Cinematographers Guild president Steven Poster lost his bid for reelection last month, which will soon bring an end to his 13-year reign as Hollywood’s longest serving union president. In an exclusive exit interview with Deadline, he reflects on his legacy, and looks ahead to the future of the guild and the industry. His last day in office will be June 22, although he’ll continue to serve on the guild’s executive board.
“I’m very proud of the work that has been done over the last 13 years,” he said. “We really took a union on the brink of a very difficult time, and we have turned it into one of the strongest (IATSE) locals in the bargaining unit, and the legacy of craft and safety and technology and dedication to trade unionism is something that I will never, ever forget, and I’ll be very proud of it for all my days to come.”
Poster, like nearly all of Hollywood’s other elected union leaders, served without pay. “I’ve been a volunteer as president for 13 years now,” he said. “It’s a big job, especially with a 9,000-plus membership. It’s not a job for weenies, I can tell you that. It’s an amazing opportunity to communicate with this many people on a regular basis, but it is a seven-day-a-week job. There’s no way around it. It’s just incredibly involved. But there are many more rewards than negatives, which is why I kept doing it.”
Poster, who also served as president of the American Society of Cinematographers in 2002, said that “helping my union Sisters and Brothers” is the biggest reward from union service. “That’s been in my nature most of my life,” he said. “I really have a passion to make it better for as many people as I can, and this job gave me the opportunity to do that. It’s amazing how much we love this business. One of the things that I’ve always noticed about cinematographers and the other crafts in our industry is that the camaraderie is much different than any other profession and any other organization in this business that we’ve seen. We are much more giving to each other, and that’s very exciting.”
The industry has changed dramatically during his tenure, from digital technologies to an expanded awareness about diversity and safety issues. The guild was the first below-the-line industry union to hire a female national executive director – Rebecca Rhine – and has made considerable efforts to increase access and opportunities for the woefully scant number of women cinematographers.
“Here’s the situation,” he said. “When I was president of the ASC, there had been one woman who was a member way back when, Brianne Murphy, but she was no longer with us at that point, and when I was vice president and then president of the ASC, I helped bring in the first five women, including Ellen Kuras and Nancy Schreiber and a number of others that came in as new members, and I’m proud to say that that was a mission of mine.
“We are primed to do whatever we can to help the diverse population of our union become successful, and one of the reasons there are fewer women as cinematographers is there were fewer women coming through the system, and the pipeline had to be expanded. I’m doing some teaching now at the Art Center College of Design, and in every class, I see an increase in the number of women.”
Poster, whose many film, TV and documentary credits include Amityville: The Awakening, The Box, Someone to Watch Over Me, and Donnie Darko, says he’s ready to get back behind the camera. “Over the years, my career as a cinematographer has slowed down. I’m hoping to go back to it. There are opportunities out there, and I’m excited about that, but the reality is I couldn’t really devote that much time to my career after a certain number of years. The last movie I shot was Amityville: The Awakening, for Blumhouse, and it was really fun, but it was shot here in Los Angeles, which made a big difference in terms of how I was able to balance the work as president against the work as a cinematographer, but I’m ready to go back to work. You got a movie? You want to make a movie together?”
He was defeated in his bid for reelection by Lewis Rothenberg, a digital imaging technician on Avengers: Infinity War, The Girl on the Train and the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, who had previously been the guild’s national vice president for two terms under Poster and had served on the national executive board for nine years before stepping away from union politics three years ago. “Lewis was the vice president with me I think for two terms, and we are very happy to be colleagues and friends in that sense,” Poster said.
“I served under President Poster for nine years, and as his vice president for six years,” Rothenberg told Deadline. “He’s put in many great years of service to this organization, and I’m proud to follow in his footsteps and hope I can live up to the legacy he’s left.”
Rothenberg, the first New York resident elected president of the guild, will be moving to Los Angeles, as per the guild’s rules, which Poster sees as a unifying event.
