Monday, April 28, 2008

TV crew members still feeling effects of writers strike

Many can't find work with production down, and their bills are piling up. Some are facing foreclosure and bankruptcy.
By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 28, 2008
The writers strike ended two months ago. But many in Hollywood remain on the brink.

Some are at risk of losing their homes. Some can't afford groceries. Others have filed for bankruptcy. Still others struggle to work enough hours to hold on to their health insurance.

Across Los Angeles, many crew members who work behind the scenes and on the sets of television shows and movies are still quaking from the temblor of the 100-day writers strike that shut down scripted TV production.

Blame the aftershocks. Networks have sharply curtailed the number of TV pilots this year, continuing a trend toward ordering fewer shows for the new season.

The shows that did return are filming 20% to 40% fewer episodes. And in Los Angeles County, location permits for sitcoms and dramas since the strike ended have plunged 51% and 35% from last year, respectively, according to FilmL.A., which handles film permits.

Although hard figures are not available, union officials say that thousands of crew members who normally would be busy at this time of year are still idled because of the sharp contraction in television production. Some union locals report a quarter of their members are sitting at home.

Karen Hartjen is one. She can't bring herself to open the utility bills lying on her kitchen table in Simi Valley.

The 53-year-old assistant prop master has been out of work since early November, when a string of jobs on TV shows such as "CSI: New York" and "Medium" came to a halt after the writers walked out.

Although Hartjen is accustomed to earning $100,000 a year, she is now $10,000 in debt and her home is threatened with foreclosure. She has turned to her church and the Salvation Army for help with groceries.

"I've been in this business for two decades, and I've never experienced anything like this," Hartjen said. "I'm just fighting for my life."

It will take several more months before TV production -- and the jobs that go along with it -- return to normal levels, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. And that's assuming there is no actors strike. "It's going to be a nerve-racking year for 'below-the-line' workers," he said.

Anxieties build

The downturn comes at a tough time for Hollywood's blue-collar employees, who are grappling with what many economists view as a nationwide recession, as well as a steady drain of film jobs to New Mexico, Louisiana and other states offering production incentives not available in California. Michigan upped the stakes recently by offering film producers 40 cents back for every dollar they spend shooting in the state.

Adding to the anxiety among so-called below-the-line workers -- such as technicians, carpenters and makeup artists -- are fears that they could suffer a double whammy if actors and studios fail to reach a new contract by June 30. Studios, which have spent months preparing for a walkout by actors, began negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild two weeks ago.

The parties a few days ago agreed to extend the talks an additional week. Nonetheless, each side remains far apart on a number of issues, including how much money actors should earn when shows are distributed online.

"Any possibility of an actors strike weighs heavily on the minds of our people," said Ed Brown, business agent for Local 44 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local represents set decorators, special-effects workers and prop makers who are among the more than 30,000 Hollywood workers represented by the union.

Brown estimates that about 25% of the local's 5,000 West Coast members are still looking for jobs -- double the normal level for this time of year.

Without any income, they've sought help from charitable groups such as the Writers Guild Foundation, which has raised money for crew members, and the Actors Fund, which provides financial help to economically distressed workers in the entertainment industry. The latter, with help from the Writers Guild Foundation, has provided more than $1 million in assistance to nearly 700 people since November. Recipients receive payments of $500 to $2,000 to help with car payments, mortgage payments or utility bills.

The Actors Fund has been getting about 20 calls a day for emergency help, double the usual volume.

"A lot of people are trying to dig themselves out of a hole," said Keith McNutt, western region director for the Actors Fund. "They're desperate."

The reason: Work has been slow to rebound.

Fewer shows, fewer jobs

Most TV shows couldn't return immediately after the writers reached a new contract with studios because of the four- to six-week period it takes for most shows to complete scripts, rehire crews and prep locations for shooting. When production did resume, there were many fewer shows and thus fewer job opportunities for crew members.

The downturn has been partially offset by a 50% upswing in feature film production, a possible sign that studios are ramping up production to complete films before June 30, when the actors contract expires. Studios have braced for a possible walkout by juggling their slates so that most films would wrap up by the contract deadline.

But the increase has not been enough to fill the paucity of jobs. Indeed, an actors strike would be more debilitating than a walkout by writers because it would shut down most production, a nightmare scenario for people such as Ed Lippman.

"I can't even think what might happen to me if SAG goes out," says Lippman, a location manager. The 16-year industry veteran has been unemployed since November, when his last show, the NBC cop drama "Life," shut down after filming only 11 episodes.

When the strike ended, Lippman figured he would return to work on "Life," but NBC chose not to resume filming until June. For the first time in his career, he wasn't getting any calls for pilot work, and neither were his colleagues.

After maxing out his credit cards, Lippman, 42, did something he never imagined he would do: He filed for personal bankruptcy this month.

"It was hard to accept. I thought, 'How could this happen?' " Lippman said.

Phillip Gordon has been wondering the same thing.

After four months of unemployment, the 38-year-old prop maker and general foreman returned to work a week ago, overseeing construction of the set for the comedy "Mostly Ghostly," an upcoming movie based on the R.L. Stine book series. The job pays $17 an hour, well below his usual rate, and requires a two-hour commute from his home near Palmdale to the set in Playa Vista.

Gordon has little choice. He's four months behind on his variable-rate mortgage. His payments ballooned to $3,700 from $2,700 a month in January, shortly after he lost his job on the set of the next "Star Trek" movie. To stay afloat, he's sold off tools at swap meets and mowed his neighbor's lawn.

"I don't know what else to do," Gordon said.

Benefits could cease

Many crew members are in a race against the clock to keep their health insurance. Union rules require that members work at least 300 hours every six months to maintain their benefits.

After a four-month hiatus, foley artist Dominique Tabach of Valencia recently returned to work part-time on the CBS drama "Numbers." But she has nothing else lined up.

Without additional work, Tabach, 43, is concerned that she won't accumulate enough hours to keep her union health insurance beyond September. The insurance covers Tabach, her 8-year-old daughter and her husband, a former TV executive who recently lost his job.

"There's just not enough TV work out there," Tabach said.

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