THE STRIKE ZONE
Byline: Katherine Bowers
LOS ANGELES — When the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, Hollywood — indeed Los Angeles at large — could be facing a strike of its own, incurring losses of 81,900 jobs and $4.4 billion in income over the summer.
If the Writers Guild of America votes to walk out over contract disputes, and if actors follow suit on July 1, the entertainment industry here — which accounts for a quarter of the national output of movie and TV production — won’t be the only one to suffer: a disproportionate loss in all economic sectors, even those not directly related to entertainment, will feel the heat. From costume houses to trendy nightclubs, no one will escape unscathed. The looming possibility of a walkout already has affected business here as projects have rushed through production and Angelenos have tightened their belts.
Here, a look at how the strike might affect segments of the apparel, retail, costume and beauty industries.
Los Angeles — Costumers might end up twiddling their thumbs all summer, but in recent weeks they have barely had a moment to breathe.
As television and movie crews scramble to wrap production before tomorrow’s anticipated writers’ strike, costume designers and wardrobers, tailors, costume warehouses and suppliers have been in the thick of a frenzy. Many are logging 15-hour days, sketching, designing, cutting, sewing, gluing and renting the thousands of costumes Hollywood actors need for those final frames.
For many, the Herculean workload — and the overtime wage windfall — has been their only hedge against the potential strike, which some speculate could last several months.
Hollywood has found it tough going lately. Last year, a six-month actors strike against the advertising industry set Southern California back an estimated $125 million in lost production.
Estimates place losses at roughly $3.5 million per week, according to combined projections from the Motion Picture Costumers Local 705 and the Costume Designers Guild, the main entities representing everyone from costume designers to sewers in costume houses. Costumers make on average $2,000 a week.
On top of all those losses is an unspecified — and possibly equivalent — loss to piecework producers who work for Hollywood studios on the cheap in non-union settings. One unionized costume maker privately speculated that for every unionized costume maker, there’s a non-union worker sewing for the studios.
While nobody knows whether the strike will materialize or be the biggest fizzle since Y2K, costumers said they are bracing for a sharp falloff in demand, simply because studios have not put any new work into production. It’s also clear that the effects of a strike — or slowdown — will ripple beyond Hollywood sets to the network of niche vendors and contractors who rely on a balance of Hollywood and mainstream apparel business for their livelihood.
Last week, for example, MADtv costume designer Wendy Benbrook spent roughly $1,000 locally on supplies and labor in order to re-create the kooky swan dress singer-actress Bjork wore to the Oscars.
For each one-hour MADtv episode, Benbrook usually makes and rents 50 to 100 costumes locally.
Costume designer Chrisi Kavronides, who specializes in the sort of sci-fi features where fantastic costumes are half the point, said costume designers on science fiction or period pieces commonly have a $4 million to $5 million budget per movie. She estimated approximately two-thirds goes to paying union labor, while local vendors reap the balance, roughly $1.5 million.
According to the Entertainment Industry Economic Development Corp., more than 500 movies are shot each year in Los Angeles — each with a chunk of money allocated to costumes — which means that each month millions of dollars are spent at glove makers, shoemakers, milliners, sequin suppliers, dyers and department stores throughout the region.
Vendors commend Hollywood for its relatively generous pay and for its diverse variety of projects that inspire new designs and new ways of using materials. At the same time, the local manufacturing base provides a safety net — a constant churn of demand — when TV shows go on hiatus, or movies focus on stories that don’t involve a niche vendor’s specialty.
It’s like the local tongue-in-cheek parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: everyone costuming for Hollywood eventually connects back to the mainstream apparel industry.
Sew Cal Logo, a local contractor, straddles the apparel and entertainment industries, with half its roughly $3 million in revenues coming from custom embroidery jobs for Hollywood and half coming from contract work for major surfwear brands. It’s an interesting dichotomy: a flotilla of rank stripes embroidered for the sailors in the upcoming film “Pearl Harbor” nets roughly the same for Sew Cal as a week’s production of board shorts. “We have to crank out a lot of shorts to get the equivalent of a true custom job,” said owner Rick Songers.
Songers said that while he’s trying to bring in more apparel work to offset a possible strike, he might be forced to cut staff by 10 to 20 percent if the strike lasts beyond a month.
“It makes me sad,” said Antoinette Muto, an owner of Muto Little, a costume house. “While [producers and writers] are fighting over millions of dollars, my employees are wondering how to feed their kids.”
Muto Little manufactures costumes for film, TV and theater; the 20-person shop is currently putting the finishing touches on costumes for Tom Cruise’s upcoming crime thriller “Minority Report.” But by the end of May — if the strike happens — the company could be losing as much as $20,000 per month, Muto said.
“In the past, people have called and asked me to produce [clothing] samples, but they generally don’t have the kind of [budget] to afford union wages.
“We’ve never manufactured for the public before, but that’s something we’re considering,” said Eddie Marks, president of the 90-year-old costume house. “We’re trying to develop a Web site right now.
But Bill Hargate, who owns Bill Hargate Costumes, said he is skeptical about how easily costume houses can make the transition to quick-turn apparel production.
“Most of my people do very fine work that takes into consideration that these garments will be blown up enormous on screen,” he said. “They are not used to turning out so many pieces each day.”
Hargate said he has been “beating the bushes for other work,” including repairing costumes for the “Lion King” theatrical production, currently playing in town.
Also potentially hard hit are fabric suppliers.
International Silk and Woolens — a stock house located in the downtown fashion district — is a favorite resource among costume designers. Owner Souhail Israwi noted costume designers purchase roughly 10,000 to 15,000 yards each month from ISW, accounting for a third of its revenues.
While Israwi believes the apparel trade and home furnishings industries keep him diversified enough to stay afloat during a strike, he said he plans to postpone his weekly stock reorder a month to gauge the situation.
Costume designer Kavronides said she’s spent roughly $15,000 at ISW in recent weeks choosing fabrics for the cast of “The One,” a military-martial arts film starring Jet Li. But Kavronides also outfits the cast off the rack.
“When I do a contemporary [production], I have five shoppers who just do the shopping. The entire budget goes to the department stores,” she said.
In March, Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills unveiled a new 1,250-square-foot studio services department, complete with custom-made furniture, lobby and dressing rooms.
Beverly Thompson, who heads the department for the upscale retailer, declined to specify how much Hollywood spends, but pointed out that “[the company] would not have invested so much in [the remodel] if we weren’t a viable business.”
“Stores operate on a dollar-per-square-foot basis, but there’s no merchandise kept back here,” she noted. “I understand during the last strike [in 1988] commercials were the mainstay of the department.”
A Neiman Marcus sales representative estimated the upscale retailer had roughly 3,000 pieces currently checked out to movie and TV wardrobers. Come Tuesday, it might need to call back that stock for more commercial enterprises.