Featured image credit: Michelle Alizabeth Blake
Dear Hollywood, I have something I desperately need to share with you. You might find it surprising coming from a 20-year veteran who owes his livelihood to you. But it needs to be said. I apologize if this upsets you (actually…sorry not sorry).
Your shows are not worth dying for.
This is not the first time I have expressed my frustration with the insane way in which we approach our livelihoods in this industry – the ridiculously long hours, the chronic sleep deprivation, the complete and utter lack of work-life balance, and the families, marriages, and lives that are destroyed (or taken way too early) by the perpetual content machine that is/was Hollywood.
In fact, I’ve spent the last six years screaming from the rooftops into any megaphone I can find that we create entertainment for a living…we’re not curing cancer!!!
Sure, we all agree that things could be better in the entertainment industry, and we’re all doing our best to make small changes here and there, but up until a few months ago we were all just “too busy” to really examine what fundamental changes must be made from the ground up to better protect the livelihood of the craftspeople who sacrifice their health, their personal lives, and their sanity all for the noble pursuit of creating more content.
Then Covid-19 came along and changed the game.
Since the pandemic began the entertainment industry worldwide has watched from the sidelines crippled, lifeless, desperately scrambling to figure out what protocols to put in place so we can go back to work while simultaneously protecting workers from becoming infected. Whether it’s the Cinematographer’s Guild, the Editor’s Guild, the AMPTP, the AFL-CIO, the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, and IATSE, or OSHA, (if you live in Canada there are resources here, here, here, and here, and if you live in the UK there are resources here and here), every organization globally is doing its absolute best to figure out what it will take for us to safely resume production as quickly as possible.
But in our desperate pursuit to overcome the immense challenge of working amidst a global pandemic so we can “get back to normal,” we’re overlooking the equally important (and blatantly obvious) issue that has yet to be addressed:
NORMAL. WASN’T. WORKING.
The Fallacy of ‘Building the Plane While Flying It’
For decades Hollywood has fallen prey to the fallacy of ‘building the plane while flying it,’ an idiom popularized by Silicon Valley born from ‘iterative’ software development whereby you ship your product as early as possible, fix it, ship it again, fix it again, and so on, as opposed to tinkering and fixing for years privately with a controlled team before shipping to the public.
The industry has been aware for decades that the demanding hours and harsh working conditions are less than ideal for everyone involved all the way from the PA getting coffee up to the mega-directors and Oscar-winning stars, not to mention the “boots on the ground” craftspeople who spend 16-20+ hours per day on set (not including their horrendous commutes), or the post-production professionals sleeping in their edit bays to meet insane deadlines and impossible delivery schedules. But there’s just too much to do with too little time to stop the machine and really fix it.
While I do believe the industry has made some good-faith efforts to implement incremental changes to better protect craftspeople, there has been no transformative change.
The argument for this was simple: The show must go on!
Guess what? For the first time in cinema history, the show is not going on.
The plane is no longer barreling through the air at 575mph such that we can’t make substantial repairs and upgrades. We can no longer make the excuse that there isn’t time or the budget to change the working conditions and demands of our industry since deadlines and release dates have already been set and must be met.
For the first time in cinema history, the plane is stuck in the hangar.
For the first time in cinema history, we have the opportunity to build a brand new plane.
But in order to fix something, we first have to be willing to recognize what wasn’t working.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
- A standard (STANDARD!!!) contract expecting a 60 hour work week before any discussion of overtime was NOT. WORKING.
- Eating lunches at our desks because it’s socially unacceptable to take breaks wasn’t working.
- The cultural pressure to show up to work every single day, even when you were sick and could make others sick, definitely wasn’t working.
- Parents terrified that having kids will make them less desirable as a potential hire because they “have outside responsibilities” and they aren’t able to “give everything to the job” wasn’t working.
- Missing out on the moments that truly matter (birthdays, anniversaries, dinners with friends, or family time) for the sake of “one more output” wasn’t working.
- Thinking that “just one more setup” is a good enough excuse to shoot well into the night forcing crewmembers to either stay in a hotel between shifts or risk their lives driving home drowsy (i.e. cognitively drunk) wasn’t working.
- Being bullied into putting unpaid OT on your timecard because “there just isn’t a budget” wasn’t working.
