Oregon productions could be affected by film-crew strike

Joan McGuire

IATSE members say they want greater pay parity for crews working outside Hollywood.

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There are six film productions currently shooting in Oregon — three of which would be affected if film crews strike, which the union voted to authorize this week.

And according to cdavid Cottrill, business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 488, Monday’s strike authorization vote was driven in part by a desire to improve working conditions in growing film scenes like Oregon’s.

Typically, studios and unions have worked with two contracts during negotiation: the Hollywood Basic Agreement, which covers 13 West Coast studio locals, and the Area Standards Agreement, which covers 23 locals outside Los Angeles. 

Adiy Bryant and Luka Jones pose on the set of Shrill. Photo: Allyson Riggs ©2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Both are at issue in IATSE’s contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, Deadline reported this week, with IATSE officials saying AMPTP has failed to address issues such as unsafe and harmful working hours and failure to provide reasonable rest during meal breaks. 

Union officials say those working in the lowest paid crafts make “unlivable wages” and that workers on “new media” streaming projects get paid less than their counterparts on productions intended for theatres — even for streaming projects with blockbuster budgets. 

The union says the contract needs to ditch the new media exception, but streaming services have been fighting to keep it.  

“One of the reasons these deals went sideways is because of the influence of Amazon and Netflix,” Cottrill says. 

That discrepancy is of particular importance in Oregon, which has hosted a number of shoots for streaming services in recent years — most recently Hulu’s Shrill. 

Tim Williams (center) with writer/director Gary Lundgren (right) and actor Jesse Borrego (left) of “Phoenix, Oregon”Photo: Anne Lundgren

“There’s been a corporatization effect. It used to be that these film executives would be film directors or other people who came up in the industry. Now studios are being run by lawyers, not film professionals,” says Cottrill. 

“We have a very large content industry. At some point in time I don’t know if that’s going to be sustainable. I don’t think there’s going to be a crash but there is going to be an adjustment,” says Tim Williams, president of Oregon Film, the state agency tasked with promoting the state’s film industry.

One fear for Oregon film producers is what will happen if streaming services start producing fewer shows. Lower operating budgets are part of the reason streaming services expanded into Oregon quickly, according toTim Williams.

Williams says the union’s support of smaller, Oregon-led projects has helped Oregon’s industry develop, and called the the IATSE a “critical partner” to the development of the Oregon film industry on every level, and has meant less of a disparity between union and non-union work. 

“In other states there can be a big divide between union and non-union film work. Sometimes people take big stands for one or the other. Here that’s not the case.” 

Cottrill said non-union work served as a “proving grounds” for people who want to make it in the industry, rather than a viable alternative for larger studios. 

The strong presence of the IATSE Local 488 in Oregon has meant better working conditions for crew at every stage of production, on both union and non-union film sets, Williams says. 

“There’s a desire from small projects to use the boundaries set by the union and can end up going above that. People set meal breaks even when they don’t have to. It helps the crew members and educates the producers about union standards,” says Williams.

Oregon’s film industry has grown over the last five years, bringing outside money to shooting locations across the states. Williams also said that the rise of the delta variant has actually made production companies more interested in Oregon as a shooting location. This is possibly due to Oregon’s relatively strong COVID-19 restrictions — and its lower infection rate relative to other shooting states. 

Filming has also brought business to restaurant and hospitality businesses hurt by the pandemic — and legislators have taken notice. This year, Oregon increased its tax subsidy for out of state film shoots from $14 million to $20 million, according to Williams. 

Oregon’s increased tax incentive could help offset the cost should streaming services scale back production.

Cottrill says the vote — in which 98.68% of the 89.66% of members who weighed in on a strike authorization voted yes — showed solidarity between workers in vastly different film economies, and is sure to send a message to film industry executives who know film production will grind to a halt without the union’s go-ahead.

And for Local 488, the strike authorization serves as an opportunity. 

Union activity on the whole has seen a rebounding nationwide over the last five years, with Oregon locals leading the charge in negotiations with Nabisco, Kaiser Permanente and Kroger Foods

Cottrill is not worried about the threat of scabs, saying there was a crew shortage in the state even before the strike. 

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