Coping With COVID 19 Crisis: Philippa Childs, Head Of UK Union Bectu, On Freelance Challenge, Studio Productions & What Happens Next

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon.

UK union Bectu represents 40,000 staff, contract and freelance workers in the media and entertainment industries. Among those are 20,000 freelancers and self-employed workers across the creative industries, including theatre, film and television.

As we know, these industries have all virtually ground to a halt in response to the spread of coronavirus. The vast majority of UK cinemas, theaters and film and TV productions are now shuttered until further notice. And freelancers the world over are at the sharp end of the shutdown.

In Hollywood, IATSE estimated that 120,000 film industry workers have already lost their jobs. Bectu estimates that around 50,000 UK industry freelancers will have suffered the same fate.

A survey the UK union carried out this week revealed that nearly 3,000 of its members have already lost money as a result of the disruption. Almost 500 people reported losses of more than £5,000. More than 400 said they could lose £20,000 to £40,000.

Industry leaders are warning of a devastating impact on the creative sectors and Bectu has launched a concerted campaign to spotlight the challenge faced by its workers.

“We anticipate that almost all non-news production activity in film and TV will have to cease within days,” Bectu head Philippa Childs wrote to UK chancellor Rishi Sunak this week.

The aim is for the UK to follow the lead of countries like Germany, which have announced €40B in support for freelancers and small businesses. The UK is currently offering small businesses cash grants of £10,000 but there has been little detailed provision for freelancers and part-time workers in the creative sectors.

Below, the union boss discusses the “unprecedented” current crisis and what steps the union is taking.

DEADLINE: So many productions are on hiatus. What feedback are you getting from your constituents who were working on those productions?

 PHILIPPA CHILDS: We’re now at a stage where quite a few of these productions are moving to cancel rather than postpone. For example, I understand that Disney is moving from hiatus to termination of contracts on their production The Little Mermaid, which has been shooting in the UK. Crew are due to be alerted shortly. I expect other productions to follow suit soon, which will be of great concern to our members.

DEADLINE: The assumption is that in those scenarios crew will be rehired at a later date when the projects start up again. I’ve heard that most major studio productions shooting in the UK are paying 2-4 weeks to their crew before letting them go…

CHILDS: Yes, I imagine that they will be postponed until later in the year or next year. The positive thing about film is that once this crisis is over we envisage the business largely returning to normal. It is much more problematic for theatre, which lives a more hand to mouth existence. A closure of a production can prove extremely problematic.

DEADLINE: What are your members telling you about the material impact this is having on their livelihoods?

CHILDS: People have told us they will be bankrupt, that they won’t be able to pay their mortgages, that they don’t have savings to fall back on…That’s why we’re calling for the government to put in place some dedicated support for freelancers, casuals and those on zero hours contracts.

DEADLINE: How responsive has the government been to your calls and those of the creative sector?

CHILDS: Not responsive enough.

DEADLINE: What contact are you having with them?

CHILDS: We’ve written to the Department for Culture Media and Sport and the Treasury. We’ve written to the BFI to be part of their task force and we’ve taken part in the British Film Council’s meeting this week to discuss a roadmap. We’re doing what we can to put pressure where we can.

DEADLINE: Do leading film organizations such the BFI, BBC Films and Film4 have key roles to play?

CHILDS: They have important roles to play in that they are the pipelines. They provide training, skills, content. Everyone is in the same state of shock and worried about what this means for them in the future.

DEADLINE: How do you see the situation unfolding?

CHILDS: We’re saying to government, short to medium term financial help needs to be put in place for freelancers whether that’s tax rebates, low interest loans, mortgage support or other types of support. MP Tracy Brabin has been calling for basic income to be put in place, which is a great idea, but we acknowledge that there is a lack of infrastructure for that to be implemented.

DEADLINE: What are the priority areas right now?

CHILDS: This is very critical for theaters. Some theaters may not re-open. For film, I think there will be a recovery. But there will be a skills shortage problem. Some may want to re-evaluate their position in such precarious employment. Going forward, we’ll be looking for more permanent safety nets for crew so if this happens again there are basics in place to support freelancers who can’t work.

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