A Very Special News Brief — Hallmark’s Anti-Labor Churn: A Follow-Up Conversation

Citations Needed | January 19, 2022 | Transcript

Cast and crew members film the 2019 Hallmark movie Holiday for Heroes in Connecticut. (The Day / Dana Jensen)


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: We are excited about our News Brief today because it is a direct follow up to our most recent full-length episode on Hallmark Christmas movies. When we posted that show on December 15, 2021, we were contacted by a listener who, Adam, had an experience all their own with the Hallmark cinematic universe.

Adam: Yeah, so they’re a union screenwriter now. Prior to that, though, they were trying to, when they were working in the industry, they had gone deep within the sort of pitch process with Hallmark, they did not actually make a Hallmark movie to be clear, this is not someone high up in Hallmark, but it is someone very familiar with the process who had a bunch of rather amusing internal documents, including content guidelines and various emails about how the process works, and we thought it would be interesting to have them on to talk about this because of the way, it’s a very small world, very small industry. They did not want to give their name so this is anonymous, but we have double-checked all this stuff, it is legit, it’s nothing necessarily blockbuster. There isn’t a secret human trafficking ring going on at Hallmark, but what it does speak to is the broader, the anti-labor, lowest-common-denominator ways in which this kind of formulaic television works.

Nima: Heavily formulaic process and scripting.

Adam: And perhaps more relevantly how much of the streaming film and television production is moving more towards that Hallmark model because it has proven to be so profitable. So I’m excited to talk to them today and get the inside scoop, Hallmark Deep Throat, with how that process works and get a sense of how, in many ways, conservative ideology isn’t just an aesthetic choice, it does provide cover for an industry that can be quite exploitative.

Nima: Our guest today spent the better part of a decade working in the labor movement before becoming a screenwriter. They’re now a union screenwriter currently coming off their first major network show and their first wide release feature will be in theaters in early 2022. They’ve been fortunate enough to get development deals for a slate of projects that dramatize a gamut of current topics from fast food unionization to defunding the police. Mystery guest, our anonymous guest today, thank you so much for getting in touch with us and wanting to talk about the wider Hallmark cinematic universe.

Guest: No worries. I mean, I’m not the Hallmark Deep Throat but at the same time talking about trash is amazing. So yes, thank you so much.

Adam: Yes, we were trying to think of some kind of Christmas-themed Deep Throat pun, but none came to us, if you can, you’re a writer so if you can come up with one by all means, let us know. Just to be clear to our audience you are not the Senior Vice President of Development at Hallmark, you’re not necessarily an upper but you’ve had many dealings with Hallmark production companies and the Hallmark cinematic universe. So this is a bit of an insider’s perspective that has been anonymized because it is a very small industry and nobody wants to get labeled a shit talking malcontent. So.

Guest: Yeah, I am not Mike Perry, CEO of Hallmark industries.

Adam: So I want to sort of start off by talking about the Hallmark empire, because one thing we didn’t really do on the show, this was largely due to a lack of detailed information, we didn’t really discuss a lot of the material conditions of Hallmark films, because we did want to keep it kind of light.

Nima: So we’re gonna remedy that now.

Adam: Many of the things you brought up to us were very relevant to the Hallmark cinematic universe and how it positions itself within the film industry, and of course, much of what you criticize, and presumably, in this episode will criticize, is not necessarily unique to Hallmark, but I do think it provides some insight into how their ideological framework reinforces other things within the process of filmmaking itself. So, I want to sort of begin by talking about how that system works at Hallmark, how these various production companies work, and how you’ve been involved in these long logline pitches and production development at Hallmark, and how it’s both similar to and also different from what most people would consider the kind of film industry in North America.