- Exchanging an “on-call” workday where you didn’t need to come in with a weekend where you are needed – without being paid OT – wasn’t working.
- The perpetual lie that “working from home” was not a secure or sustainable workflow wasn’t working.
- Consistently putting our kids to bed via Facetime wasn’t working.
- Looking down upon or shaming someone willing to set boundaries between their personal and work lives wasn’t working.
- The prevailing notion that how many hours you work defines your productivity and effectiveness – not what you are able to accomplish during those hours – wasn’t working.
- Assuming we prefer windowless rooms because “editors are weird like that” and depriving us of the most basic human need of sunlight wasn’t working.
- Wearing your ‘sleep deprivation badge of honor’ and bragging about how many nights you’ve slept on your couch to meet deadlines wasn’t working.
- The assumption that you can process 4-6 hours of dailies per day and still “keep up to camera,” plus deliver editor’s cuts with detailed sound design and music beds with only 2 days after production wraps your episode wasn’t working.
- The argument that transitioning from a successful, multi-season show to season 1 of a new show requires a substantial pay cut because pilots and season 1 shows have lower budgets was not working.
- Not giving the assistants the ability to negotiate a rate based on their skills or experience and capping them at scale no matter what was not working.
- The vast majority of high profile reality & unscripted shows being non-union and providing zero protection for their cast & crew wasn’t working.
- The toxic work culture that eventually led to the #MeToo movement was not working.
- The belief that “hiring the most qualified candidate” was enough justification to overlook the lack of diversity and minority representation in our industry wasn’t working.
- The prevailing belief that you need to “pay your dues” and work for free in order to break into the industry, thus disqualifying countless candidates who couldn’t afford to work for free in order to gain experience and build relationships, wasn’t working.
I’ve probably missed 150 equally important things that weren’t working (and if you scroll to the bottom I’ll show you how to add YOUR most important needs to this list).
But hopefully you’re starting to get the point.
Normal. Wasn’t. F*cking. Working.
–UPDATED 06-29-20 6:10pm–
After publishing this article it absolutely exploded! Over 45,000 shares and 95,000 page views in the first 3 days! Let’s just say my personal list above was indeed the tip of the iceberg.
Here are additional contributions to add to the list from people in all creative disciplines in the entertainment industry across the globe (all kept anonymous – if you need sources, I can prove every single one of these is REAL):
- I have suffered from urine infections because of not being given enough breaks to use the restroom. All other departments have people that can cover for them. I’m a department of ONE. Unless our actor on camera takes a bathroom break, I’m stuck. That is WRONG & unhealthy…and wasn’t working!
- Being a PA and losing the opportunity to move into a union because of a “political hire” is not working.
- Being kept to work 12-14 hour days because a boss can’t decide on a color, texture, or just doesn’t want to go home yet…is not working.
- Designers or above the line bosses taking multiple shows and not showing love to the teams that really run the show… And taking jobs away from other designers or teams that might benefit from more experience is not working.
- Being the only PA that is a POC and having bosses say racist sh*t and not feeling comfortable about speaking up because you are worried about loosing the job that you love is not working.
- Missed funerals, weddings, had to wear a heart monitor once because I had too much stress. Put off my personal healthcare… and I even had crew members approach me and tell me they had no food in their homes… were living in their cars etc. Change has to happen now!
- Normal should never be a 12-20 hour workday. We are humans. We have families. We have lives that don’t revolve around celebrities. We need to eat, sleep, and relax just like anyone else. We need to feel safe at work. We need to make enough money to actually live in Hollywood. We don’t need normal, it wasn’t working!
- Assuming talent is based on age wasn’t working.
- Assuming ‘fresh’ ‘sexy’ ‘new’ ‘topical’ ‘[insert industry term]’ creative expression is based on youth wasn’t working.
- Assuming ‘older’ writers, actors, (insert job)…can’t create content that is entertaining by today’s standards wasn’t working.
- I’ve asserted myself in the workplace by leaving at 7pm, I’ve convinced co-workers to leave their desks for lunch, and I’ve tried to ignore emails before/after hours. But inevitably, these actions are discouraged, often implicitly, by a higher up. Studio execs, showrunners, producers have heard my concerns about turnaround times and still say, “we need it faster.” This is a structural, executive problem, and we need to hold them accountable if we’re to make any strides in a humane, equitable working environment.
