Culture of Fear10 TV and Film Workers Call Out Hollywood Exploitation

(Illustration by Hannah Perry)

The film and TV industry has a veneer of glamour. From the outside, it’s easy to assume the shine of its wealthy, famous stars scatters secondhand sparkle over everything—down to those entering their 16th hour without eating, drinking, using the bathroom, or even sitting down. 

For workers, the glamour faded long ago, if it ever existed at all. What remains is an ongoing crisis: The film and TV industry has been abusing its workers for decades with relentless schedules, stolen wages, grinding culture, financial precarity, unequal opportunity, and other hazardous conditions.

In October, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the union to which many film and TV workers belong, asked its voting members if they’d be willing to push back against some of these issues with a strike. Workers contended with crushing financial and career pressure felt under even ideal circumstances. They were recovering from an industry shutdown, scrambling to make up for lost time and money, and weathering the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic. 

When asked to authorize a strike, 98.7 percent of film and TV workers responded: “yes.” 

***

Much of the film and TV made in the United States is created on sets operating according to a set of contracts between IATSE and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the trade association that represents TV and film production companies in labor negotiations. They outline rules for the treatment of IATSE crew members, a group that includes everyone from electricians to art directors.

As of September 30, three of the largest contracts had expired. IATSE saw this as an opportunity to negotiate for protections like shorter workdays, better pay for those working on streaming projects, and higher fines for certain violations, but AMPTP was unwilling to meet their demands. In response, the Union conducted its strike authorization vote. Jamie Tunkel, a writer, script coordinator, and member of IATSE Local 871, who helped organize ahead of the vote, was impressed by how “members of different crafts [came] together.”

“A [bunch] of crew members on my last job took a picture with strike signs we printed,” says Leah*, an art director who most recently worked on an Annapurna Pictures production. Her colleague had just been fired, days after filing a complaint about mistreatment by another crew member. The justification—that she’d been over budget despite having expenses approved—was weak. The day after hearing news of her firing, Leah quit in protest. Around the same time, seven others left the job as well. 

Nine-tenths of IATSE’s almost 60,000 voting-eligible members participated in the vote. On October 13, Union International President Matthew D. Loeb asserted that if an agreement cannot be reached between AMPTP and IATSE, the strike will proceed on October 18. It would be the first nationwide strike in the Union’s 128-year history. 

Just one day before the strike was set to begin, Loeb announced they’d reached a tentative agreement with AMPTP for two of the three contracts. IATSE shared a list of concessions they’d won from AMPTP, including “Living wage achieved,” and “Improved wages and working conditions for streaming.” 

In the coming weeks, IATSE’s members will receive more information on the specifics of the new contracts, and vote on whether to ratify.

While some rejoiced at the announcement, others, both union and non-union, felt the information they’d received about the TA was too vague, or that the new terms aren’t enough.

“The deal on the table is not the deal we want,” says Christine,* a tailor and member of IATSE Local 705. “[It’s] completely insufficient to address the issues that plague the industry.”

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Fighting for a 14-Hour Work Day

The eight-hour workday has been a point of inflection throughout industrialized history. Workers have fought for it since the 1800s, and in many industrialized nations it’s an almost ubiquitous policy. IATSE’s negotiations, by contrast, achieved, “daily rest periods of ten hours without exclusions.” Whether this refers to downtime after a 14-hour day is unclear, but if so, this would give workers 10 hours to commute, eat, sleep, and otherwise live their lives. The Union also sought to increase weekend downtime, with the goal of ending “Fraturdays,” or workdays that start on Friday evening and end in the middle hours of Saturday morning. IATSE announced the negotiations had achieved “weekend rest periods of 54 and 32 hours.” 

“I often feel like we’re forgetting that labor history in this country exists,” says Andy Kennedy-Derkay, a second assistant camera operator who has been a member of IATSE Local 600 since 2013. “I’ve [only] worked two eight-hours days in the last 10 years.” His experience is typical—even 12-hour days are exceedingly rare. 

The hours are even more punishing for production assistants (PAs), who are generally first to arrive and last to leave—and who, as entry-level workers, are not covered by IATSE.

A PA’s responsibilities are numerous and often unpredictable: They load and unload, set up and break down, deferentially corral actors and crew members, guard locations to prevent interruptions, run out for last-minute purchases at all hours, and much more. “If I’m working a 14-hour day,” says Kennedy-Derkay, “the PAs are working a 16.” Nicole*, a non-Union writer-director who has worked as a PA, describes days that run from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., not including commute time. Mateo*, a second assistant camera operator in IATSE Local 600, recalls that his longest day as a PA was approximately 22 hours.

