5 Ways Movie Studios Are Screwing Workers
Hollywood is where dreams become reality. You start as a wide-eyed nobody, and with a little talent and luck, you get to be the writer/director/producer/star of Fast & Furious X: FasTEN Your Seat Belts. Well, it can be that. You could also find yourself inside a giant corporate machine that grinds you to dust so the CEO can snort said dust through a rolled-up hundred-dollar bill. And you don't have to look far to find examples of the latter ...
Disney Is Crushing Small Theater Chains
You may have noticed that movie theater popcorn costs more per pound than filet mignon. There's a good reason for this. Concessions are where theaters make 85% of their profit. How can that be, when a ticket alone costs about ten bucks and the Penis Inspector charges another five? First of all, Jeff isn't employed by the theater, so you should stop paying him. Secondly, theaters don't make jack on tickets.
In an era of unprecedented studio profits, theaters are dying. Studios demand a portion of all ticket sales, and in recent years they've been demanding more and more. And Disney is largely to blame. For the release of The Last Jedi, Disney demanded an astounding 65% cut. Perhaps even worse, Disney demanded that The Last Jedi be shown on every theater's largest screen for a solid month, which is generally much longer than is profitable for single-screen theaters.
These small theaters therefore they have to choose between showing a single movie long after interest had dwindled and lose money, or not show goddamn Star Wars and lose money. It's no surprise that theaters with four or fewer screens have decreased by nearly a third since 2013. Some independent theaters have accused Disney of giving price breaks to the big chains. Small theaters are to these business practices what ducklings are to ... hell, I don't even know, anti-duckling flamethrowers, I guess.
But the news isn't all bad. Some of it is straight-up terrible! As Disney continues to expand (they recently bought 20th Century Fox, after all), they'll have even more leverage over theaters. Disney films already accounted for nearly 30% of box office grosses in 2018. As they progress toward their goal of owning most of the movie industry, why stop at 65%? Why not 75%? Hell, why not 90%, a cut of concessions, and a bucket of infant's blood (which keeps Walt Disney's screaming head alive in the ziggurat below Burbank)?
Studios Own Actors' Ghosts
Technology has already gifted us with a creepy CG Peter Cushing in Rogue One. And as technology makes it easier to play Night Of The Living Academy Award Winner, it doesn't seem crazy to speculate that in the future, an actor's death will be nothing more than a minor career setback. Considering how well AI can imitate famous human voices, it seems likely the 2030 live-action remake of the 2026 animated remake of A New Hope will feature the original cast.
Of course, this opens some interesting questions about consent around the usage of a dead actor's image. After all, it's not like John Wayne can accept or turn down a role (he's too busy being tortured in Racism Hell). But while in California, you need a descendant's permission to use someone's image for commercial purposes, this isn't true everywhere. Prince once called hologram resurrections "the most demonic thing imaginable," but all the music industry heard was "Prince hologram" and *cash register sound effect.* He was almost a hologram at a Superbowl halftime show, since his estate was based in Minnesota, but luckily, Justin Timberlake intervened to stop it. After all, he only brings back sexy, not angry ghosts.
SAG-AFTRA is pushing for the nationwide adoption of California's laws regarding posthumous portrayal, which also require that descendants get a portion of the profit from any such appearance. But the problem there is obvious. What if Elvis Presley Jr. wants to preserve the integrity of his forebear, but the unscrupulous David Presley IV wants to make a quick buck by having CGI Elvis sell X-Tra Comfort King-Sized Toilet Rings? This is why the image of Frida Kahlo, a militant anti-capitalist, is on more merchandise than a "Made in Bangladesh" tag.
Cases like these are why some actors have begun making legal stipulations in their wills about the posthumous use of their images. Some make specific requests, such as not having their media-ghost use alcohol or drugs or be portrayed sexually. Due to this, Robin William's image can't be used commercially until 2039. So maybe Disney should have delayed that Aladdin remake for another 20 years. Or maybe forever! Because ...
The Original Creators Make Nothing From Those Disney Remakes
Look, I didn't set out to write an article about bad practices in the film industry and then have three-fifths of the entries be about Disney. That's simply how it happened. Draw from that what conclusions you will. And I'm not going to judge you if you enjoy the repugnant pieces of regurgitated cultural ephemera that make up the studio's recent wave of "live-action" remakes. I mean, look at the wig Disney forced on Michael Keaton's head in Dumbo. How can you not enjoy whatever THAT was supposed to be?
