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Hollywood North Hits Tough Times

Two US strikes slammed Vancouver film workers. The effects on their mental health as well as financial survival may be long-lasting.

Zak Vescera 15 Nov 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

David Greene started making movies at the height of the boom.

It was 2015, and Vancouver’s film industry was riding a wave of demand for new shows, fuelled by the advent of streaming platforms. Yellowjackets, The Good Doctor and the TV adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events were all filmed here.

The rush created thousands of jobs, including that of Greene, who is a dresser who prepares sets.

And then they stopped.

Vancouver’s film boom has now turned to bust, and workers like Greene have become collateral damage in Hollywood strikes that all but paralyzed work in Hollywood North.

The second of those strikes — a dispute between actors and producers — was resolved last week, bringing hope Vancouver’s industry will soon come back to life.

But most expect that work won’t return for weeks or months. In the meantime, most of the city’s 16,000 film workers have gone months without working on set, and many have resorted to taking other jobs, mortgaging homes or draining savings to make ends meet.

Greene is worried about a second, related effect: plummeting mental health among his colleagues as the financial stress piles up.

There’s a message he says he’s seen online: “Check on your film homies.”

“It just seems like a really casual way to say that people are really suffering, existentially,” said Greene. “This whole demographic of workers is struggling.”

Union locals in Vancouver say they’re getting calls from members about to lose their homes. Many have exhausted what financial support there is.

“I get calls every week from people who need help,” said Crystal Braunwarth, business representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 891, which represents roughly 10,000 Vancouver-area film workers. “I point them in every single direction I can. And it’s not enough.”

Union leaders are elated the strikes are over. But many say the disruption has triggered some soul-searching in British Columbia, a province whose film industry is almost entirely based on serving American clients.

“It’s sad, because we’re a victim of a labour movement that isn’t ours,” said Wendy Newton, business agent for the International Cinematographers Guild Local 669.

“We’re a little stuck in the middle.”

The boom and bust

Newton began work in Vancouver’s film sector before it became known as Hollywood North.

In the ’90s and early years of this century, Newton said, workers knew the sector cycled through booms and busts.

Then came 2015. A streaming gold rush driven by companies like Netflix fed rapid growth in B.C.’s film and TV industry, creating ample work for everyone from stunt professionals to makeup artists to actors and creative designers.

Studios were drawn to B.C. in part because of its verdant landscape and proximity to Los Angeles. But the big draws were tax incentives, introduced over the years in the hopes of luring more work north.

In just six years, membership of Braunwarth’s union doubled from 5,000 to more than 10,000. Newton’s union, which represents camera operators, saw similar growth. There were tens of thousands of spinoff jobs, too, in everything from toilet rentals to catering to set design and prop creation.

Creative BC, an industry group supported by the provincial government, estimated the industry supported 88,000 jobs in B.C. and was worth $3.6 billion.

The business hit a brief slump when COVID-19 came, but even that couldn’t stop the thirst for new shows. “People couldn’t get enough content,” Newton said. “It was unmanageable, really. We were so busy.”

Then, in May, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. A few months later, American actors represented by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA, followed suit.

None of the Canadian unions were actually on strike. They didn’t vote for it, nor could their members legally refuse to work.

But the overwhelming majority of B.C.’s film work is financed by American producers, meaning it often stars American talent and is made by American writers.

In 2022, for example, Creative BC estimated 88 per cent of all film spending in B.C. came from the United States.

That means the American strikes all but froze work in B.C., even after the WGA ended its strike in September.

In an interview earlier this month, before the actors’ strike ended, Braunwarth estimated only between five and 10 per cent of her union’s members were actually working in the film sector. She said many productions stopped work as early as last winter as fears of unrest spread.

Film jobs aren’t easily replaced. Workers might work 12 hours a day or more during a production, followed by weeks of downtime. The jobs pay well and often require specific skills that don’t easily transfer into other industries.

Greene found work helping set up and tear down concerts and other events. But many peers in the industry are working as general labourers or picking up gig jobs to pay bills. “Everyone I’m close with has resorted to just doing this or that,” Greene said.

For many, it’s just not enough. Hundreds have filed requests for financial aid to the Actors’ Fund of Canada, a non-profit that provides short-term financial support to entertainment professionals of all careers.

