Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has 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. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are 5 million self-employed workers in the UK, and they form the backbone of the television, film and theatre industries. These freelancers quite literally put the show on the road. But with productions and theatres being shut down indefinitely, work has vanished and freelancers are panicked about where the next paycheck is coming from.
After days of intense lobbying from organizations including union Bectu and Equity, the British government is making noises about a bailout for the freelance workforce. UK chancellor Rishi Sunak said Tuesday he is “determined to find a way to support” the self-employed, and there are reports he could adopt measures similar to those in Scandanavia, where freelancers are being handed 80% of their average monthly income, calculated using past tax returns.
The rescue deal would be a lifeline for the television freelancers who shared their stories with Deadline, with many considering alternative employment and drastic cuts to their outgoings to survive the lean months of the coronavirus pandemic. Deadline has gathered a selection of stories from freelancers on the frontline of the shutdown.
Allen works as an edit producer and gallery director, with her credits including Big Brother, Location Location Location and The X Factor. But she has found jobs hard to come by in 2020 and coronavirus has simply compounded her misfortune. She’s now worried that her entire year could be an earnings write-off.
“My husband is a doctor, and I’ve lost him to the NHS, working 12-13 hours a day. I’ve got the kids to home school. I don’t think I’m going to generate any income until next year. I don’t have any money. I’ve got hundreds of pounds going out of my account going every week. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” she told Deadline.
Allen said there are “thousands” in a similar position, with many considering taking mortgage holidays and alternative jobs in supermarkets to earn extra income during the production shutdown. Some have even explored becoming Amazon delivery drivers, she added. “It’s a tough industry anyway, I feel like a lot more people are going to leave,” she said.
Allen runs an industry scheme called Share My Telly Job, which encourages freelancers to matchmake and share jobs. She is hopeful the idea can take off once work picks up again and crew are back in demand. “I would genuinely rather earn £500 a week and share the job with a friend who can’t pay her mortgage,” Allen explained, adding that she is trying to educate broadcasters and production companies of the importance of job sharing.
As a lighting technician in theatre and television, Dudley has seen two pay pools dry up in a matter of weeks. He was booked to work on The Phantom of the Opera tour at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, but the production was derailed by coronavirus. He had another job on The Voice live semifinals this month, but the Elstree Studios recording has been postponed — though he is hopeful that ITV Studios may cover wages for crew booked to work on the show. A third job in May, for a BBC Three talent show, has also been canceled this week. It’s a typical story of bookings dropping like dominos.
“A lot of people are now turning to supermarket jobs, which is personally something I haven’t rushed to. In a couple of weeks’ time, the reality is, I will be joining the masses in taking temporary jobs stacking shelves or delivering food,” Dudley said. “I was looking to save up for things like a house deposit and a new car. In a blink of an eye, you have to put that on hold and calculate how much money are you going to lose in the next two months from not working… That’s been really hard.”
Dudley is hopeful the government can step in and support self-employed people in the UK, and he does not hold a grudge against broadcasters after many of his peers have questioned their support for the freelance community in recent weeks. “You know that these production companies and broadcasters aren’t sitting on huge pots of money that they can turn around to their freelancers and say: ‘Let’s help you out.’ There are some who would love to help with retainers, but they just don’t have that money. They need their own support in how to manage this. We all need to look after and talk to each other,” he said.
Having just invested in a new car and equipment for the first time in years, French was ready for an exciting period in his career. The experienced cameraman works on ITV shows including Good Morning Britain and This Morning, but with these live programs dramatically shrinking their workforce to cope with coronavirus social distancing, the job opportunities have dried up. French thinks his savings can last two months at the most, and with his diabetic wife in the COVID-19 high-risk group, his excitement has turned to anxiety.
“Through all the thick and thin of freelance, I’ve managed to keep a roof over my head — and then this comes along. Through no fault of my own, I am facing all these financial difficulties. That’s what makes it so stressful and so painful,” French said. “As soon as this has passed, there will be an increase in work. It’s a matter of trying to weather the storm and manage the recovery. I’m used to the ups and downs of the industry, but this is something no business plan could prepare you for. It is literally catastrophic.”
French feels strongly that the government should step in and help Britain’s army of freelance workers, in the same way that employees have been subject to extraordinary financial measures. He argued: “I’m very angry the government hasn’t done anything for self-employed people yet. It’s like we’re being treated as second class citizens… The government does owe us some support. Perhaps we don’t have as loud a voice as large corporate entities. People need to appreciate what we do.”
Coping With COVID-19 Crisis
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