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Why making movie sets safer has been so slow, especially for crews behind the camera

A candlelight vigil is held for Halyna Hutchins at a California IATSE office. Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union have been pushing for better hours, citing safety concerns, after Hutchins was killed on set.
A candlelight vigil is held for Halyna Hutchins at a California IATSE office. Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union have been pushing for better hours, citing safety concerns, after Hutchins was killed on set.

We've seen this play out before.

After a 2014 train accident on the set of Midnight Rider led to the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, the "Safety for Sarah" movement started. "ACTOR'S DEATH PUTS FOCUS ON SAFETY" reads an old headline following the on-set death of Brandon Lee in 1993. After a 1982 helicopter crash on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie killed three people, including two children, the Screen Actor's Guild put together a 24-hour hotline for people to call with safety concerns.

Now, as we learn more about what exactly happened on the set of Rust that led to actor Alec Baldwin killing Halyna Hutchins, the broader question of safety on set is once again drawing increased attention.

The common risks, particularly faced by so-called "below-the-line" workers (production crew, essentially), are both varied and mundane.

"People fall off ladders," says Kate Fortmueller, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Georgia. Fortmueller, whose research emphasizes labor, says the dangers workers on set face are no different than what most other people who work in construction or electric deal with — everything from the aforementioned ladders to sexual harassment. Then, depending on the project, there are also vehicles, stunts, guns and animals, along with any environmental risks posed by the location.

But the simple factor of time affects all workers across the board.

'12 on 12 off' was a proposed solution, but as a policy, it hasn't caught hold

Fortmueller says former students have reached out to her to tell her about health problems they've developed from being on their feet all day. "It's just physically taxing work," she says. Sometimes, those days can reach 15 or 16 hours.

In 2006, the famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler (he won an academy award for his work on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) released a documentary titled Who Needs Sleep? It's a look at the back-to-back days and long hours that crew members put in on a film set, what sleep deprivation and exhaustion do to a person, and how those things can lead to people dying on the drive home from work.

Among others, the film highlights Brent Hershman, an assistant camera operator on the movie Pleasantville who died in a car crash on the way home after a string of long days on set.

"The night he died, he had already worked four 15-hour days," Wexler says in a voiceover in the documentary. "And on Friday, it was 19 hours."

In the documentary, Wexler advocates for a policy known as "12 on 12 off." Essentially, no more than 12 hours of work in a single stretch, no fewer than 12 hours' turnaround, and no more than six hours between meals. Wexler died in 2015 at the age of 93. But to this day, the issue of long hours remains a sticking point in Hollywood.

In a telling back and forth in the documentary, Wexler speaks to Tim Wade, then the safety officer for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union representing crew members. After Wexler expresses some frustration at the union's inaction on the issue, Wade tells him that their hands are essentially tied.

"Right now, until something comes up from the state legislature, or better yet on a federal level, we're not able to deal with the long hours," Wade says. The only real recourse is to get in touch with the union and deal with each production on a one-on-one basis, he tells Wexler.

The 1982 crash on the set of <em>Twilight Zone: The Movie</em> led to a handful of new safety standards for choppers.
Scott Harms / AP
The 1982 crash on the set of <em>Twilight Zone: The Movie</em> led to a handful of new safety standards for choppers.

Limited budgets, different platforms and inconsistent regulation all play a role

One of the biggest challenges to getting across-the-board safety measures passed in the film and television industry is fragmentation, says Fortmeuller. Rules, laws and guidelines vary depending on location, budget and platform. "All that has to work together, and I think that is very challenging to do," she says.

For instance, rules in California might be different from rules in New York, New Mexico, Georgia; then there are the popular shooting locales in Canada and Romania. "All of these places people go to for tax breaks, they're just totally different," Fortmueller says.

Streaming platforms have added to the fragmentation. Being dubbed "new media," projects on the big streaming services have benefited from discounted rates with IATSE, such that workers get paid lower rates and fewer residuals for shows and movies that stream.

IATSE also has negotiated different rates for films that are classified as low budget, and classifications are further fragmented into tiers. Low budgets often pressure producers into cutting corners. A recent piece on IndieWire featured several producers in the field, and came to this conclusion: "Low budgets force hard decisions, and it can be tempting to eliminate safety roles; on any production, they represent the possibility that a producer will have to pay someone for a job they'll never need. When every dollar counts, that can be hard to swallow."

TV and film workers voted to strike, and not all are happy with the potential deal

Many of these issues were brought up during the most recent negotiations between IATSE and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. In an unprecedented move, the 60,000 members of IATSE voted nearly unanimously to authorize a strike. By mid-October, a tentative deal was reached and a strike was averted. Contract language is still being hammered out before it gets sent out to the members for a vote.

That said, many IATSE members aren't happy with the deal and have taken to social media to rally support to turn it down.

"Many of them may feel that they're being sold out," says Steven Ross, a history professor at the University of Southern California who has studied the history of labor and film. "Yes, they want better wages. They want better benefits. But they don't want to have to work 12-hour days every day with little time in between."

Ross says that from the early days of film, to the mob influence of the 1930s, to the cross-union fighting that led to 1945's "Bloody Friday," to the displeasure at the contracts today, IATSE's rank and file have historically not aligned with the moves of the top brass. But the very essence of how below-the-line workers make their living — project to project without annual contracts — makes it hard for them to speak up.

"For many of them, when one job ends, if they can get another job, they take it right away," he says, often foregoing any vacations or breaks in between. "And oftentimes that also leads to exhaustion. And exhaustion leads to accidents on set."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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