David Hope, the fund’s executive director, said they normally dispense about $1 million in financial aid in a year. In 2023, they’ve given out $1.7 million to nearly 900 people affected by the American strikes — not counting another 500 people whose applications are still on the wait-list. Hope said 41 per cent of those applications are from British Columbia.

“People are contacting us who are at risk of homelessness, who are experiencing food insecurity,” Hope said.

Unions and business partners, Hope said, have stepped up donations to keep the charity going. But he said the charity’s one-time $1,800 in support is no substitute for a steady income.

“This is just a small slice of the great need that’s out there,” Hope said.

Many unions donated cash to the fund. Others helped out their members in different ways. Braunwarth and Newton say their unions lobbied Premier David Eby to push the federal government to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off film workers, an extension that never came.

The Prime Minister’s Office would not confirm that claim, and Eby’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

IATSE 891 also deferred dues payments for all its members. It’s offering help with mortgage restructuring to members who can’t pay their bills. It worked out a deal with producers allowing film workers to tap into up to $3,000 of the employer’s contributions to their retirement funds.

That union was also trying to launch a partnership with the BC Building Trades that would have allowed laid-off film workers to take jobs normally reserved for those unions, provided they had the proper certifications. BC Building Trades members would then later be able to take IATSE jobs once work returned, Braunwarth said.

But many — like workers in hair or makeup or special effects — have a much harder time finding jobs that pay as much as film work during extended slowdowns.

Lori Stewart, a professional stuntwoman and health and safety advocate, said some professionals have skills that readily transfer to other jobs. Some older, more established workers might have had a chance to save up more cash. But few would have foreseen or prepared for a labour disruption that lasted this long. And thousands of newer workers, Stewart said, have never known the boom-and-bust cycle of the industry.

“For the last 10 years, it’s been really consistent,” said Stewart, who works for the B.C. branch of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, or ACTRA. “All of a sudden, this gigantic hammer has come down, and there’s nothing.”

With those financial challenges have come anxiety, stress and in some cases mental health problems. IATSE 891 has extended its health benefits until April, Braunwarth said, so members can get counselling.

“They’re having various mental health crises due to not being able to pay their rent, not being able to feed their families,” said Liza Huget, chair of the mental health and addictions committee at the B.C. chapter of ACTRA.

Beyond the finances, many film workers interviewed for this story worried about colleagues who had lost routine, stimulation and connection.

“That’s been really missing, is those connections,” Stewart said. “I know there’s been people struggling with their mental health.”

Stepping up

The news came during a downpour on a rainy Thursday night in Vancouver — the actors’ union had a deal.

“They’re so excited. They’re like, let’s come on, let’s go,” Huget said. “People are really hungry to get back to work.”

In a written statement, Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Lana Popham said she is “optimistic that B.C. will continue to be a top destination for U.S. productions once the labour dispute is fully resolved.” There’s little chance of a Canadian labour dispute; film unions here voluntarily extended their deal with U.S. producers this spring, sending a clear signal their members want to work.

But Braunwarth warns the lead time required to prepare for filming means all the jobs won’t come back at once.

She said producers have been clear that global spending will decline. The WGA won important reforms in its deal with American producers, Braunwarth said, including protections from artificial intelligence and pay reform. But an inevitable result will be that American shows will be more expensive and fewer will get made.

Newton and Braunwarth are hopeful the Canadian film market may fill the gap.

Right now, British Columbia is a distant third behind Ontario and Quebec when it comes to funding from Canada’s film board, tax credits and other domestic supports.

Canadian Heritage spokesman David Larose said that’s largely because B.C. filmmakers apply for far less funding and the provincial industry is focused more on the American market.

But Braunwarth believes the federal government could play a more active role in encouraging domestic film production that is less susceptible to labour shocks in the United States.

“They need to invest in content producers, in creatives that live in the West, that shoot in the West, that produce in the West,” she said.

Huget said B.C.’s focus on the American market was important. But she believes the province should look to diversify its film work, in case the industry shifts or jolts again.

“I would never say that we shouldn’t have enticed the Americans to come, because it built the industry we have now,” Huget said. “But within that, we need to use that skill set we have here... and bring some more B.C. content in addition, so if things slow down on the American side, at least we have something in place here.”

Braunwarth believes the industry isn’t going to be the same after the strikes.

“We anticipate it going back to more of a cyclical industry, or not as much boom,” Braunwarth said. “The boom time is over.”  [Tyee]

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