Crews aim to curb whopper workdays

Hollywood crews are calling for a maximum 14-hour workday following the death of an assistant cameraman last month who may have fallen asleep at the wheel while driving home from a marathon shoot of New Line’s “Pleasantville.”

The effort is being backed by Hollywood’s below-the-line union, the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which has started to limit independent producers to the 14-hour workday in contract negotiations. Other guilds — such as actors and directors — also are expected to consider the petition.

And last week, a similar petition drive was launched on the set of Par TV’s “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” calling on producers to limit the workday to 13 hours of elapsed time.

“The cumulative result has been mental, emotional and physical fatigue, and ultimately a decrease in efficiency, productivity and most importantly, safety, both on and off the job,” the petition said.

The effort to limit overtime was launched after assistant cameraman Brent Hershman was killed while driving home from a 19-hour day on the “Pleasantville” set. After that, members of the crew passed out a petition to that movie, calling on the producers to limit the workday to 14 hours. They expanded that to the entire industry, calling it “Brent’s Rule.”

People are people, too

Two weeks ago, cinematographer Haskell Wexler placed an ad in the trades, calling for the 14-hour workday. He named his group “Society for the Humane Treatment of Humans.”

“I am getting faxes. phone calls, letters from everywhere,” said Wexler, who is second national VP of the Intl. Photographers Guild.

Studio sources said they have doubts about how much can be changed when faced with the economics of the business. Faced with release dates that are tied to merchandising and marketing, the demands to complete a film on time are even greater, even when it forces a studio to spend hefty sums paying workers time-and-a-half and double time.

Likewise, in TV, it costs less to simply go into overtime hours rather than schedule another day of shooting.

Yet the crew of “Pleasantville” has found an ally in the producers of the movie, including Gary Ross, Jon Kilik and Steven Soderbergh. They have drawn up a “declaration of principles,” which they hope will be adopted by other productions. Among them: a review of each day’s shooting schedule by the director, producers, assistant director and director to make sure the workday realistically can be completed in 14 hours.

Another point: Security guards on duty when they wrap to see if drivers are sufficiently alert. And should a production fall behind, and directors and producers feel it would be helpful to go beyond 14 hours, a crew representative would have a private discussion with all department heads to make sure work can continue safely. “If any individual feels the need for us to stop, it will be respected by all and kept strictly confidential,” the statement said.

The producers’ declaration has been met with a positive response from some crew members. And in the past few weeks, some of the crew have contacted other guilds, such as actors and directors, about signing the petition as well.

Swell of support

“It’s gotten to a point where it is so accepted that we are working 19 hours,” said Bruce McCleery, the gaffer on “Pleasantville” and one of the crew members circulating the 14-hour workday petition. “I have gotten the sense that people are incredibly supportive of this.”

Baird Steptoe, first assistant cameraman on “Pleasantville” and a close friend of Hershman’s, said: “It’s a problem for producers as well. Everyone is affected by this.”

Officially, Hollywood’s below-the-line union is limited in what language it can put into its contract with the studios. The next pact expires in 2000.

Instead, the union is demanding a limit of 14-hour workdays in negotiations with independent producers, who negotiate individual contracts with the IA largely on a case-by-case basis.

And the IA plans to make an extensive presentation on the hazards of long workdays at a quarterly meeting May 20 with producers.

To be sure, the issues of overtime have come up before, but Hollywood crews have yet to exact a 14-hour limit in their contracts.

The unions, in fact, have come under some criticism for not having a 14-hour workday in place in their contracts already. State laws already list a maximum of 16 hours, including meal periods, but those guidelines are superseded by union contracts.

Yet union officials say that time-and-a-half and double time, as well as meal penalties, were meant to be penalty enough to convince producers and studios not to have extended shoots.

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