UK crews call for urgent government support as SAG-AFTRA strike nears 100 days

“It has been kind of like Covid.”

By Geoffrey Macnab 18 Oct 2023

UK crews call for urgent government support as SAG-AFTRA strike nears 100 days
House of the Dragon. Credit: HBO

As the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike nears the 100-day mark, leading UK film and TV technicians and suppliers are continuing to speak out about the extreme financial hardship and uncertainty they and their colleagues are facing due to the hard production stop caused by the strike.

Although the WGA strike is now resolved, the UK industry remains in crisis mode. There is a working assumption that even if SAG-AFTRA struck a deal with AMTMP today, production would not restart in full in the UK until January, thanks to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Industry leaders continue to ask why the UK government has not intervened to help struggling crew. 

“A large question needs to be asked from a government perspective,” said Christopher Ross, president of the British Society of Cinematographers. “The British film industry does contribute a large sum of money to the British economy and for us to be so tethered to an industrial dispute in another nation makes us an industry a volatile commodity.”

Speaking to Screen from Croatia where he is shooting Ronan Bennett’s TV version of Day Of The Jackal for Sky and Peacock. Ross detailed how UK camera crews have been suffering.

“It has been pretty devastating for the whole filmmaking community,” Ross said. “2023 started off as a pretty bad year for a lot of people. There wasn’t quite as much going on in January and February as there had been in 2022. Just as it appeared the industry was warming up and some productions were on the cusp of being greenlit, the strikes curtailed a lot of that.”

Construction teams were among the first to “go idle,” even before the strikes began. Other departments have also now faced many months without work. There has been little sign of UK independent productions picking up the slack.

“Almost every project is tied in with either US money or US talent. That is why we have faced the predicament we are in,” Ross said.

He noted that while a few leading cinematographers have been kept on retainer, most crew members have been “cut adrift.”

Any given cinematographer is likely to have a focus puller, clapper loader, camera trainee and camera utility assistant. This means that if the cinematographer is out of work, so are all these associates. “That’s not unique to cinematographers. It’s the same with costume designers, hair and make-up, with editors, production designers and construction managers…the more idle the HODs (heads of department), the more idle the general workforce is - and this year has been dire,” said Ross.“The people that have found this time particularly hard are the industry starters and those at the lower levels of each department.”

Most crew members are self-employed and haven’t had any kind of safety net. This is a point forcefully made by Blair Barnette, chairperson of the British Film Designers Guild (BFDG). She pointed out the UK’s HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs) encouraged freelance contractors to set themselves us as limited companies. This meant they weren’t eligible for any government support during the pandemic and weren’t able to furlough themselves - and still aren’t receiving support now. Many have had to turn to the Film and TV Charity for support.

“There are people who are really struggling. Since May, there is no work,” said Barnette. “it just feels that people who are freelance and work in the film industry are very much misunderstood by the Government…everybody’s mental health is going down because they don’t feel they are being heard or seen by anybody. It’s an invisible plight.”

Barnette, whose credits range from UK indie pictures such as Prevenge to US series including FBI: International, is currently doing freelance work as a project manager for a construction company because her film and TV assignments have dried up

“It saved me from losing my apartment. I know some people who are driving Ubers or who have gone back to bar work,” the BFDG chairperson explained how film designers and art directors are making ends meet.

The BFDG has just conducted a survey on the impact of the industry strikes on its members. This revealed that 38.9% of the respondents last worked three to four months ago and that only 16.7% are currently working working. Some 21.5% revealed they were struggling to pay their rent or mortgage - and 44.4% said they would be struggling soon. 7.5% said they struggling to pay for food and 18.6% said they were struggling to pay bills and creditors.

“It has been kind of like Covid,” said Eddie Standish of Locate Studios, managing agents of more than 200,000 sq. ft of commercial property in West London, for the film and HETV industry of the slowdown since the strikes began. “If America gets a cold, we [in the UK] get flu. Everything has just shut down over here. Maybe we need to learn from this and support more independent British productions…everyone in the film industry has been affected by this whether you’re renting out a honey wagon or trestle tables, lighting houses, facilities, everyone. 

When the strikes were confirmed, productions swiftly returned their equipment. “Overnight, we were inundated,”  said Russell Allen, director, business development, camera, grip and lighting divisions at Arri Rental.

“Business-wise, at least when we had Covid, we had help from the government which certainly helped to a great extent and made sure we were able to keep all our staff employed,” he noted.

However, he said there has been a “massive upsurge” in commercials, which have not been affected by the strikes.

Arri Rental used the early strike period “for cleaning up equipment, a lot of maintenance has been going on.” It helped too that the company was servicing HBO’s House Of The Dragon, an Equity-run production that was able to continue shooting during the strikes at Leavesden Studios.

With the end of the WGA strike, Allen said he is already seeing signs that productions are booting up. Arri Rental has had several calls in recent weeks from companies looking to ramp up again. He predicted that it will soon “be crazy again with lack of equipment, lack of crew, lack of stages. We will be back to where were beforehand.”

However, Allen also warned the UK industry will lose valuable technicians because of the strikes. “You’re always in the predicament that if you fall on hard times and let skilled people go, it’s very hard to get those people back again. If you’re an engineer or camera technician, it takes years and years to get the skill set.”

This article originally appeared on our sister site Screen Daily.

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