In 2006, Haskell Wexler made a documentary about brutally long hours on film sets entitled “Who Needs Sleep?” The issue had become a flashpoint years earlier, when Brent Hershman died in a car crash after working a 19-hour day on the set of “Pleasantville.”
Wexler wanted to know why nothing had been done. In the film, he adopted a “Roger & Me” pose — only his villain wasn’t some big corporation. Instead, he hammered his own union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. He ambushed the international president at an awards banquet and accused him of neglecting the issue and of stifling advocacy about it.
“To this date,” Wexler said in the film, “leadership has been unresponsive.”
How things have changed. Long hours are now the central issue in talks between IATSE and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The union is seeking meal breaks and longer “turnaround” times between production days, arguing that crews are getting worn down due to high demand for streaming content.
Those negotiations have stalled, bringing the union to the brink of declaring the first nationwide strike in its 128-year history.
The 47,000 members of the 13 West Coast locals are set to begin voting on Oct. 1 on whether to authorize a strike. The result is expected to be announced on Oct. 4. A “yes” vote would give IATSE President Matthew D. Loeb the power to bring TV and film production in the United States to a standstill — largely over the issue that Wexler championed until his death in 2015.
Film crews have worked 14-hour days, or longer, for generations. For many workers, those hours have been a badge of honor, proof of superior stamina and commitment to the craft. But that attitude has shifted significantly in recent years.
“The culture of the entire country is changing in terms of work-life balance,” says John Lindley, the president of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600. “People realize their lives are as important to them as their work.”
Lindley was the cinematographer on “Pleasantville,” and Hershman was his second assistant. In the years after Hershman’s death, Lindley and others worked to draw attention to sleep deprivation caused by excessive hours.
“It’s an ongoing problem, and it has not really been addressed,” Lindley tells Variety.
Roderick Stevens, a cinematographer and artist, launched a nonprofit in 2004 called 12on/12off, which advocated for capping workdays at 12 hours. He says many crew members opposed the idea, given that they could reap substantial overtime pay from longer days.
“People got used to these insane hours, and they got used to those paychecks,” Stevens says. “Quality of life is something you think about when you’re older, when you’ve gotten divorced and you don’t know your kids.”
He says the union didn’t prioritize the issue because the major concern at the time was runaway production. Labor leaders worried that restricting schedules would give productions one more excuse to flee to Canada or Europe, he explains.
“The irony is that in most other countries they won’t tolerate these work hours,” he says.
For many, the pandemic brought a fresh perspective and a new urgency to the issue. Production was shut down for months, and when it returned, the unions pushed a 10-hour work day — previously unheard of — to protect crews’ immune systems. That didn’t last long, but it suggested that real change was possible.
“If COVID has taught us something, it’s that we need to pause and rethink how we’re doing a lot of things,” says Katie Sponseller, a production coordinator. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Much of the energy behind the issue has come from younger workers, who are less inclined to see arduous or abusive conditions as a necessary rite of passage.
“That’s how people are weeded out,” Sponseller says. “We’re asking who can mentally put themselves through a certain amount of torture for however long.”
The @ia_stories Instagram account has become a place where workers talk about the punishing schedules and build solidarity for a strike.
“For the younger generation of film workers, they want to have a life as well as a work life,” Lindley says. “That’s a generational shift and I’m grateful for it. They provide a lot of energy at this moment when we need it.”
Whether this contract will lead to a wholesale change in the industry is another question. The union’s demands on hours have been modest — 10 hours of downtime between shifts for every worker on every production. Some classifications already have that; for others the turnaround is eight or nine hours. It would be a small gain, but it’s not the dream of “12 on, 12 off.”
The unions are also seeking to force productions to take meal breaks. Productions are required to pay a penalty if there is no break. Many simply pay it and provide a “rolling lunch,” where workers eat standing up. IATSE wants to hike the penalty to a level where productions would choose to take the break instead — but that’s a tough sell.
For now, few expect a strike to happen. But the union has taken a much harder line than it has in any previous negotiation, and it’s hard to say precisely how it will play out.
“The demands are quite reasonable,” says Andy Kennedy-Derkay, a second assistant cameraman. “We’ve been pushed into uncharted territory.”