Guest: Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, the vast majority of Hallmark films tend to be production companies bringing them ideas that they choose to finance are not finance, and this isn’t exclusive to Hallmark either. It applies to Lifetime, it applies to basically any movie, they’re called, industry wide they’re known as movie of the week, and it applies to any company that pumps those out with Hallmark and Lifetime being the most relevant, and oftentimes, you know, something I didn’t know before I went into this is Hallmark films don’t just have a life in the USA and Canada, they also have distribution in places like France, in European countries, they sell an image of America abroad, and those people also pay money for licensing, for production, for investment, and so usually what production companies use, they’ll either come up with their own idea, get that signed off on and then hire a writer, which doesn’t happen very often, or they solicit log lines. For those who don’t know log lines are one sentence synopses of movies, they’re like the elevator pitch. They’re the one sentence you use to sell your movie, and they’re at the top of every single pitch document in Hollywood for the last 30 years, they’re considered essential and a craft in and of themselves, and so you take those log lines to one of these production companies, and they’ll either give you notes or they’ll say, ‘Yeah, put together a two pager.’ If you’re lucky, they’ll pay you money for that two pager which is far below the union rate is and then once you have that two pager, they will give you notes on it, again, usually not paid for read revisions, then they’ll take it to Hallmark and if Hallmark or whatever other company, but actually has the money says yes, they’ll pay you a certain amount to write a script, and it’s basically like movie Mad Libs, right? They have a very strict content guideline that you have to follow and believe you me they will make sure you adhere to it, which is understandable, because they churn out very familiar, just different enough content. Like this year, I’ve been hearing a lot more of ‘We need the same Hallmark movies, but we need them with more immigrant and POC characters.’

Nima: Right.

Guest: You know, ‘We need to bring that market in because it’s hot right now or because we need more people to watch these,’ because the people who usually watch them are unfortunately, you know, there’s been a pandemic and a lot of elderly people have passed away.

Adam: Yeah, right. Not to be glad, but they are literally dying off.

Guest: No, it’s true and that is the age bracket these are for and, you know, bringing more people into the fold, and yeah these are almost exclusively non-union, the high-profile ones, the ones that have a real actor or two, so to speak, an actor or someone you recognize from that movie back then, all the Netflix ones because they’re big budget productions with stars like that, you know, Vanessa Hudgens, those are union, they have to be, but the vast majority of them, the ones you turn on and marathon from, you know, the 20th to the 26th are not because these production companies work on volume and they work on saving costs because that’s the only way they pocket money.

Nima: And they’re pumping out so many of these a year now, I mean, dozens and dozens, so it makes sense when you’re like, ‘Wait, how is Hallmark doing this?’ Well, Hallmark isn’t doing this, it’s all these other production companies and Hallmark basically funding or then buying, is that right?

Guest: Yeah, pretty much and Hallmark, from what I understand, has some of their bigger projects for themselves, that they still, you still tap a company to do this stuff, you know, Hallmark is in a studio like that, like the company I sent you, which again, I wish I could name, if you look at their website and just look at the volume of stuff that they’ve done in the last three years alone is incredible. It’s just non-stop, I go back to the word churn, it’s a non-stop churn of just these movies, all of which have the exact same poster and the exact same idea, but are also built off the back of really precarious labor in both the creative and production industries.

Nima: Yeah, I think that’s actually a great thing to get to, you know, I’m excited to get to some of the specifics of your interactions with these outsourced production companies, but before we get there, I’d love to actually hear about some of the anti-labor practices of this wider Hallmark, Lifetime, movie of the week cinematic universe, and as we’ve been saying, it’s not surprising that there isn’t much unionization or there aren’t, you know, pro labor practices when there is this kind of churn and the budgets are low and the turnaround is quick, but can you please discuss these anti-labor practices from your perspective and your experience, and how the industry unions themselves may even view this process?

Guest: Yeah, absolutely. So a lot of companies, I’m not saying this exclusive to every company because I don’t know every company, but I have never from personal experience of pitching to a couple of these and even working with, you know, one of them, they do not hire a union screenwriters, union crew, none of their above the line creative or below the line production is union, which means that, you know, you’re not paying people the grade that was bargained for. A lot of times what that means is that you’re drawing in people who are young, because they, you know, film unions, they’re very hard to get into, because they’re effectively a trade skill, and so yeah, you bring in people who are young, easily exploitable, people who look at the paycheck, you know, and say, ‘Oh, this is good,’ you know what I mean? And they draw these people in, and they take advantage of them, and for a lot of these films the one good thing I can say about them is they are usually shot in 13 to 20 days in four locations as mandated by the content guidelines.

Adam: There’s four locations? A maximum of four locations?

Guest: I think in the document I sent you it’s, like, four to six.

Adam: Okay, yeah, that makes sense, that would definitely keep costs down if you just —

Guest: Exactly, everything in those guidelines is around cost.

