Industrial action by US actors has forced studios in the booming UK industry to cancel shoots, affecting schedules and pay and costing jobs
When the production crew for Disney’s live-action Snow White movie finished their shifts at Pinewood Studios on July 13, they were expecting to show up for work again the following day to shoot final scenes with the Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot, the film’s evil queen.
More than 5,000 miles away, however, Hollywood went on strike.
As the actors’ union Sag-Aftra began its industrial action at midnight in Los Angeles, work on Snow White — featuring Rachel Zegler in the title role — fell into a slumber. Many of the crew, estimated to include about 300 staff from camera operators and extras to make-up artists, were unable to shoot further scenes.
Elsewhere at the Buckinghamshire studios, Deadpool 3, starring Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman, was also put on hold. At Titanic Studios in Belfast, the production of the animated film How to Train Your Dragon was halted, while at Sky Studios Elstree, the Ariana Grande-fronted adaptation of Wicked has stopped. The horror film Speak No Evil, which was shooting in Gloucester and features James McAvoy, has had to be halted.
Film production industry sources estimated that thousands of British workers have lost income over the past week. Some, including the Snow White crew, had been given a week’s notice and were able to complete jobs that did not include Sag-Aftra members. Other UK workers said they were stood down immediately.
A film technician, who is a father of two and did not wish to be named, said: “In two months, if I don’t have any work, I don’t know how we will pay for things. I do wonder whether Sag-Aftra is thinking about us when they called all actors on strike. Maybe the multimillionaire members could resume to give us the ability to feed our families.”
The British film production industry has boomed in recent years, boosted by tax relief incentives introduced by George Osborne in 2015. A record £6.3 billion was spent on UK film and high-end TV last year, according to the British Film Institute. As of 2020, the production company Social Films estimated that there were 86,000 film production jobs in the UK. The estate agent Knight Frank estimated that Britain would need to double the amount of studio space — at present about six million sq ft — by 2026 to meet growing demand.
The number of American actors and companies filming in the UK, however, has meant that the impact of the strike has been felt immediately. Some big projects whose stars are mostly English, such as the second series of House of the Dragon, have been able to carry on production, according to Variety. Members of the British actors’ union, Equity, are not able to strike in solidarity with Sag-Aftra, although it staged a solidarity march in London on Friday attended by actors including Brian Cox, Imelda Staunton and Simon Pegg.
With some predicting that the US strikes might go on for months, fears are growing that the number of workers affected could grow. “People are worried,” Philippa Childs, of the broadcast union Bectu, said. “The longer it goes on, the more worrying it is.”
One focus puller, who is responsible for maintaining a camera’s focus through a shot, said she had been on a Hollywood film that was halted last week. The crew member, who did not want to give her name, said she would be losing at least £2,000 a week, or up to £4,000 after overtime. She said British TV work paid half as well, and other work, such as adverts, would be hard to come by because of greater competition. “I’m a freelance and they don’t keep us on if there’s nothing to shoot, so we were told to go home,” she said.
There is also industrial action by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), with about 11,500 Hollywood writers on strike since May in a dispute over pay and contract. This has had an impact on British writers, who have had to stop work on US projects. The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain issued a motion of solidarity and advised its members against working on US projects during the action. It also highlighted a WGA rule that threatens to bar writers from future WGA membership for “scab writing”.
The boss of one of London’s oldest post-production houses, which treats, grades, edits and adds special effects to films after they have been shot, said his company still had work, but he was concerned that delayed projects would hit them if the strike endured. “Studios, catering, make-up, the drivers, everyone is hit,” he said. “Normally if you get laid off, you phone up competitors, but everything is shutting down. If you’re a spark [electrician] maybe you’ll find work outside the industry but if you’re in make-up or a film grader, I don’t know what you’ll do. We’re OK for the next few months, but then there’s a massive question mark.”
Childs, who is supportive of the strikes despite concern for British workers, said her members were already experiencing a slowdown in work opportunities after a period of strong growth for the sector.
As well as the strikes, she said, the industry was facing disruption from inflation and rising production costs, a slump in the global advertising market and the knock-on effects of the BBC licence fee freeze. Britain’s film studios have been lobbying against proposed business rate rises that could also ramp up their costs.
Lucy McCutcheon, head of sales at Elstree Studios, said her business had been lucky to have avoided disruption as a result of the strikes. It is hosting the final series of The Crown and has Strictly Come Dancing booked in from next month.
McCutcheon said she had been unable to book out her studios for early next year. “We’ll have availability for the first time in many years,” she said. “It definitely feels like it’s slowed right down in the industry. We’ve been in a very fortunate position for seven, eight-plus years . It’s been absolutely booming, so this is the first time there are things going on that are slowing the industry down.”
New studios are being built in the UK to accommodate the growing demand. Steven Knight, the creator of Peaky Blinders, is converting a 30,000 sq ft warehouse in Birmingham into a new studio. Construction on the project, named Digbeth Loc, began in March and it is set to open this month, becoming the biggest city centre studios in the country. In Sunderland, Fulwell 73, the production company behind The Kardashians and James Corden’s The Late Late Show, has proposed a £450 million project on the banks of the Wear called Crown Works Studios. In Marlow, Buckinghamshire, Robert Laycock, grandson of the Brief Encounter star Dame Celia Johnson, has proposed converting a former rubbish tip into state-of-the-art facilities.
If the strikes continue and a backlog builds up, demand could eventually bounce back even stronger, but no one knows when that will be. “It will be a bit like after lockdown when you suddenly had all these projects that are being greenlit and you’re not going to have enough studio space or you’re not going to have enough crews,” said McCutcheon. “So it’s a feast or famine situation.”
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