Making History

With her January 2024 election, Vanessa Holtgrewe becomes the first Local 600 member to hold the office of IATSE International Vice President… and she’s just getting started.

February 21, 2024
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Vanessa Holtgrewe, a 15-year Director of Photography member in Local 600, has been making history her whole career. She was one of only two graduate students accepted into the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television’s (TFT) first-ever cinematography track; she was the first female Director of Photography to help organize a major unscripted television series (The Biggest Loser), and now, with her January 2024 election as the IATSE’s 12th International Vice President, Holtgrewe becomes one of three women currently holding that prestigious office, joining Colleen Glynn and Apple Thorne, serving a labor alliance that spans an entire continent and includes more than 170,000 members.

Vanessa Holtgrewe, center, being sworn in alongside (L-R) Trustee Tuia’ana Scanlan and fellow IATSE Vice Presidents Chris O’Donnell, Carl Mulert, Toni Burns, Apple Thorne, and Carlos Cota at the 2024 Mid-Winter General Executive Board meeting in Nashville, TN.

Holtgrewe still remembers the day the film industry became her calling.

“I was in my early 20’s, driving around the country trying to figure out what to do,” she begins. “I had a friend at USC who asked if I wanted to come see a film set. I had been a photography major in high school and also as an undergrad, so I said: ‘Wow, that sounds great!’”  Although she says the USC visit was “just your typical student film set,” for Holtgrewe, it was magic. “Everyone was in quiet motion like they were all reading each other’s minds,” she adds. “I saw a person standing by the camera talking with many different people, and I asked: ‘What does that person do?’ My friend said: ‘Oh, that’s the director of photography.’ And I said: ‘That’s it! That’s what I want to do.”

A lightbulb moment, to be sure. But first, Holtgrewe opted to return to the East Coast, working as a graphic designer in the Chemistry Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “I was using my photography background,” she explains. “Filming little videos for educational CD ROMs – designing the graphics and formats. I was self-taught in creating the videos – all trial and error. I would ask myself: ‘What is the best way to light a beaker?’”

Her first step towards Hollywood was applying to a variety of film schools.

“I thought that would be the best way to get my foot in the door,” she continues. “I also wanted an MFA as I have several professors in my family and I wanted the option to pivot into teaching.”

When she was accepted into UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television (TFT), Holtgrewe began the first in a series of groundbreaking achievements that would come to define her career as both a filmmaker and a defender of working families. And while Los Angeles was a distinct “culture shift,” from upstate New York (where Holtgrewe was born and raised and attended Hartwick College, in nearby Oneonta), she says her family’s “liberal background,” encouraged a pro-labor outlook on the world.

“It was really [longtime ICG Director of Photography] Johnny Simmons, ASC, who was one of my mentors at UCLA, who opened my eyes to unionism,” she says. “I distinctly remember the day Johnny told me two very important things. One was to have a hobby outside the industry because when times are slow you need an inner life to center yourself. The second was that it wouldn’t mean anything to you now, as a young person, but it’s going to mean a lot when you’re older: get into Local 600 as quickly as possible! Make it your goal to become a union member as you will never do anything more important for your life and career.”

Holtgrewe’s path into camera was also triggered by her time at UCLA. One of her professors was directing a low-budget reality series, in what were the very early days of the unscripted genre. “They needed an AC, but in true non-union reality fashion, they realized they needed another camera and asked me to jump on this spare body,” she describes. “I got promoted to camera operator, and within a few years I was a Director of Photography on my first Basic Cable-size, low-budget reality show.”

The immediacy of reality production appealed to the young filmmaker, who was weaned on documentary features. “What I loved about shooting reality is you often only have one chance to capture the moment,” Holtgrewe explains. “So, you always need to be on your toes and feel the energy in the room. The goal is to predict where the action is going. You want to be in the right spot, and fully engaged, to get the best footage so the editors can build the story.”

Snapshots of Holtgrewe’s time on “The Biggest Loser”

In 2009, Holtgrewe joined Local 600 while working on what she calls “a large network reality series that was traveling around the country with a major footprint. Back in those days, there were a number of big network reality shows that were still not unionized, but the producers realized this show was too conspicuous to not go union.”