Nima: 50 percent has to take place in that gazebo.

Guest: Yes.

Adam: Yeah, there’s one gazebo. They all share the same gazebo.

Guest: Yeah, the gazebo, if you will.

Adam: It’s like a newspaper that’s been in every sitcom and every movie that’s in a vault somewhere at Warner Brothers.

Nima: The Daily Gazette and Bugle.

Guest: Yeah, it’s very funny. But yeah, on that level, they’re basically anti-union as a rule because they have to be because in order to maintain the cash flow that Hallmark gives them, right, these production companies simply choose not to hire union, it’s the maximum amount of content, familiar content for the lowest possible cost, and of course, at the bottom of that the people who are always left behind are the workers and it’s very true. I was, it was addressed in a TV writers’ room, I was talking about my experience with Hallmark-adjacent production companies with the writer who’s, you know, actually involved with my Writers Guild to some degree, and they were like, ‘Oh, so you didn’t scab?’ Because I told them, yeah, I had a near miss with one of these Hallmark production companies, one of these movie of the week production companies, and they’re like, ‘Oh, no, it’s good. You didn’t scab.’ You know what I mean, that’s where I learned when they were telling me about that, when I asked them to clarify is people who write for these films, especially lifers, because you can pump out five or six a year and make a good living off it, right? They’re effectively undercutting the value of every other working creative, working screenwriter, working director on the market.

Adam: Yeah, I want to talk about that for a second because I think, and obviously, this is not necessarily unique to Hallmark Christmas movies, but this is definitely, has to be the biggest sort of, for want of a better term tentpole of anti-labor filmmaking because I assume what they basically say, again, aside from the ungodly profits that Hallmark makes every year off these things which we talked about to a great extent in the last episode, that they’re kind of, they treat them like they’re independent films almost for want of a better term and that’s their kind of logic and then they do, it’s almost like a gig economy thing, you sort of staff it out to a third party to wash your hands of it and then mysteriously this film appears and you slap your label on it.

Nima: And you paid a fraction of the price for the script and for the labor.

Adam: It’s a franchise model where it’s like, I’m going to give you a brand and you go off and do this thing and I don’t want to know how the sausage is made.

Nima: And you’re not subject to writer strikes or IATSE strikes.

Adam: Yeah, and so it seems like they would be the almost the biggest player in this anti-union framework, because it’s again, it’s not some struggling college kid with his buddies trying to make a, you know what I mean? It seems like they’re using that formula to make what is a decidedly mass-produced commercial product.

Guest: It’s part of the turn to streaming. I think it’s always been there, but you know, companies like Netflix, like Hallmark, Amazon, whatever, they’re mostly in the acquisitions business, they actually don’t care how a movie is made, which if you’re there to pump out as many films as possible and send them to a company just as acquisitions, right, and speaking from personal experience, acquisition deals aren’t actually a lot. They never are. In films I’ve seen, films I’ve been a part of, they’re usually the budget plus 10 percent.

Adam: Wow.

Guest: Yeah. So it’s like, and of course, it varies depending on the star power.

Adam: Ten percent. That’s like coffee shop margins.

Guest: Yeah, I’ve been on the end of getting some really horrific offers, or seeing films I’ve been involved with to one degree or another get really horrific offers for worldwide distribution through certain streaming companies that I will not name. And it’s stuff like that, that, you know, really concerns me, because it’s like, oh, now you’re incentivizing through this acquisition business, you’re incentivizing the creation of as much as you can, cheap as you can, to send it to them with some sort of inflated yet just attainable enough for the budget to make it cost effective, because all they need is content, they need content to fill every niche, and yet still be familiar for anyone in their market. And then, you know, they pay you and you go and you start the next one over and over again, it’s like, well, with a union career that you have to pay real money to, including potentially a percentage of back end, percentage of gross, benefits, you know, those things, those things add up.

Adam: This is similar to a similar labor crisis happening with special effects. I know that they’re shopped out to these third parties, they’re not unionized for the most part, and then even these big, big production, big budget MCU movies, you know, you look at the credits, and they’re all these individual houses, who I know have horrific labor practices, and that’s one of the reasons why CG has gotten so shoddy because they’re extremely rushed timetables, very low budgets, 16-hour days, et cetera. So it seems like it’s part of a broader kind of gig-economy-ifying of filmmaking, which makes sense because everything’s going that direction. I guess my question is, what do the labor activists within the industry, whether it be screenwriters or even actors, how do they generally view the Hallmark cinematic universe?

