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Hollywood TV and film strike impacts Virginia

Richmond-based filmmaker Ken Hicks works on his independent film during the ongoing TV and movie strike.
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
Richmond-based filmmaker Ken Hicks works on his independent film during the ongoing TV and movie strike.

The ongoing labor dispute between the TV and film writers guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers may seem miles away from Virginia, but the Commonwealth’s cinematic footprint has grown in recent years, especially in and around Richmond.

Ken Hicks has been working on small films for more than a decade, but when he got his first production gig, working in the art and lighting and rigging departments for shows like the Walking Dead World Beyond in 2019, things started to change.

“There was about 8 productions in town so I was jumping back and forth," he said. "It was even nice, we got our pick, if one company was offering more money. And then we’d swap back and forth.”

He’s been making his own passion project film using the skills he’s gained working on bigger productions.

But in May, when negotiations broke down between the Writer's Guild of America and their tv and movie production counterparts, things took a turn.

“I was starting to get a decent resume that wasn’t just independent film," he said as he tweaked nobs on his home editing bay. "It’s kind of frustrating when you want to be an independent filmmaker your life and then it just starts out, people find out you can do special effects, soundtrack work, then it just has to stop.”

The bad times didn’t just come for Hicks, but for the nearly 500 other International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, film production union members, who call Virginia home.

“It’s unfortunate because there was work in the pipeline that was ready to go in the spring and summer," Andy Edmunds with the Virginia Film Office noted. "But when the strikes came along it put things people were planning, they stopped planning as a result of impending strikes, and then they were put on hold till next spring.”

Edmunds and the state film office work as a kind of clearing house for productions that want to work in the Commonwealth. He was around when the HBO miniseries John Adams was filmed here, and the historic set they built for the show was then acquired by the state. That set piece, kept on undisclosed land outside of Richmond, has since become an asset Virginia uses to attract more work - whether for another period movie, or to be converted into a post-apocalyptic, zombie infested wasteland in the Walking Dead series.

Shows like Walking Dead World Beyond can make big splashes in the local economy too, Edmunds said. The money productions spend on materials, catering, and dry cleaning can have big impacts on local economies.

“A lot of these folks depend on larger shows to come in. When a large show does come in it's like a helicopter full of money and they touch all parts of the economy,” he said.

David M. O’Ferrall, a business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, said he’s got plenty of colleagues across Virginia waiting to work once the larger strike ends.

“There’s a great crew base there, these studios, production companies appreciate the quality and skill of our members, and we’d like nothing better than to be back at work, but what these other unions are looking for are legitimate concerns,” he said.

The biggest part of the fight is over payments from streaming services as the old contracts fail to take into account the new ways we binge. And while folks like Hicks said he was doing well under the existing union contract for techs like him, he respected the writers who build the worlds he helps create, no matter how long it takes.

“I’m used to whatever punches are thrown at me; I can take it," Hicks said. "I don’t know if a lot of other friends are used to being homeless or squatting in a house. It’s not nearly as adventurous and glamorous as people think. I’m not afraid of not having any money. I can withstand a strike.”

With no clear end to the strike in sight, Edmunds hopes Virginia will be well positioned whenever it wraps.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.