Labor Immobility in Hollywood’s (Pandemic) Supply Chain Media

Dwayne Johnson and Director Rawson Marshall Thurber in full PPE on the set of Red Notice contrasts with cozy image of Kristen Trauter working on the animation for One Day at a Time’s “The Politics Episode.” Images from Dwayne Johnson, “Filming Red Notice,” Instagram, September 20, 2020, accessed September 20, 2020; and Big Jump Entertainment, “Kristen Trauter works on One Day at a Time,” February, 17, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/ottawa-animation-pandemic-1.5915915
How have Hollywood’s production networks responded to disruptions in global supply chains? Kate Fortmueller examines the logistics of making film and television during the Covid-19 pandemic.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a Dossier on “Scarcity and the Supply Chain Crisis in Media and Urban Culture.”]

Before reaching full pandemic strength, COVID-19 swept through China in January 2020, spurring lockdowns and strict restrictions on movement throughout hard-hit urban centers. Widespread shutdowns and pivots to remote work impacted all arenas of film and television, first in China, but later around the world. Productions stopped, media workers were sent back to Los Angeles, SAG-AFTRA issued do-not-work orders for productions in China, Italy, Iran, and South Korea, film festival directors had to reimagine their events to continue to facilitate distribution deals, studios delayed theatrical releases leaving movie theaters without new titles for their screens, and this is only a few of the disruptions from the first half of 2020.

With production labor stuck at home, the US media industries jet set had to contend with this new immobility. For Hollywood studios, television networks, and streamers, the post-shutdown challenge would be how to accommodate restrictions on labor and assess production risks to meet consumer demand for more content. Their solutions relied heavily on global networks and labor arrangements to solve their supply problem, with uneven results: live-action was slow, difficult, and expensive to resume, but animation, which is more conducive to work-from-home conditions and is often inexpensively outsourced, was flexible.

Film studios and television networks are both dependent on and part of supply chains. Supply chain disruption and commodity shortages, which resulted from changes to supply and demand as well as “labor shortages,” or people missing work due to Covid illness, exposure, and caretaking responsibilities, have revealed how dependent we have become on global logistics for many of our basic goods. Some of these effects were more surprising: for example, commodity scarcity in 2021 left many companies uneasy about spending money on ads that might not be recuperated by sales.1Alex Weprin, “How Supply Chain Issues Are Messing Up TV Advertising,” The Hollywood Reporter, November 10, 2021, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/supply-chain-issues-tv-advertising-1235045168/; Brad Adgate, “Agencies Agree; 2021 Was a Record Year for Ad Spending, with more growth expected in 2022,” Forbes, December 8, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/bradadgate/2021/12/08/agencies-agree-2021-was-a-record-year-for-ad-spending-with-more-growth-expected-in-2022/?sh=281894db7bc6. Television ad spending ultimately grew in 2021 ($49.1 billion), which was an increase from both 2020 ($46.3 billion) and 2019 ($44.6 billion), but certain sectors (such as automotive) that were hard hit by supply chain problems spent less on ads during the US holidays (Q4).2Gavin Bridge, “2021 TV Ad Spend Trends: Movie Marketing Rebounds, Networks Decline,” Variety VIP+, December 31, 2021, https://variety.com/vip/2021-tv-ad-spend-trends-movie-marketing-rebounds-networks-decline-1235143104/. This was a minor blip in the end of year financial reports, but it serves as an important reminder of how the financial status of the media industries are linked to a wide range of global industries. In contrast to this example, most of Hollywood’s pandemic supply chain problems were well-publicized.

Industrial and scholarly understandings of Hollywood film, as distinct from live performance and theater, recognize how distribution and exhibition shape the production process. Production for television and streaming media, as Amanda Lotz notes, follows a similar logic with a greater number of gatekeepers along the distribution stage.3Amanda Lotz, “Media Circulation: Reconceptualizing Television Distribution and Exhibition,” in Digital Media Distribution: Portals, Platforms, Pipelines, ed. Paul McDonald, Courtney Brannon Donoghue and Timothy Havens (NYU Press, 2021), 47–66. Regardless of how these distribution processes are modeled, studying and theorizing distribution emphasizes how a finished product is delivered to an audience, or “the systematized processes by which the media industries supply cultural content between parties, but also the time and space over which the content is spread and made available.”4Paul McDonald, Courtney Brannon Donoghue, and Timothy Havens, eds., Digital Media Distribution: Portals, Platforms, Pipelines (New York: NYU Press, 2021), 1. With respect to Hollywood film and television-making, these logistics involve the work of freelancers and multiple subcontractors who perform various production and post-production tasks to ready the media content for distribution. The logics of distribution have long seeped into production, so that rather than resembling a factory, Hollywood media production more closely resembles Anna Tsing’s definition of “supply chain capitalism,” which is defined by “…commodity chains based on subcontracting, outsourcing, and allied arrangements in which the autonomy of component enterprises is legally established even as the enterprises are disciplined within the chain as a whole.”5Anna Tsing, “Supply Chains and the Human Condition,” Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 2 (April 2009): 148. Hollywood production is a global enterprise and considering its production and distribution networks as a supply chain is a more evocative model to incorporate the global flows of production labor that were initially disrupted, but later leveraged in order to quickly restart production.

