Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Devil's Bargain

                                                    Same as it ever was

It's been 24 years since camera assistant Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel and was killed while driving home from a nineteen hour work day, after which a lot of jaw-flapping ensued about the need to work shorter hours on set -- and although a few productions began offering hotel rooms to crew members after excessively long days, that was the extent of it. Despite a campaign by the late, great Haskell Wexler to institute a "12 On/12 Off" policy on set, nothing at all has been done to curtail abusive work hours. Film crews on features and episodics continue to get hammered with a long slog of 70-plus hour weeks capped off with the universally-reviled "Fraterday." This is ridiculous, especially now that medical science has quantified the obvious: that working excessively long hours is very bad for your health.  

Despite growing discontent among the rank and file (including cinematographers), a few people in our industry resist the push to work shorter hours. Some parrot the chest-thumping response of "You want regular hours, work in a bank," while the more thoughtful point out that the cost of living these days is such that they really need all that overtime just to get by. The hourly rates are decent for those employed on full-scale union jobs, but the film and television industry is a freelance, feast-or-famine world where all jobs on set are temporary. Every movie or television show comes to an end, at which point you're out of work until the next job comes along.**  Employment insecurity is a fact of life in the film industry, where we rarely know what is -- or isn't -- coming next, so it's no surprise that people want to make what they can while they can.

But this raises the question: at what cost? Should working in the film and television industry be like toiling underground digging coal, where miners have to accept the Devil's Bargain of becoming terminally ill with Black Lung disease before reaching retirement age simply to put food on the table and a roof over the heads for their families?

Working on set will never be a nine-to-five job, and truth be told, this is part of the attraction. There's a sense of mission that comes from being part of a crew making a movie or television show -- a "we'll get this done no matter what" ethos that sets it apart from punching a time clock in a factory or driving a keyboard under the fluorescent glow of a cube farm. I wasn't suited for -- nor did I ever want -- a normal job in the civilian world, and although this sounds remarkably idiotic now, I took a certain pride in working the 16, 18, and 20+ hour days that were common during my early career in the world of low budget, non-union features and music videos. It was all part of "paying my dues" to earn a place in the industry.  Still, it's one thing to make the best of a tough situation -- to do what you've gotta do -- and something very different to feel a perverse pride in enduring such ordeals. Looking back, I can see this was probably a form of the Stockholm syndrome, a coping mechanism that allowed me to feel good about being trapped in such difficult situations.  

Like the man said: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

Escaping from the anything-goes, pedal-to-the-metal arena of low budget productions into the safe harbor of union work was supposed to fix all that -- and for a while, it did. Unfortunately, our union contracts have only gotten worse when IATSE and the AMPTP met every three years to hammer out a renewal. Those contracts once protected the rank and file from being worked excessive hours, with the first eight hours at straight time, the next four at time-and-a-half, and anything over twelve hours paid double-time. We'd receive a 15% "night premium" on top of union scale when taking a night call on a studio lot, and working weekends paid double. If you were on a show that worked past midnight on Friday (having already gone twelve hours), you then went into "double-double," or four times the normal hourly scale.  

These provisions weren't in the contract to fatten the paychecks of crew members, but as a financial sledgehammer to dissuade producers from working their crews abusively long hours -- and if for some reason a shoot really had to go long, the producers would have to pay dearly for the privilege. It wasn't a perfect system, but it worked a lot better than what we have now. I can't pinpoint exactly where the erosion in these protections began, but the real break in the dam seemed to come back when the IA signed a contract with HBO allowing the then-fledgling company to pay their crews 20% under union scale, then go into double-time after 14 working hours rather than 12. The rationale was that this new network needed help competing with the Big Three broadcast powerhouses, and cutting them some slack would allow HBO to hire union crews rather than non-union workers to support our health and pension plans. All this would have been fine if the negotiations included a "sunset clause" to limit the duration of the deal, so that once HBO got on its feet -- say, after ten years -- the cable-rate provision would expire, and they'd have to pay crews full union scale.  But there was no such clause, which is why many cable networks still exploit their contractual right to pay crews 20% under scale, and work them 14 hours before the producers hit the wall of double-time.

