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 set within 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, they signed 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.