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Hollywood is at war. The film and television industry’s writers and actors are on strike together for the first time since 1960, fighting for better pay, higher royalties, job security, and guarantees over potentially industry-changing technologies like artificial intelligence. And though Colorado may not be the geographic center of the conflict, we’re hardly isolated from the battles raging over the film and television industry’s future.
Already, the standoff between big studio companies and streamers represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has produced a number of surprising ripple effects that are reaching—and rocking—Colorado’s relatively small TV and film industry. And the longer the strikes go on, the more those ripple effects will compound.
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“I think it’s going to be an epic strike,” says Donald Zuckerman, Colorado’s film commissioner, whose department is housed within the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. Between what Zuckerman has heard from industry contacts and read in the news, he thinks the strike could last months. As a progress marker, consider that it took until August 4, nearly 100 days into the writers’ strike, for the studios to even ask for a negotiation meeting with the WGA. Recent news reports indicate that some studios are beginning to meet striking writers and actors in the middle, but it could be awhile before everyone is on the same page about how artists should be compensated in an age of cord-cutting and streaming services in Hollywood.
For Zuckerman and Deputy Film Commissioner Arielle Brachfeld, both of whom have produced films, the strike represents a mix of opportunity and concern for Colorado. Here are some of the things that they, as well as filmmakers in Colorado, have noticed and experienced during this historic shakeup.
The Renaissance of Reality TV
During the strike, reality television shows can still be filmed and produced, since most of them do not employ SAG actors or WGA writers. Colorado has already been seeing positive returns from reality shows filmed within its borders, Brachfeld says. “Two recent success stories were [HGTV’s] Rock the Block and Home Town Takeover,” she says. “Tourism has kicked up because of these shows. People are literally visiting Fort Morgan where Home Town Takeover took place and spending money at the ice cream store that was featured and going to the hardware store that was featured. These businesses are seeing record economic impact from these shows.”
Colorado is already lined up to host two more reality television shows, Brachfeld says. “We can’t really talk too much about the specifics—but they’re network shows that are slated to be filmed this year in Colorado and would have a phenomenal economic impact,” she says.
No, Love is Blind is not one of them—we asked—despite the casting calls the popular Netflix series recently held in Denver. But given how the strikes will likely motivate networks and streamers to pursue more reality television shows to fill their programming, Colorado could become a playground for reality TV stars. Plus, having opportunities to work on such shows during the strikes can help keep television and film crews (of which Colorado employs hundreds of workers) afloat. Another season of the Real World: Denver, anyone?
Rise of the Indies?
Even when the writers’ strike began in May, Colorado did not have any major, studio-funded motion pictures or scripted television shows currently being produced in its borders. One reason could be that many in Hollywood saw this strike coming, Zuckerman says. But Colorado has also been losing big movies to surrounding states that provide better incentives, which can include tax breaks and refunds on local cast and crew spending. It’s been years since the biggest movies—Our Souls at Night (Robert Redford, Jane Fonda); The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino); Furious 7 (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker); Cop Car (Kevin Bacon, Camyrn Manheim)—were filmed in Colorado.
“We’ve been concerned about losing people to other states that have incentive money like New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana, Georgia, and now Arizona,” Zuckerman says. “And we’ve seen that happen year in and year out. But right now, I don’t think we’re going to see as many people move to those places because there isn’t going to be any work there, either.”
Stymieing the exodus of talent from Colorado is a good thing because the state can’t afford to lose more industry workers or infrastructure, Zuckerman says. It’s down to one main sound stage (a large, soundproof studio used for filming), and Colorado’s main equipment rental suppliers have already downsized. Much of the demand for the remaining resources in Colorado comes from crews producing advertisements and commercials, which Zuckerman and Brachfeld say are not restricted by the strikes. But industry workers are still needed for smaller, independent films, which are far more common here than big studio films.
Local indie flicks could save Colorado’s film industry before the strikes end. “We have a couple of projects going where the writers aren’t WGA members, so they don’t have to worry about the writers’ strike,” Zuckerman says. He lists a few reasons why independent projects could be at an advantage now: “All of the sudden, you can get an agent in LA on the phone since they’re not busy, and if there’s a dearth of material being created, then I think there’s an opportunity for [better] distribution—and now there’s a possibility of getting SAG waivers for independent films,” he says.
