IATSE union strike and the movie/TV industry shutdown, explained

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees announced its decision to allow a strike on October 4. IATSE (pronounced “eye-yahtzee”) has been in a prolonged and arduous negotiation period for a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) since the summer over issues of work hours and fair compensation.

IATSE had to have the support of its members in order for negotiations to progress into a striking agreement. The votes can be controversial and workers may prefer to keep the status quo rather than risking a strike. However, among local IATSE Chapters, which represent 60,000 members of IATSE, the results were quite clear. 99% of ballots were returned with 98.7% authorizing a strikeThis is. IATSE stated that they will strike only if the union and AMPTP can reach an agreement before Monday Oct. 18. But what’s already been made clear from the authorization vote is that the workers have reached a boiling point.

For those not familiar with the industry, it’s vital to understand IATSE’s purpose, and how the negotiations — and potential strike — might change the way that film and television is made in the future.

What matters the most? Your work

Laura Linney on the set of Ozark with cameras around her diner booth

Image courtesy of Netflix

Stage performance was the same as popular media production in the 1890s. The theaters were packed with people, regardless of whether they featured large Broadway productions or small vaudeville shows that only cost one nickel. Actors, writers, and directors could sometimes manage a decent wage, but the same wasn’t true for the dozens of people who made the stage actually run — whether doing costumes, lighting, or set design.

Theater workers in 11 cities created the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of Canada, 1893. This union was formed to negotiate fair wages. IATSE is the name of the union that has grown to include all workers involved in television and film production.

Although groups like Screen Actors Guild (SAG) as well as the Writers and Directors Guilds of America (WGA and DGA, respectively) get more press thanks to representing top talent, IATSE is fundamentally the life blood of the industry, performing what is referred to as “below the line” work. These include a number of chapters that each focus on a different aspect of production — from craft positions such as camera operators, editors, hair, and production designers to script coordinators and some production assistants. Each “Local” chapter negotiates its own contracts and determines its own dues based on a structure appropriate for its members. Not every member on a set is covered under IATSE — workers have to perform a certain number of hours to qualify for the union — but it provides an important umbrella for those who have been part of the lifeblood of this industry for decades.

IATSE remains critically important because of the way it structures workers’ time off the clock. The union creates a community that can help members find work by providing lists and invitations to new productions through a roster system, and supports them when they can’t immediately book a job. Rather than receive healthcare and a pension through employers (which might switch numerous times throughout the year as they move studio productions), members receive it through IATSE’s Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plan. It was funded through dues, financial investments and residuals from foreign and home video distribution.

IATSE negotiates its Basic Agreement (for work in Los Angeles), and Area Agreements with the AMPTP. This trade association represents major studios as well as many production companies. Although newcomers to the field, such as Apple or Amazon, are not signedatories. Netflix joined this year. But most production companies that these streamers have made de facto members and must adhere to the AMPTP’s practices. Each three-year period sees new negotiations. IATSE is currently on strike or has expired with the 2021 contract.

IATSE might strike

Although writers’, directors’, and actors’ unions have gone on strike in the past, IATSE is not the first to go on strike since World War II. As with everything else in the industry, the problem is how the streaming market will develop.

Hollywood is seeing streaming boom as more production takes place in the industry. This should lead to more employment opportunities. But for IATSE members, this has often meant that the general work load times that rise and fall throughout the year, usually dependent on television’s fall and spring premiere basis, has now become a full-time position. Because it is difficult to say “no” to work, members find themselves overwhelmed.

Hollywood budgets are usually designed per day. This means that if there is one extra day to shoot, production costs can rise by thousands. Producers often feel incentivized and incentivised to do as many shots as they can in a given day. It is not uncommon for crew to work 14 hours a day, or even skip meals. This decision requires penalties to be paid to members. But, often production companies budget these decisions in and pay it as small taxes.

The new regulations and rules of the post-pandemic period have only made these working conditions worse. Talk to any person in Hollywood who has worked on a film or television show and you’ll likely be regaled with stories of dozen-hour days without breaks. IATSE stories is an Instagram page that features horror stories by anonymous sources about the pain and frustration they felt after years of long hours with nothing to show for their efforts.

IATSE’s main goals are thus pretty simple for a strike: more regulations protecting hours and weekends, and better pay to match it for everyone involved on set.

Why streaming disruption matters

According to John Loeb, director of communications at IATSE who responded to Polygon’s inquiries via email, “The primary focus is on right vs. wrong, human necessities issues like living wages, reasonable rest, and sustainable benefits.” That last part has become particularly tricky with streaming.

Since the union’s 2009 contract, which first tackled payment structures and regulations for productions for streaming, IATSE has allowed the AMPTP to be flexible in its definitions given what was considered an unclear market until its profit structures might be clearer. Now that streaming is a multibillion-dollar industry, IATSE members feel a cut of those earnings for what they are called “Not-So-New Media” are overdue. These past issues, only exacerbated by the pandemic, have thus put the IATSE pension and healthcare fund at a “dangerous low level” according to one union member who spoke to Polygon under anonymity. Although there is a plan to return it to sustainability, it will be necessary to change the way studios calculate how much they pay in. This calculation will take into account streaming production.

