‘We’re all dying’: Hollywood crews are treading water without work

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

SAG-AFTRA actors and Writers Guild of America (WGA) writers walk the picket line in front of Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 17, 2023. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo.

Tens of thousands of below-the-line workers — including costume designers, set decorators, and gaffers — have had their livelihoods upended as the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes continue with no end in sight. So far, they’re estimated to have cost the California economy $3 billion

The industry’s crew members are not on strike, but they’re affected just the same. That includes 30-year veteran prop master Chris Call and graphic designer Josh McKevitt.

McKevitt says he and his fiance — who has multiple sclerosis — live mostly on a single income. They relocated to Chicago last week because they can’t afford to live in LA anymore. “We reached a breaking point. We're like, ‘Let's go back, be with family, and then we'll figure it out from there when this thing gets sorted.’”

He points out, “I think what the general public doesn't realize, though, is how long it's really been going on for — the limited access to work. I've worked a month [out of] the entire year.”

Like McKevitt, Call bounced from show to show before the strike. His work dried up in February, after working on the HBO series “Winning Time.” He sent email after email, looking for a new gig, but to no avail.

“It was already crickets,” Call explains. “I would get responses back from production designers saying, ‘If you're looking for work, we're all in trouble.’ And that's what happened, and nothing transpired.”

Read more: Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes workers: ‘I just don't want to be forgotten’

In total, Call says he’s had about six weeks of work in 2023. He dipped into his savings, but they weren’t enough to cover at least eight months without gigs. In the meantime, his family has provided some financial support.

Call says he’s looking forward to September 1, when the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) will allow its members to tap into their retirement funds. Unlike WGA and SAG-AFTRA, he says there’s no strike fund that he can apply to. “We are out here on our own trying to figure it out. I'm treading water and it's scary every day.”

He emphasizes, “I clearly blame AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers]. And again, I'm not part of the contract negotiations. … But I do know that in any negotiation … you have to give to receive. So I think that at a certain point, the WGA is going to have to agree to incremental changes. … And I think what's going to create animosity is if people start thinking, ‘Okay, now you're just asking for too much and we're all dying out here.’”

McKevitt says he’s in the same boat. “I put it all on AMPTP. … It's a giant chess game. And I feel helpless. … Everybody has their own path on how they got to LA and chasing this world, but to have it pulled out from underneath you with no control — is really maddening.”

He adds that it’s tough to reconcile what he knows is necessary during these negotiations versus what’s going on in his day-to-day life.

“I support it, because we're not going to get paid if you don't fight for it. But [on] the other side of it, it's getting harder and harder. I'm looking into other markets right now where I can maybe temporarily work until this clears up a bit, but it's tricky.”

Read more: Businesses reliant on Hollywood suffer as strikes continue

McKevitt is concerned about whether tensions will subside once the strikes are over. 

“How does that affect even the product that they want to create? The animosity that I think people behind the scenes are doing, working on this stuff. It's gonna be a very hard pill to swallow to come back to that kind of world.”

He adds, “I want everybody to get their piece of the pie. And I think the greed is at an insane level now where it's so unchecked, that this fight, I think, to get what people's worth is, is important. But I just don't know how and when that's going to get resolved.” 

Then in 2024, IATSE’s contract will expire, which means negotiations for a new one are coming up. During the last cycle, Call says the union supported a strike authorization vote. But now, he’s not sure what could happen next.

“Part of this whole problem is that they have one negotiator for all these contracts. … We have to wait until the WGA resolves their contract. And then we have to do the SAG contract. And this is part of what drags it all out for so long. … AMPTP will never agree to negotiate all the contracts at once.”

He continues, “I don't see that we're going to have a whole lot of footing or there'll be an appetite from anybody to support us as well. Again, we're out there supporting SAG and WGA. But we also don't really have a choice. … I think a lot of people just wish we could go back to work.”

Many KCRW staff are members of SAG-AFTRA, though we are under a separate contract from the agreement at issue between actors and studios.