Guest: It depends on where in the production pipeline you are, it’s funny you mentioned the VFX artists because that industry is very difficult to unionize, because it’s the one job on film set you actually can outsource to a sweatshop in India, which is always tricky, you can’t outsource your gaffer. You can certainly outsource all your VFX assets there. It’s interesting, I have friends who are effectively permanently employed, or able to make rent in very expensive cities like Toronto, like Los Angeles, because of these movies, because they block shoot all these Christmas movies in the summertime, and you know, so look at my friend’s Instagram story and it’ll be like, ‘Fifth day of Christmas trees in August’ and stuff like that, and IATSE is an interesting union because IATSE is very difficult to get into and it’s also a very exclusive club.

Members of IATSE demonstrate. (Shawn Goldberg)

Adam: Can you explain what that is for our audience?

Guest: International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. It’s a film crew union, it is the people who light your movies, the people who camera operate on your movies, the people who rig the equipment for the camera and lights to go on. That’s IATSE. They are indispensable to the craft of filmmaking. They’re often very skilled, very learned people who know their safety rules, who know how to operate on a set, and to have all the necessary certifications, like you know, lift tickets, first aid, some electrical work, depending on what department you’re in, things like that. That’s their bread and butter and it’s a very difficult thing to get into. I think IATSE people just don’t care. I think that they see the crews who work on stuff like Hallmark, or like movie of the week or acquisition-oriented cinema, you know, view them as just sort of their own independent thing, like not something to be unionized or organized, because they’ve already made their choice and there are people who live on that who just do 20, 30 years working on non-union shows at volume because either they’ve accepted they’re not making into union, it’s too hard, or they just have decided this is what they want to do. For the creative end it’s a lot more, I think, treacherous. I think that, especially in situations like where writer strikes and things like that always loom large every bargaining period, and there’s this new world of streaming that still hasn’t been figured out in the collective agreements in terms of the long-term benefits that you would get from, say, a show going into syndication or even this move to TV above all else, I can speak to where I’m at in Canada, like the Writers Guild payout for an episode of TV is about a third of what it is for a feature film, when most of the work any screenwriter would be doing at this point is TV, like cinema it’s a very small, small, small club now. And so yeah, stuff like this, when companies are more willing to outsource, companies are willing to hire non-union when the talent pools are growing, and the need for content becomes greater, creates this massive disparity and I think a very genuine concern that at what point do companies that hired union that weren’t like premiere, you know, Universal or whatever studios, at what point do they just decide to abandon sort of a union model altogether because they don’t have an actress star involved, therefore, they don’t need this union, which means they don’t need that union? Because a lot of these things work on aggregate, you’re sort of required to have IATSE, sort of required to have this, required to have that. So at what point does that all fall apart? Because stuff like Hallmark or any sort of acquisition-based production company that works on margins like these has said, ‘It’s okay, look at how much money we’re making.’

Nima: Let’s talk a little bit about the creative side of this, and by that I mean what you’ve seen in your work with and your communication with some of these production companies that make movie of the week, this kind of nine act structure movie, and you were kind enough to show me and Adam a guideline sheet that you’ve received, talk us through some of your favorite guidelines for how to write the perfect Hallmark script.

Guest: Yeah, I love this because it’s like, you know, one to three lead characters, two to four supporting characters, and this is actually very interesting, because if your actors aren’t union, the union has still set in place a certain expectation for what people need to get paid. So people who have five lines of dialogue or less, it’s like, okay, so that might not be union, but they still expect to get paid more, because they have a line of dialogue in there, and if they go over five lines, you know, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, actually, I should be paid more because that’s what the union compels.’ So you can already see this very interesting fear there. But yeah, I love that, it’s, you know, no more than one to three lead characters, two to four supporting characters, a few day players and ten speaking roles or less and please be budget-conscious of your cast, don’t have multiple people speaking when you can get away with one, you know, Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! This is my favorite part of this though, and not to make light of the subject matter, but it’s how glib the content guidelines in terms of actual content are, where it says, ‘We avoid using expressions like God, Jesus, hell,’ and then it’s like, ‘We very rarely have torture or rape in a story but if it does have to occur, it’s usually offscreen or implied,’ and the dissonance between those two statements right up against each other is horrific.

