Dan Vetanovetz, a crew member with Local 728 who deals with set lighting, wrapped work on upcoming “Star Wars” series “Skeleton Crew” in January 2023. The show capped a period dating back to September 2020 in which he worked back-to-back on projects including “Westworld” and Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom.”

“There were so many times, everybody would be texting each other and saying, ‘Can you work tomorrow?’ and it was, ‘No, I’m booked.’ It was non-stop,” Vetanovetz told IndieWire. “I started telling people, ‘I don’t want to get your hopes up. Can you not text me? I’m going to be locked into this job for the next eight months.’ That was a lot, and everybody was super gangbusters.”

But 2023 was “pretty sparse,” he said. He had a few days on commercials. In September, he spent a week on a low-budget union project that qualified for an interim agreement. He installed light fixtures at conferences. The highlight was swapping out a stadium Jumbotron at Vanderbilt University.

Vetanovetz is now a year removed from his last full-time job on a major TV series or film.

“In 2019, you generally didn’t want to broadcast ‘I don’t have a job right now,’ because there’s always the [negative] thought that ‘Oh, Joe doesn’t have a job,’” he said. “Now, everyone knows we’re all looking for work. It’s expected.”

Vetanovetz is experiencing one of many extended lulls for crew members who are unable to find work. Some have been without a full-time role for over a year, relying on day-playing, the occasional music video, or odd jobs outside of film and TV. Many in these tight-knit communities speak of people leaving the industry altogether, of folks losing their healthcare, their savings, or even as one crew member told us, of a colleague taking their own life.

Dan Vetanovetz on set of “The Gray Man” in 2021Courtesy of Dan Vetanovetz

After the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes shut down Hollywood for six months last year, the expectation was production would return rapidly once the strikes ended. When it didn’t, there were rumblings things would be back after the holidays. That didn’t happen, either.

“It’s never been this slow. The economic situation for a lot of crew members in general has been worse than the pandemic,” said Elyse Jackson, a digital asset manager with IATSE Local 871 who has been unemployed for the last 14 months. “Back then, we had governments or even some support from the studios, and we had been classified as essential workers. This time around, all we have is each other. We’re not getting enough support, really, anywhere outside of our own community.”

Peak TV Is Over

There are still an enormous number of TV shows and movies being produced, but the downturn compared to the high watermark of 2022 has been swift. FX CEO John Landgraf this month declared Peak TV, a term he coined, officially over. FX’s research team counted 516 adult-centric live-action scripted shows released in 2023, a drop of 14 percent from 2022 which had a record 600 series. It’s the biggest drop in 20 years of FX doing this research.

That drop is trickling into 2024. According to data from production intelligence company ProdPro, production spend was down by $14.7 billion globally last year, and production starts were down 24 percent globally in 2023.

ProdPro CEO and co-founder Alex LoVerde told IndieWire that while he saw a post-strike surge in production, there’s a “significant decline” year-over-year in the volume of series production. LoVerde said a total of 193 series are in production in Q1 2024, a 30 percent decline from Q1 2022 and a 22 percent decline from Q1 2023.

The strikes caused Los Angeles film production to plummet in 2023. It was down 32 percent compared to 2022 according to numbers released by FilmLA, but every quarter showed a significant decline. FilmLA president Paul Audley said it usually takes six weeks for production to ramp back up in the new year; this year, that timeline keeps extending. While there’s a fair amount of permit activity, it’s unclear if it’s high-value cast and crew from studio productions or if it’s smaller projects.

LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 12: John Landgraf, Chairman, FX Content & FX Productions at the FX Networks Winter TCA 2023 Press Tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, California on January 12, 2023. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup for FX Networks)
John Landgraf, chairman FX Content & FX Productions, at TCAFrank Micelotta/PictureGroup for

“The studios and the major streamers have talked about not only cutting back on the amount of programming, but also the number of episodes in series,” he said. “That shortens the amount of time and the amount of work that happens.”

Back in February 2023, Audley said he noticed Los Angeles production slowing as studios braced for a strike. There are signs that could be happening now ahead of a potential IATSE or Teamsters strike, he said. (Negotiations are set to begin March 4.) For now, it’s hard to judge what’s “normal” until he has a full quarter’s worth of data.

Audley said “it’s a national problem” too, with film productions seeking the locations that provide the best incentives and rebates, including overseas. For years, commercials shooting in California were the standard fallback for crew members when the film and TV industry slowed; today, ads chase rebates, too.

“We’ve started to feel a real loss of that part of the industry as well,” Audley said.

One studio film production executive who spoke with IndieWire said the current moment “feels like a sprint,” with many film projects in prep while racing to get many strike-delayed projects in the can. They downplayed the possibility of a IATSE strike, believing studios would be “foolish to repeat any mistakes we did last year.”

One fear expressed among IATSE members is that studios will push more projects overseas in anticipation of a strike. That’s unlikely for a project in preproduction — a dramatic change in location increases prep time, if not the budget — and the executive denied any pivot or a “whole cloth” shift to international productions. However, they did allow that studios are always open to international possibilities.

The executive added that as actor and director schedules fill up, there’s a logjam in what can feasibly be put on a studio’s film slate for the year. With multiple priority projects trying to go at once, it inevitably results in others collapsing entirely.