- Working 16 hours, physically, all day long with little to no breaks, and still having to drive a 24′ box truck through city streets on little to no sleep, typically hours before and after the rest of the crew arrives and departs, isn’t working.
- I pretty much had to leave the industry when I had kids. I still remember one of my editing mentors and the pain in her eyes while talking about how her work had cost her a relationship with her children who were now adults and didn’t speak to her. Definitely not working.
- I’ve been overworked, underpaid, and hospitalized twice and now once everything opens back up I’m debating on if I want to go back to editing….heartbreaking for me because I truly love the craft.
- What isn’t working? Everyday having to figure out who can pick up our child, who spends 10 hours a day at school, since both parents work in production. Getting texts and emails 24/7, 7 days a week.
- Long commutes, 4 hrs of sleep and not enough pay wasn’t working.
- The culture of blame, abuse, bullying, and retribution in production departments isn’t F**king working!!!
- It can honestly get brutal on those nights when you’re stuck at the cutting room until 2am and working 6th and 7th days. No amount of overtime pay feels worth it at that point because you’re just so exhausted. I wish things would change.
- I’ve kept up with all the ideas that were tossed around for post covid protocols and not 1 time did I see anything about shorter work hours. You’d think that would be part of the discussion. I felt some people were trying everything they could to keep those long work hours despite the fact that lack of sleep weakens the immune system and dangerous, potential exposure.
- Being told in training that sexual assault is real, but also that speaking up could cost you your job because it’s easier to pay severance than it is to reprimand the offender.
- Witnessing it/hearing first hand accounts so often that it becomes casual.
- Treating anyone in a creative position as though their talent makes them invaluable and provides them an excuse for any inappropriate or demeaning behavior.
- Being told and accepting that unless you are in a creative position, your job is so easily replaceable that you should say yes to everything including illegal, free, or dangerous requests.
- Constantly changing night schedules, severely lowering life expectancy just to get dailies out simply because digital allows it…wasn’t working. Productions shooting film stock had to wait a day. Should be any different with digital.
- Too many MAJOR family affairs missed. Several times, I had parents literally dying while I worked and I couldn’t be there. Many years later it and other missed events still haunts me.
- For those of us on production the only way to make a living wage, where you are scraping by, is to work the 60 hours because our hourly pay is such that working a 40-45 hr week is unsustainable. Sadly, it is so common to hear both complaints about the struggle of the long hours & regret that there is no other way to manage financially.
- IF ONLY the industry was a healthy environment to choose as a career. BUT ITS NOT. It’s so far from it, physically, psychologically, social normative wise, and most frustratingly to me, in the ego dept, the ‘some people are better than others’ acceptable culture, and in the screaming, threatening, hostile work environments and oppressive behaviors that are completely acceptable.
- We’re kept too busy and sleep deprived to step back and gain clarity or perspective most of the time. Our bodies are in survival mode, our hearts are holding on to what’s left of our crumbling or broken human lives, and our culture is that of, he/she who speaks or even lifts their head up, gets it cut off.
- My colleagues are treated as “replaceable,” their skills of 30+ years not valued, their humanity ignored, their lives literally not valued by their employers. Their deaths, and illnesses, and car accidents, and crippling injuries swept under the rug by the power that is the owners of the media. I have realized during this cannot by the nature of my own values, stand by and be part of something that so cruelly does this to human beings for the sake of entertainment.
You Think It Was Bad Before? Just Wait…
It’s painfully clear that normal wasn’t working before the pandemic FOR ANYONE. But if we don’t start having very difficult conversations about what needs to change in our industry, it’s only going to get exponentially worse (in fact, it’s already happening).
If we don’t address the important issues preventing us from living a sustainable life in this industry head on before production starts again, we’re going to long for the “good ‘ole days” when production covered our lunches (if we begged), bought printer paper and toner, provided us editing equipment and furniture, and made sure our offices had lights and air conditioning.
Guess who’s paying for all those things while you work from home, providing your own editing hardware & software, paying your increased electricity and internet bills, all while desperately clinging to any paycheck available right now? You.
If we don’t begin to set boundaries and have the confidence to respect ourselves, we will cherish the warm and fond memories of having some semblance of a barrier between work life and home life knowing that if we weren’t in the office, we weren’t immediately on call 24 hours a day at the beck and call of every random “urgent” need of directors and producers.
