With dozens of productions shutting out the lights, the entertainment industry is one of the worst affected by the pandemic’s economic carnage.
By Reed Alexander | @reedalexander
March 29, 2020
In 18 years working for Nickelodeon, Kris Dangl has never seen a situation quite like this.
The 55-year-old costume designer is head of wardrobe on "Danger Force," a forthcoming Nickelodeon sitcom that premiered on Saturday. She's held the same position on various network sitcoms including "iCarly," "Victorious," and "Henry Danger."
On Friday, March 13, producers made the call to temporarily cease production of “Danger Force,” with no date in sight for when the cameras will start rolling again. They made the decision as the coronavirus closed in, forcing Hollywood to all but shut down. (Nickelodeon did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Pivot.)
One week later, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order to lock the state’s more than 40 million residents down. Since then, the impact of COVID-19 has cost the entertainment industry more than 120,000 jobs, according to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
Dangl says that the economic trauma could cost her significantly. "If it lasts through the summer, in terms of me not getting an income, [it will be] almost $50,000.”
The majority of Americans say they would be unable to cover the cost of a $1,000 emergency if hit with an unexpected calamity like this, according to a survey from Bankrate, and Dangl says the same principle applies to her industry. "I'm sure there are people in my business who are living paycheck to paycheck," she says. "What about all the people who have three children in the house... who are making minimum wage? What are they eating next week?"
The coronavirus has laid waste to the US economy, forcing more than three million workers to seek unemployment benefits. On Friday, President Trump signed a bipartisan bill into law, which was rammed through desperate sessions of Congress. It will provide Americans earning up to $75,000 with checks in the amount of $1,200 — one component of an overall-$2 trillion stimulus bill, which is the largest in US history.
But for the entertainment industry, even this megalithic bill may not be enough. Production after production has gone dark. Industry powerhouses have tried to help: Netflix established a $100 million fund to provide much-needed relief to Hollywood workers, but disappointing news has continued to flow from the industry.
Hollywood has gone dark since federal and state administrators imposed restrictive measures to promote social distancing and slow the spread of the coronavirus in mid-March.
On Friday, ABC announced that it would pull the plug on filming the remaining 16 episodes of the current season of “Grey’s Anatomy.” The longest running medical drama on television has already been picked up for another season, but no date has been set for when the cameras may start rolling again. Neither ABC nor Shondaland, the company that produces “Grey’s,” responded to requests for comment.
Kendra Bates, a sound operator on that show, told The Pivot that she remembers how it felt on March 12 to receive the news from producers that they’d temporarily be going dark. Bates arrived on set that morning at 6 a.m. to begin what she predicted would be an arduous 13-hour shooting day. But, around 2 p.m., Bates says, producers burst onto their Los Angeles soundstage, interrupting an ongoing take, to deliver grim news.
“We understand this is a tough time for everybody,” Bates, 27, says that the producers told the cast and crew members. “Given the circumstances, we will be shutting down.” Crew-members packed up their belongings and went home. A week later, Bates says that she and her coworkers learned that ABC had agreed to pay them three weeks worth of pay — about $4,300 total — but after that, they’d be on their own. “It kind of takes the pressure off of me knowing that I’m not the only one financially screwed right now,” she says.
Martin Ihrig, dean of graduate business programs at the New York University School of Professional Studies, says that we’re experiencing “one of [the biggest], if not the biggest, crises after the Second World War.”
“How long will certain cities be in lock-down? How long will certain industries be taken hostage by the virus?” These are questions, Ihrig says, which will directly govern the kind of pain that American workers are going to feel. Freelancers are most vulnerable, he says, because of the instability of gig economy work and a dearth of corporate benefits, including all-important health insurance.
Most entertainment industry workers are freelancers who work on short- or medium-term projects and may bounce from set to set, but the current state of the economy makes the chances of scoring an entertainment job anytime soon next to none. Without health insurance, particularly amid a pandemic, these workers are especially exposed.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic, and it's really best that you have some sort of health coverage,” Hanna Horvath, a personal finance and healthcare expert at Policygenius, tells The Pivot. “Going without health insurance means that you are responsible for the entire financial cost of treatment.”
Some entertainment industry unions provide healthcare benefits for members. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union covers behind-the-scenes production workers, but requires that union members meet a threshold — 60 days working on union production over the course of six months — to obtain healthcare benefits.
Recently, a coworker of Bates’ — a freelance sound mixer who worked on a couple episodes of “Grey’s” — suffered this detriment firsthand. The 51-year-old staffer “was struggling to find work,” Bates says, and couldn’t qualify for coverage. So, when he got sick, “he didn’t go into the hospital. He didn’t even go into urgent care, because he lost his health insurance.”
“He was at home sick for God knows how long,” Bates adds, before it was discovered that he had died alone at his California home. An autopsy revealed that he had been battling COVID-19 all along.
“You hear of people dying from [the virus],” Bates concludes. “But once it’s someone you know… It definitely makes you open your eyes a bit more.”