Every line of work has its own language. If you’ve ever been trapped at a party by a group of physicists, software developers, or political strategists, you know what I’m talking about: there is a whole world of proprietary lingo that people in a profession develop by and for themselves. This frequently happens out of necessity. Those physicists could have continued to say, “I found a new one of those thingies in space that sucks in every other thingy around it,” or developers could still be writing, “This e-mail contains something underlined that you can click on but you probably don’t want to because then I will have sucked every more time from your day,” but one can see where there was a need to be filled here.
On the other hand, did anyone really need to come up with the word “memo”? Wasn’t “group note” good enough? Was it only with the advent of the modern hospital that people needed things not just fast but “stat”? I think not. I think that there is another reason that people develop lingo and that is to show that they have their own little thing going on. It’s their way of saying, if you can follow our conversation then you are one of us, and if not, then there’s something we know and you don’t, ha.
Nowhere is this more true than in the film business, which has its own litany of terms that don’t even make sense to those of us who use them. Part of this is explained by the fact that, in the early years of this century, the process of filmmaking evolved sort of ad-hoc, absorbing equipment or people from other jobs. With certain terms, like “dolly,” which is the large, wheeled piece of equipment on which the camera is pushed around in the grip of the “dolly grip,” the derivation is obvious.
My mother was always going to marches and meetings when I was a kid. As one of the founders of the Essex County, NJ chapter of the National Organization for Women, she fought for a lot of aspects of women’s lives that it would seem unthinkable for us to be without today: credit cards in our own names instead of our husbands’ (made law in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974); protections from getting fired for getting pregnant (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978); being able to choose whether to have sex with our husbands (spousal rape was not criminalized in all 50 states until 1993); the ability to serve on juries (all states: 1975), to fight on the front lines in the military (rule restricting women from combat units rescinded by the Pentagon in 2013); access to birth control (the Supreme Court legalized birth control for unmarried people in 1972, and held that states could not place any restrictions on the advertisement, sale, and distribution of contraceptives to individuals of any age in 1978). And in 1973, the right established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, for all women to have access to abortion during the first trimester, and with only limited restrictions during the second.
As a teen in the 1980s, when my mom would complain about how women were portrayed in TV shows like Charlie’s Angels (objectification) and The Brady Bunch (subservient homemaker), I remember thinking how annoying it was for her to go on about this stuff. For one thing, The Brady Bunch was all reruns, so Carol Brady was completely a relic of the past, duh! And in general, women had come so far since my mother’s adolescence; she and my father were teaching me that I could do anything I wanted. Did such minor points as the Brady boys being encouraged to be doctors and astronauts while the Brady girls were encouraged to be nurses and models, or the fact that Angel Jaclyn Smith’s boobs had a starring role in every episode, really matter, when all of the important stuff was already settled?
There’s a term we use on film sets when it’s getting dark, fast, and we have a shot we have to get before it does. ADs, to drive us to hurry, will often at some point yell out, “We’re losing the light!”
A film set is like a machine, and it works best when everything is done by the numbers. That’s another term we like to use, which means that we all take the steps we’re supposed to take to make sure everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. But when we’re losing the light, everything kind of goes nuts. People get stressed and they start yelling, which makes everybody more stressed and less able to focus (a note for those of you in a position to yell: it never, ever, helps). Sometimes people run, which you’re not supposed to do on a set, because there’s a ton of cables and stands and people to trip over if you’re not careful. People rush tasks that should not be rushed, and stop double- and triple-checking the details they’re supposed to be so, so careful about — everything from whether the right filter is on the camera, to whether the actor is wearing his glasses that he’s supposed to wear to match what we’ve already shot, to whether sound has turned on the radio mic pack so that the actor’s microphone is transmitting, to even remembering to roll. There are so many moving parts, and so many people who have to make sure that they stay moving, that at any given moment, a million things can go wrong. And if you’re not careful — in particular, if you are rushing — they do.