Another issue not addressed by the negotiations: Film and TV workers also have call times that are often scheduled at the last possible moment. Christine frequently has as little as six hours’ notice before she has to be on set. “It’s getting to be almost abusive. I hate staying up late just to learn my call is going to be 4 a.m. across town.”

Health and Safety Hazards

When workers do have time to rest, many can’t.

“I’m just always stressed out about money,” says Maxwell Kessler, a script coordinator and member of IATSE Local 871. “It’s given me a ton of anxiety, which has made it hard to sleep, which causes all sorts of other health issues.”

The effects of long-term sleep deprivation are well-documented and bleak. Chronic lack of sleep has been linked to high blood pressure; increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and stroke; a weakened immune system; and mental-health issues including depression and anxiety. “I suffer from some pretty severe depression,” says Kennedy-Derkay, echoing a reality for many in the industry who must put their lives, families, and well-being on hold. Christine describes fainting at work after hours without rest and sustaining a concussion. “My ability to survive seems very threatened by the work I do,” she says.

Those enduring long hours also face another, more immediate hazard: an increased likelihood of motor-vehicle accidents. Nicole, for instance, describes waking up at 2 a.m. to commute from Connecticut to New York City for a job, only to learn they wanted her to drive from New York City to Washington, D.C. She avoided an accident in that instance, but hasn’t always been so lucky. On another job, she arrived for an achingly early call time to learn she’d be driving a box truck, a vehicle she had no experience with. She ended up in an accident that she feels fortunate only resulted in mild injuries. She says the producer who was meant to manage the situation was unprepared. “I definitely think I wasn’t watched out [for]. I could have really hurt somebody. I think about that all the time.” 

Many in the industry develop dependent relationships with drugs and alcohol in an attempt to mitigate the stress of being on set, enjoy their scarce time off set, get to sleep, stay awake, and cope with depression and anxiety. Mateo, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, joined the industry after realizing the 16-hour days weren’t much different from those at his factory job. He’d also realized he was developing a dependence on drugs and alcohol, making it harder to manage his diabetes, and taking him down a path he wanted to avoid. After pivoting to film and TV, he realized that the things he hoped to escape were ingrained in the on-set culture. Mateo also found that the long hours made monitoring his blood sugar a challenge.

In one instance, he even had a seizure and passed out on set. When he regained consciousness, producers asked if he wanted to leave, but didn’t press when he decided to stay.

“Because I needed the money,” he says, “I worked through that incident.”

Unfair Payment Practices

Even in the event that IATSE confirms maximum 14-hour days as part of the new contracts, overtime pay is an effective incentive to work past when the schedule ends. However, production companies ordering time cards to be altered to fit plans and budgets is standard practice. Union members are afforded some protection, but non-union crew members—such as production assistants—are not.

“When I was a production assistant,” says Mateo, “I would work 18-hour days and get [paid for] 12. And these are the people that are supposedly my friends hiring me, taking my own money.”

PA rates vary. In general, they make somewhere between state minimum wage and around $20 per hour, depending on the job and location. “It’s a job designed to keep you stuck in poverty,” says Kessler. 

While the announcement mentions a “living wage,” it won’t address earnings for those at the bottom of the payscale—and it’s unclear what metrics are being used to determine what constitutes a “living wage” for union workers. 

“The strike is great,” says Nicole. “But PAs aren’t covered under that.” Because PA is meant to be an entry-level and arguably transient position, PAs are not unionized. However, their experiences demonstrate their need for protection.

After working 36 hours in two days in a PA gig, John*, now a non-union second assistant director, found he’d been shorted $300 in his paycheck. “I spent three months chasing down payment for that job [and] I had to also burn that bridge.” Chasing payment takes time and energy, finite resources needed for work—especially when your paycheck’s just come up short. And in an industry whose dominant culture is one of grinding without complaint and furthering your career through reputation and word of mouth, demanding someone pay you what you’re owed can mean never hearing from them again.

Paying Lip Service to Diversity

Navigating power dynamics in the entertainment industry is especially fraught for those who don’t fit in on sets that largely comprise workers who come from money (and thus can afford the PA’s low pay and long hours), who are straight and cisgender, and who are white and male. 

“I think people in the film industry are simply not used to having a trans person on their set, especially one who is nonbinary,” says Duncan Richards, a Masters of Social Work student who decided to stop working as a PA shortly before the pandemic. She says people often assumed she was more sensitive, less able to handle the job, or interested in only a limited spectrum of storytelling. At other times, they were simply rude. “I think people just did not want to have to deal with having someone who was different from them on set,” she says.

