Corinne Mucha

Last month, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, voted to ratify a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), narrowly avoiding what would have been the largest private-sector strike across the U.S. since 2007. For many workers in the film and television industry here in Chicago, the monthslong contract negotiations, the uprising in 2020, and the abrupt layoffs and work stoppages at the start of the pandemic offered openings for workers to consider whether the long, grueling hours the film industry is known for are worth it, and whether or not they’re even necessary to make a good film. Gaffers, grips, camera operators, and set designers, like so many others across the workforce in the U.S., were suddenly able to talk openly about their experiences of feeling drained, depressed, and beaten down by their working conditions—along with the possibility of changing that—for the first time.

Now that the negotiations are over with what some call only incremental changes, IATSE members in Chicago look toward growing their membership and continuing to organize for safer and fairer working conditions. The city is abuzz with plans to expand the film industry—Cinespace’s new corporate owners plan to build 15 new stages on its campus; funding and permitting in City Hall for a new film studio in South Shore continue to move forward; there is a proposal to develop studios at the old Fields warehouses in Avondale; and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) recently announced a new film and television workforce development program called “Chicago Made.” And with Netflix’s recent announcement that it will release a new movie a week throughout 2022, Chicago is wise to prepare to meet those demands. 

Here’s a brief history of the last 40 years of the film industry in Chicago, reflections from IATSE organizers, and a look toward the future of work for people who are thinking of getting in on the action.

Setting the stage

“[We’re] in a time where labor is having its moment,” says Margaret Hartmann, an electrician and dimmer board operator in Local 476. Late last summer and fall, social media accounts like @IA_Stories have served as a bullhorn to highlight dangerous and grueling working conditions IATSE members are routinely subjected to—16-hour days for months on end, “walking lunches” (aka no lunch break at all), drowsy driving accidents and deaths. And then Striketober—news coverage of the 12,000 striking John Deere and Kellogg’s workers also helped drum up publicity and support for the IA’s potential strike in Hollywood. 

Even though IATSE Studio Mechanics Local 476 in Chicago negotiates their own contract separate from Hollywood’s, showbiz here still would have shut down if LA had gone on strike because art directors, editors, and camera operators are part of three separate national unions that voted on the Hollywood contract as well. No one to point the camera means no filming, and even if the producers had hired nonunion replacements, no self-respecting teamster, makeup artist, or lighting tech would have crossed the picket line. Instead of a strike, however, the Hollywood contract passed via the national union’s electoral college-style delegate system, even though it was rejected by the popular vote. “That’s the contract that sets the tone for all of the smaller ones. It affects us so much and we have no skin in the game,” says Hartmann. 

Peter Kuttner is a retired camera operator. He got in in 1975 and says that the working conditions are worse now than they were 40 years ago. Among other changes, he notes that in the 80s, film crews in Chicago rarely worked overnights because production companies had to pay premium rates for those hours. The 1988 contract cut that perk and made it so that any five days and any eight hours were considered straight pay, even when that includes weekends. 

Local 2 stagehands—those who work in live theater, the opera, at the United Center, and other large venues, came long before film and TV. “They’re the mother local,” says recently retired president Bradley Matthys. But out of the five IATSE locals in Chicago, the majority today work on film sets. IATSE Studio Mechanics Local 476 in Chicago represents 38 different job titles in the film industry: dolly grips, gaffers, special effects, prop masters, lighting technicians, construction, hair and makeup. Sound, paint set design, scenic painters, welders. “We do everything from air conditioning and heating to surface protection, layout board, a bunch of different jobs,” says Matthys. Basically, Local 476 covers anything you can find on a film set except for camera and wardrobe.

“In Los Angeles, they’ll have a separate local for each one of those crafts. We have them all in our local. One grip local in LA would be, well, about twice the size of our whole union here. But we’ve been really, really crankin’ the last seven or eight years,” says Matthys.

Local 476 held their most recent union election on December 14. Now in their late 60s, both of the highest ranked officers are retiring on December 31: Mark Hogan with 15 years under his belt as business agent, and Matthys with nine under his. Hogan will stay on as vice president. “We’ve had a great run,” says Matthys. “And we wanna keep running and get this industry into the billions of dollars.”  

“These quality of life issues, the amount of these hours worked, was really big among the millennials this last contract. Big time. Seems like us old timers, we’re just used to it,” he adds. 

Some history

The first 50 years of IATSE history in Chicago are fascinating, but there’s just not enough room here to include it all. The mob infiltrated the union in the 1920s soon after it formed, and ruled with a mixture of violence, bribery, and the sort of rank-and-file labor militancy that’s now heavily criminalized and looked down upon by labor leadership. In Chicago in the 70s, Local 110 Projectionists Union famously bombed adult theaters who refused to hire union, and nine of its members were charged for a string of arson attacks on movie theaters across the midwest in the late 90s. That decade saw the near-disappearance of that trade as new technology and the consolidation of movie theater chains into international entertainment conglomerates squeezed projectionists out of their livelihoods. According to Kuttner, though, “I’ve never been in a situation where I would know for sure. Any involvement in 600 or 476 is just gossip and rumor.”