And we aren’t forced to work too fast only when the sun is going down. Sometimes, an actor has to leave early, because they’ve only agreed to be on set a certain amount of time — which can happen if they’re minors who can only work an eight-hour day, or just famous and powerful enough to make demands. (Mind you, I think that demanding an 8-hour day or 12 hours of turnaround is perfectly reasonable, it’s just not something the rest of us are allowed to do). Other times, there’s some special complication that makes it hard to get the shot just right — a stunt-person having to do the perfect leap to land in the right spot, a dog having to walk and bark at the right time, a dollop of whipped cream having to arrive in just the right shape and size and creaminess, a steadicam move that must take a labyrinthine path. Proper time budgeting should make it possible to deal with all of these eventualities, by planning the day out and creating a schedule, and knowing which shots are cuttable, and where you’re most likely to use which dialogue so you only film a line as many times as you absolutely have to — but that often just does not happen. Way too much of the time, we’ve way over-scheduled our day with too many shots, or the director added additional ones that drag us down, or maybe there was never a shot list to begin with because the director just thought they could wing it, or someone — writer, director, client, agency — came up with alternate lines that also need to be covered, and that usually means adding the time to get those lines in more angles, possibly all of them. And when every second costs so much money, adding a day or two to the schedule is a big deal that has to be approved from the top, and those people at the top can’t be seen as making expensive mistakes. Add on to all of that the big egos and the power plays and pissing matches that go with them, and the pressure to speed past precautions is generally going to be there, pressing down on the people at the bottom: the crew. For them, the ethic becomes, Work as fast as you can nearly all the time.
The movie The Big Chill is not really a touchstone for anyone any more, given that the topic of all-white boomer naval gazing is kind of past its sell-by date, by a lot. However, there is a great piece of dialogue in it delivered by Jeff Goldblum, playing the one friend in the group about whom everyone is constantly wondering, “Why are we still friends with this guy?” (we all have one), when he says “I don’t know anyone who can get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations, they’re more important than sex.”
Crew people are the absolute masters of rationalization. How else would we be able to do our jobs under the ridiculous conditions in which we generally work — a standard week of 60-70-hours; one half hour break daily, for lunch, if we even get that; nine or ten hours of turnaround to get home, eat, interact with our partners or families, feed the dog or water the plants, sleep, and then travel back to set; and overall, never having any control over what we do all day or how or for how long — and continue doing them for years and years, and tell ourselves that we aren’t batshit insane?
You can divide our rationalization styles, as crew people, into types.
It can be hard to find markers of adulthood in my world. Basically, because I don’t have kids, I often feel like I’m living the life of a child, or at least a youngish millennial. That not only is because my husband and I live without childcare concerns curtailing our ability to do things like go out with friends, take vacations, have sex, and get drunk whenever we want — though, of course, Covid, acid reflux and general exhaustion have done that to us instead. It’s also because so many of the milestones my friends are experiencing these days have to do with things their kids are doing, like graduating from high school or college, or getting their first jobs — providing me with that mind-blowing experience of having full-on conversations about the state of our country with a person whose hand it seems like I was just holding to keep him from running into the street. Not that having kids necessarily makes you any more of an adult. One colleague who’s now showing me pictures of his one-year-old daughter tunelessly banging away on a tiny xylophone was just a couple of years ago giving me detailed advice about how to take hallucinogenic mushrooms (granted, it was excellent advice), and I often see men on set who have multiple offspring or even grandchildren getting into idiotic pissing matches that wouldn’t seem out of place in a sandbox (“I’m not moving my cart unless he comes and asks me personally!” comes to mind from one recent, extremely mature exchange).
There are also career milestones, and many of my college friends are getting promoted to vastly superior jobs — one even mentioned the “C Suite” recently, which is term that I am so distanced from that I had to Google what the “C” means. But the only way I could get promoted in my current career would involve me investing tens of thousands of dollars in equipment that scares me so that I could move up to mixer, a position that, like most jobs for which you only get noticed at when you fuck up, empirically kinda sucks. Instead, I just keep writing more blog posts and scripts and fiction and directing more tiny projects in the hopes that I will be paid to write or direct full time, which realistically for most humans is more of a Hail Mary than a career choice, because, sure, I’m choosing it, but nobody is choosing me, which is kind the important part. I also have friends talking about retirement, but while I do have a 401K and an IRA, they are growing at a pace that reminds me of the slow, frustrating and icky experience of trying to walk through the blue ball room at the Color Factory (hahahaha remember ball rooms?), which makes me feel like for me to even fantasize about retiring is going to require a lot more mushrooms.