“I don’t ever talk about my pronouns on set,” says Alex*, an IATSE member and digital utility worker, via text. “At my current job, I came out and was discriminated against. It was traumatizing. In unfamiliar situations, I’ve learned set isn’t the safest place to come out in any way…I don’t commonly feel I’m seen as an equal or capable of the same things as everyone else.”

When members of underrepresented groups are on set together, they can and do protect and uplift one another. “There’s a protection on set from people who are different,” says Nicole. “I’ve always felt protected by [other] Black people on set.” The vigilant solidarity is deeply valuable, and it’s also an added factor that more privileged crew members need not consider. 

In recent years, the industry’s steady composition of sameness has begun to falter—or at least, pay lip service to faltering. Pointed hiring efforts have brought more women, and LGBTQ and Black and brown people, onto sets, particularly in entry-level roles. AMPTP asserts that it wants more diverse crews, but hasn’t done much to help marginalized workers access jobs that offer either union hours or meaningful experience. When it comes time to hire further up the hierarchy, production companies are still more likely to choose from within. By paying unlivable wages to people who, in order to break into an industry, must live in cities whose living costs are among the highest in the nation, film and TV production jobs select for those with privilege and resources to fall back on. 

IATSE’s list of concessions includes, “diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives,” although it’s unclear at this point what form they’ll take. It also specifies that workers will have a day off on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

 “You could die on set and they’ll replace you within 30 minutes. And if nobody found out, even better.”

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The Reality of Work on Set Is a “Culture of Fear”

One of the most significant challenges facing film and TV workers can’t be corrected through IATSE’s negotiations. Though the fight to secure better pay and working conditions is essential, production companies didn’t invent this ugly environment. The toxic work culture was born on set, and is perpetuated there: “There’s this idea that to be a successful person in the film industry, you have to rise and grind 100 percent, work all day,” says Richards. “No sleep, no human needs.”

“The culture of fear that we enforce on each other,” says Kennedy-Derkay, “it just takes over your fucking brain.” The impossible work expectations encourage forgoing every possible other priority, from health to family. They demand staying awake as long as possible, by any means necessary. Across all crafts, workers describe learning the reality of set culture when it was modeled by more experienced workers: people whose lives were in shambles, who would nevertheless sneer at them for daring to sit down. People who’d been in the industry for decades, knew nothing else, were past retirement age, and still struggled to stay eligible for the Union’s pension and insurance plans.

Arriving to set one day, Mateo saw a flurry of activity that turned out to be one of the show’s background actors, having a heart attack. Mateo was later told that the man had passed away—and that he shouldn’t tell anybody because “production’s keeping it hush.” The day went on as scheduled, with no acknowledgement of the loss. To Mateo, this encapsulated his experience in the industry so far: “You could die on set and they’ll replace you within 30 minutes. And if nobody found out, even better.”

A Necessary First Step?

Although some of these issues are addressed in part by the Union’s negotiations, many are not. Ultimately, while IATSE’s bargaining power is strong—and while the presence of a union is already more than workers in many industries have—it faces opponents like Amazon and Apple, with virtually bottomless resources.

“I’m very happy to have the union to protect me in some way,” says Kennedy-Derkay with a rueful laugh, “but also, we get fucked.” 

What’s more, IATSE’s demands seem almost quaint by the standards of other industries. One “win” in the negotiations is an increase in meal penalties—the fines a production receives for delaying or failing to give meal breaks. Ideally, increasing the penalties will lead production companies to view them as incentives to feed their crews, rather than necessary costs to be built into the budget. 

These necessary changes bring into stark relief just how low a bar the industry is attempting to clear. “What we are asking for in these negotiations are bare-minimum things,” says Tunkel. “This industry needs a culture shift, and one negotiation, one agreement is not going to magically make things better.”

And yet, many feel at least a degree of hope—if only because there appears to be no other option. “I do believe this industry will continue to make positive change as time goes on,” Tunkel added.

“We could be making much better stuff if we weren’t so exhausted,” says Kennedy-Derkay. “[The deal] is a good step forward. It’s not enough.”

IATSE members will vote in the coming days on whether to ratify the new agreements.

“I will vote no to the ratification,” says Christine, “and I hope my brothers and sisters do as well. It’s a historic point for labor in this country and we can’t lose our momentum. We deserve better, and we can get better.”

*Name has been changed

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Lindsay Lee Wallace is a writer and over-thinker covering politics and culture.