As you read this, negotiations for a new agreement are ongoing between our industry labor unions and the producers of film and television shows. These discussions have been drawn-out and grown increasingly tense. The current agreement was extended to September 10th, but there’s since been little progress. It appears there is still a wide gap between the unions of IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), among them the International Cinematographer’s Guild (Local 600), and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
Whereas the AMPTP wishes to continue the status quo, IATSE is pushing for:
- Livable wage for all crew
- Reasonable rest / hours (no “Fraturdays” and harsher penalties for delaying or denying meals)
- Sustainable benefits
- Better rates for crew working on streaming shows
These are not luxuries and the abuse in this industry of even simple things like meal breaks is too prevalent. When the financial incentives are aligned such that: it’s cheaper to pay meal penalties than to break for lunch; it’s cheaper to force calls than to let crew get sleep; it’s cheaper to shoot for 14+ hours than to schedule appropriately; then the penalties are not harsh enough.
Like many things in the world these days, this industry is experiencing tremendous imbalance. Never has film & video content been more consumed, more in-demand, and more profitable than it is now on the backs of overworked, overtired, and underpaid crew.
When some of the richest companies in the world like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix, alongside established players like HBO, Paramount, and NBC, are pouring tremendous resources into building their video content libraries, that means there is money to be made.
Meanwhile, crew are compelled to work 12, 13, 14-hour plus days – often consecutively – to pad their paychecks with enough overtime money to afford to pay rent or the bills for their children’s daycare.
Meanwhile, crew all over are getting into car accidents after falling asleep at the wheel because they didn’t get enough of a turnaround to have a good night’s rest and make it to work on time.
Meanwhile, crew are putting on their masks and face shields, subjecting their nostrils to test-after-test, only to watch those above-the-line sip their coffees with their masks on their chins almost daring us at safety meetings to “let them know” if you see anything unsafe.
Meanwhile, crew are choosing between basic life obligations or their career. They’re skipping doctor’s appointments, missing family milestones, and watching relationships crumble from neglect.
People are burning out in this industry in their 30’s, if they even make it that far.
These stories are not rare and they’re not entirely unique. I urge you to follow the Instagram account @IA_stories to see a sampling of how mistreated you can be if you’re working on a film set whether it’s union or non-union, big budget or low budget:
Of course, not all productions are malicious. Frankly, I’m not here to argue against every counter example. There are enough productions that it is a problem and we, the crew, the labor, have an opportunity to recognize it as such and only accept a path forward that rectifies these abuses.
I’m simply here to throw my hat into the ring and tell you that I believe crew deserve all of these things: a bigger slice of the pie, a better quality-of-life, and an opportunity to work in this industry without sacrificing their health, hobbies, and relationships.
A 40-Hour Three-Day Work Week
As I scroll through the unbelievable tales on @IA_Stories, I feel lucky that most of my work is commercial / corporate / documentary and that I’ve built relationships with producers who do care, work hard, and schedule appropriately. Whenever they give me a call, I go out of my way to be available for them because they understand we can get the work done well while still enjoying our evenings and weekends. It’s a whole different world.
In the circles I work, the idea of a 14-hour day isn’t foreign, but it is rare and usually borne out only by necessity. 12-hour days are common, but 10-hour days are the standard. They can still be long days, however, I usually have time to eat dinner at a reasonable hour, exercise, and get some decent sleep.
But I’ve been in the thick of it: my first official union job as a camera assistant was day-playing on a major network TV show with a 14-hour day followed by a 14.5-hour day. On the second day, they forced our call (we didn’t get enough time between when we went home and when we had to arrive in the morning, per union rules) and didn’t break us for lunch (they did provide cold spaghetti on a random table near set you had to eat when you could steal a moment away). At 11pm on the 2nd day, 13 hours into my day, I was told they needed me for tomorrow. I ended up missing a friend’s birthday party.
By the time I collapsed onto my couch, I had just about worked 40-hours in the span of three days.
From what I witnessed, these days weren’t long because they had to be, they were long because it was disorganized. It was easier to spend money to fix problems and buy time than it was to properly plan ahead for the shoot.
That experience was eye-opening to me. I remember telling the 1st AC, “You know, I joined the union because I thought I’d get to eat on time and go home at the end of the day.”
He laughed, “Nope! You just get paid to not do those things.”
I can’t imagine doing that for an entire run of a TV show or feature film, let alone for a six-day week.
Imagine instead an industry where you do get to eat on time, go home at the end of the day, and get paid that same amount – that’s what we’re pushing for.
When Crew Are a “Line-Item”
Another story: last summer, as COVID was still raging and this industry was starting to find its footing, I received a phone call to work as 1st AC on a commercial for Amazon. I quoted my rate to the production supervisor who scoffed and, in an apparent attempt to negotiate me down, said, “We should all be thankful we’re able to work right now.”
I am always thankful for work; but I don’t necessarily want to expend my time, skills, and knowledge contributing to the balance sheet of a trillion-dollar company unless the compensation is fair. Plus, it’s not like I heard Amazon and tried to take advantage. I had already booked multiple jobs in that same stretch at that same rate for clients that Amazon could buy with Jeff Bezos’ pocket change. Instead, they weren’t willing to pay the market rate – they were being cheap.
There’s an attitude that plays out systemically in many productions across this industry that crew are a line-item, a checklist, or a cell on a spreadsheet that needs to turn green so the person who’s texting you can move onto the next thing.
You see it in the way they don’t even introduce themselves when booking you. You see it in the way they assume you’re available for that COVID test or prep day nobody actually told you about. You see it in the way they put you on hold and never follow up to tell you they found someone else.
I saw it in the way that woman from the Amazon shoot hassled me about my rate, told me she’d get back to me, and then ended up hiring a friend for the exact same rate I had initially quoted.
Never has my relationship with production felt more adversarial than it has now. And I hate it. I still believe that most people in production are good people working hard and that we’re all part of the same team, but my patience to cling to that ideal has eroded.
(At least part of this feeling is because of COVID liability waivers, but that’s for a future post…)
For the person hiring you, it may not even necessarily be their fault. The pressure comes on them from above in the form of deadlines, budgets, and last-minute changes. They, too, are trying to do their job.
But it increasingly feels like the goals they represent as “The Production” and our goals do not have enough overlap to find alignment. At the end of the day, they have more power, and sometimes the responsibility, to relieve these pressures than those of us trying to get the camera rolling on the next setup.
Stand in Solidarity to Be Better
Even if you are non-union, the unions in this industry set a standard that trickles down to the rest of the production world. Also, regardless, it’s important to think about how productions are treating you, how you wish it could be better and how you can push it to be better. Explain yourself to producers and production managers. I’ve found many of them are understanding and can be accommodating when you assert yourself for what’s reasonable as a human being: respect, value, and safety.
And when that doesn’t work, we need to recognize that though this industry provides us with a lot of opportunity and many of us are passionate about the work, we need to be equally passionate about taking care of ourselves and each other and be willing to not accept anything less than reasonable.
The reality is that these issues are systemic and built into the industry through a tapestry of habits, traditions, misaligned incentives, and institutional inertia. Any one of us probably won’t move the needle too far, but collectively we can push this industry to improve beyond the status quo – which is clearly not sustainable – to be more inclusive, more accommodating, more fair, and more reasonable.
So, Happy Labor Day. Enjoy the time-off and, next time you step on set, I hope you do so with fresh eyes to recognize it doesn’t have to be like this: it can be, and should be, better.