The guild, IATSE Local 600, came into being in 1996 when IATSE president Tom Short merged the union’s three camera locals – Local 659 in Los Angeles, Local 644 in New York and Local 666 in Chicago – to form Local 600.
“I think this election should be looked at as a milestone in our truly becoming one union across the country,” Poster said. “It’s really taken this long since the merger for this to begin to happen, and now, with a new president moving out here from New York, we’re really at that point. As I said, this is a milestone of the end of a long struggle against a faction who believed that nothing Local 600 could ever do would measure up to what 644 or 666 would’ve done, and now that’s changing. It is about time.”
“We’ve been building the organization ever since the merger,” he said, “and it’s been a very interesting process. We struggled for a number of years with the division of the old three local system where it was 659 out here. It was 644 in New York, and the central states had their own little 666. Who would name a local 666? Interesting, isn’t it? But it has taken a number of years to put us all together in one real unit.”
Poster chalked up his loss to Rothenberg this way: “You know, what I found in talking to people is that people just assumed I was going to win, so they didn’t bother voting, and that was out here (in LA) mostly. My numbers…well, I won the West Coast. I won central. I didn’t win New York, and New York was just I think about 100 votes or something like that difference out of the 9,000 membership.
“And I think there were probably 7,600 people who were qualified to vote, and we got our kind of typical percentage of voters in the 30%. You know, what I’m finding, which is I think pretty exciting to me, is that our younger members are much more involved in the voting process and in running for office than we’ve ever seen before, and I’m very excited about that because that portends well for the future.”
He doesn’t feel that the debate over last year’s ratification of the IATSE’s Hollywood film and TV contract, which was approved by an overwhelming majority of his local’s members, played a role in his defeat. Shoring up the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan and addressing the industry’s brutally long work hours were two of the most contentious issues. The Editors Guild was the only IA local that voted to oppose the pact, primarily on those two issues.
“We negotiated the best contract we’ve had in 18 years, and we built on that success in each contract since then,” he said. “You know, there are dozens of different contract negotiations that go on, and we’ve really built on that. You know, it’s unfortunate. We don’t really understand what the issues were that took one local out of the bargaining unit away from everybody else, but every other local passed with great numbers, passed this contract, agreed on this contract. You know, the biggest voices against this contract were people who generally don’t work, and they have a lot of time to make those kind of comments. The people that are working are pretty happy.”
Concerns about the pension plan’s declining funding percentage, he said, are unfounded. “Our pension has never been sounder by current industry standards, and there was a decision made by the MPI and the pension trustees a number of years ago to increase pensions, which resulted in the current funding levels. It will take, I think, maybe 20 years to make the full adjustment, but the actuaries from both sides are very satisfied with where the pension is right now, and how can you claim that there’s a problem with the pension when there is so much work going around in this country that is generating contributions?”
The contract also made significant gains for longer rest periods, and a requirement that union members working on location be provided transportation and put up in hotels after long workdays. “Changes in contracts, as you know, are incremental, and we’ve been talking about this for quite some time, for quite a few cycles, and this was the first time that we made inroads into it; the first time that the producers are realizing that it is a safety issue, and it is a dimension that is costing them money. It’s not saving money to work 18 to 20 hours a day. Even 16 hours a day is too much. One of the things we gained is called Rooms or Rides.
“The Rooms or Rides mandate that if you work past 14 hours, up to 14 hours in one day, you must have the opportunity to get a ride home and a ride back to get your car, or get a room near the set so that you can lay down and rest and be ready. We created a very exciting program where we have bags, we have travel bags, overnight bags there with the Rides and Rooms symbol on it and our logo on it, and inside the bags, we’ve created a package of toiletries so that you throw a few pieces of clothing in, and you can stay there for the night and be ready. So every member should have one of these in their trunks.”
Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, whom Poster defeated in the guild’s 2007 presidential race, had made shorter hours his cause célèbre – he even made a film about it, which Poster once called “a union-busting movie.” At the time of his death in 2015, Wexler was facing a union trial for posting the proceedings of a Local 600 membership meeting on an unlisted YouTube account in which he can be seen advocating for shorter workdays. The local quickly brought him up on charges of violating its confidentiality rules – and raising questions about its treatment of a famous dissident and trouble-maker.
