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Hollywood Contraction: How Fewer Jobs & The Threat Of Another Strike Is Pushing BTL Workers To The Brink

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in the Deadline series Hollywood Contraction, which examines the job losses caused by ongoing, industrywide cost-cutting.

The Unity Rally on Sunday that was meant to fire up crew members before IATSE and Teamsters Local 399 begin negotiations with Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers served two important goals: it reminded below-the-line workers that union leaders will be dogged in their fight for better benefits and pension for members, and made it clear they’ll be ready to “shut it down, f*cking day one” if the talks don’t go their way.

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But no matter how many times Local 399’s Lindsay Dougherty dropped an f-bomb or the crowd shouted “many crafts, one fight,” there was no mention of the real elephant in the room, er, parking lot — namely, how many (or few) crew members are actually working these days because of accelerated contraction in Hollywood.

On stage, it was all talk about “this is how solidarity looks” and how the studios are “white-collar crime syndicates.” But away from the featured speakers and the sounds of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting from the loudspeakers, local reps privately lamented about how their members were bombarding their offices with desperate calls about the lack of employment. The wave of series cancellations, coupled with the serious belt-tightening and a virtually non-existent pilot season, has led to fewer and fewer below-the-line jobs for below-the-line workers.

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“We were expecting, especially with the resolution of the strikes, production to be rampant out here. And unfortunately that hasn’t happened,” says Corey Moore, business agent for IATSE Local 80, which represents motion picture grips, crafts service, first aid employees and warehouse workers. “We think a lot of it has to do with productions leaving town, trying to find some tax incentives elsewhere. But a lot of it has to do with our upcoming negotiations. Productions might be hesitant to start if there’s any threat of a stoppage. It is starting to pick up [but] not quite as quick as we would like.”

“All you have to do is look at the news and see, ‘Oh, there’s consolidation in the studios,” adds Nelson Coates, president of the Art Directors Guild. “And of course they don’t need to make competing projects. So they’re looking at their slates. There has been such a massive expansion that you can definitely feel the contraction at the moment. We’ve had members who haven’t worked in more than a year … not only because of the contraction in the number of projects, but the fact that there was a slowdown in advance of negotiations for the writers and actors. So we have a lot of collateral damage below the line that has continued on even since the resolution of the SAG and screenwriters contract negotiations.”

“I get calls almost daily from people looking for work,” Coates continues. “Since the work slowdown has continued, even after the [the strikes], we have worked diligently to figure out a way for our members who are falling out of their healthcare coverage to cover COBRA costs so that they can stay within some sort of plan until we get Hollywood back on its feet. There are people still in need.”

Take Joseph McDonough, a 35-year-old second assistant cameraman who only worked 47 days total in 2023. “And that was with me fully networking, routinely hitting everybody up that I know, contacting producers that I know. You just couldn’t find work,” he tells Deadline. “And when you reached out to people who were senior to you, who had been in the industry longer, who you knew were better connected and they were saying they weren’t working, that was just a first for me. I’ve never reached out to all my colleagues and heard all of them say, with maybe only one exception, that they weren’t working simultaneously. In 2023, it felt like the industry ceased to exist. Then the strikes began. And so that, of course, slowed things down further for some people. But for me, I didn’t really notice a difference. It just continued to be what felt like a zero year.”

“They don’t start a lot of new productions in say, December. So it was quiet,” continues McDonough. “Then we shifted our hopes to the new year. And what’s really been surprising is that we haven’t really seen any return to normalcy or even something like halfway normal so far this year.”

Deadline also checked in with a longtime member of Local 399 who hasn’t booked a regular gig since last June. These days, the veteran driver feels lucky to pick up “a couple of days here, a couple days there” and thinks a lot about leaving the industry, if it wasn’t for the great pay and benefits afforded by union work (when it’s available, that is).

“I was at my storage unit today,” says the veteran Teamster, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal. “I needed something to do, so I started reorganizing my storage unit. I hear some guys around the corner talking about, ‘Well, I may have to go out to Montana for all those Yellowstone offshoots.’ So I walk around the corner. It was a guy who was a rigging grip on NCIS: LA. He had 14 years on that show. He was 64 years old. They were already greenlit for Season 15 until the writers/actor strike. So they just said, ‘Forget it, we’re done.’ And they ended the show. He hasn’t been able to find work since.”

The tough talk at Sunday’s rally only exacerbated fears that another strike could make an already dreadful situation dire. Away from the microphone, Dougherty acknowledges to Deadline how “everyone has noticed the contraction” but tempers it by saying “it’s not exclusive to Los Angeles or Hollywood. It’s nationwide, worldwide.” She went on to say it was “definitely expected because of the amount of streaming that was being produced back in 2021 and 2022. There’s too much and obviously that bubble was going to burst.”

Lindsay Dougherty, chief negotiator for Teamsters Local 399, at the Unity Rally on Sunday in Encino
Lindsay Dougherty, chief negotiator for Teamsters Local 399, at the Unity Rally on Sunday in Encino

Her fighting words certainly galvanized the hundreds who packed the lot of an Encino park Sunday. After the rally, though, resolve turned into concern for some crew members who flooded Reddit and Deadline’s message board with handwringing comments about another work stoppage, losing their homes, and whether it’s time to find a new profession.

“You’re going to shut down WHAT? There IS nothing to shut down,” wrote a self-described IATSE 871 member on Deadline’s board. “We have been shut down for a year. Unemployment has long run out, last bit of savings is about to run out, insurance is about to run out. … If there are months of strikes, no one will work until 2025. How many can afford that, unless you quit the business? Way to send our jobs overseas. Bravo!!”

“The timing of this all is just unfortunate, to say the least,” wrote a poster on Reddit. “Even if the studios cave and give pay increases, better health and pension contributions, etc, the studios will continue to send work abroad and LA/US work will continue to dry up and the studios will be off the hook. I hope both sides are willing to make concessions; otherwise we’re just helping and encouraging the big guys’ shift production to other places. It’s all such a shitty situation. If agreements are reached and production rebounds in LA I’ll consider that a miracle.”

“I think people don’t realize how much streaming inflated the industry,” added another Reddit poster, echoing Dougherty. “There were more productions than ever and now that studios aren’t seeing the returns they are being more conservative with what they produce. So now all of those people who were working are having a hard time finding work. Unfortunately, this is going to weed out a lot of people. If you’re not in good with a dept head or team then you may have trouble … now’s probably the time to be honest with yourself if you’re really wanting to wait or grind to find a job.”

With no prospects on the horizon, McDonough may already be at that point. Having just wrapped “day-playing on a reality show,” McDonough doesn’t have anything else lined up but hopes March will be a “very telling month” when it comes to opportunities for him and his fellow BTL workers.

“I’ve considered going to medical school, to be honest. It’s a really serious thing to think about at 35,” he tells Deadline. “There are plenty of people who will say, ‘You can absolutely go to medical school at 35. There’s no discrimination. You’re perfectly capable of becoming a doctor and having a long career still.’ But it’s such a huge commitment and when you already have bottomed out your savings, the idea of taking on student loans like that … it’s hard for me to think that I would forever put away creative endeavors. I’ve worked in entertainment my whole life. I still want to make films.”

Katie Campione contributed to this report.

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