A year ago, I worked on a Netflix production in Italy, which is yet to be released, with Hollywood stars. The local hires worked without actual physical contracts, despite the fact that some crew had specifically asked for them, due to not knowing all details of the conditions they were working under.
I consistently objected to such unfair practices. For that, I faced severe consequences.
Those crews also told stories of other Hollywood productions demanding that they work more than the normal 12-hour shooting day, without getting paid for the extra hours worked. It was either comply or be shown the door until someone more desperate to work on film productions took their place.
Although working on big-budget films being shot in Europe is a mostly pleasurable experience, this is just another example of Hollywood operating in a non-unionised territory, to take advantage of vulnerable workers, both in front as well as behind the camera.
Believe me, I have many stories to tell from first-hand experience: not just while working for Netflix but also for other Los Angeles-based companies.
More and more Hollywood productions are being shot in countries like Czechia, Hungary, Malta or Romania: countries with either no unions for film workers or ones that are essentially powerless in comparison to the Hollywood Machine.
Conversely, fewer projects are shot in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and France since these are countries that have strong industry unions.
It’s a no-brainer: no unions and fewer regulations means more profit for productions, at the expense of decent working conditions for crews and artists.
This trend has been growing ever since studios like Netflix lost a battle with American unions. Back then, crews had threatened to strike unless contracts for TV-produced content were renegotiated to reflect actual budgets.
There is a reason why Netflix’s multiple 2023 Oscar winner Quiet on The Western Front, a movie set in Germany, with German actors, was shot in Prague and not Berlin. Or why Spiderman: Homecoming, The Gray Man and Netflix’s new release Extraction 2 were also shot in Prague.
The same goes for The Expendables and Netflix’s smash hit TV series Wednesday, both shot in Romania. And the same reason the likes of Black Widow, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and the up-and-coming Dune 2 were shot in Budapest.
And let’s not forget little old Malta, which welcomed the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Jurassic World Dominion, Ridley Scott’s up-and-coming Napoleon and the soon-to-be-shot Gladiator sequel.
Big studios are lured to countries like Malta using incentives like cash rebates and there is a great deal of competition between governments in this sphere. These rebates often amount to excessive and unsustainable amounts of money, millions of euros, some of which could easily be distributed in local cultural funds instead, which will also bring along wages within the same industry.
The problem is that many studios then apply quasi-sweatshop methods during production, squeezing local workforces to the limit. Film industry workers in non-unionised countries are taken for a ride, without any option to properly negotiate their deals.
It is down to governments to make it mandatory for film studios – especially Hollywood ones – to hire unionised crews and abide by their rules in order to benefit from the cash rebates. They could even start by sharing the rebates given to foriegn productions with local crews, by offering them tax incentives to keep working in the film industry.
Hollywood operates in a non-unionised territory to take advantage of vulnerable workers- Matthew Maggi
Hollywood is not the only culprit but it is the LA studios that run the largest productions. Problems on a small-budget local productions are understandable: worker abuse on a $100 million movie is not.
Hollywood’s act as the moral authority on fairness and equal working rights is sheer hypocrisy. The hypocrisy in this runs all the way from executive producers to actors, who may themselves have as much of a financial interest in a production as any investor.
The employers in the industry: production companies, producers and, sometimes, main actors, who can also be executive producers, are just as liable as any other employer in any sector. And cutting corners when it comes to employers comes with risks: look at what happened on a production called Rust.
Film stars work hard to project a likeable public image but many turn a blind eye to the working conditions of crews they rely on. Ignorance is not bliss.
Big names keep getting bigger cheques. Hollywood thrives on protecting the stars’ vanity, often at the expense of workers’ livelihoods and dignity.
Nobody wants to scare Hollywood productions away. The aim is to attract even more of them to countries like Malta but only if they operate fairly for everyone, just as they do for the most part in the US.
Dodging US standards while making money abroad is not fair.
Workers abroad do not expect to get paid as much as US workers do but, if there is at least a minimum to give out, then they should get at least that.
Do you have a similar story to tell?
Have you ever worked on a film set in Europe or any other country outside the US and experienced unjust working conditions? Have you ever been employed as a local hire and worked alongside foreign unionised crews and felt that you were being treated like second-class, even though you were pretty much doing the same job? Have you ever felt frustrated because you didn’t have access to an HR department to report such injustices?
Have you ever thought of stepping up and speaking out but felt that, if you did, it would backfire and you would end up unemployed? Or, rather, did you ever get blacklisted for doing what should be considered the right thing?
I know I have. And I know many others have, too, which is why we have set up the APACHA movement - the Alliance for Practitioners, Artists and Crew for Hollywood Abroad.
Journalists with some major US publications are looking into the way Hollywood money is being used to make films in non-unionised foreign countries.
Get in touch to share your story, even confidentially, and help expose this racket.
Matthew Maggi is a crew member, writer and actor who has been working in the industry both locally and internationally for the last 10 years.