And that is not hyperbolic.
An IATSE strike is looming like a dark cloud over the entertainment industry, and if you’ve even spent one day on set… you probably can imagine why.
That hashtag #setlife busts everything from bank accounts to relationships, to sleep schedules to... you name it. The hard-working craftspeople that make up the majority of a crew are pushed the hardest, treated the worst, given little credit, and compensated poorly.
But it’s even worse than just that. Why?
Because those “above the line” get paid a ton, treated absurdly well, and get all the credit (even for things they have nothing to do with).
It’s sort of a microcosm for many aspects of our economy, right?
But the problems go far beyond that.
Because Hollywood is a dream factory, and people are pulled in by the love of what they do, and there is a line around the block just to sniff non-union abusive “opportunities,” it’s just so easy to exploit people.
And people are exploited.
Read some IATSE stories on IG, and you’ll quickly find out how horrible the lives of so many set craftspeople can be, if you don’t know this first hand already.
And these are not the people who get exploited the most around here. These are often the ones who are supposedly protected by a union, still being exploited.
As IATSE and AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) square off and we head to a potential strike and walk off, there are a lot of voices rising up in support. If you want to know more about IATSE and its function, we cover it in-depth here.
We should be very careful what we make of the voices rising in support of IATSE.
Let's keep in mind here that there is no production assistants union. There is no personal assistants union.
The experience of set PAs will not likely be improved by this strike.
In my own life experience, I’ve been hired as a PA and asked to do more work to protect those in the union from being exploited.
This is just what productions have to do to make ends meet. Maybe they’re paying the minimum to the stars above the line. Maybe they’re paying the minimum to the union members. But while those numbers are hardly a living wage in the BTL cases, they’re even less for the nonunion people on set.
This is all to say nothing of totally non-union productions. Which are both necessary to many trying to get started, but also unregulated.
This is a major inflection point in our industry’s history. Will a living wage and decent work hours be possible for the union members on productions?
And then the follow-up questions… will that help, impact, or change anything for those lower down the line?
But looming larger than all of that is what I perceive to be a major lie told at the very, very, very top of the totem pole.
For every single celebrity and showrunner and above-the-line talent I see posting that they support IATSE on their social media platforms, I wonder… would they take less money on a project to ensure that all those BTL get a living wage?
In this example, we’re just talking about the careless way above-the-line folks demand more from those below-the-line, with the ends always justifying the means. This isn’t even about taking less money, it’s more about understanding that human beings work for you.
There is that famous scene in Mad Men. Remember?
Peggy wants recognition, credit, or even just a thank-you. “That’s what the money is for!” and “You’re getting experience” is Don’s retort. A familiar Hollywood refrain to any who have been around the business.
But what if there isn’t enough money? We don’t know what Don was paying Peggy, but we know in most Hollywood situations, the money is not quite enough to endure the abuse, the demands, the lack of credit for the end product.
Don is like so many out of touch above-the-line producers, writers, directors, and stars. He’s even claiming part of the compensation is the experience. “You should be thanking me!”
It’s not a far cry from the student filmmaker who is paying people nothing but pizza for lunch, a chance to get on set, and the opportunity to make some connections!
It’s not good enough. People need living wages, but again, it’s not just about money.
It’s about being treated with respect. No money should be good enough to dehumanize someone.
That’s not what the money is for.
In this story, an individual talks about the crazy travel cost imbalance in the budget for those above-the-line and those below.
My question is, do all these powerful above-the-line talents know that this is what is happening? While the writers on the staff of this show enjoyed first-class flights, this union member couldn’t even afford to travel with the show.
If these staff writers stand with IATSE, would they fly coach? And these aren’t even writers who make the mint that say a showrunner does. Or an EP who simply lends their name to something and does zero actual creative work.
We all know how top-heavy this business model is. It’s hard to believe that the people at the top of the earning pyramid on a production really care about the people unable to support themselves… pursuing… the dream?
Whose dream is it, exactly?
In a just world (that we don’t live in and never will), a person above the line stands to gain everything from success. They are “living the dream.” Shouldn’t that be the person who gives up the most? They get the awards. The accolades. The credit. The next jobs.
What happens to the oh-so-critical art department PA, of whom EPS are singing the praises today? Are they living the dream?
The people working on these films aren’t stupid. They know how much is spent on marketing, for example. Or finishing. They know how little value they have to those making those decisions.
Obviously, there are a lot of very powerful and rich players in this game. Many of the above-the-line talents can pay easy lip service to this idea, without sacrificing a single cent.
Maybe that's fair?
After all, why should they take less money from corporate giants who profit from their work?
Well, maybe if they truly believed that finishing the project and paying everyone on it a fair wage made sense…
We get into the weeds a bit here. But if Netflix, for example, can’t afford to make projects with proper weekends for the crew… maybe they should stop handing out massive overalls to above-the-line talent?
This sort of story from an exec calls into question if it would even be necessary for above-the-line talent to sacrifice anything for below-the-line rates to go up and conditions to improve.
Maybe it’s that easy for productions to spend more money and time to make this a functional existence.
But I think culturally, we spend far too much time looking for someone to blame, and not enough time looking inward.
And is above-the-line talent willing to take less?
I know in my life, I’ve taken less money voluntarily on projects and jobs to make sure there is money to go around and the thing can be finished.
More importantly, instead of just telling a PA making a horrible wage to go dump the trash at the end of a long shoot day, I went with them and helped.
I’m not a saint. I just remember my first unpaid assistant internship job one summer in college where I showed up to the office excited, and my first task was… take out the trash.
I learned a lot that summer.
I’d also later enjoy PA gigs where I’d be asked to clean the production office bathroom.
So when I was in a position to need someone I hired to take out the trash, I wanted them to know two things:
Firstly, even as a producer, I’m not above that work nor am I better than them. Secondly, I appreciate them and the unpleasantness of the task, and I am willing to go with them to at least help out.
Is this true for everyone proclaiming they stand with IATSE?
Is it even true for every union member? Are union members going to be looking out for those who aren’t in the union yet? Or aren’t protected yet? Are they looking out for ways to get more people into the union and filling the ranks?
If we can’t pay people at the lowest levels a living wage, we will never have economically diverse voices in our business. We’ll continue to only have this available to those who have enough money to compensate them while they scrub bathrooms for the experience.
I’d like to see how many showrunners, producers, directors, and even writers are willing to take pay cuts to ensure that jobs keep coming to those who “make the magic actually happen” as they all claim.
Who is willing to put their money where their Instagram and Twitter accounts are? What changes will we really see?
We hope to find out soon.