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TV and movie strike ignites calls for greater Virginia film incentives


TV and movie strike ignites calls for greater Virginia film incentives

Aug 08, 2023 | 12:04 am ET
By Meghan McIntyre
TV and movie strike ignites calls for greater Virginia film incentives
Scenes for “Walking Dead, The World Beyond” being filmed on Oregon Hill Parkway, near the Lee Bridge, in Richmond in 2021. (NBC12)

With appearances in nearly 80 television shows spanning a 30-year career, actor and Virginia Beach native Keith Flippen’s current role involves donning his acting union’s “SAG-AFTRA strong” shirt and publicizing the ongoing nationwide strike by screenwriters and actors.

“We’re trying to share with people that we are not Hollywood. We are people that work right here in the local [union chapter] and that we are not rich and we are not famous,” Flippen said. “We are just laborers, and the value of our labor is not being heard.”

Last month, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists joined the Writers Guild of America in a dual strike, the first since 1960, after they were unable to reach a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, the trade association that represents Hollywood studios and production companies. 

Both unions are seeking higher wages, regulations on the use of artificial intelligence in TV and film and a restructuring of how residuals — long-term payments to actors and writers for the repeated use of their work through streaming services and television reruns — are determined. They say the need for all of the changes has been exacerbated by the increased use of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

Flippen said he would be in a much better financial position if he received the same residual payments now that he received from network shows early in his career.

“That residual would keep me eating, keep my bills paid and keep my heat on and pay my mortgage. … It was possible to earn a living when we were just networks,” he said. “The residual payments on streaming are much, much lower and they diminish more quickly.”

The lower payments also mean Flippen hasn’t met his union’s $26,000 minimum earnings requirement to qualify for health insurance in 13 of the past 20 years.

“The whole model of content creation is changed,” said Virginia Film Office Director Andy Edmunds. “Therefore the model of how people were paid has changed. Therefore a lot of these issues need to be sorted out.”

Because there are no major production studios in Virginia or its surrounding states to picket, Flippen said members of his local union, SAG-AFTRA Mid-Atlantic, have been handing out leaflets on their terms and the ongoing negotiations in places where films made by “struck” producers have special screenings.

Flippen’s union also distributed flyers to employees outside of the new Amazon headquarters in Crystal City last week because of the company’s association with streaming services through Amazon Prime Video.

“Our leadership decided that it was appropriate that we leaflet there so that we could let their employees know that we would like Amazon to return to the table,” Flippen said. 

Productions come to a halt in Virginia

Since the dual strike began, most film and TV productions have come to a halt in Virginia as well as Hollywood. Edmunds said the approximately 5,500 full-time employees involved in the state’s $1.2 billion industry are feeling the effects. 

“A lot of the crew that worked on these larger-scale productions are really suffering,” he said. 

Sarah Sharp, a costumer based out of Richmond, said she hasn’t been able to find work since last Christmas and is primarily living off of savings. 

“Luckily I have saved and I’m able to float through this, but if I had a family I would not be okay right now,” Sharp said. “I don’t know how everyone’s making it work.”

Flippen said he also hasn’t worked since February. 

Luckily I have saved and I’m able to float through this, but if I had a family I would not be okay right now.

– Costumer Sarah Sharp

Crew members affected by the work stoppages include electricians, grips and location managers, along with those who work in construction, costuming and special effects, among others. David O’Ferrall, the business agent with IATSE Local 487 – which represents over 1,000 of these workers in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. – said members were warned at the beginning of the year to save money in anticipation of the writers’ strike, which began in May.  

“I know a lot of people are doing odd jobs. They’re doing construction and general painter contractors. We’ve had people work with a moving company,” said O’Ferrall. “They’ve been picking up work elsewhere, and unfortunately, some people have taken full-time jobs because they’re worried how long the strike could go on and is it really sustainable.” 

Edmunds said the impacts of the strike in Virginia go beyond individual workers. 

When a big production comes to Virginia, “they do everything from buying paper clips to renting helicopters. Office supplies, building supplies — they’ll pull up into a lumber supply operation and just buy flat sheds and flat beds full of lumber,” he said. “Everything from massage therapists to dog walkers, you name it. They affect all parts of the economy in a unique way.”

