Art Department Vendors Affected by the Hollywood Strike
Economic Impact of the Strike: Niche Art Department Vendors and Local Business Spends are Way, Way Down.
INTRO: The present and future of NYC filmmaking.
Same as it ever was. The only constant is change.
In these uncertain times, we find ourselves facing the effects of the Hollywood strike, and while we hope for relief through funding sources, the reality is clear – there’s no Film Industry Vendor safety net nor Art Department Vendor strike insurance fund to fall back on. We must navigate this challenging period on our own; it’s a collective effort.
While the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) has done its best within its scope and resources, previously focusing on programs for Digital Games, Music Month, education initiatives like the Made in NY PA Training Program, and economic impact studies, it’s apparent that the film and television industry’s below-the-line workforce needs more attention and recognition of its importance.
Change is daunting, and the transition may not be seamless, but it’s a beginning. My wish is for a fresh direction, one where trust is rebuilt with the vendors who pour their hearts and souls into creating cinematic magic.
In the interim, the state is offering freelancers some relief in the form of unemployment checks, though we all know it falls short. But it’s enough to keep the essentials like cell phone bills covered.
As someone who has always held great respect for Art Department vendors and understands the demands placed on them during busy periods, I recognize that the NYC film industry’s challenges also breed innovation and entrepreneurship. While we lack spacious warehouses or sprawling campuses, we possess a tight-knit community working below the line.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that our industry’s resilience knows no bounds. Just as we can execute daring stunts and capture extraordinary shots, we’ll weather this storm together, albeit with some scars. The future holds change, so be prepared to adjust your expectations. The “new” New York City filmmaking ecosystem is on the horizon, and together, we’ll navigate its uncharted waters.
REAL QUICK: What does the Art Department do in Film and TV?
Most producers don't even know, here's an overview...
The Art Department in Film and TV is the largest department in scope, multi-faceted in capabilities, and anxiety-inducing moving parts. The Art Department creates the physical environments (as opposed to digital) you see on the screen.
Often, the wonders of filmmaking are referred to as “movie magic”, but those who work in the Art Department know it’s not magic at all. It’s the artistic talent, quick wits, and sourcing savvy of crew sprinkled with the ability to suffer. (That’s an article for another day.)
These freelancers have relationships with vendors, local businesses, and, er, Amazon accounts, that create the milieus necessary for actor performance, audience buy-in, and cinematographic excellence and options.
Think of your favorite place in the world. We can replicate that.
That’s what the Art Department does, but not without the vendors. From courtrooms to spaceships, pre-historic to post-apocalyptic, and from green grass on the open plains to fireworks in the sky, the Art Department designs, fabricates, rigs, scenics, sources, buys, rents, borrows, picks up, dresses, restores, greeks, drops off, and returns every element.
VENDORS: the more niche, the harder hit.
Niche Film Vendors are core infrastructure and not easily replicated.
Specialized film vendors are often called for particular scene elements like Period Picture Cars, Cleared Art, Animatronics, Antiques, Gag Rigging, (like a remote-controlled ATM machine) Special Effects, Animal or Insect Wrangling, Soft Goods Fabrication, Puppets, or Theatrical Weaponry.
It’s not just any vendor that can work with the film industry, either. There is a shared language, unspoken built-in flexibility, an unconventional product menu, like faux license plates and passports, and the ability and willingness to stay late or open early that make these below-the-line vendors essential to the film industry.
ArtCube’s posts tell the tale of vendor fails or urgent last-minute sourcing. You can’t call up your average vendor with an URGENT mannequin glitter application job and get taken seriously.
Most vendors on the ropes are worried not only for their own livelihoods but the ability of the Art Department crew to source locally at all.
If they go under before we’re in full swing again it will greatly impact New York City’s film production in unimaginable ways, but you can bet we’ll be spending and shipping from other states, which we already do in some cases, if they shoot here at all. And, not for nothing, the Stagees might want to know that recruitment of new big shows depends on the infrastructure of everything else.
SURVEY: Questions and Averages
Q: Since May, what is the percentage of your revenue lost?
Prop and Equipment Rental revenue dropped 77% on average.
Just as the big stages are positioned for long-term rentals, that’s a vulnerability in a strike for the vendors that dress their raw space into their poster-boasting reception lounge.
Period pieces-ready, long-form-capable, niche equipment and special effects/rigging, saw an abrupt inflow and outflow halt.
Fabrication Shop revenue dropped 32% on average.
If their services are geared towards SFX or mechanical gags, it’s been a much tougher road. Overlap capabilities of Fabrication Shops for Fashion Week or Still Photography, render the seas are not as choppy.
Stages and Wardrobe dropped a whopping 85% on average.
Period films might have trouble sourcing.
Specialized Services, dropped 30%
Vendors with “film industry arms” to a wider business saw a 30% drop in billable services.
Q: Select the best description of the Strike's impact.
22% are close to closing
Period wardrobe, prop and set dressing rentals can NOT go under if NYC wants to be a production hub. MANY have let employees go, cut salaries, owners are not paying themselves, and expenses have been cut to the bare bones.
29% are in trouble and in debt
It’s better than close to closing, but production will not pick up too soon.
42% feel it but will survive
Specialty Services that serve the film industry but additional industry clients
7% felt no effect
That’s great news, but a disheartening minority.
Business owners have had no choice but to furlough or let go of employees, who ranged from 2 e to 15 employees.
As mentioned in the MOME Listening Meeting, these employees are hard to replace, and require a lot of training, up to a year in some cases. In the Art Department, order fulfillment is critical and even the slightest error can wreak havoc.