“I know films that have fallen apart because talent have had obligations to go into one movie or another, and now there’s this bottleneck,” the executive said. “I presume it’s similar for TV. Everything had to start, and you can only get so many things going at one time.”

Maggie Anne GollCourtesy of Maggie Anne Goll

Crew Keep Getting Knocked Down

Maggie Anne Goll, an on-set special effects worker with IATSE Local 44, said she works within a very tight-knit community and knows quickly when things are slowing down.

“If any of us aren’t working, we notice,” she said.

Sometimes her job can be as involved as blowing things up for massive action sequences on FX’s “The Old Man.” Other times she’s doing “very tame, very boring” work she’s eternally grateful to have on shows like “The Lincoln Lawyer” doing “wet downs” (aka getting the pavement wet so it looks good in the light). However, production is so slow in Los Angeles that even simple work is being performed by professionals with decades of experience, leaving greener crew in the lurch.

“You have really big department heads that have worked on huge projects doing this tiny little atmospheric and wet-down show because they’re available,” Goll said. “So those of us who are newer, those of us who don’t quite have those credentials yet, obviously we keep getting knocked down the ladder of opportunity.”

Goll, who has been in the industry since 2018, hasn’t worked full time since April 2023. She knew the surge of streaming shows wouldn’t last, but she didn’t anticipate that broadcast TV shows might also disappear. She described three jobs she expected to have at the end of last year that pushed due to scheduling issues with actors and talent — maybe into the summer, if she’s lucky.

“I’m not certain of anything. Don’t count your eggs until you’ve cracked them already,” she said. “I have hope, always. I know that this isn’t going to be an enduring condition that we’re facing right now. I think that the major studios and the other members of the AMPTP are very aware that in these upcoming negotiations for IATSE that we’re going to come with just as big a hammer as the WGA did.”

Craftspeople in Hollywood chalk up the slowness to many factors: fewer shows, fewer episodes, productions leaving for places with better tax incentives, the increased cost of doing business, inflation, corporate greed.

Erin Wenrick (lower left) on set for “The Mandalorian” Season 2Courtesy of Erin Wenrick

Erin Wenrick, a women’s finished key costumer with Local 705 who has worked on “Licorice Pizza,” “Boba Fett,” and “The Rookie,” said supervisors or department heads are “overwhelmed” by the number of people out of work and asking for positions when they don’t have the jobs to offer. Work on commercials used to be a haven, but Wenrick said “you have to have the right mentality” for the fast-paced work commercials demand.

“I wish I knew more shows that were happening. And I wish I knew who were on them,” Wenrick said. “But they’re crewed up, and you don’t want to harass people for work. So it’s kind of hard.”

Wenrick said before Covid, it was hard to find anyone in Los Angeles who would be available for day work because most people were booked full time. In the last year, day work has become her only work. She’s reluctant to post images of her from set to social media, lest she “make anybody feel bad” for not working.

“I really try not to oversell it, because I do understand what people are going through,” Wenrick said. “But I think as far as people not talking about the jobs they’re working, I don’t want people to think that they’re not being hired for a reason. I don’t want the people that I normally work with to feel bad that they’re not working because I couldn’t get them on this job. They’re just trying to protect themselves and protect their former coworkers or protect their feelings a little bit.”

Was It Worth It?

The writers strike lasted for 148 days, and the actors strike lasted 118 days. Lisa Gardner, another costumer with Local 705, made the most of her time without a job. Normally working 15-hour days, 5 days a week, Gardner joined the picket lines and became more organized with her own guild. As part of the Contract Action Team, she’s one of many IATSE members making a more concerted effort at communication during negotiations.

“I’m out of work, I have nowhere to go, I have energy to expel, and I have a bit of an axe to grind because I love my job and I want to get back to it, and the CEOs are keeping me from doing the thing that I love,” Gardner said. “I have had nothing but time to grind that axe. I’m also not a monolith. There are [people like me] at every single local, and they’re all doing the same thing I’m doing. This time has afforded us the bandwidth to connect with each other. And we’re talking.”

In the last year, Gardner said she witnessed colleagues move back to the Midwest to live at home with parents and leave the industry for good. She has faith that IATSE and the AMPTP will reach an agreement, saying “our industry is far too lucrative for it to go away forever.”

Lisa GardnerCourtesy of Lisa Gardner

“Either you’re doing whatever you have to to pay your bills and survive, or you’re doing whatever you have to to occupy your mind to survive,” she said. “I think we’re all in 100 percent survival mode at this point.”

Jackson has been out of work for 14 months, but managed to accrue enough work hours in 2022 to qualify for health insurance from her union through 2023. She’ll lose her current health plan imminently, but even so she did not mince words in saying IATSE’s upcoming contract fight is as existential as it was for writers and actors. The work stoppage “was painful, but it was worth it.”

“We all are trying to maintain our careers and survive, and we’re doing this because we love the industry,” Jackson said. “But we can’t have our passions and our love for our careers be used against us as a reason for us to be underpaid and overworked.”

Vetanovetz too is trying to remain positive. He believes this current moment of struggle won’t be permanent.

“Things are going to get better,” he said. “We’re going to find a way. I think that’s the real question that we’re all getting out there right now, is reminding people, ‘What do you want? What do you deserve?’ I grew a lot as a person this last year. Personally, for me, it was hard, but it was worth it. And I think it’s going to be even more worth it a year from now.”

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