So what I’m settling for as a sign of how I’m progressing as a grown up right now is trying to buy a car for the first time. Now, you might think it weird that at 52 I’ve never bought a car before, but bear in mind that I live in New York City, where plenty of people never even learn to drive. I only finally got a car when I got sick of having to get up at 4 am to take a train to Manhattan to get in a courtesy van in order to be in New Jersey at 6 for a shoot, something I had to do so often in my 20s that the phrase one of my friends told me he most associated with me was, “I can’t, I have to get up really early tomorrow to take a van.”
I’ve been working at a fairly steady clip over the past several months, aside from a long break for the holidays, and as I’ve talked about before, we are adapting to this new normal of how to work on set during The Covid Times in various ways. On one TV show I worked on, everyone is tested every few days, every crew member must be masked at work at all times unless they are at least 10 feet from everyone else, and anyone anywhere on the stage when talent is there must also wear a face shield. If you’ve worn a face shield lately (and there’s a clause I would never have considered I’d have need of a year ago), you know that this is annoying — it’s hot, it’s hard to see (though — pro tip — easier if you are wearing a dark-colored mask), hard not to fog up, hard for other people to hear you, and if you’re wearing other stuff on your head, like headphones and glasses, there’s a good chance something is going to fall off at some point.
I’ve commented in earlier posts on “safety theater” imposed by production doing more harm than good, but given the way I’ve seen sets operate, I don’t think the mandatory face shield is that. The reason being that talent are almost certainly going to be taking their masks off to act on camera, and not always putting them back on in the space of time in which things generally happen that might involve crew members getting close to them — such as a makeup/hair/wardrobe touch-up, or body mic adjustment, or a lens change, or a prop reset. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a crew person within a foot of an unmasked actor who, in my mind, the moment they took their mask off, became a biohazard. I hate that I think like that now, especially because they are required to take their masks off for their job (Let’s face it: Nobody wants to look at an actor behind a mask, not only because we are all so so sick of looking at people in masks, but because, as we all now know, it is extremely hard to see what someone is thinking or feeling when they are wearing a mask, and that is kind of the whole point of acting, which is why “Botoxed actor” is an oxymoron), and it does also put them at greater risk, since, unless they are alone in the scene, they are performing unmasked with other unmasked people. I’ve even had one actor tell me he felt like he had to convince me that he a was responsible and careful human being, but it didn’t have anything to do with me trusting him. It’s that I can’t possibly trust every single person in his life that he might ever encounter, and even if I did, I couldn’t trust all the people that they might encounter, and the people that they might encounter, increasing exponentially to just an absurd amount of humans, at least one of whom has got to be doing something wrong, or else we wouldn’t have community spread. If you’re not wearing a mask because it’s your job, I totally understand that, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to hang out with you while you’re not wearing your mask any longer than I have to, because by the transitive property, I’m hanging out with all of those other people too. This isn’t personal, it’s just basic understanding of the virus that we’re dealing with here.
My husband and I decided a while back that we were going to vote by absentee ballot. I know that a lot of folks are voting in person because they want to be sure their votes are counted this election cycle, and I get that. But there’s a pandemic going on, and while we don’t entirely trust the voting system here in New York City, due to a legacy of nepotism that harkens back the era of Tammany Hall and that has led to embarrassing recent events like the way things went wrong two years ago, and then also two years before that, we also knew that, well, our votes didn’t really matter. New York State is definitely going for Biden, and by a significant enough margin that it will be called that way on election night. The Governor and U.S. Senator seats are not on the ballot this time, and in our district, all of our reps are guaranteed to be Democrats, so realistically, the primary was more important than the general. The only significant thing on the ballot this cycle is the option to vote for Democratic candidates on the Working Families Party line, WHICH YOU ALL SHOULD BE DOING if you live in New York. Governor Cuomo has made it harder for third parties to exist in New York by increasing the number of votes they need to stay on the ballot to 130K or 2% of the total vote in the presidential election, whichever is higher, and he did this specifically as an attack on the WFP, which uses its power to push him to the left on the issues, and has endorsed more progressive candidates in primaries that he doesn’t support, including Cynthia Nixon when she ran against him in 2018. Cuomo pushed through changes to the laws governing third parties during the pandemic as his way of getting payback for that, so remember to vote for Joe Biden on the WFP line (yes, you are still voting for the Joe Biden. Because of fusion voting, we can vote for a candidate on different lines and thereby support third parties’ agendas without having to undermine Democrats). Plus, we’re lucky that NY State made it possible for everyone to vote by absentee this cycle — even if they did it in a stupid way, by an executive order that made it so the health exception applies to everyone, not by changing the law to make mail-in-voting possible for everyone the way that many states have, and basically all states should, since we know that “voter fraud” is a right-wing political tactic a not real thing that has ever affected any election in this country in any significant way. So supporting mail-in-voting is important too.