But even worse than the fact that the most powerful entertainment juggernaut in the history of the planet can't do any better than making the same handful of films ad infinitum is that they're not even paying the people who made them the first time. Just ask Terry Rossio, the guy who co-wrote the original Aladdin.
Despite the fact that he wrote the only words in the first trailer for the remake, "Disney [offered] zero compensation to us ... not even a t-shirt or a pass to the park." This is because due to weaker union rules, people who work in animated films don't enjoy as many protections as those who work in live-action. (Rossio would likely have gotten a cut if the original hadn't been a cartoon.) You've probably seen this video floating around the internet that compares the original Lion King trailer to that of the remake:
It's pretty much the same, except slightly worse. Which means that these films are using the work of animators and illustrators as a template without paying them a single red cent. And if you think "Well, you can't pay the original animators AND the CGI animators. That would cost too much!" remember that the Beauty And The Beast remake made $1.2 billion.
VFX Is Thankless Toil That Rewards Workers With Joblessness
In the intervening years since Cracked last wrote about the many, many, many problems of working in the VFX industry, everything seems to indicate that things have only gotten worse. As technology gets better and CGI becomes cheaper, more mid-budget projects can incorporate it (and bigger budget movies add it to every single shot). This, due to the nature of Hollywood's own brand of capitalism, means more VFX studios going bankrupt.
For example, Bohemian Rhapsody probably doesn't spring to mind when you think of CGI-heavy projects, but it was just that. (It's an open secret in Hollywood that Rami Malek doesn't actually exist and is exclusively added in post.) Halo VFX Limited, the studio that did much of the CGI, went under before it paid its employees their final paycheck, screwing them out of thousands of dollars. And since these VFX artists were considered freelance, Fox has no obligation to them, so they'll probably have no means to recoup their lost wages.
I'm bringing this up as a demonstration of where the VFX industry is now: so competitive, divided, and in-demand that it's become a race to the bottom, ironically at a time when VFX are more crucial to film and television than ever. Game Of Thrones opened the floodgates for CGI-heavy spectacle television (and possibly sparked a mainstream interest in incest), so the demand is only going to keep growing at an exponential pace.
It winds up looking exactly like what you're probably facing at your own job: "We depend on the work you do, therefore we can't pay much for it, and we need you to work seven days a week to make this absurd deadline." Thanos' nostril hairs aren't going to animate themselves. But others have it even worse ...
Low-Level Workers Risk Their Safety For Very Little Pay
If I told you that making films and TV was dangerous, what would you think I meant? Stunts gone wrong? Fires on set? The occasional direwolf mauling? While two of those three things do happen, there's another incredibly dangerous aspect of filmmaking that almost never gets talked about: sleep deprivation. And you don't often hear about it because it predominantly affects production assistants, the lowest rung of the Hollywood ladder.
A PA essentially does any non-skilled work on a set, be that making copies, getting coffee, moving the heavy stuff, or being human punching bags. I've worked as a PA, and while I've been on plenty of productions that treated their staff with care and respect, I also once worked on one where literal chickens had mandated breaks and I didn't.
Which brings us back to sleep deprivation. See, nearly everyone else on set has guaranteed breaks between set dismissal and the next call. But those are enforced by unions, which PAs don't have. So they often work hours even the methiest trucker would consider unreasonable. In an industry with tremendous pressure to get things done as quickly (and therefore cheaply) as possible, 12-hour days are considered short.
When PAs have to work for 12, 24, 30, or even more hours and then drive home while drowsy, they're not only endangering themselves, but others as well. And if they're hurt or killed while driving home, workman's comp wouldn't pay out a penny in California. Speaking out against this could lead to being blackballed, and this Deadline article quotes sources who say they were threatened not to reveal the insane hours they were working.
To quote an excellent article from Psychology Today, "Sleep deprivation related to work schedules and lifestyle can have a devastating effect." And PAs are doing this while often working for less than minimum wage. I once worked a 28-hour shift for a daily rate that may as well have been a handful of ripped ticket stubs, and the director still stiffed me on the paycheck.
It's shockingly common. The PAs on the film Black Swan sued over the film's use of unpaid labor. When you consider how that film made over $300 million, maybe spare a thought for the dozens to hundreds of PAs who literally risked their lives, possibly for free, so that you could see a superhero punch a man through a building in the name of justice.
William Kuechenberg is a film and television writer who will gladly recant everything he said here in exchange for getting staffed. You can check out his work on Script Revolution or view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
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