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Hollywood strikes hit homegrown film industry

SAG-AFTRA strikes have had an effect on the Arkansas film industry

From her home in Fayetteville, Adrienne Dawes sounded ecstatic and relieved on the phone in late September.

"This is exactly the kind of news you hope that have. It's been a long fight long strike,” she said. “It means I have a chance to continue working.”

She had just learned that morning that her union, the Writers Guild of America, had reached a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and was finally ending its strike after 148 days.

Dawes, who got her MFA from the University of Arkansas earlier this year, was writing on a tv show in Los Angeles when the strike began.

"My contract ended in January, joined the guild in April, and then by May 2, we're on strike,” she said. “All of a sudden, the direction I thought I was going was just completely at a standstill or like, Okay, now what there's not really a point to move to Los Angeles right now, when there's no possibility of work.”

So, she packed up and moved back to Fayetteville to wait out the strike.

"From time to time, they'd have these phone banking sessions. And so that was one of the ways I was able to contribute,” she said. But she said she was able to make it to Los Angeles and join the picket line with fellow writers.

“It was really funny, because actually, like on the picket line stuff, you know, you're introducing yourself to people around you,” she said. “And they're like, ‘You're from where? How did you get staffed on your first job from Arkansas, like that blew people's minds.’”

She said the prospects in Arkansas for a screenwriter – especially in television – just aren’t there. So now she said the plan is to secure another job and make her way back to either L.A. or New York.

But, she stressed the struggle is not yet over. TheScreen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists or SAG-AFTRA, is still on strike, which means film and tv production for anything involving actors is still at a halt.

Barry Clifton is an actor living in Little Rock - you may have seen him on some blockbuster productions like the Paramount Plus juggernaut Yellowstone.

"Now, more than ever, that we double down, we go back into negotiations today, our negotiating committee has made it with AMPTP as we speak,” Clifton said. “I hope that they're earnest in wanting to achieve an equitable arrangement that will, you know, allow for a middle class working actor to make enough living where they don't have to have a side job.”

Clifton is a union member and on the board of the Dallas branch of SAG-AFTRA, which covers parts of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He spoke to Ozarks at Large as an individual not as a representative of the union. He says being a professional actor in Arkansas can be tough, the opportunities can be few and far between, but he believes this strike has helped shine a light on working actors like him - not the just the most famous.

"The daily minimum was $1,086. And that's a lot of money for one day's work,” he said. “But you consider that I had a really good year last year and I worked on three productions and just two or three days on each one. So that's not much annual income."

But he said for Arkansas the struggle in Hollywood has actually had somewhat of a silver lining because most of the films produced here are independent features, not tied to major Hollywood studios, which means they can qualify for an interim agreement.

Christopher Crane, Arkansas' film commissioner, said the strike has, for the most part, not disrupted film production here because of these interim agreements.

"And so we feel like, there'll be some larger projects that are still out there that will finally come to fruition once both strikes are over,” he said. “But in the meantime, we've got our heads down and our elbows out and can continue to work."

One of those films, starring Alec Baldwin and Terrence Howard called 'Crescent City,' wrapped filming in September in Little Rock. Another new production which is coming to northwest Arkansas later this month is produced, written, and directed by John-Michael Powell.

Powell is an Arkansas-native, but he says more producers are looking outside of Hollywood to make their films and Arkansas has the chance to capitalize on that.

"We've been able to hire so many people locally,” Powell said. “It's about the more creative stories you see from these towns and from these places like Arkansas, the more of those stories become part of our cinematic lexicon and people will yearn for those stories more and more. So it's kind of a big snowball that gets rolling downhill and for Arkansas, in my opinion, it's starting to roll downhill really quickly."

It did take Powell several months, nearly since the start of the strike in June, to get that SAG permission slip and start casting for the film, though.

Kerri Elder, a producer with Rockhill Studios based out of Fayetteville says filming is still going on in the region, but the strike has definitely delayed production while producers line up to secure those coveted interim agreements.

“Two of them still don't have their waiver. So they've been pushed since the strike started,” she said.

And while the strikes have brought the Arkansas film industry into focus - most of the filmmakers and producers say the real barrier to growing the industry is to put better tax incentives in place.

Kathryn Tucker with the Arkansas Cinema Society said studies from other places like Georgia and Louisiana have shown a strong tax incentive for film producers means more work.

“95% of producers choose a location based on the film incentive,” she said. “And wherever producers can get the best film incentive with the most resources. That's that's where they choose to film”

She said the state got a step closer to improving incentives in August when the new ACT 517 went into effect. The law increases incentives from 20 to 25 percent and gives film companies an added 5 percent tax credit or rebate for productions in economically distressed areas.

And while there is some disagreement about the way the law is set up, everyone in the industry agrees that when it comes to competitive tax incentives - there's room for improvement. Kerri Elder said close to 250 Arkansans make their living in this business.

“And that's what I hope that we can help this administration and the legislature to understand,” she said “They're going to have to go somewhere else to work. They can't work consistently here."

But as SAG-AFTRA resumes talks with studio heads this week, Kathryn Tucker is optimistic about the future of Arkansas film, bringing in more consistent productions.

"We have a great group of crew to crew up a smaller indie feature,” Tucker said. “But, I would like to see a more robust crew base for larger features so that we can start attracting larger budgets, so that crew can get paid what they are worth."

So what will it take to bring in those bigger productions? Barry Clifton believes people need to start by turning out to see those homegrown films.

And Barry Clifton’s latest film “The Memo” premieres at the Filmland Arkansas film festival on Oct. 6 and 7.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the SAG-AFTRA "interim agreements" as "waivers." SAG-AFTRA referred us to this statement from June: "The Interim Agreement is not a waiver. To be clear, it is a contract that includes all terms and conditions for producers looking to employ our members on their specific independent productions."

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Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>
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