If you think it's fun to work 14 hour days, 5 days a week, for  a 20% cut in pay, try it sometime.

In every contract negotiation since that HBO deal, we've lost more of the protections that discourage producers from abusing their crews, and now union scale has been thoroughly Balkanized with half a dozen different rates, each less than the basic union scale that was once the lowest we could be paid. The producers arrived at each of those negotiations armed with a phalanx of well-paid lawyers, while our side had guys who -- figuratively speaking -- left their tool belts at the door before sitting down at the table. I wasn't in any of those rooms, and won't criticize our IA representatives, but it's clear that they didn't have the training, skills, or leverage to go toe-to-toe with the AMPTP lawyers, and the results were predictable. Concession after concession has been rammed down our throats over the last twenty-plus years, with each contract progressively worse than the last.

According to my local, the following are at issue in the current contract negotiations:

A living wage as well as annual increases, reasonable rest and meal periods, sustainable health and pension benefits, improved working conditions, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

"Reasonable rest" means preventing productions -- particularly episodic television -- from working their crews into the ground, because a twelve-hour work day is long enough.  It also means allowing rest and meal breaks for the crew during each work day, which -- given the cumulative load of fatigue over each week of long days -- is a very real safety issue.

The following, which has been making the rounds of social media lately, sums up the situation.***

Friends and family across the country:  there's a very real possibility that Hollywood unions (represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) will go on strike, which would halt almost all film and television production across the entire United States. This would be a historic move, but one that's necessary.
Many of you are probably annoyed that you’ve cut the cable cord, only to find that you're now paying the same amount for a multitude of streaming services. Those of us who do the hard work required to make those shows are considerably more than annoyed that these streaming entities -- which are owned and run by some of the richest corporations on the planet -- are still pretending that streaming is an unproven business model they have yet to profit from.  
In a word, that's bullshit.
They want to pay us less to work on streaming shows than for shows that air on regular TV. They want to work us longer hours and have shorter weekends. They want to contribute less to our pension and health plans for streaming movies than they do for films that have a traditional theatrical release. They don’t even want to let us break for lunch during a 12+ hour work day. On top of all that, AppleTV+ is asking for a discount on our rates because they currently have fewer subscribers than the others, even though their huge hit "Ted Lasso" just won a truckload of Emmys.
The situation has reached a breaking point. The studios have now decided to end the negotiations, so our leadership is calling for a strike authorization vote in the hope that our show of strength and solidarity will force the producers to offer a fair contract and avoid a strike ... but if not, we'll have to strike for what we need.
I hope that you’ll stand with us in this fight.

The Devil drives a hard bargain, so it's no surprise that the AMPTP dug in its heels on several key provisions. I don't know all the specifics, but apparently they want to make it much harder to qualify for a pension, eliminate the existing structure of breaks (including meal periods)  in favor of "more flexibility," cut our annual (and minimal...) pay raise in half, and refuse to even consider the matter of working crews deep into Saturday mornings. The latter is a serious quality of life issue, because a work week that begins at 7:00 Monday morning and doesn't end until 5:00 A.M. Saturday renders the term "weekend" all but meaningless. 

With the talks stalemated, the IA has called for a strike authorization vote -- the first essential step towards an industry-wide strike. The next move is ours, and it's crucial for the rank and file to respond with an overwhelming "yes" vote to put the producers on notice that this time we mean business. As IATSE president Matt Loeb put it: "It's time to command their attention," and if AMPTP refuses to respond with a reasonable compromise, we'll have two choices: roll over and take another beating, or stand up and strike.

If push comes to shove, my vote is to strike.

This is easy for me to say -- being retired, I no longer wait for my phone to ring with the next job -- but if we've learned anything by now, it's that the producers only respond to pressure. It's been many decades since below-the-line unions exerted any real heat on the AMPTP -- to my knowledge, there's never been a widespread strike by the IA in Hollywood -- and the producers have made it clear that they won't be reasonable unless and until we force the issue. 