If you read my last post, you’ll know that I had a lot of concerns about going back to work on set during the COVID-19 pandemic. My main point was that, without major changes to our industry and the way that we do things that at least partly took on the problems created by it’s massive structural inequality, crew people — and not just us, but really everyone working on set, given the way that we are used to working — would be put at risk.
Well, now I’ve been back at work on and off for almost two months, and I have some thoughts. I’ve decided to put them in the form of a series of letters to the different groups of people that I work with about the things that I’ve seen going wrong, and right, on set these days.
Six years and about four months ago, I wrote a blog post about how camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed by a train during a shoot in Georgia for a film called Midnight Rider. It was an entirely avoidable tragedy that said a lot about the problems with our industry, ones that stem from the immense value placed on product and profit over people.
Today, the film business is abuzz with talk of how we are going to get back to work in the midst of a pandemic, and Sarah Jones is again on my mind. This disease and the massive number of avoidable deaths it’s caused in the U.S., disproportionately made up of elderly in nursing homes, low-income Americans, people in jails and prisons, and members of Black and brown and immigrant communities, is revealing deeply-entrenched problems with the political, cultural and social structures of our country that we’ve either ignored or accepted forever. Now, it’s doing the same with our industry. Because you can’t talk about going back to work safely on set without looking at the underlying issues that make it normal for us to go work in inhumane and unhealthy conditions daily, issues that made Sarah just the most obvious canary in the coal mine of a problematic system where very little of importance has changed since her death.
(NOTE: I am not in ANY way seeking to compare what Black and brown people experience every day due to centuries of systemic racism and xenophobia with what film production crew deal with, and if you haven’t taken the time to inform yourself about things like the case for reparations, the systemic oppression of Native Americans, why we need immigration reform, and other aspects of these waaaaay bigger problems in our society yet by reading and watching the books, films and tv shows on lists like this, this, this, this, this, and this, then go get to work on all of that first, and then come back and read this.)
I recently went through the White Paper put out by an Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force, listing suggestions for the ways our industry should change for us to return to production. It includes lots of sensible-sounding but passive-voice, no-responsibility phrases about how things “should be” done. Since then, another document called “The Way Forward” has been released by the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and the Teamsters, that adds on some very good, more specific ideas. It divides set into zones that need to be separated by the jobs of the people who work in them, with the part of set with the actors being the zone that requires the most caution — because remember, people on camera will have to work for a good portion of the day without masks. It says that frequent testing must be employed, particularly with people in those most dangerous zones. It says that 10-hour workdays, from call to camera wrap, should be implemented, so that people get enough rest to keep their immune systems up.
The basic problem I see here is that every one of these suggestions is impossible given the way that we are used to working on the TV shows and commercials that are my bread and butter — and that way of working is ingrained in all of us. Because of that, I know that the first day that I go back to work, I am going to be asked to do something I consider unsafe, because I’m going to just be expected to do things the way that I normally do.
Let me get specific on what I mean by breaking down some points lifted from the White Paper.
1) “To the extent possible, reduce crowding of all shared workspaces (e.g., production offices and shops) with a goal of keeping people 6 feet apart.”
I have almost never been on a set where I can stay six feet away from people at all times. This is because, no matter the overall size of the space we’re in — and that can vary from a big open soundstage to a tiny bathroom in a Manhattan apartment — the actual setwithin which the scene takes place inevitably contains two cameras, if not three, crammed into that space, each basically attached to at least one person, the operator, but generally also a grip and a camera assistant or two at least part of the time. There is also generally a DP, a director, a DIT, a script supervisor, ADs, lighting people, prop people, other grips, who have to move in and out of that space to do their jobs as well, and oh yeah, unmasked actors. And space in New York City, as we well know, comes at a premium — so there will always be less than you want.
