Discussing university with Rae went something like: “I’d like to go to film school”, “That’s a tough business to get into, but if you ever get invited to an award ceremony, we get to come, OK?”. Many years later, as you can see in the photo, we got to be proud parents and visit the red carpet at the Creative Arts Emmy awards, as Rae was nominated as Set Decorator for the Comedy Central TV show Drunk History. Saturday Night Live won the category that year, and Rae has since been nominated and worked on other award winning productions like the film Promising Young Woman, but this was a significant career milestone, and Laurel and I were very proud to be there.
The way this industry works, everyone on a production is on a contract for the duration of that show, working extremely long and antisocial hours, sometimes on location away from home. Then they take a break to recover and call people they’ve worked with before, looking for the next show. There’s no steady income, and in general larger productions are unionized and smaller ones use non-unionized staffing. It’s hard to get into the union, and it took about ten years for Rae to get to that point, but Rae’s earnings moved from near minimum wage (we provided ongoing support, bought a pickup truck etc.) to a sustainable level, with safer working practices, insurance and other benefits provided by the union. It’s important to understand that the union is taking on a significant part of the role that those of use who work for a corporation take for granted.
Different kinds of productions have different standard contract rates that are negotiated with the unions representing the different trades that make up a production. Back in 2008, in a world dominated by traditional TV and film production, the emerging online streaming industry didn’t fit the standard model, and was mostly doing very low budget productions, so it got a special deal that had reduced residuals, pay and benefits for the creative workers. Residuals support union healthcare and pension funds. Fast forward to today, and online streaming has become the dominant model for productions, but still has the reduced pay and benefits model, which is significantly impacting the ability of creatives to make a living, even while they are working 14hr days, six or seven days a week.
Negotiations haven’t resolved the issues, and that’s why the creative industry union IATSE members are currently voting on strike action. I worked for Netflix for seven years, and have worked for Amazon for five years (although not on the production side of the businesses), and I’d like to see both companies take a lead in supporting sustainable working practices that are safe, prevent burnout, and have pay and residual rates comparable to traditional TV and film production.
Update Monday Oct 4, 2021— the results were that 98.68% voted yes, and voter turnout among eligible members was nearly 90%. In response, the Hollywood producers have indicated that they will re-enter negotiations with IATSE.