in pandemic-related relief packages that are hastily being assembled in the Capitol in response to the wildfire of shutdowns and cancellations effecting tens of millions of American workers.

“Entertainment workers shouldn’t be collateral damage in the fight against COVID-19,” IATSE asserted in a ready-made email for members to send to their Congressional representatives. “Entertainment gig workers who expected to work for a day, week, month, or season on a production are finding themselves without planned wages and benefits.”

“The unique nature of the entertainment industry means that many of the creative professionals may not work every day, or even every month. Existing paid leave programs are by and large not applicable to this workforce. Entertainment workers depend on the income from each project they book to ensure they can support themselves and can qualify to participate in our collectively bargained health plans. Rules designed specifically for the traditional single employer relationship, or even for multi-employer work in the construction industry are likely to exclude our members, and entertainment freelancers in general.”

Executives at the industry’s largest studios declined to comment publicly on the situation given the fast-moving nature of the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout. Industry sources said the process was “fluid,” in the words of a senior business executive.

“We want to do right by the people who make our shows,” said a studio source. “We’re know we’re going to want to hire them back.”

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.”

Industry sources also note that even a 40-hour paycheck will still mark an income hit for crew members who routinely rack up 60- to 100-hour weeks during the height of production and on location shoots.

One of the many complicating factors is the stage of production at the time of the shutdown — whether a series was just getting started or just wrapping a season order or somewhere in between. Pilots are also a different category of employment with shorter employment time frames for crew members. “It’s a mess,” said a veteran TV executive. “There’s no road map for this.”

The process of sorting out how crew members should be compensated is also something of a bet on how quickly production may be able to get back on its feet when work is safe to resume. Executives are gritting teeth about the pileup of production commitments that are coming for busy actors, writers and directors who have back-to-back projects scheduled out months in the future.

As unsettling as the sudden lack of employment has been, industry sources said it was even more nerve-wracking to be in production last week amid increasingly strident calls from public health officials to avoid all crowds for the sake of each person’s health and the common good.

Three crew members on the Sony Pictures TV-produced show “Schooled” spoke to Variety last week before that ABC sitcom shut down on Saturday, under the condition of anonymity for fear they would lose their jobs. All three wanted the show to be shut down, regardless of how it affected them economically. Both “Schooled” and its progenitor “The Goldbergs” had only one more week of filming before their hiatuses, and the studio seemed determined to finish the seasons.

“I want to work. I want a job. I want a paycheck,” said one crew member, before expressing that the show needed to shut down for their sake, and “for society’s.”

All three members of the crew described — with anger and incredulity — a prom scene that was filmed on Thursday with at least 100 extras and approximately 75 crew members on set, with no ventilation on the soundstage.

The scene caused one crew members to reach their “boiling point” — especially because the show’s wrap party had been canceled the day before. “They know to cancel the wrap party, but during a pandemic they load us into a closed set with 100 background actors?” this source said.

A member of the “Schooled” crew said observing the basic protocols of coronavirus safely are impossible in a production environment: “There’s no possibility for social distancing on a set. We’re touching gear, and there’s no chance to wipe it down.”

A source close to the show offered a counterargument: “Our showrunner and producers were in constant contact with cast and crew throughout production and received no complaints, no one voiced any concerns, and many wanted to complete production.”

Craft services, which is usually self-serve, had adapted to the new reality, with caterers serving the crew, and with individually wrapped food being doled out. And there was hand sanitizer everywhere, which one crew member said was “mandatory.” But another said, “It feels like they were doing the bare minimum in terms of safety.”

As the week went on, crew members would receive word from other friends in production that their shows were shutting down — a surreal experience. “Everyone knows people on other crews, and they’re all shutting down,” one of the sources told Variety. “It didn’t feel good.”

SAG-AFTRA has asked its 160,000 members to contact their city, state and federal governments to put forward emergency relief packages.

Will Thorne contributed to this report.