Can we reduce the number of people on set at any given time? Yes. We should clearly get rid of the people who don’t need to be around, like the various visitors/girlfriends of VIPs on TV and movies, or clients and agency on a commercial who don’t have to give input, and some other folks can absolutely learn to work remotely via monitors that keep them a safe distance outside of that working set. When it comes to reducing crew beyond that, however, you have to remember that a film production is expected to be a well-oiled machine. Cut back on the number of people that are needed for that and the gears will slow down, potentially a lot. Which is fine, if you’re prepared to get less done over the course of a day. But in production, you’re never prepared to get less done. On the contrary, trying to get more done than is reasonably possible? That’s table stakes. That’s why, when you have expensive equipment, a large crew, and highly-paid cast and creatives, time is money and money is time.
There is one easy way to reduce the number of people on the shooting set that comes immediately to mind: reduce the number of cameras. The idea that using three, or maybe even two cameras makes the day move faster is just wrong. It’s pretty challenging to light for and shoot a set-up from three different angles that looks decent without seeing all of the cameras and the crew and the equipment that are necessary to do that. It often means that at least one (if not two) of those cameras is not getting quite what you want, because of the compromise of working around the other two. So you very often end up trying to come up with, and therefore spending time on, shots for that third camera that are not worth the amount of time and money wasted getting them — which could be used on another set-up afterwards that will actually get you something much better. I’d argue that the only thing that third camera will get you shooting an interior scene these days, when you will have to do the usual things where everyone crowds together, literally tripping over each other, so that they stay out of picture, is COVID-19.
And once upon a time, we only used one camera.
2) “Appropriate and adequate PPE will be provided.”
Who gets to decide what’s appropriate and adequate PPE, and who from production is going to provide it? I saw a conversation on Facebook between my colleagues who work in commercials about this, with a freelance production manager pointing out that basically it’s going to fall on him to get some poor PA to run out and buy whatever they can find, because they never have enough money or enough prep time.
I don’t doubt for a minute that he’s right, simply because of, again, the way we’ve gotten used to working in commercials for the past five to ten years. Basically, clients and ad agencies are trying to spread their budgets around between TV ads and various online content, so that means that people making TV commercials are often expected to do even more (e.g. sometimes also shoot content for Facebook or Instagram) with less. Which means production companies are always trying to cut corners by spending less time on pre-production, cutting crew people, shooting in fewer days, spending less on equipment, craft service and catering, and so on.
Needless to say, the “cutting corners” environment is not the one into which you want to be returning during a pandemic. I haven’t been back to work yet, but I got a call on a Friday for a job on a Monday, and the boss who texted me about it basically knew nothing about the job. Pre-pandemic, that was 100% SOP, and I’d taught myself not to care; the MO for a crew person that makes you most popular is: show up where they tell you to show up, stay as long as it takes, and then go home when they tell you you’re done. This time, I started asking questions, and he said production would have masks, medic on set, as few people on set as possible, “six feet apart etc,” “the usual”— as if there is a “usual” when you’ve never worked during a pandemic before. By Saturday, he didn’t really have any more information; they’d confirmed it was going to be exterior, but it might be on the balcony of the producer’s apartment in Manhattan…? Again, there isn’t a lot of space in Manhattan apartments, much less on Manhattan balconies, and this is now two days before I’m supposed to show up and hold a microphone over the head of a person who isn’t wearing a mask. Because these jobs are happening before we’ve established any of these new guidelines.
It’s hard to be comfortable just “rolling with it” the way I used to when I know this is how things are done. It was different when rolling with it just meant the possibility of exhaustion and discomfort that we’ve grown used to in our business, rather than death.
3) “Heightened cleaning and disinfection should be practiced” and “High-touch surfaces shall be wiped down periodically.”
Again, the first question is, by whom, and where, and how? If production does hire a professional disinfection crew to come in between days, like The Safe Way Forward suggests, that’s a good start. But what about over the course of the day? Because all equipment on a shoot is shared and passed around from person to person. The pool of grip and lighting equipment is rented and used by anyone who needs it. The sound person brings all of their own gear, including wireless microphones and listening devices for other people on set, but those are, of necessity, touched by at least the sound person who is placing them/handing them out and the person who is wearing them (and are actors and sound people going to go back to getting within inches of each other in order for the sound person to mic the actor? That’s already a hot topic). Then there are props — meaning anything that actors pick up or touch in a scene, which prop people then have to place back where they were at the beginning, so that they can do another take. Wiping down every single piece of equipment you use, and especially every prop an actor has to touch, every single time, is going to be incredibly time-consuming.
