NYC’s ‘booming’ film and TV industry grinds to halt amid coronavirus, workers ‘worried’
Mark Evans is pictured in Harlem on April 2, 2020 in New York. Evans is a theatrical Teamster driver whose work has been furloughed with pay due to stay-at-home orders.
Harlem resident Mark Evans had a great job as a Teamster driver on the CBS drama “Bull” when the coronavirus crisis abruptly closed the curtain on all film and TV production across New York.
The self-proclaimed “doomsday prepper” said he wasn’t surprised to get his pink slip March 13. But now the magnitude of the shutdown is starting to hit home.
“The first couple days didn’t buzz me much. Then my friend’s mom just died [from COVID-19]. The reality really crashed in. This is going to be here for a while,” the longtime member of Theatrical Teamsters Local 817 said.
“I’m concerned. I’ve got my wife, son, daughter and three young grandkids to support. I’m pretty much the sole provider,” he told the Daily News.
Evans, 57, is facing the same uncertain future as thousands of other drivers, producers, directors, cinematographers, actors, grips, costumers and other staffers suddenly cut from sets and studios across New York.
His was a solidly middle class job with enviable benefits, but in the age of coronavirus, it’s considered non-essential. Virtually overnight, his ability to maintain the life he’s built working the last 25 years is now in jeopardy.
The industry paid an estimated $9.2 billion in wages that year, with the average annual salary being $120,521, the report said.
According to the Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment, the city issues more than 10,000 production permits a year.
Evans said he’s grateful for his union amid the standstill – and the 2-week severance paid by his show’s studio. He was adamant New York will survive, especially after witnessing its resilience serving as a Navy Reservist after 9/11.
But he’s also a realist. He said even with the extra $600 weekly unemployment benefit included in the federal relief package through July, his family will take a hit.
“I make $600 in a day. So, that’s a lot of adjustment,” he said.
Evans is still on the hook for rent, utilities, cable, phones, parking for his truck, food for seven and credit card debt.
“In a normal working time, I can afford everything with my eyes closed. I just don’t want to default on my payments and have my credit get shot,” he said.
“I’m strong, but the depression kind of kicks in sometimes. I’m not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, where I’ll get that next dollar when the unemployment runs out,” he said.
And he’s worried about possibly losing his union healthcare coverage “at some point.”
"This shutdown isn’t going to be just one or two months. We don’t know how long it will last. And once it’s over, we don’t know how long it will take to get back in the flow,” he said.
“The film and TV industry was booming when this happened. It was the traditional pilot season. We had more than 2,000 people working. Then over the course of a couple days, everything shut down,” Tom O’Donnell, President of Teamsters Local 817, told The News.
He said while some have compared the crisis to the shockwaves that rocked the industry after 9/11, it’s not the same.
“We had an immediate shutdown of all production with 9/11, but within several weeks, most productions came back online,” he said.
“And there was a foe we could really confront. We had 12-hour volunteer crews driving generator trucks and lighting equipment and water trucks down to Ground Zero,” he said. “In a short period of time, you could see the light at the end of the tunnel. People have difficulty seeing the light at the end of the tunnel right now.”
Brooklyn photographer JoJo Whilden was working on the Netflix mini-series “Simply Halston," shooting publicity stills, when she got an email March 13th saying production was shutting down.
“They pulled the plug in the middle of the day. It was dramatic,” the Willamsburg resident said.
She said Netflix quickly stepped up and agreed to pay for days she already was booked and later agreed to pay another two days a week for two weeks to help her accrue more hours for her union healthcare.
“It really felt like Netflix had my back. I have two kids and a spouse, and everyone depends on my health insurance, so it was scary,” the member of IATSE Local 600 said.
Going forward, Whilden, 55, is filing for unemployment.
“I got a little terrified this morning when I saw a newsflash about unemployment and a subheading the economy is collapsing. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ But I have two teenagers. I don’t want to model being mopey,” she said.
“I’m worried about the long term financial costs of what’s happening. I really want to retire in 10 years. Am I even going to be able to do that? Retirements are getting decimated. Will they come back? All that is keeping me up at night,” she said. Casting director Cindy Tolan was working on multiple projects including the new WB movie “Sesame Street” when the industry ground to a halt.
“My immediate concern was my staff. One of my associates has been with me for five years and never not had a job,” she said.
“The immediate conversation was making sure everyone understands, ‘Get as much money as you can [from unemployment] until our jobs start up again. It doesn’t mean you no longer have a job with me,’” she said.
In the meantime, Tolan, 54, will be paying the nearly $5,000 in monthly rent on their Manhattan office.
“I’m a corporation. I don’t qualify for anything,” she said. “It’s a lot of unknowns. The impact is enormous. You can’t really get your mind wrapped around it, how big it is.”