How the Hollywood strikes took a toll on crew workers

A Toronto production assistant whose income dried up because of Hollywood strikes lost his home and ended up in his car. A New York dresser lost her sobriety amid stress. A New Mexico assistant director fell into a deep depression and committed suicide.

They were among hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Canadian film and television crew employees who found themselves unemployed for up to 10 months due to strikes called by actors and writers, leading to a series of expulsions and family disintegration.

Crew members rallied to help each other, and charities participated in the writers’ strike that began on May 2 and ended in late September, as well as the actors’ strike that began in July. The actors reached an agreement in principle on Wednesday.

“The actors and writers get a lot of publicity, but the crews are the collateral damage of the strikes,” said Lori Rubinstein, executive director of the mental health charity Behind the Scenes.

Crew members lost their health insurance and broke into retirement funds. They saw their relationships crumble and became isolated and depressed as month after month went without pay and lost the rhythm of 70-hour work weeks creating shows that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. dollars, according to union leaders, advisers and more than a dozen teams. members interviewed by Reuters.

Over the past 18 months, Rubinstein has taught approximately 1,000 industry members a mental health first aid training course to prevent suicides in an industry struggling with substance abuse, workaholism and bullying , according to team members Reuters spoke with.

“He really, really needed to work,” said Pam Rosen, the mother of Joe Bufalino, 32, New Mexico’s youngest first assistant director, known for films like “Silk Road” and “Thai Cave Rescue.” , who committed suicide in August. .17.

“At the time of his death, he didn’t see any future,” Rosen said.

Psychological distress

“When someone has difficulty paying a monthly payment, when their car is seized, when they risk being evicted, when they do not have food for themselves or their children, this causes great psychological distress” , said Jorge. .

In California, Motion Picture Television Fund (MPTF) social services manager Jennifer Jorge and her team fielded hundreds of calls each week, some from crew members discussing suicide.

The MPTF has provided approximately $3.75 million in aid to workers. Canadian charity AFC has suspended new requests for help after being inundated with requests. The Entertainment Community Fund has distributed more than $11.2 million in grants, primarily to workers in California, New York and Atlanta.

In the Toronto area, a colleague greeted the production assistant who was sleeping in his vehicle.

“Without the good grace of my friends, I would be dead,” said Sean, the production assistant, who asked that his full name not be used.

The team member, a manager, had his van repossessed. His wife, also a film worker, turned to child care to pay the bills.

“We usually have a safety net and because of everything we’ve personally been through this year, the safety net is gone,” said Chris, the director of the shoot, who asked that his full name not be used. not used.

New York-based set dresser and props designer Norvin Van Dunk has long suffered from depression and anxiety. He had been sober for about a year before the first strike.

Even with the support of his wife, who was still working, and his friends on the crew, he briefly returned to drinking to cope with the stress of not working. He has since regained sobriety, going to the gym, playing music and caring for his young children.

New York props designer Gwen Roach and her husband have exhausted all their savings and given up hope of owning a home. Her unemployment benefit ran out and her husband’s was about to.

“Never in my life did I think I would have to consider going on welfare or food assistance,” said Roach, who worked at a restaurant and a florist to survive.

In Albuquerque, assistant director Anthony Pelot, 37, who worked on the sets of Bufalino for 14 years, mourned the loss of his best friend.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if those strikes had not happened, Joe would be alive today,” Pelot said, sitting next to Rosen at a cafe near where the two friends lived, just a stone’s throw from each other. (Reporting by Andrew Hay; editing by Donna Bryson and Sandra Maler)

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