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NYC Damage Mounting in Writers Strike

January 11, 2008
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David Letterman and Conan O’Brien might be back on the air, but the Writers Guild of America strike that put them in reruns for the past two months continues to wreak havoc on New York’s film and television production industry.

The shutdown has left thousands of the area’s 78,000 production workers unemployed and many of the 4,000 film-related businesses, like prop houses and caterers, struggling to stay afloat amid their worst crisis in more than a decade.

“The situation has gone into a tailspin,” says John Ford, president of studio mechanics union Local 52. “Everyone is out of work now.”

The writers began their strike in November. They are seeking residuals from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for work that appears on the Internet and other new media.

About a dozen TV series are shot in New York, including 30 Rock and Law & Order; they have run out of scripts and stopped filming. A growing number of feature films slated to get under way this month are being postponed because scripts need rewriting.

Negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP have broken down, and no further talks are scheduled. The last writers strike, in 1988, lasted five months and paralyzed the industry.

“Everyone talks about ‘The writers, the writers,’ ” Ford says. “But there are a lot of other people involved besides the writers.”

More than 1,000 of the 1,600 studio mechanics in Ford’s union have lost their jobs in the past few weeks. The number of projects in the area has plummeted to one major film and one low-budget movie, compared with 11 features and 13 TV shows in October, Ford says.

The city hasn’t released estimates on the losses resulting from this strike. But when a similar strike loomed in 2001, the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting estimated that the city would lose a minimum of $625 million every quarter in total direct expenditures for productions requiring permits. A study by the Boston Consulting Group provided a more extensive estimate of more than $1.2 billion a quarter. That included studio production, as well as pre- and postproduction work.

There were fewer projects in 2001. The losses now are all the more frustrating because TV and film work has reached records in the city in the past few years. Thanks largely to a 15 percent city and state tax credit that went into effect in 2005, the number of location shoots jumped almost 10 percent in 2006, to 34,718. And last year, a record seven shows filmed in New York were picked up by networks.

Pilot season at risk
Film executives say that if it continues much longer, the strike will ruin this spring’s pilot season—the two-month period during which single episodes of potential shows are filmed to be reviewed for pickup by the networks. A record 11 pilots were filmed in New York last year.

“No one is writing pilots now, and they aren’t getting green-lit,” says Stuart Match Suna, president of Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens. “If the strike goes on too long, it will have a major residual impact on New York.”

The last time work was so scarce was in the early 1990s, when Hollywood studios boycotted New York for nine months because they said filming in the city was too expensive.

“We lived through the boycott, and we hardly made it at that point,” says Gino Lucci, president of Picture Cars East Inc., which provides everything from firetrucks to Ferraris for TV shows and movies. “If it lasts that long now, businesses will not survive it.”

Picture Cars’ business has dropped 95 percent since the strike began. To stay afloat, Lucci is using his reserves—an emergency fund that he figures will last him about three months. He is trying to make it until April, when he starts renting out some of his 400 vehicles for the remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which is expected to proceed because the script is completed.

Show on hiatus
Many others are also in a bind. Brian Abbott got his big break last summer after working as a makeup artist on TV shows and movies for six years. He was hired to head up the makeup department on the new Fox series Canterbury’s Law, starring Julianna Margulies and Aidan Quinn.

But after shooting just six episodes, the show went on hiatus because of the strike, leaving Abbott—and hundreds of others—on the unemployment line. “Everyone is scrambling for work,” says Abbott, who has been scraping by with savings, unemployment and some freelance commercial jobs.

Filed by Miriam Kreinin Souccar of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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