It was a scene right out of a disaster movie. On or about Friday, March 13, every film and television production in Canada got the call: Shut it down. It didn’t matter if it was a TV pilot like CBS’s Langdon, based on Dan Brown’s books, which was one day away from going to camera; or a film in mid-shoot after years in development; or a series like NBC Universal’s Resident Alien, which had only four weeks left.
In the film and TV business, the abrupt end to all work is especially hard on below-the-line crew members – anyone who isn’t a writer, director, producer or actor – who make up the bulk of any production. In a matter of hours, crews buttoned down what they could and dispersed, leaving production design sketches on drawing tables, makeup robes draped across empty chairs, fabrics pinned to mannequins.
On the one hand, below-the-line workers are uniquely prepared to weather abrupt schedule changes. Projects, even high-profile ones, can and do fall apart at the last minute. “We’re used to high-stress, 12- and 14-hour days,” says Avery Plewes, a costume designer who’s worked on American Gods and The Umbrella Academy. “And we’re used to constant change and handling unexpected crises.”
On the other hand, there’s usually another gig to go to. Now everyone is drawing from the same limited well. Union members – which include most crew members – are entitled to a one-week severance, and most big companies are offering a bit more. CBS, Nickelodeon, Paramount and Warner Bros., which shoot Nancy Drew, Home Before Dark and Riverdale in Vancouver, are paying two weeks. ABC and NBC are paying three weeks. Netflix paid for a two-week hiatus, plus an additional two weeks from its emergency fund.
Still, most crew members are freelance workers or have self-incorporated, which means they can’t collect employment insurance. Many are unsure whether they qualify for federal government emergency funds. Most rent their homes rather than own.
“People don’t understand that for below-the-line workers, the business isn’t that glamorous,” says Cynthia Summers, a costume designer who’s worked on Altered Carbon and the upcoming (though who knows when) series adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. “I’ve been working 26 years, but I have no savings. No retirement fund. I’m feeling kind of frozen right now.”
During these months of self-isolation, directors, writers and producers can continue developing projects, but there’s not a lot for below-the-line crew to work on. A costumer can research a period piece, or a production designer can source items. But they’re not getting paid for it, and what if the director’s vision changes? Makeup artists, drivers, caterers, carpenters, electricians – their work just stops.
Ditto for the many businesses that service film and TV production: costume and prop rental houses, milliners, fabric suppliers. Jeff Churchill, who owns Jitterbug Boy, a Toronto shoemaking company for the arts (he made Thor’s footwear for Thor, Pennywise’s clown shoes for It Chapter Two, and Elton John’s boots for Rocketman), had 18 projects on the go. “I probably have 30 partially made shoes I could work on,” Churchill says, “but there’s no point, because my buyers are saying, ‘We don’t know when we’ll be able to pay you.’ ”
Same for Ian Drummond, who owns Ian Drummond Collections, a vintage clothing rental resource. He has clothes out to dozens of productions – Simply Halston in New York; Fantastic Beasts in Britain. Racks of suits from the 1930s wait for Guillermo del Toro’s thriller Nightmare Alley, stalled in mid-shoot. “We’ve just stopped the clock on our rental fees,” Drummond says. “It’s suspended animation.” His landlord is giving him a four-month break on the rent for his 8,000-square-foot warehouse, but not all suppliers are as lucky.
All of this matters, because the shutdown doesn’t just imperil individuals – it puts at risk the entire Canadian entertainment-business infrastructure, which over 30 painstaking years has built itself up to one of the world’s best.
“I’ve lived through cycles of expansion and contraction in this industry,” says Rocco Matteo, a production designer (of the Langdon pilot, among other credits). “Canada offers to the world a really well-educated, skilled, reliable work force. But every time there’s a contraction, talented, experienced people leave the business. If we want to come back from this, studios and networks who work here regularly might consider how they can help to keep our scene from contracting.”
It’s also important to remember that no matter how well Canada manages the COVID-19 crisis, its crews may be out of work after other businesses return. Most shoots here are co-productions – which means that until the U.S. is working, or England or China, below-the-line Canadians won’t be.
To keep despair at bay, people are honing their skills – for example, the production designer Paul Austerberry, who won an Oscar for The Shape of Water, is finally learning how to draw on his iPad – and indulging in some blue-sky thinking. When things are running again, it would be great if long-standing issues of pay equity could be addressed (male costume designers still tend to get paid more than women). If there could be slush funds for gig workers who lose jobs for regular, non-COVID-19 reasons. If the ruthless film-set culture were to soften slightly, to acknowledge that The Show Must Go On isn’t the most humane approach.
But mostly, crew members are pulling together like never before. Churchill, who works with glues and toxic chemicals, dropped off boxes of gloves and respirators to his local hospital, and he knows “at least 400 people who are making masks, scrubs, hair covers and booties for hospitals,” he says. “They’re organizing through social media groups and the Costume Designer Guild of America. I wonder how many Wall Street investors are home making masks? There is a beauty and compassion in the arts that is inspiring.”
“I’ve been in this industry for 28 years, and I’ve never seen such camaraderie,” says costume designer Antoinette Messam (Creed, Superfly). “We’re all sending each other information, ‘Does this help you, did you know you can do this?’ People who haven’t heard from each other in years are checking in from all around the world. And now that everyone is home, we are entertaining you, educating you, helping you get through a hard time.”
“What we do is not life and death,” Summers agrees. “But what we do is keeping a lot of people alive.”
Churchill asks for one thing in return. “As you sit home watching all those shows and movies, when you get to the end, take two and a half minutes and watch the credits,” he says. “Because 95 per cent of the people who just gave you that enjoyment are unemployed right now.”
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