Movies keep stagehands busy

February 14, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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The head of the local union that represents stagehands says the motion picture industry in West Michigan is definitely growing.

"We've always had (feature film) projects that have filmed in this area but there have definitely been more of them since the (film industry) incentive package went into place," said Stasia Savage, business agent for Local 26 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts, also known as IATSE.

Savage said the number of corporate videos produced in West Michigan began to decline gradually several years ago. More recently, the onset of the recession apparently has pushed down the number of concerts in the region — as evidenced by the recent announcement that there will be no Rothbury music festival this year.

"There haven't been nearly as many shows at some of the larger concert venues, such as Van Andel and DeltaPlex," said Savage. She said the Van Andel Arena and the region it serves is "considered a pretty major player" on the concert scene, "but we've definitely seen a downturn in that business."

Many of the theater and auditorium productions in Michigan require behind-the-scenes workers who are members of IATSE, as do most major feature film productions.

"We represent everybody — all the crafts, not just specific ones," Savage said.

IATSE doesn't represent the stars or top creative people in a stage or screen production, such as writers and directors, but it does represent camera operators, sound and lighting technicians, costumers, scenic artists, set designers and builders, hairdressers, make-up experts, grips and more.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, unions are very important in the movie industry, noting that "virtually all" film production companies and television networks sign contracts with union locals that require the employment of workers according to union contracts.

"Most of the films that have come in (to West Michigan) have been union," said Savage. "There's a handful that haven't been."

Savage said it is "fortunate that the new film work that's coming in has really been able to fill in" the lack of concert work. She said it definitely has made a difference in her members being able to find enough work to support themselves.

Most jobs in the film industry are temporary assignments by their nature, so many stage hands have traditionally lived in southern California, where the largest number of films and television shows are in production at any given time. Many also live in the New York area for the work always available on Broadway.

Up until recently, stagehands in West Michigan had primarily concerts and stage productions to keep them going. The advent of feature film making in Michigan has begun to change that.

"We have taken in a lot of new members," said Savage, noting that Local 26 now has about 110 people.

"We certainly hope it lasts," she said, regarding the budding movie industry here.

"The state and this area in general have a lot to offer."

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