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Hollywood in Crisis: Producers, Theater Workers, Crew Members Brace for Coronavirus Fallout

Wiltern Theatre coronavirus
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Hollywood is grappling with a new reality.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, movie and television productions have shut down, theaters and cinemas have closed, and red carpet premieres and concerts have been canceled or pushed back indefinitely. These abrupt moves have resulted in layoffs and a lot of workers staring at an uncertain future, one in which they won’t have a regular paycheck.

“Everyone is in a state of shock,” said Lia Towers, a key assistant location manager who was working on a television show in Atlanta that opted to end its season early. “We have no idea when things will start back up again.”

The entertainment industry conjures an image in the popular imagination as a playground for the rich and beautiful. The reality is that some people who make the business run, from the assistants fielding calls at agencies to the grip hanging lights on a soundstage, live paycheck to paycheck. Many of these workers don’t have salaried employment. They are part of a gig economy, requiring them to jump from one television or feature film production after another as they hustle to stay ahead of the bills. That’s left them particularly vulnerable to the near complete work shutdown that’s seized the industry.

“I’m not going to have any income,” said Matthew Walsh, who was working as the assistant to a television director before production stopped. “I’m going to have to apply for unemployment. That might be enough to pay my rent and buy some food, but utilities and all those other things will have to come out of my savings.”

It’s a crisis that extends from studio lots to multiplexes, leaving almost all sections of the business impacted. Some employees were barely making ends meet before the coronavirus sent the global economy into free fall. Emma Clinch is a New York City based actress. To pay the bills she works as an usher for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” at Broadway’s Lyric Theatre. Initially, Clinch and her co-workers weren’t unduly concerned about the virus’ spread. They were convinced that somehow the theater business would be able to endure the headlines about the pandemic and, that if they just made sure that more stringent cleaning protocols were enforced, the marquee lights would remain on throughout the crisis. That changed last week when news broke that at usher at the Booth and Brooks Atkinson Theater tested positive for the virus.

“From that moment, it seemed like COVID-19 became very real for the city of New York,” said Clinch. “My coworkers shared my anxiety, but we all knew this was not a fear of contracting the coronavirus, it was financial. ‘How am I going to make rent this month?’ became as common as ‘hello’ in the course of 24 hours. Somehow, we all knew it was our last show for a while.”

On Thursday Broadway went dark. If the virus subsides, performances will commence the week of April 13, 2020. But that’s left Clinch and her fellow ushers uncertain about how they will pay their bills. In the past, she’s worked as a barista or a dog walker, but she thinks those jobs will be in short supply as New York City struggles to wait out the pandemic.

“The theatrical community is really resilient and really smart, because money is a struggle on even a good day,” said Clinch. “But this is something different. This is something where New York State or the federal government needs to step in and help.”

People who sell tickets and popcorn in cinemas around the country are facing a similar hardships. An hour before his shift at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers was supposed to start on Friday, Joel Valentin got the message that the theaters were closed due to coronavirus. Valentin was told he’d been furloughed and could apply for unemployment benefits.

“I don’t have much saved,” said Valentin. “I’m talking with my landlord to see what kind of solution is possible. I’ve cancelled all my subscriptions — my gym, Spotify, Netflix.”

The shutdown has also created headaches for the indie film world. Festivals such as SXSW and Tribeca have been canceled, screenings for potential film buyers have been nixed, and cameras have stopped rolling. As the industry remains in limbo, some producers are turning their attention to scripts they can get in shape and productions they can ready for when life returns to normal.

“It’s hitting everyone hard, but I’m trying to be optimistic,” said Eric B. Fleischman, the producer of “Sleight” and CEO of Defiant Studios. “I’m hopeful that once things resume, there will be a lot of pent-up demand and business will boom again.”

Other companies are trying to find new revenue streams. David Garcia, a director and producer who runs an indie production company called Between Pictures LLC, is hoping to pick up work doing web content or working for local news broadcasts.

“I’m trying to pivot,” said Garcia. “We have no choice. We have to hunker down and try to make something happen.”

Towers says she’s one of the lucky ones. She made good money and put some aside. But she’s worried about other people on crews, such as production assistants, who don’t have a financial cushion. Towers hopes that the unions and guilds can come up with a way to extend some financial assistance.

“The sad thing is that it’s going to be the people in this industry who make the least who are going to be the hardest hit,” she said. “That’s who I’m worried about.”

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