Post biz soldiers on post-strike


Everyone knows that the whole production industry suffered during the 100-day WGA strike. But what's harder to parse is just how it affected the postproduction industry.

"We don't have specific figures, but we know it had to extract a toll on that industry with the complete shutdown of all scripted TV series," says Jack Kyser, senior vp and chief economist of the L.A. County Economic Development Corp., who notes that Los Angeles' top three industries are "very poorly reported."

Working on thin profit margins and with huge operating overhead, post is a competitive subset of the entertainment industry -- and nobody wants to allow even a morsel of advantage to the competition.

"Obviously, there has to be some pain," Kyser continues. "We know that activity hasn't ramped up. A lot of people say the strike is over, so it's back to business as usual. In some cases, that's true, but in others, no, it caused a change in the industry."

Whether it was putting a halt to entertaining, asking employees to take vacation time, unpaid leave or scrambling after unaffected work like reality TV and indie films, every postproduction facility in Los Angeles and New York suffered during the strike. No post executives contacted for this article would admit to layoffs, but Hollywood Post Alliance co-founder Bob Solomon, who is also president of Ascent Media Creative Services, affirms that the industry was hit hard.

"At our last count, postproduction employs 35,000 people, and a significant portion of them depended on projects with scripts," he says. "The layoffs were in the thousands, but I don't know if you'll ever be able to come up with a number. It had a pretty pervasive impact on the industry."

HPA president Leon Silverman, who is also president of LaserPacific Media Corp., points out that the post industry also includes studios, networks, VFX and sound houses, as well as freelance workers employed by shows. "Every major post house laid off workers," he adds. "As the work comes back, we hope to call those workers back. But the work hasn't come back."

Thus far, the post-strike increase in production hasn't trickled down to post yet, but LA Digital Post president and CEO Gary Migdal says work is starting to return in bits. "It continued to be slow up until a couple of weeks ago," he noted in a March interview. "Things seem to be slowly ramping up now."

FotoKem's senior vp Rand Gladden says that, as shows return to production -- and the majority of his facility's shows are back in production -- he expects a six- to eight-week ramp-up to get them back in post.

But everyone concurs that pilot season will likely never be the same. "The networks have been saying that, so it's no secret," says PostWorks COO and owner Rob DeMartin. "There was an opportunity to change some of the ways they did business, and they took it."

Instead of the frenetic pilot season, in which post houses were pushed to the limit, post-strike TV could well have initiated a year-round pilot season: "It'll follow the model of cable, where there are multiple pilots from each network or each studio," Silverman says. "In the future, there will be fewer pilots, but more will survive."

Many in post welcome the year-round pilot season concept. "Pilot season has always been a nightmare," Gladden says. "This way, we can stretch it out without (jamming up) our ongoing work."

That means a shorter hiatus for post staff, another positive. Even so, fewer pilots mean less work. "The pie is only so big and won't get bigger," Silverman says. "There's an increasing challenge on post to continue to demonstrate its value. Technology and the price of labor for companies like ours keeps rising. But the fees charged by post companies have fallen over the past five to 10 years."

Fallout might not have even truly begun yet: Kyser expects bankruptcies from some post houses in the coming year. Ascent Media's Solomon notes that the industry has already suffered "a permanent loss of knowledge base and experience," with old-time employees leaving the industry.

And then there's the looming possibility of an actors strike. "(That) would not be good news," Kyser says. "That makes me rather nervous. If you do get a SAG strike, the changes will be more significant."