What’s in a Waiver
The waivers Zuckerman is referring to are known as interim agreements. Currently, actors who are SAG members are prohibited from working on movies and television shows, as well as promoting them. But the union has also recognized that not every film or television project is affiliated with the studios and streamers they’re striking against. So, SAG created waivers that it can give to independent projects that don’t employ WGA writers and accept all of the demands SAG is fighting for that allow those movies or television shows to use union actors. The idea is that, by showing that independent projects with smaller budgets can accept SAG’s demands, the AMPTP can, too. “I think that in the next month or so, these waivers are going to start flowing regularly,” Zuckerman says.
That’s certainly what writer/producer/director Sheryl Glubok and producer Iana Dontcheva of the indie film Welcome to the Fishbowl hope for. The fictional story, a screwball comedy about a middle-aged mother of two who goes on a Colorado road trip with a literary legend, is nearly funded and has lined up a cast of well-known actors—including Natalie Gold (Succession), Jeremy Swift (Ted Lasso), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Never Have I Ever), and Marin Hinkle (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel).
Since all of the actors are part of SAG, Welcome to the Fishbowl needs a waiver from the union to move forward with production now. “We are entirely independent, so that’s sort of the little glimmer in there,” Dontcheva says. In other words, because Welcome to the Fishbowl doesn’t have funding from major studios or streamers, it could qualify for an interim agreement, which would allow the actors to work during the strike.
“I would also like to say that we support both [the writers’ and actors’ unions]” Dontcheva says. “We support their cause.”
In fact, Glubok says that even though she’s not a WGA writer, she aspires to qualify for the union and isn’t revising her movie’s script during the strike to be in solidarity with union writers—and they seem to be returning the favor. She’s starting to notice a call, including among union actors, to support more independent filmmaking. “It’s an emotional time,” she says. “I think movies are due for a renaissance. There’s no middle-class filmmaking anymore; it’s like you’re either doing low-budget indies or these huge $300 million movies. So hopefully we can really have an increase again in that lower budget range.”
If Glubok and Dontcheva can complete their fundraising and acquire a SAG waiver, they might be able to start filming this year, which could put them in a position to submit their work for film festivals and other screens next year when there will be less studio and streaming content. “I’m not sure what people are going to watch next year, so I’m hoping that we can shoot, so they can watch us,” Dontcheva says. “Our best-case scenario is that we fill that gap and there might be an opening [for us.]”
But What if Waivers Are Hard to Get?
Colorado director Taylor McFadden heard she could apply for a SAG waiver as an independent filmmaker. So on July 15—the very first day the actors joined the writers on strike—she did.
With her film Lovers—a music-centric drama about friendship, grief, and community—nearly completed, one of the few things McFadden still needed to accomplish was voice-overs with her actors, who include Angela Trimbur (Search Party and The Good Place) and Amelia Meath of the band Sylvan Esso in her debut acting role. A SAG rep told McFadden that the strikes shouldn’t affect her film, since she’d already paid SAG for her actors’ work and Lovers is completely independent. McFadden hoped that applying for a waiver would be as painless as promised.
“We have been in contact with our SAG rep for the past month,” she says. “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
Without a waiver, the actors in Lovers can’t complete their voice-overs, and McFadden already lost studio time she’d booked for them—along with the money she’d paid to audio technicians. Now, the director is facing down the prospect of submitting her unfinished film to festivals. “I’m literally submitting to Sundance in one week, and having our voice-overs done was an important part of the process,” she says. “It’s really tragic when you’re a first-time director. You want to put your best foot forward and want to have the best film that you can.”
McFadden isn’t the only indie director in her position. On August 9, the New York Times reported that there’s been confusion and consternation about which projects are being allowed to move forward. By August 14, SAG had provided a total of 207 waivers, including to indie films using big-name actors such as Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. As for McFadden’s own friends in the industry? “Every person I know who has applied for a waiver has not heard back yet,” she says.
Like fellow Coloradan filmmakers Glubok and Dontcheva, McFadden strongly supports the strikes. She even has empathy for the union she can’t seem to get in touch with. “SAG is run by humans, and they’re probably overloaded,” she concedes. “I can’t imagine the amount of submissions they’re trying to get through.”
And so, she’s had to hold on to two things at once: solidarity with what striking writers and actors are fighting for while also grieving what the strikes have meant for her film. “At the end of the day, I have to not just selfishly think about myself and understand that this is a really big moment in history that could affect the way that things in my industry work forever,” she says. “Filmmaking is just hard. And this is just one more mountain to climb.”