state of the industry

Even After Contracts, Below-the-Line Workers Say the Industry Still Has a Long Way to Go

Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

When IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, announced on November 15 that its members had ratified two new contracts, the statement came with an asterisk: A majority of voting members had actually voted against one of them. In the high-turnout vote, only 49.6 percent of ballots were cast in favor of the new Basic Agreement, which was ratified anyway under the union’s Electoral College–style delegate system. The results have stirred controversy among IATSE’s energized membership — nearly 60,000 of whom work under one of the two new contracts — who voted almost unanimously in October to authorize a nationwide strike for the first time in the union’s 128-year history. While that strike was averted in an eleventh-hour deal, many members expressed their disapproval of the new contracts in the weeks leading up to the ratification vote, arguing that leadership had wasted an opportunity to make more significant gains. “I do feel like [the Basic Agreement] needs to go further,” said Mare of Easttown editor Amy Duddleston, a board member of Local 700. “On the set, they’re still going to be working 14-hour days.”

The ongoing controversy provides stark evidence that film and TV workers across the country want to establish a new set of industry standards in regard to work hours and fair compensation. After returning to work amid a pandemic that prompted studios to spend significant resources on COVID-19 compliance, below-the-line workers witnessed just how much power studios and streamers have to change the entire culture of production, which has long been defined by cost-cutting measures like long hours and stagnant wages. As one props assistant told Vulture, “They pay more to have me tested [for COVID] than I get paid for an entire 12 hours of work.”

In an industry governed by an intricate web of union contracts and laws that vary state by state, the push for meaningful change, for many workers, extends beyond any single union contract, and calls for a reassessment of how the industry functions writ large. In general, productions are budgeted by the day; adding a whole day can significantly inflate a budget, so producers overstuff production schedules, often turning to overtime to remain on track. (In turn, workers come to rely on overtime pay as an indispensable portion of their income.) Those decisions impact all of the various departments that comprise a production, each of which is already managing its own needs and crises.

In an effort to unpack the complex sprawl of a film or TV production, Vulture spoke to current IATSE members and other below-the-line workers to figure out what an average shoot day is like for them, and to ask what meaningful industry change would look like for various departments beyond the newly ratified contracts.

On Set: ADs, Hair & Makeup, Camera, Grip/Electric

On set, the call sheet — generated by the second assistant director — dictates each day’s shoot, from the equipment needed to each department’s call time. The earliest call time generally goes to set production assistants, who aren’t yet qualified to join a union and have no legally required “turnaround time” between shifts. On the IATSE Stories Instagram account, which documents work conditions in production, set PAs regularly share anecdotes of 18-hour workdays, a reality that can only be indirectly impacted by a union contract. “The amount of hours [they] work is criminal,” said an assistant production coordinator, who argued that producers rarely hire enough PAs for the amount of work that needs to be done.

The hair and makeup departments are also often the first to set in the morning and are subject to fluctuating schedules depending on the project. As call times get later throughout the week to accommodate actors’ SAG-mandated 12-hour turnaround time, hair and makeup are often among the hardest-hit by “Fraturdays” — the industry practice of extending Friday shoots into Saturday to make up for lost time. “This business that we’re in is the destroyer of families and relationships,” said one hair-department head. “It’s done it to me. But I love what I do.” In a significant gain, the new contracts guarantee a 54-hour weekend, which would provide at least that amount of rest time between work weeks for some workers.

Still, the new contracts don’t address other concerns and workplace dynamics specific to hair and makeup, including issues with the “holding areas” they work out of, which can be any space available near the shooting location. According to one makeup-department head, productions sometimes cut corners on holding areas, shunting workers to “really shitty” locations without ventilation or running water.

Photo: TiktaAlik/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Elsewhere on set, the camera department arrives before general crew call, armed with heavy equipment for what often end up being 12- to 14-hour days —  a workday fact that will remain unchanged by the ten-hour turnaround time secured in the new contracts. For many workers, though, that overtime pay is what makes the job financially feasible. Sarah May Guenther, a second assistant camera, says that making eight- or ten-hour shoot days a viable possibility for workers would require reckoning with “the financing of the industry in its entirety.”