Which is fine, again, if that’s what you’re prepared to do. But I already was feeling, on a lot of sets, that every time I wanted to go pee, or rest, or eat or drink something, that my job would be at risk, because I might not get back by the time they wanted to rehearse or shoot, and you can’t afford to be the person costing production those three minutes. If it’s going to take even more time to leave set and come back — because there must be more time for hand-washing, or mask removal and replacement, or getting checked back into your “zone” — will I just be expected to never take a break except for every six hours when we have a meal? (If, that is, we break on time, which we don’t at least 50% of the time because “we just have to get this shot/scene first.”)
4) “Paid leave policies shall be flexible and non-punitive to allow sick and quarantined employees to stay away from co-workers and the general public.”
So this is kinda funny, because in on-set production work, paid leave is just not a thing. We are hourly contract workers, not salaried workers, who get our health insurance through our union (non-union folks have to buy their own insurance). That means if you can’t make it to work, you have to get someone to replace you — which, when it’s busy like it has been in recent years, can in and of itself be really difficult and therefore a deterrent from staying home when sick, because you can’t afford to get a reputation for being unreliable. If you do find someone, that person gets your day rate and the hours from that day that go toward keeping your health insurance.
I haven’t seen any proposal for how exactly that’s going to change. The Safe Way Forward says people will be paid if they have to quarantine, but it also says “These payments may also be covered by federal, state, and local laws.” Riiiiiight. And even if there is sick pay for people who work on shows or movies full-time — which could, if we are talking about a sick person taking at least two weeks off because of COVID, where one infected person could quickly turn into many, end up costing quite a lot — that won’t apply to those of us who day play, moving between commercials and filling in for other people on TV shows and movies.
5) “Limit the duration of workdays and excessive consecutive workdays whenever possible.”
So this is funnier, because people who work on TV shows regularly work a five-day week of 12-14-hour days. Again, that’s table stakes: when you get a job on a TV show, you know that’s what you are signing up for. On movies, depending on the movie, the days are more likely to be the standard 12, and on a commercial, it’s usually 10-12 — although, as I explained above, because commercials are tightening their budgets and attempting to shoot multiple spots in a day that used to be shot over many, we do more 12+-hr days than we used to. And for none of us does that include commuting time, which can easily be 1-2 hours each way with traffic (we only get paid for travel if the location is “outside the zone” of 25-30 miles from Columbus Circle). As anyone in the normal world who has ever worked a 12-hour day when they are on a deadline knows, these hours are inhumane. They aren’t good for you physically when there isn’t a pandemic, and they also aren’t good for your mental health or your personal life — our business is littered with broken marriages.
And yet, you can’t simply cut back on the hours of film and TV people; see, theysigned up for a 12-hour day, because their rates are based on an eight-hour day. This means that they only start to make real money when they hit time-and-a-half after eight hours. So the difference between working a straight day, in which you make maybe $45 per hr, so $360, and a 12-hour day, in which you make about $630 with overtime, is massive. That difference of $1350 per week — which, remember, will often be more, because on a tv show you will likely hit hour 13, which is double time, at least a couple of times a week — adds up. Fast. If you work 30-40 weeks a year, doing two streaming shows or one network show, that’s a lifestyle-altering $40-$54K more that you make per year in overtime. It moves you into an entirely different economic class. So while many in our biz are applauding the idea of the ten-hour day that the unions are discussing, that in itself is going to mean a pay cut of $25K per year for many. Some people will be willing to make that compromise. But others, who have families to support, can’t afford to just trade the improvement in quality of life they get from that income — one that enables them to afford to live in New York City, or within commuting distance from it — for another. In other words, to work less, we will need to get paid more.
Now, do you sense a theme here? Yeah, the title of this piece is not for nothing. Every single point here comes down to it’s about the fucking money. And you say, “Well, every business is about money,” and that’s true. The film business is just a version of every other corporate America story where those of us in it have been fooling ourselves for a long long time that we are fine with the system, because we make enough to live comfortably — substantially more than most hourly workers — and we get to be part of a process that is often more interesting, and produces a more entertaining finished product, than, say, mining. But as I’ve explained above, that wage is, in the Coronavirus era, predicated on working too many hours to be safe and healthy at a pace that doesn’t allow us to be safe and healthy — and frankly, even before the Rona, never really did.
