You would expect a bit more glamour and fewer deaths for Hollywood. Ben Gottlieb’s Instagram profile shows what life is like for a Hollywood worker.
Last month, Ben Gottlieb, a 27-year-old set of lighting technician, wanted to show his support for his union’s campaign to improve working conditions on film sets, so he wrote an Instagram post calling for stopping 12- to 14-hour shifts. As with many of his colleagues, the Brooklynite felt burnt out after working grueling hours without significant breaks for much of the past year.
Some nights he was so tired of driving home that he felt drunk. He even considered quitting – just two years after joining his union, IATSE Local 52. The post hit a chord and drew more than 21,000 likes. Gottlieb was quickly inundated with messages from industry colleagues sharing their own stories, prompting him to create a dedicated page called IATSE Stories. In just a few weeks, more than 500 posts have drawn nearly 25,000 followers to the site.
“At what point do we just give people a rest, give people a break, treat it like a real job?” Gottlieb asked. “I think a lot of people reach a breaking point.”
Hollywood’s return to production after pandemic riots caused thousands of job losses has been welcomed by many in the industry. But the battle to make up for a lost time – combined with a growing demand for content from new streaming platforms – is taking a toll on crews. Under-the-line workers are still putting in more hours, with the added pressure of compensating for delays caused by COVID-19 outbreaks, Gottlieb and other union representatives said.
“There used to be seasons so people who worked in television could take a break, but now you don’t have it anymore because of streaming,” said Steve Dayan, secretary-treasurer of Teamster’s 399 local, which represents transportation coordinators, location managers, casting directors, animal handlers and drivers.
“Because of COVID-19, people are beginning to recognize that working even to the bone is not a viable way to live,” Dayan added, noting that drivers transporting throws to and from sets work 16-hour shifts. “Our crews realize that the studios are pushing the boundaries in terms of health and safety by working too many hours.”
Pushed to highlight working conditions on appliances come amid tense contract negotiations between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Staff, representing film and television teams in the entertainment industry. IATSE resumed talks with the Manufacturers Alliance on August 17 after a hiatus to enable the renegotiation of COVID-19 security protocols. Among other things, the union is pushing for better wages and longer rest periods for stressed crews.
The union wants the producers to give enough time for crew members to commute home and rest. They also want employers who do not allow meal breaks to be punished, according to people familiar with the negotiations. Crew time for crews – the period the workers have between leaving the set and returning the next day – varies depending on the production and the union locally. For example, customers get 10 hours; for editors, there are nine; actors can get 12 hours.
One complaint is so-called Fraturdays, where crews work long hours running from Friday to Saturday, meaning they potentially lose half of their weekend before having to return to work again on Monday. “When I sign up for a job – I accept that I’m essentially on it 24/7 until it’s over months later,” a production coordinator wrote in an August 20 post about IATSE Stories.
In 1997, assistant camera operator Brent Hershman died after falling asleep at the wheel of his car as he drove home from a 19-hour workday on the Long Beach set in the movie “Pleasantville”. The event inspired Oscar-winning film photographer Haskell Wexler to make the documentary “Who Needs Sleep” in 2006.
Recently, top photographers from the IATSE Local 600, the International Film Manufacturers Guild, joined the campaign and wrote to the Producers Alliance earlier this month to raise their concerns about the dangers of long, unsafe working hours. Deadline was first reported on the letter.
Gottlieb said that IATSE Stories was his initiative and that union leaders had no role in setting up the Instagram page. He said he chooses stories that touch on systemic issues in the industry, rather than personal complaints. Some of the worst stories are shared by production assistants who find themselves earning the minimum wage but have to work 12-, sometimes 18-hour days. “A lot of PAs are upset,” Gottlieb said.
Pregnant women and crew members who share their burdens also share their burdens but do not feel they can because the hours are too strenuous.
“You have to choose between your child and your career,” Gottlieb said. “A lot of people who would love to have children come to us and say, ‘At one point we just decided not to have children because it would not be possible, it would not be fair.”
Many contributors mention the dangers of driving home after long days on the set. A crew member on a big-budget film shared a story of how they fell asleep at the wheel for a while after working a 14-hour shift all night. The crew member safely returned home and later raised concerns about the hours with the producers, but was told they could stay at a hotel at their own expense.
“This is something I experienced directly,” Gottlieb said. “Suddenly you only have a few hours to sleep and all this pressure builds up and all this anxiety and you are never allowed to decompress.” Although most posts are anonymous, Gottlieb said he and the other moderators can see the submitters’ profiles and can verify that they work in the industry.
An employee on Aug. 19 described an incident in which a department head had died of a heart attack on the device a few weeks earlier and crew members were asked to continue working. A grief counselor was brought the next day, but the crew did not have time to visit the counselor, the employee wrote.
On the same day, another contributor to IATSE Stories questioned why treatment times are not uniform. “We have to discuss why the talent often gets 12 hours of turnarounds portal to portal and the crew does not? Are the actors more important than the crew, or are we not all human? ” Of course, there are positive stories too.
In Europe, labour rules are taken more seriously. There are countries where a worker cannot work more than 48 hours a week, and that includes overtime. Almost all European countries have a 20-minute break after six hours of work a day and a 25-minute break after nine hours.
In Hungary, the daily working hours that can legally be worked are 12 hours.
This is why foreign filmmakers like to come to Hungary, as it has one of the highest working hours in Europe. However, even if it is the highest, there must be a mandatory 8-hour rest period between two working days.