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda on the set of Wandavision floating in front of a green screen and behind a camera rig

Photo: Marvel Studios

Although streaming content is paid into by studios, it’s different from other film or television productions. Under its previous agreements, feature films and television programs are subject to a tax at each level of their release — home video, licensing to foreign markets, and syndication, among others — and paid into the pension at a percentage of the profits each makes. Production companies are required to pay flat fees based upon a budget for streaming properties. But, the amount of the fee and the wage per hour were determined using an earlier market version: $25,000 per minute or $30,000,000 for feature films. At the time of the 2018 agreement, Local 700 noted that Netflix’s fantasy action film Bright It was among the properties which qualified for a greater percentage. Now with Amazon’s Lord of the RingsA reported $400 million budget for the program makes it hard to believe that such a distinction could be accurately capturing streaming’s true value for IATSE members. A streaming service with less than 20,000,000 subscribers, such as Apple Plus or Paramount Plus, allows these companies to pay workers at lower wages despite working the exact same hours.

The DGA, WGA, and SAG won better agreements on most of these issues in 2020 just as the pandemic hit, and IATSE’s goals are repeatedly meant to match this. But as some have reported, the AMPTP remains nervous about this agreement’s financial ramifications when it comes to renegotiating with these more powerful unions in 2023, and are trying to find a way out. One of the rumored AMPTP plans is to remove members from funds if they don’t work. Do it twiceThe amount of work they now have to complete in a single year has created a large number of precarious workers.

The AMPTP’s friction-filled battle with IATSE may ultimately come down to the impossibility of the streaming market as a financial winner. The economics of streaming have changed over the past decade. Studios’ success and creative worker success are not in sync anymore. My argument has been made before that films and TVs that follow the old rules often win, while streaming properties are more profitable in terms of shareholder values. This is a trend closer to Silicon Valley startup companies than Hollywood studios. These issues have been present in the WGA’s fight with talent agencies as well as the now-settled lawsuit against Disney by Scarlett Johannsson. Members of AMPTP are particularly nervous, as they may be starting to realize the importance they’ve been hoarding during this time.

The impact of the IATSE strike on the industry

stranger things set photo with clapboard and two actors in an underground tunnel

Tina Rowden/Netflix Photo

Matthew Loeb is a pessimist about negotiations right now. As he told the Los Angeles Times at the end of September, “The time has come. It’s unsustainable for people to work under these conditions.”

Production is not possible without IATSE, it’s obvious. Unlike the Writers Guild Strike of 2006, when production could continue as long as scripts were kept word-for-word the same, the major studios and other assignees of IATSE’s agreements would be unable to complete their work. Films made for under $15 million dollars are not covered by the agreement and thus might continue to shoot—and some HBO and Starz programs in New York operate under a different agreement for pay-TV.

However, live production programs such as Saturday Night LiveWork would be stopped immediately. Because of the long production line, delays may not become noticeable for several months or even a whole year. Depending where films or television shows are in the production process, many might proceed quite normally — season 4 of Stranger Things for example, might be either “locked” or close to it, meaning that the kind of production issues presented by a strike would be unaffected. Many actors have expressed solidarity with IATSE employees, which could create a problem for the studios.

Given Hollywood’s outsized role in American media, it would also shine a light on the industry that striking workers as food and coal industries this year have only gotten a sliver of attention. The very public nature of the industry may work in IATSE’s favor.

Why TV-watchers and moviegoers should be concerned

One of the most disturbing stories from IATSE is that members who remember driving to work at night are the ones with the worst memories. Multiple nights of not enough sleep after a 14-hour day of work can be a harsh experience for the body. Many have described the feeling as similar to being drunk driving at night.

Although it may feel like entertainment at times, choosing what show to watch is based on our moral decisions. What would you do if your favorite TV show were directly to blame for the death of a member of its crew? You might be less inclined to watch your favourite show if you learned that many others had been hurt while creating it. You might be interested in helping to compensate workers more.

You might think that this group of people gets to fulfill their dream of working at Hollywood. However, IATSE’s existence is an affirmation of the reality that this industry is real for many. Making movies and TV shows are the most important things. WorkIt requires dedication and skills beyond what is required for a traditional 9-to-5 position. This effort is worthy of the same protections as other types of work and should be compensated accordingly.

Ted LassoAlthough it may offer some lessons in how to live an enjoyable life, its production context shows that those responsible for its creation had no incentive to make their employees follow these lessons. Hollywood would not exist without the sometimes invisible labor of craftspeople below the lines. Better conditions would be created and better content could result from supporting the IATSE strike.

Loeb explained to me that the industry is constantly changing. While streaming presents new challenges, fighting for workers’ fair wages is an ongoing struggle. “We’ve been doing it ever since they invented silent films in the early 20th century, we’re just continuing with the torch we’ve been passed.”

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