The film and television industry in Chicago has been booming ever since a Toronto-based family business bought and converted a shuttered steel mill in North Lawndale in 2011. But prior to the 1980s, the industry consisted mainly of advertisements and low budget movies-of-the-week, the original made-for-TV movie. 

“The shift had a lot to do with the death of the first Mayor Daley,” says Kuttner, who retired six years ago. Mayor Daley’s prudish censor board rarely allowed scripts to get turned into films during his 21-year reign. “He demanded that the city have script approval. They wanted to read the scripts and if they and maybe even himself felt that the city was not shown in a good light, most particularly the Chicago Police Department, they wouldn’t allow filming here.”

Richard J. Daley died of a heart attack the year after Kuttner got into the original Camera Operators Local 666, which formed in 1929 and later merged with the LA and New York locals in 1996. He credits Mayor Jane Byrne with opening the door to the film industry by allowing The Blues Brothers to tear up the Daley Center and Daley Plaza. Some say it was a gesture of how she felt about her predecessor. 

Between 1980 and 2011, Chicago was a smaller market than New York and much smaller than Los Angeles. Production companies would come to Chicago to shoot a feature film for only a few months, or they’d send a unit to Chicago to shoot the cityscape, and then return to LA to shoot everything else on a stage (think Married . . . with Children). At the time, there was Essanay, an equipment rental house and studio, used mostly for commercials and advertisements, and Chicago Studio City near Roosevelt and Central Avenue. The latter can shoot a couple of TV shows and features at the same time, and the former is still pumping out ads. 

For big features like John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, producers would routinely fly out department heads, senior technicians, and gear from LA to run and staff the filming “because they didn’t think Chicago had enough skilled or knowledgeable workers to staff a movie. Isn’t that kinda condescending,” says Michael Parks, a union lighting technician who’s worked in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Saint Louis. IATSE Local 666 eventually came up with a tri-local agreement between LA, Chicago, and New York that for every department head hired from LA, you had to have a department head of the same department from Chicago (or New York), who also had to get paid the same amount as the west coast head. In between those blockbuster films, IATSE members kept busy doing commercial work.

That all started to change around 2006 when a tax credit for the film industry was introduced. 

“If you don’t have a decent tax credit in your state, you don’t have a film business,” says Matthys. The tax credit allows studios to reduce the amount they pay to the IRS in taxes and is granted based on the hiring of local Illinois workers. Of the 30 states with tax incentives, Illinois was the first to include diversity clauses—incentives to hire women and people of color along with Illinois residents. 

When Cinespace opened in 2011, everything accelerated. IATSE and Cinespace have grown in tandem, according to Matthys. “The relationship between the Mirkopoulos and the Pissios family who brought Cinespace to life here in Chicago has been one of teamwork. We’ve waited a long time to have a facility like this in which to work. I think that’s really, really a big part of the story.” 

The bedrock of success at Cinespace was built upon the Dick Wolf shows Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med, and has grown to include dozens of other shows and movies. 

About Cinespace’s new owners, Texas-based TPG Real Estate Partners, the real estate wing of the private equity firm TPG worth $109 billion, Matthys says that “it’s going to be incredible for the city and state what they’re going to pull off here. To say I was impressed by them would be the understatement of the year.” 

Getting into the industry

In mid-December, DCASE opened applications for a job training and placement program called “Chicago Made.” They received nearly 500 applications for just 25 slots. Applications were open for only five days. 

DCASE hasn’t announced yet who they selected, but director of the Chicago Film Office Kwame Amoaku says they’re basing their decision on candidates who already have specific skill sets that are translatable for working in the film industry. “If you can build a house, you can build a set. If you work in a salon or a barbershop, you can be trained to do work in hair and makeup,” says Amoaku.

That tracks with DCASE’s accompanying public media campaign, which will feature different sorts of film workers from different parts of the city. Amoaku hopes that it will personalize “the blue collar workforce that makes this economic engine go, and [give] people the opportunity to see themselves in some of these positions.”

Amoaku says that training will also equip participants with tips on financial planning, how to “plan for the unplanned,” and work-life balance. “We want people to understand going into this the type of commitment that is involved, and I’m glad that some of that was highlighted in the IATSE negotiations,” he says. 

Cinespace has run a similar training program called CineCares since 2014. Matthys says he estimates that 20 participants have been voted into 476 since going through the program, and TPG Real Estate plans to expand the program in other venues and locations. “CineCares reaches out and looks for [applicants]. They’re looking for people with absolutely no experience in the film industry,” says Kuttner. “What’s exciting about the purchase by the new owners is that they’re going to continue that. And now that means that these kids will be open to programs all over the country, wherever Netflix shoots.”