“Productions need to just budget more and know that crew are expensive and that things take more days,” said Rowan Byers, an L.A.-based grip. In regard to the Basic Agreement, Byers points out that some workers — including those in his local, which voted against ratification two to one — already had ten-hour turnaround times. Those hours, according to him, remain unsustainable, especially for a physically demanding job that involves rigging lighting equipment and handling heavy camera rigs, and is “built to kind of cycle people in and out.”

Working closely with grips, the electric department provides power to every department and helps the director of photography execute the lighting for every shot. A New York–based lamp operator hoped that gains made in West Coast negotiations would be reflected in future East Coast contracts, including the elimination of Fraturdays, which remain a reality for workers who aren’t covered by the new contracts and, to her, represent a uniquely Hollywood culture.

“You could look at other countries where plenty of great movies are made,” she said, “and they get done, just not at our pace.”

Somewhere in Between: Costumes, Props, Art Department

While some departments operate primarily on set or in the production office, others are spread across both. The costume department, for instance, tends to be split between the design and wardrobe teams, and has to contend with a big wild-card factor: the cast’s emotions. One assistant costume designer described instances where actors outright refused to try an item on and created the kind of stressful atmosphere that can’t entirely be fixed with a union contract.

“From the top, it’s people who don’t have a sense of what each department has to really do to make things happen,” a props assistant said, arguing that meaningful change would require production companies allocating “enough time for things to actually get done” (a sentiment that some workers expressed on social media in response to the fatal incident on the set of Rust last month). Like the art department — which creates the overall look of a project, from building sets to storyboarding shots — the props department is often subject to last-minute creative changes that lead to longer days. In turn, productions sometimes try to cut corners by shaving time off union-mandated meal breaks or asking workers to manipulate their time sheets to make it look as if they received their full turnaround time. Cost-cutting maneuvers like that, according to multiple workers, seem unlikely to disappear entirely — even with the increased penalties built into the new contracts.

“There are producers that, you give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile,” said one second assistant director.

Off Set: Production Coordinators, Office PAs, Editors

Operating in parallel with the action on set, the production office keeps the machine up and running from a logistical standpoint, and is staffed by (among others) a production coordinator, assistant production coordinator, office secretary, office PAs, and accountants. As the recipients of everyone else’s crises, office workers occupy a gray space where the promise of a ten-hour turnaround doesn’t guarantee that they won’t end up working around the clock anyway. “We’re expected to answer the phone pretty much at all times,” one assistant production coordinator said. If tomorrow’s forecast starts to look like rain, for instance, a call is made to shoot a different scene indoors. That leaves the production coordinator to cancel any equipment that was rented, book all new equipment, and work with a script coordinator to ensure that everyone gets the latest version of the new scene. If that all happens after the workday has ended, the production office is expected to handle it anyway.

As a project moves into post-production, some of the variables of filming — such as bad weather — shift into the rearview, and editors take the lead. While they don’t generally have call times, editors still work long hours and, according to Duddleston, have to contend with studios that underpay assistant editors, even under the new contracts. As technology continues to change, assistant editors often end up handling responsibilities outside their traditional job description, including elements of sound editing, all while managing unrealistic deadlines. “People still don’t understand how long it takes to make something good,” Duddleston said.

Speaking on production as a whole, she added, “We need time to do our work. We all need time to do our work, to do it safely, to do it well.”

Moving forward, below-the-line workers expressed hopes that their colleagues would remain energized after the recent contract negotiations and that the push for change would continue until something fundamental shifts in the industry’s culture. “It’s time for a full reckoning with the way that the industry is made,” said Guenther, “but it’s still benefiting the producers enough that they don’t have any interest in changing it.”

Below-the-Line Crew Say Industry Still Has a Long Way to Go