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Arts & Entertainment

Hollywood strike slams Bay Area filmmaking: ‘My income, it’s been killed’

Striking SAG-AFTRA actors and supporters demonstrated in front of San Francisco City Hall on July 26, 2023. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

Like other Bay Area actors, Sarah Kliban was already struggling before her union went on strike in mid-July.

The aftermath of the pandemic and recent changes to the entertainment industry had taken their toll on her business, said Kliban, an actor and voice-over artist who since the late 1990s has been a member of SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents a range of actors and artists who perform on screen and behind the mic. 

Demonstrators for a SAG-AFTRA strike rally stand in front of San Francisco City Hall on July 26, 2023. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

A self-described fifth-generation San Franciscan, she also runs Diversity Casting in San Francisco’s North Beach. Kliban has done casting work for shows including Blindspotting, set in Oakland, and the Sausalito houseboat thriller series The Last Thing He Told Me, starring Jennifer Garner, as well as Joe Talbot’s love letter to the city, The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

“My income, it’s been killed this year,” Kliban said. “It’s basically on the operating room floor, and we’re waiting to see if it can be resuscitated.” 

Kliban is hardly the only local film industry vet feeling the squeeze after labor negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which includes major Hollywood studios such as Disney and Paramount and Silicon Valley streamers such as Netflix, broke down for both SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America earlier this year.

As for other Northern Californians in the entertainment business, their livelihoods have been put on standstill as well by the dual actors’ and writers’ strikes—which essentially converged a couple weeks ago into a mega media work stoppage not seen since the 1960s. 

Sticking points of both strikes include calls for better compensation on residuals from streaming services and guardrails around the use of artificial intelligence in the entertainment business to preserve jobs.  

State Sen. Scott Wiener speaks at a SAG-AFTRA strike rally in front of San Francisco City Hall on July 26, 2023. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

Those themes came through loud and clear during a SAG-AFTRA strike rally on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday. Union members and leaders, local politicians and supporters assembled to denounce corporate greed and voice concerns about AI technology potentially being used in film and television to replicate actor likenesses without regulation or appropriate compensation.

“We are here to draw a line in the sand,” Broadway star and rally emcee Anthony Veneziale said. “It is time for humans to put humans in the human craft of art. We will not be a side margin in the profits of your giant conglomerates.” 

Supervisor Connie Chan echoed the sentiment, directing her remarks at Silicon Valley tech companies in the streaming space and major motion picture studios. 

We are also here to remind the Hollywood executives and the Hollywood tech companies that their humanity is on the line,Chan said. “We are telling them it is time for you to reflect on your humanity and think about what you are contributing to our humankind and to our society collectively.”

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin even said his colleagues would take part in boycotting Netflix until the actors’ strike was resolved. 

“We are all not going to watch Netflix as long as they are screwing you artists,” he said.   

San Jose Assemblymember Ash Kalra said he would take the matter of AI regulation to Sacramento if studios and streamers refused to meet the unions’ demands.

San Jose Assemblyman Ash Kalra shows solidarity with striking SAG-AFTRA workers at a demonstration at San Francisco City Hall on July 26, 2023. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

“If they’re not going to do it at the bargaining table, we’ll legislate it,” Kalra said. “If they’re not going to take care of it, protect your rights under AI, we’ll do it ourselves.”

Earlier in the day out of the state capitol, Gov. Gavin Newsom offered to broker a deal between Hollywood studios and the writers’ and actors’ unions, though neither executives nor actors or writers have shown formal interest in bringing Newsom to the negotiating table, according to the Associated Press.  SAG-AFTRA intends to hold a strike rally outside the state Capitol at noon Thursday. 

Organized labor representatives also promised to show solidarity with striking actors. Tony Delorio, the principal officer of Teamsters Local 665, said on behalf of the Motion Pictures and Theatrical Trade Division for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, that the union would withhold its labor until SAG-AFTRA secures a contract.  

“We’ll stand side-by-side for you for everything,” Delorio said, leading the crowd in chanting “SAG-AFTRA” in unison. 

‘It’s Time To Pay the Piper’

Debbie Brubaker is a Directors Guild of America member and seasoned film producer who lives in Lafayette and has worked on films such as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, Sean Penn’s Flag Day, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and locally set TV shows such as Tales of the City. She noticed a slowdown in the local film industry earlier this year in anticipation of WGA writers putting down their pens. Brubaker had two jobs for Netflix lined up before the subsequent writers’ and actors’ strikes put them on hold. 

Brubaker said her production business is down about 55% this year, and that she’s killing time by penciling out budgets for prospective films, working on a patchwork of seven indies in development, going swimming every day and decorating her newly built in-law unit with cheap finds from Nextdoor, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. 