You think being stuck at home unemployed is tough now? Wait until you’re working from home and getting text messages on a Saturday afternoon for a “quick fix,” you know, just cuz your machine is available and “you’re probably not going anywhere anyways, right?” (tee hee)
You thought you were underpaid for your services before? Wait until the job market opens again and we all desperately claw our way to the bottom and devalue our rates knowing there will be lower budgets and less shows for the foreseeable future. But as long as you’re working, right?
While the majority of post-production professionals are unemployed right now wishing they had some form of sustainable income, the minority of those who are still working are getting their asses kicked.
7 day weeks. 16 hour days. No kit rentals to cover the use of their own equipment. No boundary between home and work. All while also trying to homeschool their kids and manage their own sanity during lockdown.
As we await production to start again, this is Hollywood’s “trial period” to see what boundaries can be pushed in service of keeping us gainfully employed.
How much are we really willing to concede in exchange for what will be smaller paychecks for more work in even less time than before?
Listen, we should be lucky to have any work at all right now…right? RIGHT????
Sorry Hollywood, but we’re not lucky to be here…you’re lucky to have us.
If Now Isn’t The Time…Then When?
In March we didn’t know what we were dealing with, but now we do. Covid-19 isn’t going away anytime soon.
We’re playing a long game of chess for at least a year or more. At some point we have to figure out a way to get back to work safely with minimal exposure to the virus. Lives will absolutely be lost, but this industry was killing us before the pandemic. We’re just now more acutely aware of the dangers we face.
Thankfully we have countless organizations and medical professionals compiling hundreds of pages of industry-wide guidelines (that I shared at the top of this article) which outline in excruciating detail the necessary safety guidelines and protocols that must be put in place in order to protect all of us.
But while the professionals focus on the safety protocols that will protect us from Covid-19, we as individuals need to focus on the importance of this moment and the stance we must take now to protect us…from ourselves.
As I argue in excruciating detail in this article:
It’s so tempting to blame the studio executives and producers for the poor working conditions and the unhealthy lifestyles…but it’s not their fault. This is our fault.
We have spent decades collectively enabling, accepting, and perpetuating all of the behaviors outlined above, all in fear of losing our jobs.
Well guess what? Practically none of us have jobs right now anyways.
For the first time in cinema history…we have nothing to lose.
If ever there was a time to set boundaries and demand change, it’s now.
The list of requests is overwhelming. I get it. We’re not going to change everything overnight (or ever). But while we have this window of opportunity, we need to focus on what I believe are the three most vital things we must not back down on when production begins again.
- DO NOT SIGN LIABILITY WAIVERS. I can’t believe I even have to write this, but there is no more important precedent to set with the industry than our refusal to sign away our lives (literally) for the privilege of having work.
- The “standard” 60-hr work week has to go. Period. Point me to a scientific study that shows more work hours beyond 45 leads to increased productivity and creativity, and I’ll send you 100 studies that definitively disprove your theory. More hours does not equal more output. And more importantly, the harder we work, the more compromised our immune systems become, and the more likely we are to not only contract but also spread Covid-19.
- Paid kit rentals should be standard for everyone asked to work from home. If you provide equipment that the production or a facility would have provided before, you should be compensated accordingly. This isn’t just about your main workstation, this includes your laptop, your phone to manage calls (and endless text messages) all day long, and also includes stipends to cover faster internet, electricity, printer toner, etc etc etc.
I know how badly we all want to get back to work, but imagine the possibilities if we all made a collective effort to do this right instead of doing it fast?
That’s a new version of Hollywood I’m willing to be a part of.
The alternative terrifies me.
Want Your Concerns Added To This List?
There is a lot that wasn’t working in Hollywood (and the entertainment industry worldwide). If you’d like to contribute to this ever-growing list, here’s how to participate:
1) Share this article to your community of choice (using the share buttons at the left/top/bottom of this post). This includes Facebook groups, Reddit threads, etc.
2) In the post, express what wasn’t working in your life that needs to change.
E.g. “Being stuck in traffic for 4 hours a day wasn’t working!
3) Tag me!
I and my team will do our best to keep up with the posts and add your concerns to this list anonymously. Collectively we can make change happen.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated twice since publication:
06-29-20 To include feedback shared via social media
06-30-20 To include additional Covid-19 resources for residents of the UK