Adam: How are you implying torture? Is the police officer just like exiting an interrogation room with white gloves on?

Nima: Shaking his head being like, ‘Man.’

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: ‘Torture.’

Adam: That’s a tough nut to crack anyway. So what’s going on Christmas Eve?

Guest: Also, to what you guys were talking about in terms of its conservative bent, right, like the fact that aspirational comes up and and I’ve had dealings with a couple of these production companies, and they all go back the same idea of it needs to be aspirational. So you can’t have your hero be a working-class person, by and large, for example, right? Not that there might not be exceptions, but it’s like, oh, you can’t have this person be a sales clerk, a waitress, a parking lot attendant.

Nima: They have to be a small business owner.

Guest: Yes. I got away with a university professor once, that was my saving grace. If only they knew how much university professors actually got paid.

Nima: Yeah, but at least there’s a degree involved, right? There’s some kind of credential.

Adam: Yeah, I think they assumed that they were rich. Yeah.

Nima: And tweed jackets.

Guest: Yes. I did have to say she was tenure-track in order for that to get pushed through.

Adam: Oh, okay. Good.

Nima: Give us a little more, okay, associate professor or tenured professor?

Adam: Well, we don’t want some bitter adjunct.

Guest: Yeah, TAs, get out of here. You’ll never work in this town again, kid.

Adam: They don’t exist in the Hallmark cinematic universe.

Guest: But yeah, what you’re talking about, the feel-good conservative attitudes of being filled, it’s all by design, and I go back to the fact that these films are also internationally seen. It really does sell a very specific vision of what American life is of what American aspirations are. They function equally as products. When you see a film like, this is a terrible example, because it’s actually a good movie, but you see a film like Amelie and you’re like, I want to go to France. That’s the image of America they’re selling because it all feeds back into the Hallmark empire of everything else Hallmark does. The fact that, you know, you can’t touch law enforcement at all, or the military is an interesting part of it, where it’s, you know, it’s sort of obvious, but never in a bad light or just avoiding them completely because it’s a lightning rod.

Adam: There’s the minor character of the returning soldier, but yeah, there’s this kind of, which again, makes sense, it’s what it is, is there’s a kind of mindless deference to law enforcement, military, obviously never going to criticize them. But of course, they do take potshots at certain demographics, as we noted they take potshots at people with wheat allergies, liberals, anything that seems kind of gay is sort of mocked or ribbed. Again, there’s a sort of demographic disposition, right?

Guest: Yeah, the fact that, you know, all films, especially TV, movies, and TV shows have an act structure, but the way they define what happens in the act structure is unprecedented.

Adam: It’s very precise.

Guest: It’s specifically designed on what makes our audience not turn away during the commercial break, and also, how do we make sure that this familiar structure is held throughout? Again, I go back to movie mad libs because they’re all the same movie with different window dressing. It’s not because there’s a bunch of hack writers out there doing it, because it’s a function of the material and yeah, 86 individual scenes. I don’t know, I’ve never been in a situation otherwise, where a studio executive or producer has sat there telling me the exact number of scenes I should have in a movie and people are still paid shit for it.

Adam: Right.

Guest: It’s less than a third of what the union rate is for these and that’s without benefits, without any matching contributions, without the job security, the ability to file a grievance, I do know this as a fact, there’s a lot of unpaid rewriting that happens on Hallmark movies because credits are very important for screenwriters, especially emerging screenwriters, even a Hallmark movie on your credit sheet for a producer, not for the Writers Guild is a good sign. And so you don’t even get access to things like credit arbitration or if something is rewritten, it becomes controversial or it just never settles because Hallmark says this isn’t what we want or this isn’t what we paid for, you know, then you might not be able to work again, you also don’t have access to any recourse or any chance to like grieve your case or are talking about how they rewrote you or things like that. Yeah, there’s very little security in that world and you get paid, think about how much any big city is like the going rate in Canada for Hallmark movies around $16,000 Canadian dollars —

Adam: Which is what in real money?

Guest: That’s around $12,000 in US money, I think.

Adam: Okay, I just, you know, what’s that? There’s a trope called Nowhere Canada. Isn’t that a thing?