“You know, these are internal things,” Poster told Deadline. “Haskell, I’m sorry to say, could’ve done a much better job by being less militant and a little more cooperative, but that was Haskell. I’ve known Haskell since 1969. I met him on the set of Medium Cool. I’m from Chicago, and of course, so is he. His best friends were my mentors in the business, and so we’ve had a very, very long relationship and an interesting one, both at the ASC and here. Our goal was keeping people safe, and it always has been. So we shared that goal. I respected his commitment completely. I gave him his opportunity, and especially toward the end, whenever he wanted to speak at meetings, he would just stand up and start speaking, and I’d let him do that.”
On-set safety has long been a concern, but never more so than in the wake of the death of Sarah Jones, the young camera assistant who was killed by a speeding train in 2014 on the Georgia set of Midnight Rider. “Safety is so important,” Poster said. “It was always an issue. We always had a safety officer, and the IA always had a safety officer, and there is the Industrywide Joint Labor-Management Safety Committee, and there have been safety bulletins developed on every subject you can possibly imagine. It takes a long time to develop these bulletins, and then they’re available publicly for whatever type of production. If you want to use live ammunition, if you want to shoot from automobiles, trains, under water. Everything is described in great detail.”
Several new bulletins are currently in the pipeline, he said, including guidelines recommended last year governing “free driving,” in which an actor drives the car with a camera operator in the front seat hand-holding a camera. “What happens if the air bag goes off?” Poster asked. “That could kill people. That camera becomes a missile. So we very quickly went out and hired a company that does car crash testing and photographs the crash dummies holding a camera. And very quickly, it was developed into one of the bulletins. And we have two more bulletins that are pending: one has to do with RF transmission, microwave transmission, and how dangerous is that to our camera operators who have microwave transmitters right next to their heads as they’re hand-holding the camera?
“The other involves the impact of heavy equipment and long takes. How long are the takes, now that it’s digital, and you don’t have to reload after a few minutes? So those are two new ones that are in the works that are going to become safety bulletins very quickly. We have also developed a safety app which is completely interactive. All of the bulletins, every bulletin ever developed, is available within the app, so you don’t even need the Internet once you have it downloaded.
“All the safety hotlines of the studios and the unions and the international are available on there. One of the reporting modules is harassment and sexual harassment because we feel that that’s a safety issue, especially on the set. You can report unsafe hours within the app just by pushing a button. This is one of the greatest tools I’ve ever seen for our industry, and it’s available for free for everybody to use.”
Poster, who admits he’s something of a technology nerd, also helped guide the ASC and later the guild during the transition of movie shoots from film to digital.
“One of the first things we did Local 600 was strengthen or recreate, actually, the Training Committee, and the Training Committee has done some really seminal work over the years,” he said. “I recognized the transition from tape-based recording to digital files very early on, and we realized that there were no protocols or best practices for those procedures in the entire industry.
So, for manufacturers and post-production houses, there was nobody saying this is how you should do it. We had no members that were really trained in that process. So we developed the protocol and best practices ourselves and then trained over 700 people across the country over a number of years in those practices. So we were very, very ahead of that process, and that, I’m proud of.”
And as the guild looks ahead to the future, it’s also tipping its cap to the past. “We’ve revitalized our heritage project, and when you get to watch some of those old heritage tapes that were done in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s really remarkable how dedicated people are to this profession, not only the cinematographers, but even career assistants and operators,” he said. “So we’ve revitalized our heritage project and are now doing recordings of members, their oral histories. And we’re part of the consortium at the Motion Picture Academy who are archiving these oral histories across the entire industry, and eventually, we will be able to cross-reference any person with any movie and other professions. Every profession will be cross-referenced and key-worded. It’s a wonderful opportunity. We have over 300 of our old tapes from those days which were digitized and housed at the Motion Picture Academy.”
And in the next few weeks, Poster will step into the guild’s own history books.