Twenty-six-year-old Parks has worked in both Chicago and Los Angeles as a chief lighting technician or gaffer for the last six years. “I’m a college dropout. I make 45 an hour, I have a retirement plan. I have health care. I can’t make that much money or get benefits that good doing anything else.” 

Before getting into the IATSE, Margaret Hartmann worked nonunion in theater and on the Oprah show for ten years; “She was my rent money.” She’d heard about how hard it was to get into the union and stories about rampant sexism in the industry, which intimidated her. The role of the lighting technician on film sets has been dominated by men for as long as the job has existed. But when Hartmann was offered a job on a movie set and an opportunity to get her union card, she asked herself, “Wait a second. Did you say health insurance? Did you say living wage? I’m down with that.” She ended up joining the union.

She’s been a light board operator since 2014 and now owns her own board that she rents out to shows who need it. 

What it takes to shoot a show

“Movies are usually a lot easier than TV shows,” says Parks. “On TV shows they’ll start airing episodes while you’re still filming a season, so you cannot get behind.” 

“[The] budget in a TV show, it’s two weeks to film an hour-long episode.” Usually, he explains, one minute of a TV show equals one script page, “so you’re shooting six pages a day” for a one-hour show, “which is a lot.” “But on a movie,” he says, “you’ll have days where you film half of a page, an eighth of a page, depending on what it is.”

Parks raved about Steven Soderbergh’s style as a director on The Knick, shot in New York in 2014. For most occupations, a 12-hour shift is a long day, but for IATSE members, it’s a blessing. “For a show that never goes over 12 hours is just so generous. He makes the film he wants to make and doesn’t do it at other people’s expense.”

“This argument that ‘if we made the work conditions better, good movies wouldn’t be possible’ is just a fabrication, right?” he says. “People love to mysticize something that is essentially very mechanical.”

Prepared to strike for rest

Nationwide calls to shorten the workday in the film industry aren’t new. Twenty-five years ago, Brent Hershman was killed in a car accident after a 19-hour day working on the set of Pleasantville. 10,000 IATSE members signed a petition to limit the workday to 14 hours, but nothing changed. 

Now, the pandemic seems to have brought things to a head. And it’s not just the film industry. Workers across the country have a completely different view of what it means to sell your labor because of COVID. During the contract negotiations over the fall, nearly 90 percent of eligible IATSE members turned out to vote on the strike authorization with more than 98 percent in support. Everyone I spoke to seemed certain that the 12-16-hour days in the film industry will continue to be a major issue three years from now when the next contract comes up. 

“It’s exhausting. It kills you,” says Parks on the damaging effects of insufficient sleep. “You know, we’re making all this money but we have no lives. We never get to see our family. We’re like this ghost to all the people in our personal lives, we get very depressed or very predisposed to being angry because our brains are essentially undergoing neurological damage.” 

When Hartmann first got in, she assumed that the long hours wouldn’t bother her so much because she’d worked in theater and knew what it was like. She soon realized, however, “It’s our longest day every day.” 

“We just took it as part of the job for many years,” says Kuttner. “So many people would talk about missed birthdays, missed graduations, Nutcrackers, whatever it is that your kids were involved with. There’s so many breakups.” 

“You really needed to have an understanding situation with your partner,” he advises. 

In September of 2020, before vaccines were available and members of the public regularly waited hours to get tested for COVID, multiple shows resumed filming again in Chicago. New health and safety roles and infrastructure sprang up to mitigate the risks of COVID with on-site testing for crew members and actors. Shows in Chicago did mandatory testing one to five times per week. This additional logistical and cost dynamic for every day of shooting seemed to be offered without hesitation. “We became aware of like, oh my god, the money has always been there,” says Parks. “They’ve always had more money to give us.”  

During the uprising in the summer of 2020, an informal group of IATSE members in Chicago organized to support the protests, from getting people to and from actions safely, doing jail support, and mutual aid. But “once things got back to work, suddenly everybody’s back to a 12- or 14-hour day, 65-80-hour week. It’s hard to keep the organizing energy going in that environment,” says Hartmann. 

The future of film

The new IATSE contract passed in November, giving workers in Los Angeles (and setting the stage for the rest of the country) 54-hour weekends and ten-hour turnarounds—that is, the minimum amount of time between leaving and returning back to work, which includes commuting, sleeping, and whatever else. Fines for producers who don’t give their workers lunch breaks were also increased.

“Most of us didn’t think it was enough,” says Kuttner, “but those who are negotiating for us said that getting that meant the door was open a crack and if it opens the cracks then it’s gonna eventually work all the way open.”

Some say that they feel like even though there was a clause to penalize companies financially for asking crew members to work through lunch, it’ll still happen. “Nothing is too much money for Netflix and Amazon,” says Kuttner. 

“There’s no reason why this can’t be a regular job with regular hours, so that you can have a family.”