Altogether, big productions filmed in the state such as “Dopesick” or “Swagger,” said Edmunds, “will spend $60 million a season and hire 300 people and spend at hundreds and hundreds of local businesses and thousands of hotel rooms.”

While Edmunds said he can’t predict when the strikes will end, he said that when productions eventually resume, those working in the industry won’t see a huge increase in job opportunities in Virginia because of the low incentives associated with filming in the state. 

Few incentives, few opportunities

Even though Edmunds said Virginia is “uniquely situated to be a great palette for storytellers,” with its diverse architecture and geography, he said productions often overlook the commonwealth as a place to film because of small state tax and grant incentive programs – resulting in lost talent and millions in investment.

Dawn Blacksten, assistant director of the Virginia Film Office, said Virginia currently offers a total of $10.5 million in incentives through the Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and Motion Picture Tax Credit, both of which were created by legislation signed by former Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2010.  

According to an incentives map by Cast & Crew — a financial services provider for the entertainment industry — every state bordering Virginia has unlimited motion picture tax credits, a greater pool of funding available for grants or a combination of the two. 

While spending taxpayer dollars on multimillion-dollar production companies may seem counterintuitive, Edmunds said the benefits to Virginia’s economy can be immense.

Blacksten said audited certified public accountant reviews compiled by the Virginia Film Office show Virginia spent over $83 million on incentives from 2015 to 2022. During that same time frame, she said those productions added nearly $888 million to the commonwealth’s economy, a figure she said was determined by using the industry-standard IMPLAN multiplier. 

O’Ferrall also emphasized that productions don’t receive funding from Virginia until the state audits what their money has already been spent on.

“So they’re not just handed money and it’s like, maybe they do some of it here, maybe they don’t,” O’Ferrall said. Incentives are “based on actual spends.” 

In letters sent to Edmunds last year, officials representing Sony Pictures and HBO said their companies would consider adding Virginia as an area for future productions if the state strengthened its incentives. 

During the last General Assembly, lawmakers proposed the “Lights, Camera, Jobs Plan,” a combination of legislation and budget amendments aiming to boost incentives and strengthen the state’s film production and workforce development. In January, McDonnell sent Gov. Glenn Youngkin a letter urging him to support the plan. 

Nevertheless, all of the proposals were struck down by the legislature.

When asked if Youngkin supports an expansion of Virginia’s film and TV incentive programs, spokesperson Macaulay Porter said, “Virginia is a thriving business hub that’s a prime location for business expansions and growing industries, including the production industry. Funding levels have remained consistent from the previous administration and the Commonwealth of Virginia offers $10.5 million in incentives for the production industry.”

While Edmunds acknowledged incentive funding is determined by the General Assembly, he said the decision to keep the amount the same is not only costing the commonwealth economically, but driving talent into other states. 

“We have 32 film and media schools in the state of Virginia. These young people who come to these schools want to work in the business, and if we can’t give them work in Virginia, they’re just going to move to another state,” Edmunds said.

That was the case with Maura Mazurowski, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s cinema program who now works in New York City as a personal assistant to director Barry Levinson. (Mazurowski has previously written several stories for the Mercury.)

“I wanted to be a writer-producer-actor type and couldn’t really figure out how to in Virginia,” Mazurowski said. After moving, “I found a full-time job, and I can definitely say with confidence I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in right now if I stayed in Virginia.”

Virginia natives Sharp and Flippen said most of their work requires them to travel out of state to cities like Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Wilmington, North Carolina. 

“Last year, I maybe slept at my house for 30 days,” Sharp said. “I was in Charleston and Wilmington for most of the year.”

Sharp said she is considering renting out her home in Richmond next year to live wherever she finds work in another state. 

Flippen said in retrospect, he “made the mistake” of returning to Virginia after living in Los Angeles for a few years because the opportunities to be cast in bigger roles and earn more are much more limited in the commonwealth. 

“If I were to make that choice again, I would have decided I had to stick it out there where there was no ceiling,” Flippen said.