The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wealthy stars can weather Hollywood’s coronavirus shutdown. For crew members, it’s a much different story.

Pedestrians look at the Hollywood sign on March 18 as a worker cleans the rails. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Heather Fink got her big break just as the coronavirus outbreak began to ramp up across the United States. The independent film director, who works more consistently as a sound utility and boom operator, was hired to make her second feature after three months of disability leave for a work-related knee injury. She was set to travel to Oklahoma on Monday to begin the preproduction stage.

“I became terrified of having to fly out and go to Oklahoma,” said Fink, 38. “I was about to change, right before this happened, into doing more of what I had built my whole life to do. I believe it will happen. I do believe it will happen. I just don’t know how long it’s going to take.”

Like Fink, who last worked a few weeks ago on the set of “Grey’s Anatomy,” thousands of people in the entertainment industry have lost or paused work due to production shutdowns. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a union representing crew members, among others, estimated the number of jobs lost by members to be around 120,000 — or 80 percent of its total membership.

Below-the-line crew members are the backbone of the industry, often working sporadically and, in some cases, living paycheck to paycheck. The irregular schedules mean they don’t always qualify for traditional unemployment benefits, leading more than 80,000 IATSE members and supporters to urge Congress to include them in a federal aid package. This past Thursday, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and three dozen lawmakers sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy a letter advocating for entertainment worker protections in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

“We’re in a situation where it’s painfully obvious how important, socially, the work that we do is,” said Zachary L., a 29-year-old actor and costume technician who asked not to be identified by his full name, fearing online backlash. “People desperately need to be entertained and distracted right now. They’re bingeing their TV shows and movies, comics, whatever, and the artists who made that stuff aren’t getting paid from the thing they’re watching anymore. They’re in a bind.”

Zachary had been on the set of a streaming service’s workplace comedy for just three days when the showrunner announced a two-week shutdown, adding that it could become an indefinite suspension. Zachary worked on the show as a regular background actor, a job supplemented by what he refers to as “survival gigs.” Sometimes he serves as a stand-in, helping the camera crew set up lights before the principal actors step in. At other times, he works in specialty costuming. He also walks dogs.

“The thing is,” he said, “literally all of those are shut down right now.”

Freelance work demands adaptability. But according to Kabir Akhtar, 45, an Emmy-winning television editor and episodic director, this isn’t an adaptable climate. In his 21 years freelancing in the industry, Akhtar has come to expect a certain rhythm to finding work. Schedules can change abruptly, but whenever he’s off work, he takes meetings to set up his next gig.

“Now, you can’t take meetings,” he said. “There are no meetings to set up.”

Akhtar, who was in the middle of directing an episode of NBCUniversal’s “Saved by the Bell” reboot, qualifies for health-care coverage through the Directors Guild of America, which is based on earnings over a 12-month period. But some other plans operate on six-month windows, leading many to worry about the short- and long-term effects of indefinite production suspensions.

Unions like IATSE have tried to assuage worries, expressing an intention to work with the organizations behind benefits plans to help members who might not accrue enough hours. IATSE also donated $2.5 million to three entertainment charities last week. More informal efforts to provide immediate relief have emerged as well, including a GoFundMe for “support staff” organized in part by #PayUpHollywood, a movement formed last year to promote fair pay for assistants.

Jamarah Hayner, a media consultant who runs #PayUpHollywood with former assistants Liz Alper and Deirdre Mangan, said they raised $200,000 within a few hours of launching the GoFundMe last week. The relief fund was also organized by the YEA! organization and “Scriptnotes” podcast, which is co-hosted by “Chernobyl” creator Craig Mazin. A number of prominent industry figures followed Mazin’s lead in donating, with several television creators — Shonda Rhimes, Damon Lindelof, David Benioff, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan among them — committing to match up to $25,000 each.

By Friday evening, Hayner said that the fund, including matches, had collected more than five times its initial goal of $100,000, providing organizers with the ability to increase the one-time stipend amount applicants could receive from $900 and $450 to $1,050 and $600, respectively.

“These are people who love what they do … but it comes at a high cost,” Hayner said. “Those stresses were magnified by a thousand in the past few weeks. There are humans on the other end of this. These are parents, these are people supporting their family members, maybe caretakers for their parents. It’s not like these are [always] kids who can just move back home.”

Payment issues for furloughed workers are far from resolved, but some major studios, such as Warner Bros. and Disney, have reportedly committed to two or three weeks of pay for full-time employees. In a company blog, Netflix chief Ted Sarandos announced Friday that the company had created a $100 million fund to help “the hardest hit workers” on Netflix productions around the world. Roughly $15 million of that sum will be allocated to third-party causes and relief funds, he added.

Sarah Stipanowich, a 22-year-old production assistant who had been working on an HBO Max pilot, said the company has encouraged employees to reach out if they’re struggling financially.

“I think that’s really rare in Hollywood,” she said. “There are going to be a lot of people applying for unemployment. I feel lucky enough where, even though I live paycheck to paycheck — and I think most PAs do, and a lot of crew members — I am lucky that I don’t have a family to support. It’s a scary time.”

Everyone who spoke with The Washington Post made an effort to frame their own struggles within a larger framework. Some, like Stipanowich, pointed out that they only had to provide for themselves. Others said they were grateful to have had a job when productions were shut down; those who were in between gigs might be having an even harder time. Most noted that the coronavirus outbreak has been devastating for other industries besides their own.

Fink said she was “deeply uncomfortable financially” weeks ago but, due to her tax refund and the first portion of her directing fee, will be fine for now. She hopes the industry will be able to bounce back, because “especially in our modern world, where people are bingeing like crazy, there’s an appetite for more.” At the moment, she is most concerned about the health of her parents and older relatives.

“The only thing you can get from devastating events that change everything is perspective,” she said. “That’s a huge thing that’s happening for everyone here.”

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