As Hollywood strikes near their conclusion, UK crews are still suffering

Bectu demonstration in leicester square hollywood strikes
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Bectu members held a demonstration in Leicester Square today, urging the AMPTP to strike a deal with the US actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA. For thousands of people out of work, it couldn’t come a moment too soon.

At the demonstration in London’s Leicester Square early today (5 October) the assembled Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (or Bectu) members from across the film and TV landscape seemed perfectly chipper.

Despite the conditions of their meeting, they had good reason to be. The WGA strike which kicked off a summer of cancelled productions and stalled development finally ended last week, with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) – bargaining on behalf of the studios – giving in to the vast majority of the union’s demands.

The simultaneous actors’ strike which has crippled most scripted projects, meanwhile, still rages on. But with the AMPTP finally agreeing to negotiate with SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ guild, there’s now light at the end of the tunnel. After nearly five months of little to no available work, the group gathered under the Shakespeare statue might soon be back in a job.

Bectu demonstration in leicester square

Photo: James Harvey

But, as speaker after speaker at the event stresses, things are far from rosy. Representatives from every corner of the industry, from costumes to visual effects, scripted to unscripted, threw out percentages at the sizeable crowd gathered around them: 20 percent; 30 percent; 50 percent. These are the proportions of workers looking to leave the industry in the next five years.

Part of the problem, according to Charlotte Sewell, Chair of Bectu’s Costume and Wardrobe London division, is a lack of awareness. “Members of the public don’t always understand how our films and shows get made, and what and who goes into them.”

The actors and writers’ strikes might have been triggered by conditions on the other side of the Atlantic, but the impact on the UK industry, which relies not only on American production companies, but many SAG-AFTRA and WGA members, has been huge.

“We’ve seen about 12-14 different productions shut down, including some really big feature films and high-end TV,” Bectu’s National Secretary, Spencer MacDonald, told us. “Venom’s been shut down, Wicked’s been shut down… That’s displaced 1000s of our workers.”

Bectu demonstration in leicester square

Photo: James Harvey

With little awareness of the issues comes minimal government support. “There’s been no furlough, no delay to tax payments, no grants,” Sewell continued. With around three quarters of Bectu’s workforce currently out of a job, thousands of employees have taken a massive financial hit for which they seem unlikely to be compensated.

“The government have said lots of warm words about supporting the industry with tax breaks,” MacDonald said. “But what we’re saying is, actually, that just makes the TV companies, the streamers and the studios richer. We want to see that trickle down.”

Meanwhile, the cost to workers in the UK industry is catastrophic. “I’ve gotten emails today from two people who have lost their homes. They’re now homeless,” Blair Barnett, Chair of the British Film Designers Guild, said.

At the same time, every crew member and representative is keen to stress their support for both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. They even share some of the same concerns as the strikers.

“We’re talking to the same employers,” MacDonald told us. “Some of the issues are slightly different, but there will be some impact for AI, particularly for, maybe, costume and hair and makeup, and even set construction. We’re doing a bit of research at the moment just to see directly what is the impact might be, because the AI situation has come at us really, quite quickly.”

Bectu demonstration in leicester square

Photo: James Harvey


In fact, the AI issue might already be affecting behind-the-scenes staff. Disney recently used AI to generate the credits sequence for Marvel’s Secret Invasion, in a move which they insisted hadn’t taken the place of any human-created content.

But problems for the UK industry, it seems, aren’t strictly limited to the impact of strikes, or even the growing threat of AI. As the film and television industry has increasingly moved towards a freelance model of employment, Bectu has become the UK’s largest union for freelancers.

“In an ideal world, I think everyone would like the protection, the pensions, sick pay, and everything else permanent contracts offer,” MacDonald told us.

“But the film industry globally, not just in the UK, relies on freelance workers – and at the moment, employment legislation in this country is diabolical for freelancers.”

We asked MacDonald if he thought the current state of affairs was sustainable in the long-term.

“It’s not,” he said.

“We’ve been through the pandemic, we’ve been through this strike, we need an extra 20,000 workers to grow the industry, and pretty soon we won’t have a world-class crew anymore without investment in the people making the products.”

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