Writers’ Strike Opens New Window on Hollywood
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 15 — David D’Orsa, who last week passed his days among the stars, says he may soon be serving up lattes. Leonard Dick told his children they need to get better at turning out the lights. Meredith Buyrucu will go to San Diego this weekend to eat in her mother’s kitchen, “which is kind of embarrassing,” she said, “since I’m 40 years old.”
When the Hollywood writers’ strike pulled back the curtain on the world of television, what Americans saw was not a cashmere-wrapped actress alighting from her Escalade, but rather a bunch of middle-aged writers in ill-fitting red T-shirts standing on a picket line on Pico Boulevard.
With the strike deep into Week 2, thousands of union writers are unemployed until further notice, and dozens of assistants, food stylists, electricians, makeup artists, landscapers and thousands of other “below the line” workers in the industry are finding that their work is drying up, too, punching a psychic wound through large swaths of Los Angeles.
“It is a major topic around town,” said Beth Holley, the office administrator at Global Effects Inc., a prop shop in North Hollywood. “I don’t think there are very many people who have not been affected directly or know someone affected.”
The city’s most defining industry, representing roughly 7 percent of its economy, has always operated with ample doses of smoke and mirrors. Elaborate marketing campaigns promote shows everyone knows will be canceled after a few episodes; unaffordable BMWs are leased by junior agents to save face at the Grill; actresses with eating disorders are given malteds to carry around on sets for waiting paparazzi. Much of what is said and done in Hollywood is meant to give the impression of solidity.
But in reality, one tug on a card can make an entire production implode, rendering scores of people instantly unemployed. Many are middle-class laborers who populate the San Fernando Valley and other neighborhoods outside the glamorous canyons that most Americans associate with show business.
Mr. Dick, a writer on “House” on Fox, said that wherever he goes in his red strike shirt — his daughter’s basketball game, for example — another writer approaches to commiserate. “You realize this really is a company town,” Mr. Dick said.
Producers who are usually absentee parents for the bulk of the fall season are now padding around the house, when they are not on a strike line. Writers with newly minted union cards wonder if they will ever get beyond their first jobs. Low level assistants have found themselves instantly out of work and desperate.
The Writers Guild of America West has a $13 million fund that will provide loans to “members who face financial hardship because their income is demonstrably affected” by the strike.
“I’ve got big N.Y.U. loans and health insurance that I have to pay for,” said Kimberly Mercado, who recently got her first writing job on the Fox show “New Amsterdam” and leased an Audi A4 to celebrate. “That was my big excitement,” Ms. Mercado said, adding that she hoped she would not have to give up the car.
The strike, which has been the talk of coffee shops and playgrounds, is something of a metaphor for the broader labor force of Los Angeles, a place of enormous geographical and class division. It has pit studio executives against writers — the bulk of whom are paid far less than high-profile strikers like Larry David — and writers against some trade professionals, whose feelings about the strike are ambivalent at best.
“Our people are middle-class workers,” said Ed Brown, a business agent at the local trade union that represents 6,000 crafts people. “These are not the people that people see at Hollywood insider parties. We are the collateral damage.”
Mr. D’Orsa, an assistant to the executive producers of the FX show “The Riches,” said he would soon be headed to Starbucks, résumé in hand.
Getbackinthatroom.blogspot .com is keeping a running tally of industry workers who have been laid off — almost 250 as of Thursday afternoon.
“I am unemployed thanks to both sides not wanting to lose face,” said Ms. Buyrucu, a costumer on “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC. “Yes, they have families, too, but they’re making the choice. We don’t have a choice.”
And yet for as dominant a role as the entertainment industry may play in the minds of Americans, and as prevalent as the red shirts of strikers are on the Westside of Los Angeles, the ebb and flow of the broader life of the city is undisturbed.
“It is tough to energize people to come up for middle-class and upper-middle-class people,” said Fernando J. Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “Hollywood has always considered itself in L.A. but not part of L.A. They consider themselves a national industry.”