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'We have no income': Recession fears hit Hollywood as work grinds to a halt

“This is comparable to the [Great] Depression for us,” one worker said. “There are no jobs in our wheelhouse. Everyone is really scared.”
Image: An empty tour bus near the walk of fame in Hollywood, Calif., on March 13, 2020.
An empty tour bus near the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, Calif., on March 13, 2020.Rich Fury / Getty Images

Hollywood stuntman and actor Mike Ferguson had just arrived in San Francisco last week to work on a Western when the cancellations started rolling in.

He watched the news unfold from a hotel room, each day bringing more urgency and more questions. When San Francisco declared a countywide shelter-in-place directive Monday, he had only a few hours to find a flight back to his wife and three daughters in Southern California.

Now, the 48-year-old is self-quarantined in his home for two weeks. He’s one of hundreds of thousands of entertainment industry workers out of a job as productions, releases and live events are canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak that has already sickened more than 1,000 Californians and more than 230,000 people worldwide as of Friday.

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Like so many industries, Hollywood is taking a big hit during the public health crisis. Pilot season, a time when studios rush to produce new shows, has been halted indefinitely. Major releases, such as the latest James Bond installment, “No Time to Die,” and Marvel’s “Black Widow,” have been pushed back. Coachella, one of the biggest and most lucrative live events in Southern California, was rescheduled for October.

Hourly workers, such as drivers, builders, painters, grips and assistants, who depend on the entertainment industry for income are among the hardest hit in the region. Many live paycheck to paycheck, relying on overtime or secondary jobs to keep their bank accounts afloat. With the coronavirus putting a full stop on many Hollywood gigs, the future feels bleak.

“This is comparable to the [Great] Depression for us,” Ferguson said. “There are no jobs in our wheelhouse. Everyone is really scared.”

Long considered the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles and the surrounding region is home to more than 220,000 Hollywood industry payroll workers, according to a 2018 report by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.

The last time Hollywood ground to a halt was during the writers’ strike, which started in November 2007 and ended in February 2008. The 100-day battle waged by the Writers Guild of America against big studios over low wages, cost California’s economy some $2 billion.

Hollywood rebounded in time. In the absence of screenwriters and new scripts, reality TV shows filled the void. Scripted shows resumed after the union struck a deal, and the entertainment industry added more than 36,000 jobs from 2010 to 2016, according to the 2018 report.

This time, however, analysts are not sure whether the losses can be recouped.

“It’s an unrecoverable loss for wages,” said Kevin Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute’s Center for Regional Economics and California Center.

The Hollywood slump comes as researchers warn that the United States has entered into a recession, according to a UCLA Anderson Forecast. California, with its high volume of tourism and entertainment industry jobs, could be among the states to suffer the most. Unemployment rates could rise to 6.3 percent from 3.9 percent, according to the study.

With less money to go around, hourly and gig workers might have a harder time recovering if studios and other major employers pinch pennies, Klowden said.

“Normally when people are idle in Hollywood, they have the ability to go somewhere else to do … another job,” he said. “But now those alternate jobs just aren’t going to be there.”

Ferguson, who in addition to acting and doing stunt work is also the head of transportation for ShatterHouse Effects, an independently owned production company, said he has nothing to fall back on now that Hollywood is at a standstill. Even his tattoo shop, 1st Amendment Tattoo in Bakersfield, was forced to close. His wife, a professional wrestler whose moniker is The Beast, is also out of work.

Together, they have enough savings to get through a couple of months.

“And then it’s crumb city,” he said.

Joshua Bradeis, co-owner of ShatterHouse Effects, is also worried. One of his biggest projects for the year, a 25-foot-tall “architectural object” for Coachella, has been delayed until the fall. Five other big projects were also canceled within 48 hours, he said. As a result, the 29-year-old estimates he is losing up to $10,000 a day, which means he can’t pay his crew of 50 employees.

“Everything is at a standstill,” he said. “We have no income.”

Bradeis is also feeling the strain at home. His girlfriend’s father is recovering from lung and throat cancer and can’t leave his house for fear of contracting the coronavirus. But Bradeis wonders whether it’s safe to deliver medicine or groceries to him.

“ShatterHouse Effects is a very horror genre-based company and the fact is that now we’re living in our own horror story,” he said.

Trade unions and guilds are stepping in to partially fill the income gap felt by thousands of Hollywood workers. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA, which represents 160,000 actors, journalists and recording artists, launched a COVID-19 disaster fund to provide emergency financial assistance to current members to help cover the cost of basic expenses, such as medical bills, rent, mortgage and utilities.

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The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, recently committed $2.5 million to three entertainment charities - the Actors Fund, the Motion Picture and Television Fund, and the Actors Fund of Canada - in hopes the money will trickle down to displaced workers. The union estimates that 90 percent of its members are now jobless, according to a spokesman.

“We are actively investigating all possible courses of action that can help ensure the financial stability of members who have lost work as a result of this virus” the union wrote in an email to members last week. “The IATSE is also working with employers on emergency measures and actively lobbying the federal government to ensure that displaced entertainment workers are included in relief.”

Liz Alper, a writer whose credits include TV shows “The Rookie” and “Chicago Fire,” launched her own digital campaign in October to help struggling workers. Pay Up Hollywood was initially meant to address wage disparities between the highest and the lowest earners in the entertainment industry.

As the response to the coronavirus increasingly meant fewer paychecks to Hollywood employees, Alper created a GoFundMe campaign to supplement federal unemployment benefits that cap out at $450 a week per person.

Her campaign has already generated more than $200,000 and will go to eligible support staff, such as assistants and coordinators, who live in the Los Angeles region.

“This is a whole other level of insecurity,” said Alper, who graduated from a writing program at Emerson College during the 2008 strike. “Back then we knew what the end goal was going to be, but with this? Who knows. Everything is changing week to week.”