Hollywood writers' strike ripples to thousands of out-of-work crews

Writers say they want better pay and working conditions, and want studios to address what they see as a threat from artificial intelligence.
Posted at 11:36 PM, Jun 20, 2023

Until recently, Hollywood makeup artist Farah Bunch kept busy working on a long list of TV shows, including "Will & Grace", "Fuller House" and the "Frasier" reboot coming to Paramount+.

"I'm making them look good, and that part is really fun," Bunch said.

But her job making the stars more beautiful stopped cold when Writer's Guild of America members went on strike nearly eight weeks ago, shutting down nearly all productions that rely on a script. Thousands of set builders, costumers, caterers and more haven't been able to work.

Writers say they want better pay and working conditions, and they want studios to address what they see as a threat from artificial intelligence. But Bunch says even before the strike officially began, the threat of a walkout was having a serious ripple effect on thousands of crewmembers.

"The crew hasn't been working since you know, like January, February," she said.

At a warehouse that houses Global Effects, owner Chris Gilman lives in a world of costumes and creatures.

"We're able to rent these to a wide range of productions from a very, very high-end movie that's looking for really accurate stuff, to a low-budget commercial where they just need a sight gag," Gilman said.

His warehouse is wall-to-wall with cyclops, suits of armor for the Middle Ages, and around 300 suits for the space age, the largest collection of spacesuits in Hollywood.

"This is Ryan Gosling's suit from 'First Man,'" Gilman said, showing off a highly-detailed replica spacesuit from the Apollo era.

For more than three decades Gilman has made a living renting out costumes and props to films and TV shows. But with the WGA strike, he says business is down about 50%.

"I think yesterday the phone rang once," he said.

Actors join striking members of the Writers Guild of America on the picket line.

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Gilman said he's lucky. His collection is so unique — including a replica Mercury space capsule — that he's still getting some calls from overseas productions that have not shut down.

However, he says he's still cutting hours to make ends meet during the strike.

"To adapt, we are down to three days a week for most of our crew," Gilman said. "We're having to get a loan to cover the interim because we don't know how long it's going to be. And just the rent alone in a place like this is around $15,000 a month."

The last writers' strike was in 2007 and lasted 100 days. One study released by the Milkin Institute found the strike cost California's economy more than $2 billion, nearly 38,000 jobs, and helped tip the state into a recession.

"We have millions of items in here," said Pam Elyea, walking through rows of historic props in a massive North Hollywood warehouse.

History for Hire, the company she started with her husband 35 years ago, specializes in rare historic props.

But with nobody renting old cameras, fake atomic bombs or Civil War uniforms, she's already laying off staff.

"The Writers Guild has about 12,000 members. And if you look at all the people in the below-the-line crafts, you're probably looking at hundreds of thousands of people," Elyea said. "So I think that it's really important that we look out for each other, and realize how our actions are going to affect everyone else."

Writers on the picket line say they are sympathetic.

"That's not anything we take lightly, putting other people out of their jobs, asking them to stay home because of the productions that are shut down," said WGA member Jess McKenna. "We're hoping it sets a precedent and sends a signal for not only our industry, but any industry, that labor needs to be respected."

Farah Bunch sincerely hopes writers get a fair deal. But as the strike drags on, she and thousands of others desperate to get back to work hope they are not forgotten.

"They should get the money they deserve for their work, but it's not going to affect us. In the end they are going to get their deal. But we are going to be in probably about $20,000 to $30,000 debt," Bunch said. "I would love to feel a little bit like, you know, we care about you, and we know that you guys have gone through hell."