When I started working in Hollywood back in '77, many of the veteran crews I worked with were from a generation that came of age amid the privation and misery of the Depression Era, then went through the hell of World War Two. Having witnessed the worst life could dish out, they were happy just to have a decent job -- but that was a different era in every way. The cost of living was cheaper in real terms, and strong union rules protected the rank and file from being worked to death. A bitter cliché I heard many times on set goes: "If you're going to fuck us, at least give us a kiss," but the AMPTP won't even blow us an Oscar-style Hollywood air kiss, so maybe it's time to revive the battle cry of Howard Beale in the Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky classic Network:

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" 

With so many still recovering from the Covid shutdown, this isn't a great time to go on strike, but if we roll over and take another contract beat-down, any concessions forced on us now will form the new baseline for even more drastic cuts when the contract expires in three years. We're now in something of a modern Gilded Age where the old and new media corporations are making money hand over fist while grinding the workforce they depend on into the dirt. This is as shortsighted as it is cruel, but rather than meet us halfway to agree on a fair contract, they're trying to divide, conquer, and break the unions. Sometime it seems they won't be happy until we've been relegated to First World slave labor toiling for minimum wage and minimal benefits.  

Fuck that.

There's no denying that an industry-wide strike would be ugly and painful, but what's our alternative? The AMPTP is so accustomed to kicking us to the curb on their way to the bank that they really don't believe the rank and file has the stomach to withstand a prolonged strike. If they ignore next weekend's strike authorization vote and refuse to compromise, we'll have to draw the line and show them that like the fictional Howard Beale, we really aren't going to take it anymore. 

Because if not now, when? 


* To bastardize a once popular C&W song, "Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be film students."

** The studios are staffed by full time employees, but the union rank and file who work on set to make movies and television are essentially temp workers.

*** Somewhat massaged, of course, since the editor in me simply couldn't resist.

9 comments: said...

It never ceases to amaze me how many IA negotiations are not conducted by people trained in the art of negotiations or conflict resolution.
In legit theater where road crews are facing similar hours worked challenges- sometimes running 36 hours AND a 300 mile jump--one negotiator told me that to get per diem based on US GSA schedule we would have to give up something else. His concept that there was always an exchange required for every bit bargained was a serious mental handicap going in.
FYI The last IA Hollywood strike was I think in the 1940s. It gained 20% gains in pay plus better conditions
This strike will have to be long to succeed. The suits have already bet we don't have the stomach for it after Covid. It will take 3-6 months to convince them otherwise imho and at that point we should screw them thoroughly as they have us for the last 20 years.
Yes! Make it all up in one contract.

Michael Taylor said...

Gaffer15 --

It's quite a story, and rather complicated.

You're probably right about the results of a strike, which would be a war of attrition. Nobody will budge for a while, and with the AMPTP needing unanimous support from their members to agree to anything, it'll take time and lots of suffering to bring them all around. Three to six months sounds about right, and that'll hurt the rank a file in a big way. You can't get unemployment checks if you're on strike, and how many people can go three to six months with no income? There's a lot of chest-thumping on industry forums about demanding big pay raises, eliminating all sub-scale deals, and restoring the old rules to protect workers, but I doubt much of that could or will happen. Assuming a big authorization vote comes in next weekend, my guess is the AMPTP will come back with some form of unsatisfying compromise and a not-great deal will then be hammered out ... but maybe not. We seem to live in an era where compromise is a dirty word.

We'll see.

Thanks for tuning in. said...

This has the feeling of the Kohler strike of the 1950s. The Kohler family refused to negotiate because unions were bad, and trying to run their business. When in reality much of what the union wanted was already required by Federal law. The suits had no idea of the conditions people wee being asked to work under other than any alternate cost more time or money.
Eleatism and class warfare personified.
That strike ran for years, 7 I think, and was the Civil War level of family divisiveness.

Mark said...

As someone who has spent the last quarter century negotiating contracts (not union matters) I've come to believe that it is generally not reasonable to blame a bad outcome on a poor negotiator...or to assume a good outcome results from a good one. No doubt that an unskilled negotiator will often conclude deals on less favorable terms than a skilled one, but the single biggest factor in a positive outcome in my experience is nearly always the issue of leverage: who has it, and who doesn't.