While she’s felt the squeeze of the strikes on her business, she supports the actors and believes the time has come for writers to get their fair share of residuals. 

“I think that the writers have been given a raw deal for a long time,” Brubaker said. “And now it’s time to pay the piper.”

A close-up of a SAG-AFTRA union pin during a demonstration at City Hall | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

Even though mortgage payments loom over her head, Brubaker—ever the optimist—believes she’ll find a way to weather the drought of work as she’s done for over 40 years working in the Bay Area film industry. 

“One of my favorite expressions is ‘There’s always left field,’” Brubaker said,  referencing James Earl Jones’ inspirational “People Will Come” speech from the film Field of Dreams. “In that field of dreams, there’s going to be a ball that’s going to come wild out of left field, that’s going to pick you up and carry you along. This has been a really bad year for income, but I never give up.” 

Brubaker sees another silver lining. She hopes the dearth of union work will create an opportune time for independent film to have a renaissance in the Bay Area, and give people looking to break into the film industry a chance to get their careers started. 

“If people can get their foot in the door and get their movies made while nothing else is being made, maybe we can have a resurgence of the independent film,” Brubaker said. 

Napa SAG-AFTRA member and voiceover artist Ferdelle Capistrano hasn’t seen a slowdown in her specialty—narrating audiobooks—since the actor or writer strikes began. Audiobooks are unaffected by the SAG-AFTRA strike and Capistrano has audiobook work scheduled through September. But she is taking the time to work on her own independent short film with her husband and friends. 

“It was kind of a way to get my community of friends to be like, ‘Hey, we don’t have to be discouraged by this,’” Capistrano said. “I hope others do the same. There’s always inspiration to be drawn from the world around us that keeps our well filled.” 

A movie production crew prepares to shoot a scene for the film "San Andreas" on Hyde Street in San Francisco on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. | Source: Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

While the strikes offer a creative respite for some, for others the economic consequences and potential financial fallout are top of mind. 

Manijeh Fata, Executive Director of Film SF, otherwise known as the San Francisco Film Commission, already sees how the dual strikes could ripple throughout the local economy, impacting not only ancillary unions and jobs around the film industry but also sectors that service film locally. She points to some stats from the commission’s most recent fiscal year report as indicators of the impactful economic role that film plays in San Francisco. 

“Every year, productions spend millions of dollars locally on hotel nights, car rentals, catering, hardware, lumber, office supplies, wardrobe, props and equipment rentals,” the document reads. 

Also cited in the report: up to $250,000 per day can be injected into a local economy when a film shoots on location. One measure of this impact is hotel stays: the estimated number of hotel stays for crew members last year was 4,811 nights, up from 2,258 the previous fiscal year, and 1,259 hotel stay nights for local SAG-AFTRA hires, up from 1,078 the previous year, according to the report.  

But since January of this year, only 131 productions have been permitted with a total of 214 shoot days, according to Film SF. That’s compared to 197 productions approved between January and July 2022, with a total of 436 shoot days, and 304 productions approved between January and July 2019, with a total of 616 shoot days.

“We just hope that it gets resolved soon, because obviously, the economic benefits of this industry are really important to our economy,” Fata said.

The previous writers’ strike that began in 2007 cost the state’s economy an estimated $2 billion, according to the Associated Press.

Jane Stillwater, an 81-year-old background actor from Berkeley, chants at a SAG-AFTRA strike rally at San Francisco City Hall on July 26, 2023. | Source: Christina Campodonico/ The Standard

Even for members of the film industry not directly involved with the SAG-AFTRA or WGA strikes, the work stoppages feel like the frontlines of a fight for better working conditions, wages and protections for every type of worker in the film industry. 

Heather MacLean—a member of Teamsters Local 2785, which represents location scouts and managers like herself—has been location-scouting in the Bay Area since 2009. Among other projects, she’s worked on blockbusters such as The Matrix Resurrections and Ant-Man and the Wasp as well as Bay Area-set productions including Blue Jasmine and the TV shows Blindspotting and Girlboss. MacLean told The Standard she’s been feeling the financial squeeze on her work and film budgets for years. 

She attributes the cost-cutting to a Silicon Valley mindset of maximizing profits while minimizing labor costs. Because of that, the strikes are bigger than a few lost jobs for her: they amount to a long,  hard look in the mirror at what stands to be lost if film workers don’t stand their ground.  

“There’s a frustration with how the greed of the top is crushing the workers at the bottom,” MacLean said. “All of this, it’s actually a fight for the rest of us.”