Coining the term “supply chain cinema” to better encapsulate media labor’s global mobility, Kay Dickinson explains, “While movies have long been shot, in part or whole, away from established production bases, recent affordances provoke me to renew our customary terminology and instead label what is happening here supply chain cinema.”6Kay Dickinson, “Supply Chain Cinema, Supply Chain Education: Training Creative Wizardry for Offshored Exploitation,” Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 172. Supply chain cinema, as Kay Dickinson points out, helps bring labor to the forefront of how we understand the relationship between production and distribution. These supply chains work differently for live-action and animated content. Live-action production typically requires stars, directors and producers follow tax incentives around the U.S. and the world to production hubs like Atlanta, GA and Vancouver, Canada to minimize costs through tradable credits and less expensive local labor. However, a pandemic is also a flexible and global enterprise, and its very nature is inhospitable to Hollywood’s jet setting business practices, as it increases risk for workers and maximizes unpredictability in terms of shooting schedules and production shutdowns. In contrast, animated content is often developed in the US, but the technical and often repetitive work is outsourced to China, Korea, India, the Philippines, or Vietnam and other countries in Asia, where roughly 90 percent of US television is animated.7Hyejin Yoon and Edward J. Malecki, “Cartoon planet: worlds of production and global production networks in the animation industry,” Industrial and Corporate Change 19, no. 1 (2010): 239–71. The differences in these supply chain labor arrangements led to different pandemic responses and levels of success.

While production was paused in Hollywood the place, Hollywood the industry looked for other ways to restart work. Studios, networks, and production companies seek out the most globally advantageous terms with respect to tax incentives, but as Dickinson explains, producers also look for “whatever emerges as most cost effective by diminishing time, risk, and unpredictability.”8Dickinson, 172. Prior to the pandemic, risks outside of Los Angeles might encompass a wide array of potential issues that might increase the cost of a production, including weather delays, uncooperative government officials, and difficulties with locations. During the pandemic, Covid-related production delays became the primary financial risk. With initially low infection rates in Iceland and Korea, Netflix was able to resume a few of their productions in May 2020. In contrast, The Witcher, which was being primarily shot in England, was slow to resume due to England’s lockdown measures (and later delayed due to an outbreak on set). Restarting production would also prove to be an expensive undertaking, as costs of production insurance increased, and productions required on-set Covid safety monitors, testing, and PPE. Despite all the additional safety measures, productions from The Batman to Black Panther 2 had highly publicized Covid-related hiatuses, making live-action production more inefficient than in the past.

While live-action production faltered, animation boomed during the pandemic. Demand for more animated content predates the pandemic (with Netflix and CBS launching in house animation divisions in 2018). However, as has been the case with many pandemic changes, global shutdowns accelerated changes already in motion. Animation is predicted to grow, with one research firm estimating that animation (which includes visual effects and virtual reality) will become a $587.1 billion dollar market (over 1.5 times the size of the current market) by 2030. The pandemic successes of the animation industry have been framed as universally positive for the profits of animation industries around the world, although this has placed pressure on animators around the world who have an ever-growing number of projects. In the Philippines and India, despite home internet connectivity issues that have slowed productions, animation studios were actively hiring, frantic to meet demands. As scholars begin to grapple with the effects of lockdown pivots and the ongoing pandemic, we will need more in-depth interviews to understand the impact of increased demands on the lower waged global workers who helped create new content for the newly launched streaming services and kept US audiences entertained while sheltering in place.

Hollywood’s supply chain issues began with production shutdowns and have been on-going as studios continue to produce record numbers of films and television shows for streaming services. Both live-action and animation suffered from delays, but the flexibility of animation work functioned more effectively under pandemic conditions. Despite the glut of news about production pauses around the world, Hollywood has been able to adapt. Many industries suffered from supply chain disruption due to their global dispersal of subcontractors, but Hollywood used this as an asset.

Notes[+]

Fortmueller, Kate. "Labor Immobility in Hollywood’s (Pandemic) Supply Chain Media." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 1 (May 2022)
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