It is possible for each side to a negotiation to have leverage, but rarely is leverage possessed in equal amounts. Take the example of Donald Trump's history of litigation. High profile failures became more common as his claims became more and more insane, but for most of his career he was able to silence his critics and his victims and to use the legal system to his ends not because he was in the right or because he and his legal team were good at what they did (I've never seen a wealthy person with consistently awful legal representation). Instead, it was always about leverage, and with his bankroll he could bleed his opponents dry by tying them up in legal proceedings intended not to win on the merits but to outlast an under-funded foe.

So, while striking creates a degree of leverage for the good guys in this story, will it be enough? History suggests maybe not. What can the union do to increase leverage? Is there any possibility of getting the support (meaningful support; like a sympathetic "co-strike") from the actors' union? Can social media be leveraged to increase public support for those below the line?

As an outsider, it has always bothered me that those in front of the camera seem to be treated so much better than those behind the camera, and how comfortable they seem to be to let that situation persist. I understand and accept that different jobs are valued differently and often grossly disproportionally. The NFL player's union will threaten to strike over pay, benefits, and safety measures for the players, but they don't seem to care that NFL cheerleaders are (illegally) classified as independent contractors and denied benefits or pay above (or at) the minimum wage.

So, maybe I'm naive, but I'd hope there are enough people doing well in the film/tv industry who are bothered enough by this crappy situation to join the fight. Or maybe it's always just about ensuring that MY pie is as large as it can possibly be, and the size of yours is just not my problem. I hate this sanguine "not my problem" point of view that seems so prevalent....

Michael Taylor said...


I doubt that social media support from non-industry people would have any real effect on the AMPTP unless it takes the form of mass cancellations of streaming service subscriptions, with those cancellations directly tied to the issues at hand. That seems unlikely to happen. SAG, the DGA,and WGA have all issued statements of support, but how far that support will go is unclear. If SAG refused to work on set until an acceptable deal is hammered out, this would be settled fast, but I'm not sure if they're even allowed to do that without violating the terms of their contract with the AMPTP. When the WGA went on strike back in 2008, we were told to keep working because our contract specifically denies us the right to strike so long as that three-year contract is in force. SAG may have a similar provision in their contracts -- I really don't know.

I agree that leverage is everything, and without it, there's no hope of achieving a good outcome. The question remains as to who has more leverage -- the IA or the producers -- and I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Thanks for tuning in.

Jim Plannette said...

I’ve worked in the movie business for 55 years and I’m still working. I have seen horrible changes to our working conditions. The reason for double time after twelve hours, meal penalties and reasonable turnaround is not to make money, it’s to have a reasonable life. The Producers don’t care at all about our families or our health and safety. They care about their money. This has to change and it may not be easy, but it has to happen.

Michael Taylor said...

Jim --

I agree, 100% - as the song goes, "change has gotta come."

chris said...

For what it's worth, I was working with Brent on set the day the he passed away. Even though we were shooting 'in the zone' at a gymnasium in Long Beach, every member of the crew that day was offered a hotel room near the location. Most declined, and we all know what happened that night.

Brett's death was an awful tragedy that haunts me to this day, and I think his death did result in more sensible work hours on a lot of productions. But I've seen a lot of attempts to characterize producers as evil and and crew as helpless victims- On that production, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Michael Taylor said...

Chris --

Thanks for filling us in on the situation -- you were there, I wasn't. I don't see the issue of long hours as stemming from "evil producers" -- although we've all worked for dickhead producers, most are okay -- but the problem is the system as it's evolved over the years, and the assumptions that evolved with it No matter how good a producer or his/her production company might be, working a 19 hour day just isn't right. People tend to make poor decisions after working that long, which may be what happened with Brent that night. Should he have taken the hotel room? Sure, but after 19 hours (and maybe you can tell us how long the days were leading up to that one), I'm sure the foremost thing in his fatigue-addled mind was to get home to his wife, kids, and his own bed. The nature of the business is such that a long day is going to happen every now and then, but anything past 14 hours should be the absolute rarest exception -- not something that happens on a regular basis. The cable contract virtually ensures 16 hour days (including drive time and lunch, and that contract has to be brought back in line with the standard 8/10/12 hour overtime schedule. If and when that happens, work weeks should get shorter and life improve for those who work on set.

A lot more can and should be done, but that's where it needs to start.

Thanks for tuning in.