For Small Businesses Across Hollywood, the Strikes Hurt Worse Than COVID

When COVID hit in 2020 and Hollywood screeched to a hard stop, small businesses that service the film and TV industry didn’t know what to do or how long it would last, but they had places to turn. Local governments offered PPP funds to those struggling, businesses could maintain a modest baseline income, and as Hollywood collectively worked to develop COVID protocols, some businesses even brought on extra staff to accommodate the demand and new cleaning measures.

Three years later, as those same businesses clung to what’s left of their PPP funds, the extended work stoppage from the writers and actors strike has taken a similar toll. Some business owners would argue it’s not the same; it’s worse.

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“We are making less money now than we were during the pandemic,” Pam Elyea of History for Hire prop house told IndieWire. “There’s not a small business owner that is not going through difficult times right now.”

Her business, which has provided period-era props for 40 years, including “Killers of the Flower Moon” and the upcoming “The Color Purple,” is just one of many businesses that found the resources provided to individuals hurt by the strike weren’t there for mom-and-pop shops like hers.

“When you’re a small business, you know your staff, and it’s heartbreaking when you can’t provide a living for them,” she said. “We are very much on our own here.”

The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes have cost the California and Los Angeles economies an estimated $5 billion, according to an August report from the Milken Institute. The number could be far greater. That impact is felt in many of the below-the-line professionals without work, but also in the support industry and vendors — the prop houses, the caterers, the equipment manufacturers, you name it — who also keep the film and TV business running.

“With this we have no help from anyone. We’re just creating more debt for ourselves. And it doesn’t seem like the public is interested or even aware of the magnitude this strike has beyond the actors, whether it’s the 200,000 IATSE crew that are standing around or the half a million people that work at businesses nationwide or worldwide,” said Simon England, who runs the custom slate manufacturing company EnglishStix.

His company, which made equipment for everything from “Oppenheimer” to “Nyad” to “Our Flag Means Death,” draws about 80 percent of its business from TV shows and studio projects starting production. That’s disappeared since the actors went on strike in July. England made the decision within the last few weeks to finally reduce hours for his handful of staff. He’s already lost one staffer, and he can’t justify keeping his doors open much longer.

“I’ll give it another two weeks. If there’s nothing, we’ll have to do a full shutdown,” he said, saying this will also impact his ability to market or expand in the future. “The losses involved is going to take years to recuperate from.”

Unlike during COVID, small businesses are obligated to keep their doors open or risk losing their space to a landlord that can easily find another tenant. That means they can’t just go dark and stay at home and don’t have a reprieve from utility or maintenance costs.

“Eventually the landlord is going to lock me out and I’d lose everything here,” said Marc Meyer of Faux Library, the largest square-footage prop house in the San Fernando Valley. “It might end up that I’d have to send things to auction. The more valuable pieces, the rare desks that I have, I would have to sacrifice pieces to keep the landlord happy. I’m not happy about that.”

Also unlike COVID, some businesses started to feel the pinch of the strikes early. Rumors about a looming work stoppage meant a slowdown in business by April, if not earlier. Elyea said people were wrapping shows by January and new projects weren’t starting; when the writers’ strike began, business plummeted. When the actors joined the writers on strike, some situations went from bad to worse.

Adrianna Cruz Ocampo with U Frame It Gallery, a North Hollywood shop that does custom framing and primarily serves studio set decorators, was not prepared for the length of the strikes and has gone through her reserves. Cruz Ocampo says she’s still paying her staff, but not herself. And with so little business, she’s also run out of ways for her staff to pass the time.

“In the beginning, we were in the store doing tune-ups to the machine, because when you’re busy you can’t do all that. We even cleaned the light bulbs,” she said. “They want to do something. No one wants to stand around. But we’ve run out of things to do.”

Neither Los Angeles county nor the state of California has passed a bill that would provide financial assistance in the event of a Hollywood work stoppage. Elyea is calling for a business interruption fund for the entertainment industry “just to keep our doors open and just so we can be here when all of this is resolved.” She joined as many as 200 small business owners and IATSE members in front of LA’s City Hall last week for a rally to demand such government intervention.

Pam Elyea (2nd from right) with members of the Set Decorators Society of America on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall October 23 / Courtesy Pam Elyea
Pam Elyea (2nd from right) with members of the Set Decorators Society of America on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall October 23 / Courtesy Pam Elyea

“When there’s no government assistance, there’s not much funding for businesses, particularly in California, that are dealing with this. There are some grants and things like that, but there’s nothing like a full force effort to keep us afloat,” said Paige Simmons of Dine With 9 catering. Requests that normally arrived during pilot and awards season never came. That meant losing staff, hoping to get those people back, and praying for a quick end.

“COVID wasn’t this long,” she said. “COVID was three or four months, and even after the PPPs, production came back, business came back. They were ready to shoot, and we were ready to work for them. This has been going on for too long. Let’s please figure it out. We’re just waiting on the gates to open.”

Even if the strike ends tomorrow — a teasing possibility for more than a week — most of the small businesses know it won’t immediately be full steam ahead, at least for them. The production pipeline might take a solid month for things to get rolling; new business might not arrive in earnest until the new year. For U Frame It, requests for custom picture frames are often the last call made in the production process, so she’s at the back of the line.

There’s also the fear that the industry won’t produce nearly as many shows coming out of the strikes as before it, which means some of the business many of these companies once relied upon won’t be back.

“The biggest thing is feeling that I’ve let the people that work for me down. I can’t stay open, and I can’t keep working,” Meyer said. “It bothers me a lot.”

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