When Ben Gottlieb posted on Instagram about burning out from long hours at his job as a set lighting technician in the film industry, he didn’t expect many people to take notice. “As restrictions were being lifted” in recent months, he wrote, “pre lockdown hours became the norm again. I don’t necessarily think it’s anyone’s specific fault, I just think a lot of us got a taste of what life could be like if we got normal hours, if we could come home and spend time with family or friends for a few hours before going to bed.”
But thousands of people responded to the post and began sending him their own stories of overwork in the film industry, leading Gottlieb to set up an account dedicated to anonymously sharing others’ stories. The anecdotes are jarring, with people recounting working in subzero temperatures, receiving texts from their bosses while in the hospital about whether they’ll be on set the next day, and, above all, enduring long hours.
“A standard working week for us, not including travel time, is about sixty hours,” explains Gottlieb. “In the electric department where you have wrap outs, packing the truck, and cleaning up cable, I’m out of the house fifteen hours a day for a twelve-hour-day shoot.”
A twelve-to-fourteen hour day is typical in the industry, with workers saying they’re rarely scheduled for anything less than a twelve-hour day. While many people imagine working in film as glamorous — a perception that works to employers’ advantage when imposing poor working standards — sets are more like construction sites: hazardous and chaotic, with people doing manual labor and working without breaks for extended periods of time. Projects frequently only last for a few months, theoretically giving workers time off after production wraps, but pushing people to their limits during the course of a contract can be devastating.
“Safety is an issue — car crashes, specifically,” says Brittany Anne, a freelance camera assistant. After Riverdale star KJ Apa crashed his car following a fourteen-hour day, the issue of “drowsy driving” received some attention (notably, workers’ comp doesn’t cover accidents sustained while commuting to or from the set). As Deadline noted at the time, Apa was far from the first to crash after working a long day on set: Longmire crew member Gary Joe Tuck died in 2014 after falling asleep at the wheel following an eighteen-hour shift. Despite clear evidence of a problem, workers say that with productions seeking to make up for lost time after the pandemic, long days are once again the norm.
As a freelancer, Anne says problems abound on sets not governed by union standards, though she uses existing union contracts as a benchmark when negotiating her contracts, noting that rising standards for union workers help nonunion workers like herself, too. Of those problems, she says a central one is payment, or lack thereof. “We have problems getting paid on time, or at all,” she says, citing a recent project she worked on that engaged in wage theft, with workers not being paid overtime. Long hours are an issue, too: Anne notes that on certain types of shoots, such as music videos, eighteen-hour days are not unheard of.
“I did a five-month stint where I barely saw the person I was dating at the time,” says Gottlieb. “I ask my bosses with wives and children, ‘How do your children respond to your hours?’ They say, ‘Oh, they’re used to it at this point.’ I have a hard time believing that.”
While long hours aren’t new, what is different is the outrage among workers in the industry. Workers across the country are gaining confidence, refusing to return to work or quitting existing jobs unless they receive higher pay and better benefits. A desire for shorter hours is central to this dynamic — during the pandemic, expanded unemployment insurance allowed people in a range of industries to enjoy free time for what was, for some, the first time in their adult lives. Many of those people have no interest in returning to a life defined by overwork.
This dynamic is particularly noticeable in the film industry, which effectively shut down during the pandemic. “For six months, the unions didn’t work, and for six months, everyone developed hobbies, people got into hiking, they got closer with their kids, they’ve rekindled relationships with their spouses,” says Gottlieb. With production restarting, the shift in attitudes to long hours is hard to miss. “People are miserable on set now, and you can tell — it’s palpable,” says Gottlieb.
Gottlieb’s Instagram post was accompanied by graphics from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) that read, “The Producers say that unsafe hours aren’t an issue anymore. We Disagree.” Gottlieb is a member of IATSE Local 52 in New York. On the West Coast, IATSE’s thirteen production locals are in negotiations for a new film and TV contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.
Workers represented by the locals include cinematographers, grips, script supervisors, costume designers, makeup artists and hair stylists, and set painters. The current contract was set to expire at the end of July, but has been extended to allow for negotiations over return-to-work precautions. Increased residuals from streaming shows, greater funding for the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plan are key issues, as are longer rest periods.
“Reasonable rest demands that the employers not treat our members like machines that can just work until they are broken and then be replaced,” the locals said in a joint statement. The unions’ demands include “a real and meaningful rest period between leaving and returning from work regardless of the craft or production, a weekend rest period that allows for actual rest and time to spend with family and friends, and effective penalties that truly discourage the systematic elimination of meal breaks and working straight into the weekends.”
Though workers on the East Coast like Gottlieb wouldn’t necessarily be covered by standards negotiated on the West Coast, he explains that they would improve conditions in New York, too. “They’re fighting for sustainable benefits and reasonable rest periods. If Los Angeles is able to negotiate something like that, it will set a precedent,” he says.
In an industry so reliant on personal connections, it’s hard for people to come forward with complaints about working conditions. Gottlieb says that he was comfortable doing so because he’s decided to leave the industry.
“I’m twenty-seven and I have lower-back issues,” he says. “I’m twenty-seven and I have carpal-tunnel issues from running cable and from tightening down stands. I’d like to have a family, and it would be unfair to the people who are eventually going to be in my life to still be in this industry. Work can’t be what defines me anymore.”