The film and TV industry’s excessively long workdays and the unsafe conditions they create are expected to take center stage as stalled negotiations resume today for a new IATSE contract covering some 43,000 West Coast behind-the-scenes workers. It’s an issue that’s dogged the union – and the industry – for decades.
The contract talks with management’s Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers began on April 2, but broke off just three days later and have been on hiatus ever since. Rescuing the union’s underfunded pension plan and achieving more wage “parity” for members working in new media are among the union’s other goals, and a grass roots movement has been launched to urge management to address the pay gap between members of historically female crafts and historically male crafts who do comparable work.
But IATSE Cinematographers Guild Local 600 is making a concerted effort to put “unsafe hours” front and center at the bargaining table this time around. “We put the negotiations on hold when it became clear that the employer was not prepared to address our key priorities of safety, sustainability and equity,” Local 600 told its members recently. “We believe the decades-old challenge of unsafe hours is critical and that this negotiation offers our best opportunity to have it addressed in a meaningful and comprehensive way. We are fully committed to fighting for a healthy productive workplace where every crew member has the reasonable expectation of a safe work environment and a safe drive home. Safety should never be reduced to an economic issue.”
Long workdays have long been recognized as a safety problem for exhausted crews – not just on the set, but on their drives home. Excessively long days have contributed to an untold number of accidents on set, and to at least three drowsy driving fatalities: camera assistant Brent Hershman was killed in 1997 after falling asleep at the wheel and hitting a utility pole after working a 19-hour day in Long Beach; Teamster and SAG-AFTRA member Gary Joe Tuck was killed in 2014 after falling asleep and rolling his truck in New Mexico after completing a 20-hour day, and location manager Grant Cinnamon was killed in 2015 after falling asleep at the wheel and crashing his car in South Africa after he’d just completed a 13-hour shoot.
Five first-hand accounts in a video posted at the top of Local 600’s website (watch the video below) reveal that many others have narrowly escaped similar fates. “In 1997, I was working second unit on a feature in San Pedro,” said a longtime camera assistant. “On a Friday night, I was driving home from work and I crashed my SUV into a telephone pole. I woke up in my driver’s side seat and I got out of the car and I actually crashed my car two blocks from my house.”
Another member describe the effects of working an 85-hour week. “I think we probably worked to around 3 o’clock that morning,” she said. “On the third or fourth week, when it came time for lunch time on Wednesday or trying to get up on Thursday, my brain would just feel like it was short circuiting. It was a Saturday night and I was driving home and another mile and a half later, my body shut down. There was no warning; there was no nodding off. My body just shut down. I was asleep at the wheel, 55 miles an down Lynn Road (in Thousand Oaks) and went into a tree. The front bumper was in almost the back seat. I keep a picture of my Bronco on my phone, just in case I’m working for a production company that doesn’t want to put me up in a hotel. It pretty much solves it immediately.”
“I was an assistant for 17 years before I became a camera operator,” said another member of the local, who recalled working excessively long hours on a TV pilot that was shooting in downtown LA. “I remember my son was 20 years old at the time, working background, and I thought if I get really tired, perhaps he could drive home. Maybe three or four miles from our home, and I guess he fell asleep at the wheel for just a split second and we hit the median on the freeway and ricocheted back into lanes and I instantly woke up and I asked what happened. You fall asleep? And as he’s trying to right the car and not let it roll, he said, ‘Yeah, I fell asleep.’” And there was damage to the vehicle. It really couldn’t be driven, but it could have been much worse. It could have been much, much worse. We were lucky to be alive.”
Many companies are now offering hotel stays and shuttles to and from set for their exhausted crews, but for shows shot in town, that’s not always the best option for workers who want to spend a few hours with their families.
Another Local 600 member described working three 16-hour days back to back to back in Boston. “I believe it was our third week of shooting. We didn’t have a lunch break, so there was very little rest throughout the workday.” The road driving home that night was unlit, he said in the video. “Fatigue took over and before you knew it, I was standing outside of my truck, looking at the dirt, wondering why I was standing in mud. I had no recollection of falling asleep or rear-ending the dump truck in the breakdown lane.”
Another member recalled working numerous long days on a movie some years ago. “I think the shortest day on that movie was around 14-hour days.” His accident, he said, came after what he thinks was the longest day. “I did have the option of a hotel that night, and because I felt okay, I just went home. I wanted to see my family, I wanted to see my kids,”
“I don’t know exactly at what point I fell asleep,” he said. “I remember getting to exit for my house. After that, I can’t remember much of anything. I felt a big hit and knew I hit something and I immediately knew I was in an accident; I knew I had hit somebody really hard, and once I looked back, there was a car that was completely flipped. I just started running as fast as I could to the corner, even though I was in a lot of physical pain, and fortunately they pulled him out and he was walking.”
His light truck was totaled, the entire driver’s side of the front-end smashed in. A photo of his truck – and one of the overturned vehicle – are shown on the video, as are cell phone photos of all the other wrecks described by the other survivors. Later, he said, when he told his wife about the accident, she broke down crying. “I think she realized that I could have lost my life, and she would have been alone with my two kids.”
“I think it comes down to budgets,” he says on the video – an opinion shared by the other survivors featured on the video.
But the problem with long hours is not simply one of budgets and economics. Long hours can be very costly because they rack up a lot of overtime pay. Some IATSE contracts even provide for triple-time after 15 hours, so there’s little direct economic incentive for producers to work their crews for 16 and 18 hours a day, which is not uncommon.
The main reason the industry demands such long hours is because of scheduling, which is why Hollywood doesn’t care as much about hours as it does about days. Long hours can be tolerated as long as projects don’t go over schedule, because so many other projects are dependent upon the actors, directors, cinematographers and other in-demand personnel to finish up on time so they can be available for the start dates of their next projects. It’s a patchwork of scheduling that can be thrown out of whack – like passenger flights when a single airport shuts down – when one film goes over schedule.
And there’s little that these negotiations can do to change that without disrupting the distribution pipeline itself. How the union proposes to fix the problem is uncertain, as both sides have agreed to a media blackout. But one of the survivors in the video offered a modest suggestion: “If you work a 16-hour day, you should have more time off between the next work shift.”
Dr. Robert Harrison, an occupational health doctor at UC San Francisco, noted at the beginning of the video that the average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, and that “it’s a misconception that a person can store up rest or sleep…When somebody is driving, and they haven’t had enough sleep…that person will be less alert on the road; will be less likely to respond to sudden changes and road conditions and traffic; and that leads to an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.”
The video ends with a note that nationwide, there were an estimated 90,000 accidents due to drowsy driving in 2015, which resulted in 33,000 injuries and 736 deaths. The video then asks: “If not now…when?”
It’s the same question two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler asked in his 2006 documentary film Who Needs Sleep? And it was the same question he was asking right up until his death in 2015 as he tirelessly advocated for a safer and more humane workplace.
In that film, Tom Hanks offered a simple solution: “If I was going to put together the perfect way in order to make a movie, I think it’s 5 ½ hours of work and then an hour for lunch and then another 5 ½ hours for work and then everyone goes home, on the tick of the clock.”
But as Oscar-winning producer Richard Zanuck told Wexler: “You know as well as I do that most of the time, you’re working uncivilized hours. There is no such thing as civilized hours in the motion picture business.”
Changing that at the bargaining table without a strike – and IATSE has never launched an industrywide strike in its entire history – would be an historic accomplishment. It’s current contract expires July 31.
Watch the video below.