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Hollywood production has shut down. Why thousands of workers are feeling the pain

“Grey’s Anatomy”
Frank Novak, owner of Modernica prop house in Los Angeles, is photographed on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

For 30 years, Frank Novak has weathered recessions, strikes and the slump following the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

But the owner of L.A.-based prop house Modernica said he’s never experienced the kind of business fallout currently confronting the entertainment business, as movie and TV productions grind to a halt due to the speading coronavirus pandemic.

“This is the great unknown,” he said.

The cancellations began piling up last week.

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“Several TV shows brought back their rentals,” said Novak, 61. In one day, he had three cancellations. “That was very unusual. Last week my business was down 50%. I’ll be lucky if I even make half of that this week. I’m looking at a loss of $500,000 in revenue. I’m not even sure if I’ll have any business next week.”

As film crews have quickly shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a domino effect has befallen Hollywood’s working class. A range of people from actors to lighting directors, drivers and grips to administrators, painters, hair stylists and caterers, now suddenly find themselves out of work.

A raft of dramas, sitcoms and talk shows from “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” to ABC’s long-running medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” and Apple TV+'s “The Morning Show” have canceled or suspended production in L.A. as officials have imposed new restrictions on film crew sizes.

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The abrupt work stoppage is all the more jarring because it comes at a time of unparalleled growth in the industry, when more content is being produced than ever and when demand for soundstages barely one month ago had created a space crunch. Now, with Hollywood on hold, so too are the livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers.

The anxiety around this shutdown and its suddenness is made all the more difficult because many of these entertainment workers are day players, working paycheck to paycheck, making an already financially insecure situation even more precarious.

Rocco Paolone, 40 of Tujunga has been a set painter for 20 years. He’s worked on numerous productions, including Disney’s recent live-action “Mulan” film. He says the past three years were his most lucrative, working on a combination of TV shows and commercials, but calls the work stoppage “a kick in the pants.”

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“I was bouncing around on commercials, there was plenty of work and it all came to a halt on Friday,” he said. “I’ve got car payments, rent — it’s going to be tough to scrape by. If this goes into next month, I’ll have to dip into my savings. This can see me through a couple months, but this caught me and many of us with our pants down.”

Los Angeles has long been referred to as the entertainment capital of the world. The industry’s tentacles have broad reach. The industry employed 220,860 payroll workers in the L.A. region in 2016, up nearly 20% from a decade earlier, according to a 2018 report by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and other groups.

“At least 50% of those jobs will be affected one way or another,” said Kevin Klowden, executive director of the the Milken Institute’s Center for Regional Economics. “The longer this goes on, that number moves closer to 100%.

“The real issue comes down to if production companies can’t absorb the cost of the delay because they don’t have insurance, in which case a production is canceled entirely, but we don’t know that yet.”

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Klowden says the coronavirus’ effect on the film industry could potentially pack the same devastating punch that the 2007-2008 writers’ strike did when the California economy took a $2.1-billion hit.

NCIS
B camera operator Fred Iannone moves on a camera dolly for a shot during shooting of “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s very possible for this entire circumstance to have an equal impact by the time all is said and done, especially if productions shut and theatrical closings extend toward a two-month range,” he said.

Unlike the writers’ strike however, the coronavirus is not a temporary, localized event.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said David Knoller, 56, a Tarzana-based executive producer who has worked on shows including “Big Love” on HBO and “Power” on Starz. “During the writers’ strike you could still go into your offices. The writers weren’t there, but you could still work on projects where the scripts were already written. This is a complete shutdown.”

What’s more, during the writers’ strike, many workers were able to supplement their incomes with secondary jobs for a time working in restaurants, bars and the unions could draw on strike reserves. With more measures being taken by the government to close all but essential businesses, even those avenues have been cut off.

The pain is not being felt just in Southern California.

Leslie Wong, a freelance producer who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, was counting on the nearly $10,000 she and her husband expected to make by helping to produce the Turner Classic Movies film festival in Los Angeles in April. But last week, organizers canceled the event.

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Wong expects to receive only $1,000 for the work she’d already completed. And the $4,000 she was counting on from producing a film shoot has also dried up.

Wong, 41, who is helping her family pay for two mortgages totaling $3,000, her student loans that are $500 a month, and health insurance that is another $875 a month, says she is anxiously living off her savings with no idea when things might improve.

“I get it and I’m happy that we’re all trying to be safe and not spread this disease even further; but at the same time, there is just nothing for us,” Wong said. “We just kind of feel helpless.”

New Yorker Al Sapienza, an actor for the last 40 years with roles in shows such as “The Sopranos” and “House of Cards,” was due to fly out Monday to New Orleans, where he was to guest star in a series of episodes for “NCIS: New Orleans.” But on Thursday night he got word production was suspended.

“It’s the safe thing to do,” he said, adding that he suffers from asthma and is old enough to be at risk during the pandemic. Now he is holed up in his East Side apartment, where the gym is closed and he has nothing to do. “Auditions are done, the business is shut down. Everything came to a grinding halt.”

Without an end in sight, some have begun taking alternative measures to cobble together some funding.

“I totally expect my income to be zero for the duration of this coronavirus thing,” said Michael Boehm, a 49-year-old actor in Foster City, who says auditions and work have been postponed. A commercial he shot was suspended and he’s still waiting for the $450 paycheck for the three-day shoot.

In the meantime, Boehm has resorted to selling his belongings and taking on manual labor jobs to help pay his bills and child support. He recently helped a friend pack and move things for $400 and plans to sell his collectible game cards and even his old wedding ring to make ends meet. “I put a lot of stuff up on eBay,” Boehm said. “Anything that I can, that I have, that has any value.”

Unions and organizations have suddenly found themselves wrestling with how to help their members with very urgent concerns about health insurance and mortgages.

“We were telling our members to save in January not for a pandemic but for a potential strike in the industry this season,” said Steve Dayan, secretary-treasurer of Hollywood Local 399 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose 5,000 members include studio drivers, casting directors, location managers and animal handlers.

Dayan said the union is exploring ways to help members who may be short on accumulating the necessary hours to preserve their health and pension benefits.

“We are just trying to make sure that our members know what to do to remain safe and to follow whatever instruction the employers are giving them and to contact us with any questions or concerns.”

SAG-AFTRA, which has more than 160,000 members, also is looking to help those experiencing hardships.

Both the SAG-AFTRA Foundation and SAG-AFTRA Motion Picture Players Welfare Fund are moving quickly to assist our members,” SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said in a statement. “We all need to do what we can to help those in need.”

The SAG-AFTRA Foundation, a nonprofit group, launched a COVID-19 disaster fund to provide emergency financial assistance to current SAG-AFTRA members to cover basic expenses such as rent, mortgage, utilities, medical bills and other essential needs.

Cyd Wilson, executive director of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, said the group typically receives six to 10 applications for emergency assistance per week, but the foundation had received more than 125 applications since Friday.

“We have been the safety net for this group for the last 35 years,” Wilson said. “This is why we are here, we will be there as community to support them in this time.”

Novak, the owner of Modernica Props, said that clients have begun calling to ask if they can hold onto their props until filming resumes.

“If they rented for two weeks, they’re asking if they can keep the rentals for four weeks and not pay for the additional time. I’ve said ‘fine.’ This is a whole new situation. I’m not going to charge them extra if their sets are dormant. That just seems kind of fair.”

In the meantime, he’s optimistic this crisis will eventually end. And when it does, he says, “there will be a lot of production.”


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