One year later, her path changed forever when Holtgrewe led her camera team’s efforts to organize NBC’s The Biggest Loser. “Most of us had been on the show for some six years and it was our bread-and-butter,” she recalls. “But a large percentage of the crew would have to leave the show just to go get their health care hours and then come back. Everyone began talking more and more about how The Biggest Loser had to be union. Shouldn’t the crew working on a show about health have access to paid health care?”

In October 2010, the crew told producers they wanted IATSE representation.

Holtgrewe still winces at their response. “They said ‘Please fill out your timecards. Your last paycheck will be mailed. You’re done with your employment. This was a very tight-knit crew, many of whom knew the owners of the [production company] and had even gone to grade school with them. We could not understand why they would refuse to provide us with the benefits of a union agreement. It became deeply personal.”

Crew members of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and IATSE supporters in 2010

When attempts to recrew with locals in the L.A.-area failed miserably, the show’s producers became desperate, even bringing in college students from as far off as Florida. “It was two solid weeks of the crew unifying in a way that the unscripted world hadn’t seen before,” Holtgrewe recalls. “Our picket lines were non-stop, in 30-degree weather, in the rain, with the Teamsters also on the line. After a few days, even some of the workers they had brought in to displace us joined our cause!”

The turning point came when IATSE President Matthew Loeb, attending a conference in Japan, flew directly to L.A. to hammer out a deal. “The crew had appointed me as a steward, so this was my first negotiation,” Holtgrewe states. “We walked in – Vice President Mike Miller, International President Loeb, our legal counsel – and the look on the company’s face was unforgettable. We negotiated through the night and at six the next morning, we came back to the picket line with a deal. It’s been a union show ever since, even when it came back [in 2020 on USA Networks].”

The Biggest Loser strike resolved some key questions – for the industry and for Holtgrewe on a personal level. “Could a large-budgeted, unscripted series be produced without a union crew? The answer was absolutely not,” she says emphatically. On a personal level, it was “what would I do if I was asked to stand up for what I believed in?’ That question was answered within me.”

Also answered was where Holtgrewe’s career was headed. “I had been considering directing, even before The Biggest Loser, or perhaps moving into teaching,” she explains. “When Vice President Miller and International President Loeb asked me if I wanted to continue my efforts in unscripted organizing and become an International Representative, it didn’t take long to say yes. I was ready for the next step.”

 Holtgrewe with IATSE Vice President Mike Miller and Local 700’s Preston Johnson on the “Naked & Afraid” picket line in 2014.

Two years later, in 2014, Holtgrewe was promoted to Assistant Department Director for Motion Picture and Television Production, which she calls both a recognition of the added work she’d taken on as an International Representative and “an honor,” as it meant assisting in major negotiations.

“You become a subject expert on specific areas of the contract,” she notes. “You get to work closely with the Locals on their issues and help craft proposals for future contracts. I’ve been in the room for past negotiations of the Basic and Videotape Agreements and it’s quite the education.” She says one of the most satisfying aspects of the job has been “to finally be able to speak up for all those people, like me who don’t get the chance to say ‘no’ working in production. To be a voice for the collective.”

Speaking for working members has been so impactful, that Holtgrewe has kept up her Director of Photography standing in Local 600 and continues to serve on ICG’s National Executive Board (NEB). She attends ICG’s thrice-annual national executive board meetings, as well as regional membership meetings, taking part in what she describes as “a wonderful democracy, where a careful deliberation of the issues is something I have always treasured.

Holtgrewe receiving her 15 years of service pin from Local 600 President Baird Steptoe. Photo by Scott Everett White.

“Talking to friends and colleagues in Local 600, who I’ve known for many years,” she continues, “helps inform my work with the International, and gives me a broader perspective about how best to serve all the Production crafts. But, in the most basic sense, it’s really because I love staying involved with my home local.”

What are the biggest evolutionary changes Holtgrewe has seen – from when she became an Assistant Department Director to her new role as an IATSE Vice President?

