Behind the scenes, film and TV workers want less drama

I woke up this morning feeling sorry for Bond, which was a new one for me. Poor Bond, though, delayed for months, Daniel and his little weapons suspended in the jelly of Covid during lockdown, now opening under a new and curious weight of pressure as the world watches to judge if cinema’s still a thing. Feeling sorry for a multimillion dollar movie is a side-effect, I think, of currently following negotiations in Hollywood between the studios and IATSE, the union of people who work behind the scenes in the entertainment industry. In the evenings now I’ll watch TV, and while I’m watching TV, I’ll watch the hashtags, too, one eye on the work, the other on the workers.

I’ve been aware of the gentle horrors that go into making films and TV for a while, from the distance of my bedroom. It was from my bed in half-sleep that I’d hear my friend, who works in costume and lives with us when shooting a film, creep downstairs at dawn, and then at midnight, creep back up. This is a house of small children where early mornings are standard, so sleep is sacred and the impact of its lack visible everywhere, rotten and mean. We would see her sometimes in rare snatches of evening, when she would be drinking a cup of tea while also organising the schedule for the following day on her phone, routinely shutting off the alarm that told her if she went to bed now she could conceivably get six hours sleep. She’s had multiple speeding tickets on journeys between home and work, and once wrote off her car coming down a hill after another endless day on set. I would press her with increasing dread as she explained matter-of-factly what a workday looked like for her, telling me about the hidden, unlogged hours, and the privilege required to say no to overtime. I’d sit aghast and unable quite to conceive of how 14-hour days are sustainable.

Turns out, of course, they’re not. In the UK, Bectu (the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union) has campaigned for productions to decrease hours to improve productivity, safety and work-life balance. Its report discussed the impact on workers’ mental health, on family life, explaining how people burned out in their 40s, how it builds a “bullying culture”, how it causes illness. Nine out of 10 shooting crew respondents to the survey reported they had felt unsafe at work, or travelling to and from work, because of tiredness. More recently Bectu has reported how the freelance model for unscripted TV is “broken and unsustainable” due to “discrimination, nepotism and bullying” and inhumane expectations that make a work-life balance impossible. Another friend who works in TV told me about the problems of returning to such pressurised work after having a baby – “Now I’m through the curtain,” she’s realised that judgments around hours worked (among other pressures) mean, “I only feel safe working with other parents.” One series producer told Bectu they’d calculated that given their overtime, they would have earned a higher hourly rate at McDonald’s.

In the US, they’re discussing a strike, having arrived at this point due to a combination of two things: work conditions being thrown into relief by the pandemic and the new openness of crewmembers sharing their experiences on social media. “I’ve woken up in the middle of an intersection after nodding off at a light more times than I’d like to admit,” wrote one person anonymously on the @IA_stories Instagram page. Another wrote about her friend who had to leave a film before wrapping because her bosses wouldn’t give her a week off for her mastectomy. A “film wife” talked about the dwindling relationship between her child and the father, never home. An actor said he’d been on two sets where people had died.

Elsewhere people are using social media to expose other, adjacent problems – the person who set up an Instagram account that shares experiences of being harassed on TV sets describes it as a “visual record of a troubled industry”. Those sharing are all people who love their jobs, but can see the work is breaking them. In the comments peers’ reactions to the stories are pained, that sour mix of anxiety and relief.

While plenty of careers suffer from similarly brittle and ghastly cultures, it seems the entertainment industry has managed to get away with it for so long due to those willing to compromise their health for a genius director, in order to make art, connect to millions and, of course, be close to the glamour of it all. And because consumers aren’t interested in how the sausage is made when they have a gorgeous pizza on the table in front of them. But now that more insiders are speaking out it’s only fair that those of us who enjoy the entertainment should acknowledge these forgotten entertainers and do what we can (like amplifying their voices) to ensure their safety. As more of us are being forced to rethink our workdays, looking to campaigns like these happening in the entertainment industry might even help us consider what’s important in our own working life, what lies we’ve swallowed about efficiency, what aids creativity, what time to go home. I continue to watch the IATSE talks as if a high stakes thriller. Because much as it pains me to say it, nobody should be risking their life just so I can watch my box set.