I work in one of the most creative and collaborative of art forms: the entertainment industry. It is without doubt a business that takes a village to create the magic that audiences around the world have come to enjoy. For that magic you see when the lights go down starts long before the director calls “action.” It is created by hundreds of highly skilled artisans and technicians who light the scene, design, build and dress the sets, costume the actors, apply the make-up, style the hair, record the sound, and create special effects that transport you to a different world.
That’s where I come in. I am a best boy electric, and I have one of the coolest jobs on the planet.
I’ve worked on some of the most popular films and TV shows – from big budget movies like Captain America: Winter Soldier to binge-worthy TV shows like House of Cards. As a best boy electric, I’m essentially the foreman of the lighting department. I coordinate the scheduling, of the Lighting Department crew; the renting, ordering, inventory, and returning of equipment; workplace safety and discipline within my department; completing timecards and other paperwork; loading and unloading production trucks; planning and implementing the lighting or rigging of locations and/or sound stages; coordinating with rigging crews and additional photography units; handling relations with the other production departments; so just a handful of things!
Dozens of people just like me from the film and TV industry were in Washington, D.C. last week for “Beyond the Red Carpet: Movie & TV Magic Day.” We were there to offer staffers and elected officials on Capitol Hill a unique behind-the-scenes look at the creativity, talent, and innovation at the core of the American film and television industries.
Fundamentally, this is a “people” business. Art cannot be created on an automated assembly line. It is not a matter of plugging some numbers into a spreadsheet. The people in front of the camera and behind it – who write, light, film, act, cater, edit, costume, and create scenery – are the lifeblood of the business. We are the workers who craft these productions.
I consider myself a lucky guy – I have a successful career, thanks to hard work and the countless opportunities created by a prolific and innovative industry. I am a proud member of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) – the talented people I work with every day are my brothers and sisters! I’m proud to be a part of an industry that works with my union rather than against it. However, working in the creative industries is, by nature, an uncertain career path. You never know when your current job is your last. And we, the behind-the-scenes magicians, are dependent on so many others to keep those opportunities flowing. We are dependent not only on the studios and networks but also on the audience who come to our movies or watch our TV shows on any number of screens and platforms. And we too are affected by the rampant theft of our work. When someone accesses our movies or shows on a pirate site, they steal our ability to make a living.
My livelihood, and that of all the magicians behind the scenes, is put at risk every time our work is stolen. And it isn’t just because of the diminishing number of projects put into production due to the financial losses created by piracy. Most of us are not full-time employees nor do we receive residual income when our productions are shown overseas or in secondary markets. Instead, substantial portions of our income are derived from the health and retirement contributions we receive from the revenue our work generates long after initial distribution. When movies and television shows are stolen, that revenue is substantially diminished and thousands of my brothers and sisters – the working men and women of the creative industry – suffer as a result.
The U.S. film and television industry supports more than 2 million American jobs in all 50 states. Once the cameras roll, a single project can employ crews of 100-400 artists and technicians. But it’s not just those of us in the industry that benefit from these shows or movies. Hundreds of local vendors and merchants – from dry cleaners and restaurants to hotels and airlines – benefit when filming takes place in their towns and cities.
Thanks to the innovations of both the technology and entertainment industries, there are a multitude of legitimate options available to audiences to access movies and television shows – when they want, where they want – without stealing them.
That’s why we were in D.C. To put faces to all of those names in the credits – and find the support we need to continue making television and movie magic for generations to come.
Tyree is president of the Mid-Atlantic Theatrical and Stage Employees Union (IATSE Local 487), a freelance lighting technician, and an adjunct college professor at Towson University.