A Human Life= $2,633.64 & We're To Blame
In 1997, Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a telephone pole, killing himself after working a 19 hour day that was preceded by four 15 hour workdays as a second assistant camera on the film Pleasantville. Assuming he was getting the standard rate for that position ($38.73/hour*), that equates into $2,633.64 in overtime pay.
Alternatively, to put it a bit more bluntly, $2633.34 is the monetary value that the production felt that it was worth to push Brent to the point of breaking, in order to make their film. Is this what it has really come to? Do we Americans value the dollar so much that we knowingly abuse each other, and allow ourselves to be abused, in order to make an extra dollar?
After watching the documentary Who Needs Sleep, by Haskell Wexler, ASC, I'm convinced that there is a HUGE problem out there, and that problem is us.
(*This is based off of 2010 rates, the earliest published rates online I could find)
[NOTE: In the text that follows I have linked to the time code in the video that pertains to what is being said. So if you want to jump to that point in the video, click the link. :) ]
The Problem Isn't The Unions ... It's noted that after Brent's death the unions came out against the long work hours in the film industry, stating "Brent's death should be a warning to us all, How many widows and parentless children must suffer before we take action?" Union Statement 1997.
But then Haskell, representing us crew members, goes to great lengths to show how the unions have done a complete 180 on the issue. Petitions were signed, sent to the union, and they disappeared. Tom Short, the president of the union, proceeds to blow Haskell off with a trite answer about it being a matter for bargaining. The local union passes the responsibility off to the state and feds...
The Problem Isn't The Government... After getting nowhere with the unions, Haskell attempts to get OSHA involved on our behalf. But OSHA headquarters also blow him off, saying it is not their responsibility.
The Problem Isn't Greedy Multi-National Corporations... While interviewing director Sam Mendes about the problem of regularly overworking our crews, he brings up the point that the people who tell you that you have to work 14-18 hour days are being told by their bosses that they have to bring the movie in at 55 days, or get shut down. So, again, the responsibility gets passed to someone else.
So, to summarize... the unions, the government, and the corporations (productions) all pass on taking responsibility for the inhumane working schedule that is commonplace in the film industry.
(You might also like: Three Reasons Why It Is Bad Business To Be A Cinematographer)
... The Problem Is Us. As I watched Haskell's film, and watched him get turned down and denied over and over again, I realized that there was only one constant that tied everything together. And that is us, the crew members. We are the only thread of consistency in the problem.
I wonder if maybe, just maybe, the problem isn't an unsupportive union who doesn't have the guts to push harder on contracts. Maybe it isn't the government who isn't willing to step in to regulate. Maybe it isn't the multi-national corporation who is only looking to make the largest profit possible.
Maybe, instead, the problem is us- crew members who show up everyday and do the work, over and over again. We allow ourselves to be taken advantage of, perhaps with the hope that it will get better or we will only have to work this hard for a short time. When we look back on our careers, will that be true?
Don't believe me? Let's take a look at history. The "standard 14 hour work day" hasn't always been so standard. Haskell himself acknowledges that it used to be 8 hours a day for him and his crews. Furthermore, the 14 hour workday, and working 6-7 days a week, seems to be a uniquely American problem (Billy Crystal).
Nicola Pecorini, a director of photography who has worked all over the world, observes that it is only an American issue. Everywhere else, they do not work these schedules. If the crew was pushed to work like we Americans work, they would get up and leave - literally (emphasis added).
Haskell even visits a set in Italy where they can only work a total of 4 hours of overtime in one week. What does he fine? A crew who is happy, has their own personal lives, and a production that is actually on schedule...
So What Are We To Do About It?
The solution lies in changing ourselves. It isn't going to be easy or quick, nor is it going to be fun. In fact, I think it will get worse before it gets better. But until we own up to the problem and realize that we are at fault and then do something about it, nothing is ever going to change.
The first step is to change our thinking, and to stop bragging, like Editor Bruce Green said, about how little sleep and how much work we have- like it is a sexual conquest. As long as we pride ourselves in being taken advantage of, in being exploited, nothing will change. (And yes, it is exploitation - even the animals on set have a more sustainable lifestyle than most crew members- thanks to the Humane Society).
The second step is to change what we value. Don't misunderstand me- work is a good thing, and making money is a good thing. But we've gone too far, and that is all we seem to value here in the States. I think a french crew member astutely observes, "We work to live, whereas you Americans live to work." So as long as we value work over life, we can't expect anything different.
The final step is to do something about it. Crews in other parts of the world get up and walk out. What are you willing to do? Remember, the unions, the government, and the corporations... they are all staffed, run, and ultimately funded by people- by you and me. They can't exist without us, or our involvement.
What would happen if a majority of the membership of the union all stopped paying dues until the issue was addressed? What would happen if the entire crew agreed to stop working after 10 hours or 12 hours on a production?
It's not going to be easy, immediate, or comfortable to act on it. After all, we work in an industry where the squeaky wheel is the first to get replaced. And we all find ourselves in a tough situation. Those in the union are supposed to abide by union regulations. And those of us who are not in the unions have less negotiating power.
Maybe there are some smaller steps we can all take. One would be to build up our own sources of passive income so that we don't have to take every single job that comes our way. (Stock footage or rental properties would be examples of passive income).
Another smaller step we all can take is to more closely monitor our health and lifestyle choices. Are we using our down time to catch up on sleep, or using it to get other things done? What do our eating habits look like?
Or what about looking out for our fellow crew members on every production? Giving rides when needed. Helping to cover hotel expenses when appropriate. (That lowly PA who gets $100 - $125 per day can't afford to stay at a hotel…).
I'm sure there are a number of other creative solutions out there- we don't have to accept the current way things are done as "normal" or as what's acceptable.
What is it worth to you to have a more stable, and more sustainable life, and still work in the film business? Remember, it wasn't always this way, nor is it this way in the rest of the world...
To summarize what John Lindley, the director of photography on Pleasantville, said, change will only come from the bottom up- from us, the people in these jobs.
I know what I'm going to do about it- I'm going to negotiate for better hours for myself and my crew, as tactfully as possible. And then I'm not going to work for productions who want to exploit or abuse me or other crew members.
I know it is an uphill battle. Case and point- this last week a producer from LA contacted me and wanted me to be a camera operator on their production. The rate? $550 for 12 hours flat. (The rate should be $500 for 8 hours). So I countered, and said I'd do $550 for 10 hrs, plus over time if it goes beyond. And guess what I heard back? Crickets - yep, I lost the job. I have no doubt that there was someone all to eager to jump at the project...
But I just can't seem to shake another comment Nicola Pecorini said about us Americans. I think he's onto something... "You're making a lot of money and then you have to spend that money to cure yourself? What is the point? It's nuts."
So what do you think? Have we Americans overvalued work to the detriment of life? What are we to do about this situation that we find ourselves in? Am I completely nuts?
Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot! (In a 10 hour day... ;) )
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer