Hollywood seems like a distant and peculiar land to most of us in RI. It entertains us from a distance, but we don’t usually think of it as directly affecting us.
Right now, however, there are both a writers’ strike and an actors’ strike taking place that impact the part of Rhode Island that engages with entertainment for a living.
In Rhode Island, much of the film and video production flies below the radar of the unions. During the strike, some actors will still be able to get waivers to work on independent, passion, and non-union projects. But for most who engage with those sorts of projects, it’s the smaller roles on bigger projects that actually pay the bills.
“I am selective about the projects I choose,” says Anne Mulhall, principal of LDI Casting in Rhode Island. “But to hire a casting agency, to make it work economically, the project has to be a certain size.”
“If I don’t book at least one solid paid gig a month, my ends don’t meet,” says locally based actor Sissy O’Hara, who is a staple of area indie productions and also a well-known background performer on bigger budget films and Boston-based productions. Like LDI and many in the acting community, she balances her independent work with more lucrative union projects, and has been scrutinizing the current guidelines for what an actor can and can’t do during the strike.
Uncertainty is not a friend to any larger budget undertaking, so it’s to be expected that projects we don’t even know about that might have landed in RI are being sidelined, rescheduled, or scuttled. Verdi Productions, an East Greenwich-based production company that most recently wrapped (just before the strike) Chosen Family (Julia Stiles, Heather Graham), and works with some larger budget endeavors like Vault, Martin Scorcese’s Silence, and Bleed for This (the Vinnie Paz story), is working overtime to adapt and reschedule a number of projects.
“SAG kinda made a mistake in that they’re turning back the clock, because they’re reintroducing waivers for independent films. The new guidelines jeopardize independent films when the unions are really trying to go after the major distributors,” says Verdi Productions managing producer Chad Verdi.
“I think we’re one of a few production companies based in RI that film at least two movies a year here. We have three films in post-production, so we can wait it out. But I’m sure there were other productions that were going to shoot in Rhode Island but won’t now,” says Verdi. And that means a lot more to the local economy than many people realize – not only are crew and actors losing income, but the places filmmakers would eat, stay, and shop lose out on that trickle-down effect.
“Any state that is filming is going to be hurt by this. Producers are taking projects overseas now, where the SAG requirements don’t mean anything.”
Verdi Productions has Chosen Family, Knockout Blonde: The Kelly Maloney Story, and Junction working their ways toward screens. These films will be completed, but it’s likely the name actors in them won’t be able to help with events and promotion. “The actors will not be able to help promote,” explains Verdi. “If you work on what might be your biggest film ever and you can’t go out and talk about it and promote, I think that’s a shame.
“We hope it will be over soon, but you can’t bank on that. If you start a production without knowing if you’ll be able to shoot – even in pre-production, you can’t just stop – you’d lose hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, depending on the size of the film,” Verdi says, of why productions planned far in advance will still stop, no matter how long the strike lasts.
“I feel bad. Just like athletes, 99% of working actors are struggling. The average person works two or three jobs to be an actor. The ones on the picket lines are the 1%. They’re really hurting the middle-class actor,” Verdi says.
Everyone we spoke with was reluctant to comment on the specifics of the SAG/AFTRA or Writers Guild of America demands, which are complicated. The overall vibe is supportive of changing the financial underpinnings – both groups of striking artists are concerned with the future of AI and its ramifications, and with the calculus for residuals, which has changed dramatically with the growing dominance of screening services. But of course, everybody wants to get back to work, and we hope that will happen soon.
Verdi, whose production company is legendary for finishing what it starts (unlike so many Hollywood projects that get stuck in “development hell”) has already delayed films to make sure they can be produced without strike-based interruptions. “We have a $10 million dollar project about young Muhammad Ali, that we’ve already rescheduled for 2024. That’s about 150 local jobs that won’t happen this year.”