Behind the scenes, writers strike pinches production workers
Three weeks into the writers strike and Skip Beaudine already has drawn upon the credit line on his Woodland Hills home.
Beaudine was scheduled to begin pre-production today on a new TV pilot. But “Queen B,” a drama about a ruthless female chief executive, was put on hold because the script needed more work.
The 33-year Hollywood veteran, whose job as a line producer is to keep a show on budget and manage a crew of about 100, had been counting on the 20th Century Fox Television show.
“I’m trying to get us through the Christmas season, but financially it was a pretty big blow,” said Beaudine, 58, who, along with his wife, took custody of their three young grandchildren three years ago.
Beaudine is among the thousands of “below-the-line” workers who are the unintended casualties of the first writers strike in 20 years. These are the production designers, cinematographers, editors, costume designers and hair and makeup artists who toil behind the scenes as freelancers on movies and TV shows.
So named because of how TV shows and movies are budgeted, they are responsible for the physical production of a project and are not to be confused with “above-the-line” talent -- the actors, directors, writers and creative producers.
These workers don’t own fancy houses in Brentwood or lunch at pricey Hollywood haunts. Many live paycheck to paycheck. Prolonged droughts are an occupational hazard for them.
A given TV show could employ only a handful of writers but 100 or more below-the-line staffers. Many of them are now out of work given that an estimated 50 TV shows and a handful of movies have stopped production since the walkout.
The two dozen or so small and mid-size talent agencies that specialize in representing these workers have dual anxieties right now. They are scrambling to find work for clients to help tide them over during the strike, while trying to keep their own businesses afloat. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents more than 50,000 below-the-line workers in film and television in the U.S. and Canada, estimates that more than 100 shows will be shuttered by mid- to late December if the strike continues.
For the last three weeks, Jon Furie, whose Montana Artists Agency represents below-the-line workers, has been drawing upon his degree in psychology to help calm clients worried about their livelihoods and those of their crews. Many of Furie’s clients oversee teams that lost jobs as shows such as “The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Heroes” and “CSI: NY” stopped production.
“I represent the unsung heroes who are the unintended victims of the [writers] dispute,” said Furie, 46, the mild-mannered son of director Sidney J. Furie (“Lady Sings the Blues”). “I think everybody should get fair compensation for the work they do, but not at the expense of what I call the innocent victims.”
Furie and his three agents work from spare, third-floor offices on Sunset Boulevard. With linoleum floors and simple furnishings, they are a far cry from the sleek marble interiors of Hollywood’s big five agencies in Beverly Hills and Century City.
Some of the major agencies, including International Creative Management, have divisions that specialize in below-the-line clients, but they are more diversified and protected against the strike.
Furie and his agents have been trolling the independent movie world seeking positions for their out-of-work TV clients. But most of them lack experience in features and must now compete with dozens of other unemployed workers, some of whom have film credits.
Cary White, the production designer on “Friday Night Lights,” was one of the lucky ones. Today, he begins prepping New Line’s “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” a feature gig he got because he previously worked with the film’s director, Mark Waters, on such hits as “Mean Girls” and “Freaky Friday.”
Other clients haven’t been as fortunate. Donald Lee Harris, the production designer on “Grey’s Anatomy,” was working on Episode 11, halfway through the series’ 22 installments for the season, when Walt Disney Co./ABC halted production.
“It was pretty awful,” said Harris, 63. “We’ve all been aware that this was coming, so it wasn’t a shock, but it was still very disappointing knowing that right before the holidays you’re going to be out of work.”
Harris said that although he sympathized with the writers’ struggle to get their fair share of future payments when their work is distributed on computers and cellphones, he was upset about the cost of the strike for others. “I understand they want a piece of the pie, but do you have to ruin the whole pie to get it?
“Unfortunately, we’re being sacrificed along with them but we’re not going to get anything for it,” Harris said. If the strike goes on for months, said Harris, who lives with his wife and their two teenagers in Sherman Oaks, he would be plenty worried. “Then I’m eating up all my savings and will have to go to my home equity line to support my family.”
Furie knows firsthand what it’s like to be victimized by a writers strike. During the last one, in 1988, he was about to become a development executive at a small production company when the writers walked.
“I had to go to work in the kids’ shoe department at Nordstrom for 22 weeks,” recalled Furie, who began his career in the famed William Morris Agency mailroom and later produced three independent movies before becoming a matchmaker for behind-the-scenes talent and the directors who hire them.
Furie, who bought the agency four years ago after having worked there for eight years, said he had already felt the economic effect of the strike. He’s had to “cancel out” weeks of account receivables. Like all agencies, his gets a 10% commission for jobs it books.
But Furie has no plans to lay off any of his 10 employees and said he had set aside enough money to cover salaries and other overhead through December.
Maureen Toth, owner of Geller Agency, said she too was feeling the strike’s toll. Her company, which employs three people, represents about 75 below-the-line TV and movie clients, many of whom have lost their jobs or will shortly.
“We won’t be bringing in the revenue from TV, which will be extremely detrimental,” Toth said. “If enough fiscal damage is done, certainly the company closes its doors until I can figure out Plan B.”
Like many in Hollywood, Toth and Furie are hopeful that writers and studios can make a quick deal when they resume negotiations today.
“This will get resolved because everything has to get resolved,” Furie said. “But in the meantime, as the weeks go on, my clients and everyone who works in their crews are going without the weekly checks they need to live.”
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Paycheck to paycheck
Estimated average weekly fees for key “below-the-line” workers on a TV series:*
Production designer: $3,000 to $3,500
Costume designer: $2,500 to $2,600
Line producer: $20,000 an episode
*These people do not work 52 weeks a year. Most work an average of 20 to 40 weeks because the TV industry goes on hiatus twice a year.
Source: Montana Artists Agency