Guest: Yes.

Adam: Yeah, right. So it’s like, we need to make sure that for our audience, we speak in generic terms. It’s like, it cost about as much as a 2005 Toyota.

Nima: Yeah.

Guest: It costs as much as a 2013 RAV-4.

Adam: Okay.

Guest: Yeah, you know, that sounds like a lot of money but then you consider the way the film industry functions.

Adam: It’s not a lot of money at all.

Guest: Yeah.

Adam: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t even sound like a lot of money.

Guest: Yeah, sometimes you get two or three scripts a year.

Adam: Yeah.

Guest: And the whole structure of union pay is specifically with the idea in mind that you will get potentially just one or two of these a year and you should be able to eke out at least a minimum wage living if not something better.

Adam: So they pay $12,000 American. Comparably if that was a union gig what would it pay?

Guest: Oh, $61,000 minimum.

Adam: Okay, so that’s a slight difference.

Nima: Yeah, slightly, slightly lower.

Adam: And I’m sorry, but like, you know, we keep talking about this sort of cutting-costs mentality of Hallmark, but like to be clear, Hallmark is not skipping meals, they make a lot of money. They’re a juggernaut. It’s not even sort of cutting costs in the sense that they —

Nima: They’re not like the scrappy Christmas company.

Adam: Yeah.

Guest: Also, it’s $61,000 Canadian, so —

Adam: I guess that’d be like, what? $50,000 in America?

Guest: Around $47,000 US dollars.

Adam: Yeah, sorry. Yeah, we’re having a cultural difference here.

Guest: But yeah, you know, that sounds like real money for, you know, three to five months of your life you’re spending on something at the very least, and consider the fact that Toronto and Vancouver, Canada’s two largest film centers where most of these writers come from, obviously.

Adam: Most of these are made in Canada, right? They’re made in nowhere, Canada?

Guest: Oh, not all of them, but a good chunk of them.

Adam: Why is that? Is Canada just cheaper to film in in general, or is it —

Guest: Tax credits, baby.

Nima: It’s good incentives.

Adam: That’s right. Yeah. Tax credits.

Guest: Yeah, we got great film incentives.

Nima: And you go up there and you can say that it’s, you know, Cedar Falls, Vermont or maybe Central Falls, Vermont.

Adam: Well, that’s what’s so funny is all these tax incentives of filming Canada and basically no show, not even Schitt’s Creek, like the one golden show, they never mention Canada. Where’s all this subsidies and public funding going? They’re not even promoting Canada as an idea, it’s Americana you’re promoting. Come on.

Nima: Oh, yeah. No, it’s like nostalgic Americana, except, without the unions that were good back then.

Adam: Right.

Guest: It’s funny because a medical drama that was Canadian and bought by an American company, and it’s the first one where the American studio did not have questions about could we have an episode related to health insurance, right? Can this patient pay for their treatment? It’s just something that’s not touched, it’s not addressed and not touched.

Adam: Is it identifiably Canadian?

Guest: It takes place in Toronto, but like, no, I think he gets mentioned twice, over the course of a season.

Adam: Cause that spooks the American audiences the second they hear Canada, they’re like, ‘I don’t know, I’m out of this. I’m switching the channel. That’s confusing to me.’ Like I was just offended when you used Canadian dollars.

Guest: It’s very funny. I mean it’s true. It’s very like you can see as it got more Americanized, the show, you can see as the Canadian references were slowly stripped out, it is a very clear bent that way. But also, it’s funny because even companies like Amazon Studios recognize the value of union labor, Amazon paid a lot of money to set up shop in Manitoba, and all their shows are shot union crew with big stars because they have to be, but also, you know, what you’re getting when you get a union crew, you’re getting efficient, skilled workers who will be able to complete a job quickly and efficiently and there’s a reason why when HBO does one of their big international Game of Thrones shows, they bring over a lot of crew as like a traveling circus with the production because those are the best in the business. They’re unionized, they’re paid like they’re unionized, you know, I’m worried about what this means for the future of the industry as things move on and also move faster, like at any given time there are 2,000 shows out there and another 2,000 in development and another, you know, 500 in some form of actual production. It’s like, oh, how many of those were union labor? And when you really think about it, not that many.