Producers will say, well, we have to keep the crew costs down, because every second is worth so much money when you have below-the-line costs of equipment and space and a group of 100-200 people getting paid a living wage and P&W every hour they work. And that is partly true. But what is actually driving budgets up like crazy in TV right now is the “spare no expense production values” (aka more and more ambitious shooting styles and special effects) and the cost of “top-tier” above-the-line talent: the actors, writers, directors, producers and executives making much more, and sometimes much, much, much more, than a living wage.
And there it is, the root problem with this whole system: it’s the income inequality, stupid. There is a massive difference in how much people get paid above and below the line, and being in this industry means just accepting people earning “what they are worth.” Again, it’s not just our business — I mean, this is America. We think it’s fine to open our economies and send hourly wage workers with no health insurance out to get COVID, while the majority of people who earn over $150K/year, including those deciding to send the others back to work, can continue to work from home. We think it’s fine to have lots of millionaires and billionaires who earn their money off the backs of those hourly workers pay less in taxes than they do. But there is something about this huge difference between people at the top and people at the bottom working together in this shared space of set that brings it into stark relief. Because if we want enough time put back into pre-production, production and post (because we hear these complaints from folks in post-production as well) to make these jobs safe and humane, and if we want crew people to be able to get paid decently enough that we can work shorter hours, where is the money and time going to come from?
Take look at this budget for one episode of the TV show The Blacklist in 2017. Yes, it’s from Wikileaks, which tells you everything about how secretive this stuff is — and you’ll see why. If you just look at the ratio of above-the-line costs to below-the-line costs, you might think, okay, below-the-line is a little less than three times what above-the-line is, that seems right. But if you go and look at exactly what that means, you’ll see that above-the-line consists of waaaaay fewer people, most of them making waaaaaaaaaay more money. For instance, there are ten producers (executive, co-executive, supervising, or just plain) making from $20 to $50K (aside from one poor co-EP making $14K) per episode for the 13.22222221 days of work they are supposedly putting in. That is in addition to what they might also be making in terms of royalties, or story/teleplay fees. And I get that everyone wants a producer credit on a hit show for their resume, but what I don’t get is what all ten of those people could be doing on every episode to earn $1500 to $3782 per day. At least with the actors, the work that they’re getting for their $40-50K per episode (8-10 days of work, so $4-6.3K per day) is actually visible on the screen. And I kind of understand that James Spader is the reason why the show exists at all, and that’s why he’s making $140K per episode, or (because his part usually only requires him to be there for roughly half of the eight shooting days because he isn’t actually the lead character) about $35K per day, but…$35K per day?
Now, I used the boom operator numbers from this Blacklist budget when I was telling you how much a crew person makes above. Compare the $630 I’d currently make for a 12-hour day with $35K, or even $3782. That EP is making more than six times what I am, and considering I’m not even sure what he’s doing (and they are, all but one, “hims”), I’m pretty sure most of them aren’t working 12-hour days — even when writers come to set, they come in later than us and they leave earlier. And, mind you, my job is fucking important. There is only one boom op on set, and I basically keep track of what’s going on on that set all day for the sound department, often figure out how we are going to mic the scene, take point on communication between us and other departments, not to mention then booming, sometimes miking people, and tons of just helping out with all the basic grunt work that being on a set that is constantly moving and changing scene by scene requires. Are all of those ten producers really 2.5 to six times as important as I am? Is James Spader 56 times as important? And if you really want to get into it, the CEO of NBC Universal, which makes and broadcasts The Blacklist, is making…well, I just looked it up and he’s new, so we don’t know, but if it’s in the ballpark of what other divisions of Comcast are making (that’s who owns NBC now, in case you were wondering), it’s going to be somewhere around $20 million this year, which, divided by 261 workdays a year, would be $75,628/day — or 122 times what I make. Although the head of Comcast itself made about $35 million in 2018, which would be $134,100/day, or about 213 times what I make.