“The explosive growth of content being created, and the positive – and negative – effects that it’s had on members,” she says without hesitation. “There’s also been an incredible awakening of the labor movement across the country. We saw last year, during both strikes, how engaged members were with the union. That awareness has changed dramatically in the last ten years, and unions have responded. A great example is the impact Local 600 has made in member communications and providing opportunities at all the various stages of a person’s career. This swell of interest [in unionism] and the connections we’re providing to our members is making the entire alliance stronger and more focused. As we’ll all see with the upcoming Basic, Videotape and Area Standards contracts negotiations – ‘many crafts, one fight’ is not some empty slogan. It’s reflective of the strength and pride union members are feeling around the country.”

Holtgrewe says her new role as Vice President will not alter her involvement in the upcoming contract negotiations. “We have 14 sub-committees formed around different elements of the Basic, Videotape, and ASA contracts, and it’s been great to hear those conversations between Local leaders, working members, and International staff,” she shares. “Every proposal is being thoughtfully discussed, with recommendations coming out of those meetings. We’re talking about more than 250 committee members, at various stages of their careers, all coming together to protect and advance the rights of working families. That level of engagement is, historically speaking, off the charts.”

As for prime drivers in the negotiations, Holtgrewe says “We are always in the room to protect our member’s livelihoods, and their health care and pensions. The producers are always there to ask: ‘How much will it cost and how will it affect their bottom lines?’” Holtgrewe adds that, “certainly, members will expect us to address the issue of inflation that’s been sweeping the country. And, of course, the importance of a robust healthcare plan cannot be overstated. We saw that when people were able to maintain their coverage throughout the pandemic, and the bridge it provided throughout both strikes. But every contract is like climbing rungs on a ladder. We won improvements in working conditions in the last contract regarding turnarounds and meal penalties, and we’ll continue to fight for more gains in this next contract.”

Holtgrewe is uniquely equipped to advocate for workers whose industry is profoundly impacted by new technology. During her time at UCLA, she partnered with REMAP (The Center for Research in Engineering, Media, and Performance), a group devoted to the blending of media, the performing arts, and cutting-edge engineering technology in pursuit of new genres of creative expression.

“[At REMAP] we did experimentation of attaching sensors to actors where they could control the lights and the background image,” Holtgrewe recounts. “We used game engine technology to create dynamic background imagery that the actors could control,” she describes of work two decades ago that has now become the common language in motion picture and television VFX, with motion and LED volume capture.

“AI is going to be impacting so many of our crafts and we need to address that in these upcoming negotiations,” she adds. “We’ve partnered with Carnegie Mellon University, which is assisting as a subject matter expert to review the recommendations of the sub-committee that is devoted specifically to this topic. The Basic/Videotape, and ASA sub-committees on AI and technology have co-joined together as they felt it was of supreme importance to be on the same page.”

What will change with Holtgrewe becoming an international vice president is her service expanding far beyond the film and television industry. “I saw at my first IATSE Convention, just how diverse this union is,” she describes. “I met stagehand delegates from small towns in the Midwest, exhibition delegates from Vegas, and amusement park workers from Florida, just to name a few. I love that I’ll now get to sit on an Executive Board next to a new vice president [Apple Thorn from Local 720 in Las Vegas], whom I met at the first Young Workers Conference President Loeb convened ten years ago. That’s personally fulfilling. To see the importance President Loeb placed on training up the next generation now coming to fruition and being a part of that.”

Holtgrewe with IATSE 3rd International Vice President Mike Miller at a Hollywood IATSE Young Workers Coordinating Committee meeting in July 2022.

Will Holtgrewe’s history-making career serve as a benchmark for younger women wanting to replicate her path into union activism? “I’m not sure about being a role model,” she smiles, “as I mostly try to lead by example. But I will say that being a woman on the Executive Board is extremely meaningful. Sometimes you have to see someone who looks like you to imagine yourself striving for those goals, and I’m grateful to President Loeb for making that a priority in this organization.

“I’m also keenly aware of the optics at play when Senator Schumer [D-NY] invited me to speak at the Insight Forum on Artificial Intelligence [AI] last September, in Washington D.C. with other tech, business, and labor leaders. I was so glad that a woman from the IATSE was representing this union in our nation’s capital. The legacy value of that was not lost on me.”

Middle: Holtgrewe with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on November 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C. after her testimony at the bipartisan U.S. Senate AI Insight Forum on intellectual property and copyright.

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