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Hollywood's working class turns to nonprofit funds to make ends meet during the strike

Philanthropy Hollywood Strikes
Posted at 12:39 PM, Aug 30, 2023

NEW YORK (AP) — Shawn Batey was sweating in the August sun on the 100th day of the writers strike, carrying her “IATSE Solidarity” sign on the picket line outside Netflix's New York offices, but she was glad to be there.

A props assistant and documentary filmmaker, Batey is a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents many entertainment workers, in Hollywood and New York, but also around the country. She recently worked on “Pose” and “Russian Doll,” but since the writers strike began in May and the actors joined them on July 14, she's had trouble covering her expenses. So she applied to the emergency fund from the Entertainment Community Fund for help.

“They say apply when you’re at a critical point,” said Batey, adding that she needed to show her union card, her wages and, in her case, that she'd worked as a member of the union for a certain number of years. The application is lengthy, but she said, “It is definitely worth for people to apply. Just be patient.”

Batey — who used her grant to pay her rent, phone bill and electric bill, and other expenses — is one of 2,600 film or television workers that the Entertainment Community Fund has helped during these strikes, granting $5.4 million as of Aug. 25. The fund, formerly known as The Actors Fund, is one of several nonprofits that have long supported workers who make the entertainment industry run, but who were essentially gig workers long before the term was coined. That includes both unionized and nonunionized workers, and those on strike as well as those who've lost work because of it.

The fund has received the most requests for help from people in California, followed by Atlanta and New York. It’s raised $7.6 million so far and is granting about $500,000 a week. For now, it’s issuing one-time grants of up to $2,000 for individuals or $3,000 for families.

“It's a lot of the crafts people, the wardrobe people, the makeup people, the carpenters that build the sets, the painters, the electricians,” said Tom Exton, chief advancement officer for the Entertainment Community Fund. He said the fund has supported industry members through many previous crises, including the AIDS epidemic and financial crisis, and would continue to fundraise to provide help as needed.

Another charity created more than 100 years ago to help entertainment workers get through tough periods, the Motion Picture & Television Fund, helps administer funds from some of the unions to provide emergency assistance specifically for their members. It declined to disclose the amount of financial support its received from those unions. The fund also provides financial and counseling support to unaffiliated workers and offers housing to industry veterans over the age of 70.

Bob Beitcher, its president and CEO, said many of the lowest-paid entertainment workers have little savings or reserves coming out of the pandemic. The federal programs and protections, like eviction moratoriums that helped keep entertainment workers and many others afloat during COVID-19 shutdowns, also aren't around now.

“They are losing their homes. They’re losing their cars and trucks. They’re losing their health insurance,” Beitcher said. “And it’s pretty awful.”

Striking actors and writers have accused the studios of purposefully prolonging the strike so that they lose their homes.

MPTF has been getting 200 calls a day as opposed to 20 a day before the strike. Over 80% of callers are “below-the-line” workers, meaning not the actors, writers, directors or producers. They've processed 1,000 requests for financial assistance through the end of July, the fund said, with applicants waiting an average of two weeks for the money to be dispersed.

Beitcher called for greater support from industry members, in an open letter on Aug. 17, saying, “As a community, we are not doing enough to support the tens of thousands of crew members and others who live paycheck to paycheck and depend on this industry for their livelihood. They have become the forgotten casualties during these strikes, overlooked by the media.”

MPTF said it has raised $1.5 million since the letter was published.

The SAG-AFTRA Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission to support the members of the actors union, quickly raised $15 million with $1 million donations from Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts in the first three weeks of the actors strike. Other $1 million donations came from George and Amal Clooney, Luciana and Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hugh Jackman and Deborra-Lee Furness, Dwayne Johnson, Nicole Kidman, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meryl Streep.

Cyd Wilson, the foundation's executive director, said her pitch to the top talent is that even the biggest stars need the army of smaller actors, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, to make their movies and television shows.

“Those are the people that we’re going to be helping the most, because those are the people that are going to be hurting the most,” she said.

The foundation exclusively supports the 160,000 members of the union and 86% of those performers don't make enough work in a year to qualify for health insurance, Wilson said.

“They waitress, they bartend, they work catering, they drive Uber, they babysit, they dog walk, they housesit. They have all these secondary jobs in order to be able to survive,” she said.

As the strike goes on, the funds expect more and more union members will lose their health insurance because they will not have worked enough hours to remain eligible. A small group of mostly showrunners decided they wanted to specifically fundraise to cover health care for crew members, and set up a fund with the MPTF.

“It’s one thing for us to be sacrificing our own day-to-day for our greater good, but to watch our brother and sister union stand beside us?” said actor and writer Andrea Savage. “We just got together and said, ‘How can we show that we’re there for them? And also really put our money where our mouth is and actually do something concrete?’”

On Wednesday, talk show hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver launched the “Strike Force Five” podcast, with proceeds from the limited run going to the writers and crew on their TV shows. Mint Mobile and premium alcohol maker Diageo signed on as presenting sponsors.

Savage, along with other actors like “Girls” creator Lena Dunham and “Black Monday” star Paul Scheer, started talking on WhatsApp groups, then met on Zoom and eventually founded The Union Solidarity Coalition. They've raised $315,000 so far in part from a benefit show in Los Angeles on July 15 that went to the MPTF fund (Savage said she and Scheer covered the cost of the portable toilets).

The writer Liz Benjamin helped set up an initial auction, which included a ceramic vase made by Seth Rogen and a blue dress worn by Abbi Jacobson in the series “Broad City,” raising more than $8,600. A second auction opens in mid-September on eBay.

Batey says she is still trying to figure out how to make ends meet in September and for the rest of the strike. She's thinking about where else her skills might be applicable and whether to get temporary work outside her field. In the meantime, she supports the striking writers and actors.

“It's dignity and standing up for yourself," she said. "So if it means we have to take a hit right now for the bigger cause, it’s worth it.”