Adam: Yeah, because I guess that’s the question, to what extent are we going to see the Hallmark-ification with streaming? I mean, I know we do to a great extent already and of course, Hallmark is not necessarily mainly responsible, but that formula of lowest-common-denominator, churn out, non-union labor production, because again, I don’t want to conflate my aesthetic elitism with my pro-labor sentiments because I think sometimes people on the Left can do that. But to what extent are we just going to, is this model going to be duplicated even more and more and get more popular?

Guest: I think a lot. I think the cost of production is being driven down, but the demand for more content is going up and when those two things intersect, it’s an incredibly scary point for labor. To your point, Adam, like aesthetics, yeah, people who work on a production always know when the production is shit, right? When I was working electrical in production as an IATSE permittee I had friends who were working on the Adam Sandler film Pixels, and they knew it was trash but they had a great time working on it, right? It was a big production, they took care of you and for stuff like this when it, but that was also a big production that had to abide by certain set of guidelines and had stars who also had to have their time off and everyone got to have a relatively, you know, it’s never good in the film industry, even if you are a union, you’ve got to have like a relative level of comfort onset but, you know, someone somewhere some production count is going to look at Christmas Cupcakes 2 and say, ‘We can streamline this process into three days less saving us X amount of money at the expense of X amount of man hours and X amount of people are working more and getting paid less for it.’ That’s really scary.

Nima: 75 percent more gazebo.

Guest: (Laughs) You know, we will, yeah, we actually don’t need the gazebo anymore ee found this really cool, some Silicon Valley insider brought us, you know, a gazebo where it’ll be in the metaverse, you know, the VR gazebo, if you will. But yeah, like that, it’s tough because there’s tons of artists and incredible people who are working on these things and if you ever watch one of those Marvel studio CGI breakdowns —

Adam: It’s madness.

Guest: Yeah. Why did they CGI the bar when they could have just gotten an actual bar location, right? The reason why is because the actual bar location requires union set dressers, union production artists than the CGI stuff.

Adam: Yeah, no, that was one of the points, gosh, I forget, I hate that I can’t remember I saw it, but the reason why so much stuff is CGI is because CGI is basically a union-busting thing, because paying software engineers, un-unionized software engineers, is much cheaper than paying unionized physical labor, right?

Guest: Yeah, and it’s a crisis in the CG industry. I would also say it’s a crisis in the animation industry, which by and large does not hire union labor, at least for the screenwriting, especially in Canada. I don’t know how different it is in the US, but you know, it’s not just the CGI, it’s also just animation as an abstract has always been an abuse of industry and it’s only getting worse as the need for animation, especially kids in short animation increases, and it’s also in the Hallmark industry as well. I’m surprised more people don’t suffer catastrophic accidents onset as a result of these sorts of things.

Nima: Well, I think catastrophic accidents is a great place to leave it, especially for this follow up to our Hallmark Christmas episode. We can’t thank you enough, really, for getting in touch with us, for sharing some of these documents with us, and for talking it all through today. It’s been really illuminating, and we really appreciate it. Our anonymous guest today, again, has spent the better part of a decade working in the labor movement before becoming a screenwriter. They’re now a union screenwriter currently coming off their first major network show and their first wide release feature will be in theaters in early 2022. They’ve been fortunate enough in that time to get development deals for a slate of projects that dramatize a gamut of current topics from fast food unionization to defunding the police. Our anonymous guest today, thank you so much for joining us on Citations Needed.

Guest: No, thank you so much. I’ve been listening to you guys for years. It’s a real monkey’s paw for me, because it would be nice to be like, ‘Hey, I was a guest on my favorite podcast.’ But yeah, thank you so much.

Adam: These are conversations that happen late night at bars and in personal DMs and I think it’s good to sometimes air it out and anonymity can help do that. So we really appreciate that.

Nima: Yeah, because so many people know that this is really going on. But again, it winds up being very kind of inside the industry and what most people see is just what they’re screaming while they’re hanging out with their grandma and it’s good to kind of get that look behind. Really appreciate it. Thanks again.

Guest: Cool. Thanks so much, guys.


Nima: So that will do it for this extra very hot cocoa special News Brief from Citations Needed. We will be back with brand new episodes of Citations Needed for your listening pleasure. But until then, of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, January 19, 2022.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.