So I think I can safely say we the crew are not the reason why television production costs so damn much, and I further think that all of these folks can afford to put some of their salary back into paying for our safety on set. But will they? Probably not — because there’s a more insidious side of this as well, aside from just the difference in pay. It’s that I know I’m valued less. That’s evident in everything on set from who gets a chair or a trailer of their own, to who gets a latte paid for by production and delivered to them whenever they want it, to who feels the need to learn my name or speak to me, and how they speak to me when they do. It’s about how I have to spend 12 hours out in 20-degree winter weather, while you better believe the talent and producers and clients and agency and everyone else who earns waaaay more money than I do, and is therefore clearly a more important human being, is guaranteed to get as much time as they need to go to their trailer between shots, or stays inside a heated people-mover, or a tent full of heaters — enough of which are only rented, mind you, for their tent.
Given this hierarchy, I doubt they will be forced to make sacrifices in pay, or even “creative compromises” that would save money — you know, the kind that most of us are asked to make all the time and that aren’t even really compromises. The best way to save money on a production? Plan. Crews do that all the time to the extent that we can: we get scripts and schedules in advance, we take the time to figure out and discuss with the ADs and the line producer and production manager and other departments involved what shooting those scenes will mean for us — like if there’s a car scene, production hires a process trailer, sound department plans for the portable gear and the mics that we will need to mic that car, camera and grip make sure they have what they need to mount the cameras, lighting plans for what will be needed to light it, etc (or we do it with a green screen on a stage instead, which takes far less planning, but still some). And yet, when most directors in TV show up on set, they don’t even have to have a shot list. They can roll out of bed, take their hired SUV to wherever we are shooting and figure it all out on our time and production’s dime — especially if they, again, have what I’d argue is the unnecessary luxury of three cameras to work with, and they can do what we call “hosing it down”: just keep finding shots with all three cameras for as long as it takes until they know they’ve got 50 times as much footage as they need to cut the scene, all so they won’t have to do their homework. Which, oh by the way, would actually make for a better end-product, because truly great directors don’t lean on their “artistic genius,” they work hard, they prepare, they use their craft. And in commercials, where the power of money that is calling the shots usually lies not with the director but with the agency and the clients, they come into a shoot with ten different scripts, or five different variations on every line in the script, and just shoot them all, rather than doing the work in advance it would take for everyone to agree on one version. But no, instead of putting a stop to that incredible waste of time and money, they skimp on everything else.
Are you getting the idea from what I’m saying that everything about the way we do things is going to have to change for production to become more safe? It’s the insane hierarchy of Hollywood, and a culture that not only accepts that but enshrines it, that makes this system broken all the way down. It’s why people like Sarah Jones die. It’s why people like Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Kevin Spacey, and everyone we haven’t heard about yet gets away with rape, harassment, and the destruction of other people’s lives and careers — for decades. Because here’s the thing: when you’ve been brainwashed by years and years of trying to succeed in a system where you just accept that the people at the top (who, yep, are not-coincidentally nearly all white guys) are worth 6 times, or 56 times, or 213 times what you are are worth — and I’m not even close to the bottom of this food chain — you come to accept all sorts of things that you shouldn’t accept. From thinking that you need to fuck somebody to get a job, to thinking that a 15-hour day is normal, to thinking that you should just go climb up on an active train track to get a shot the director wants, or work a long day in a too-small-for-social-distancing space with too many people during a pandemic, even though all your instincts are telling you you shouldn’t — because with this massive juggernaut of money bearing down on you every day, you don’t feel you have the power to say “stop.”
I’m a realist. I know the real changes within of our industry of the kind I’m talking about, that would reduce this enormous inequality and make it work better for everyone, will probably not happen. I know that all of the problems that inequality causes add up to me having to go back to work before I think it’s sufficiently safe in a system that is so fundamentally flawed in ways that serve the people with most of the power to change it that it probably won’t ever fixed. But if we don’t take this opportunity, when everything has already been turned upside-down, to finally talk about how clearly the wrong side-out-ness of our business has been laid plain by this global disaster, then we’re just waiting for the next Sarah Jones(es) to happen.
Because she will, and probably sooner rather than later. And if you’re someone in a position to help create the change we need — whether you’re at the top, and could choose to give back one day of your salary per episode to pay for Coronavirus testing or to make a ten-hour day pay as much as a 12-hour day; or you’re where I am and you could choose to join your fellow workers in asking for safety, a sane workday and respect instead of just “rolling with it” — and you decide not to, that’s on you.