CREW: NYC Art Department Jobs During the Writer's Strike
It's a good time to be a Carpenter, CNC Operator or Cube Truck Driver.
The City’s July 20, 2023 article, The Hollywood Strike Could Cost NYC Tens of Thousands of Jobs illustrates what we all have been sensing, but could not quantify. The entertainment industry jobs have not bounced back from pre-pandemic levels.
“Of 18 key sectors followed by THE CITY’s economic recovery tracker, the arts, entertainment and recreation field lags behind all others, still 17% behind pre-pandemic employment.”
Examining the jobs posted on ArCube Nation does let us know what Art Department sectors are hiring and busy – summer busy.
The Art Department Jobs in New York City were Fabrication, Commercials and “Other” projects like Photography and Fashion Week fabrication. The films hiring film crew were “Microbudgets” SAG exempted from the strike. Art Department TV jobs totally flatlined.
While Prop Houses and Equipment Rentals were furloughing, it was a good time to be a Freelance Scenic Carpenter, CNC Operator, Truck Driver, or Project Manager.
It’s normally a huge advantage, but in a crisis, it’s a double-edged sword being in such a diverse economy as New York City. The Film Industry is a sliver of the city’s GDP, so this “blip” in the economics is not going to prompt a letter from the State Treasurer like California.
BUYERS: NOT spending an average of $5,515 a week
And NOT working, either.
Local Shops Utilized most by Film Industry Buyers
Film and TV Set Decorators and other high-spend crew distribute production dollars in a seemingly even coat.
We could spend months digging into every corner of New York City’s small business and creative economy, but why, really? Even this wee survey tells us what we know already. This business spreads money around left, right, and center.
- Electronics Stores
- Flea Markets
- Coffee Shops + Cafes
- Grocery Stores
- Thrift Stores
- Art Supply Shops
- Big Box Stores
- Restaurant Supply Stores
- The Fashion District (Textiles)
- Clothing Stores
- Sporting Goods
- Expendables, Production Supplies
- Flooring (Carpet, Lino, Tile)
- Raw Materials
- The Flower District
- Music Stores
- Awning Custom Shops
- Fixtures (sinks, toilets, etc.)
- Hardware Stores
- Lighting Fixture Shops
The Emotional Toll
The emotional toll on the people industry is heartbreaking. This is a tough business as it is and it’s not untrue that a lot of freelancer film industry workers spend more time with their crew than they do at home. We often use the term “in the trenches” to describe working together like war buddies.
Vendors and their employees, what’s left of them, are family, too. The sense of obligation for others’ livelihood is the heaviest weight and that was expressed by nearly all the vendors on MOME’s Listening Session. Plenty of them visibly and audibly choked up when talking about the palatable grief when talking to the families they go home to and the work families they had to let go.
There’s something about a freelance film crew that bonds you for life. You worked towards a common goal, lifted heavy things in weird places, stayed late finding the perfect potato chip for the food plate or drove home in a Cube truck at 3 a.m., somehow still laughing at corny jokes
At ArtCube Nation, we made an Instagram reel about Art Department Emergencies like last-minute tumbleweeds and foam pig heads. The end card read, “Trauma Bond with Us”.
A “funny because it’s true” joke, but the core of that is undeniable. Much of the reason ArtCube works is the empathy for peers in a jam, we’ve all been there and it IS an emergency when your fake wine labels don’t show up in the order. That’s the bond we have as a below-the-line crew and for 16 years, I’ve witnessed loads of help exchanged between thousands of Cubers that may not ever meet, but we have a very special thing in common – we love this business and the love Art Department.
What's on the horizon?
We hope that can be alleviated with the funding sources sent to all the speakers. But, the truth is, there is no safety net, or strike insurance fund; we have to ride this out on our own. It’s up to us to write a grant and spruce up the dusty business plan, submit, wait, or not.
MOME did what it could under the circumstances, but it’s set up to do different things like Programs and Initiatives for Digital Games, and Music Month, Education and Training like the awesome Made in NY PA Training Program, and Reports and Studies like NYC Film and Television Industry Economic Impact Study 2021.
This study certainly tells a tale of what was and I hope, now that the world has some data and vendors are finally on their radar, the below-the-line infrastructure of Film and TV Production might have an effective ally sooner than later. Until then, it’s on us. I have approached the Commission many times since the Bloomberg/Katherine Oliver days and I have walked out of the offices deflated every time due to the feckless office of appointees that churned out permits and fielded complaints about entire street parking spaces lost to Law and Order.
I have high hopes for the current Commissioner as she takes the wheel in a difficult time. This introduction was stressful and her organizational staff member seemed, understandably, overwhelmed and underinformed about who is who and what is what, but it’s a start. My wish is for us can be in a new direction and build trust with essential vendors that create “movie magic” with their own blood, sweat, and real tears.
In the meantime, States are mitigating the economic created by Hollywood Studios with taxpayer dollars – unemployment checks – which everyone knows is not enough, but it keeps the cell phone bill paid for freelancers.
I have always adored Art Department vendors, I know what we put them through in the busy times. I learned that the NYC film industry also sparks innovation, and entrepreneurship because it’s a harder city in which to make a film than most production hubs and we don’t want to be anywhere else.We don’t have cheap warehouse space or sprawling, self-contained “campuses” with an underwriter, but, below the line, we have each other.
And if I know one thing if we can set a stuntperson on fire and throw them out of a helicopter at golden hour and get the shot twice, we can get through this alive, but maybe not unscathed.
Things will be different going forward, so do adjust your dials. The *new* New York City filmmaking ecosystem is set to emerge.
No matter what, ArtCube Nation will be here to be the hub for Art Department Vendors and Freelancers. Community is everything.