Eight Hours for Hollywood

After veteran line producer Robert Schneider budgeted a $40 millionbelow-the-line studio feature film based on the usual 12-hour shooting day,he decided to try an experiment. He re-budgeted the same film based on aneight-hour day. He was challenging the long-held assumption that moviecrews must work a 12-hour minimum day to counter the high daily costs ofstage, location, and equipment rentals.

He extended the 17-week shooting schedule to 20 weeks and refigured thebudget based on an eight-hour camera day with one-hour prep time andone-hour wrap time.

The new budget came in one million dollars cheaper.

“I wanted to dispel the notion that working shorter, more humane hoursmeant increased costs,” says Schneider. “I’ve suspected for a long timethat on many films, it’s cheaper and more efficient to shoot basicallystraight-time days than to shoot extended hours that are inefficient andpaid for at premium rates.”

Schneider and his wife, first assistant director Yudi Bennett, operateBudgets By Design, Glendale, California. The company creates shootingschedules and budgets for clients such as Tim Robbins, Spike Lee, and DavidFincher.

The length of film production work days has been a hot topic in theHollywood community since the March 6, 1997, death of assistant cameraman(AC) Brent Hershman. Hershman, 35, was killed when he fell asleep at thewheel and hit a utility pole driving home after a 19-hour work day onPleasantville, a New Line film directed by Gary Ross. (Hershman had startedout as a camera loader on Indecent Proposal in 1993 and was working up theAC ladder.)

A “Brent’s Rule” petition asking producers to limit shooting days to 14hours gathered more than 10,000 Hollywood signatures. All the major unionsand guilds have formed committees to study the issue, but the industry hasyet to adopt concrete proposals to curb excessive hours.

On March 6, 1998, the first anniversary of Hershman’s death, Brent’s Rulesupporters asked production companies to wrap at 14 hours to honor theircolleague’s memory. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler took out ads in thetrade papers to request the one-day memorial.

Schneider’s information-if accurate-is a bombshell that spins thediscussion in a radical new direction. If shorter days actually saveproduction costs, the most widely accepted rationale for extended workingdays has no validity. Producers with an eye on the bottom line would bemotivated to work crews far under the proposed 14-hour limit for purelyfiscal reasons.

“Most budgets are broken down so that labor represents an average of 72percent of every dollar,” says Schneider. “Materials represent the other 28percent. It’s obviously weighted toward expensive labor. It’s simplemathematics and a fact that many studio people have espoused for years.Longer shooting days are more inefficient and just don’t make sense.”

Schneider has considerable experience in the field. His production manager(UPM) credits include White Fang and An Officer and A Gentleman. Hisproposed budget paid the crew at straight time with a small amount ofovertime-and included an overtime allowance just in case.

Donna Smith, former senior vice-president of physical production forUniversal Studios and current president and CEO of film insurance andcompletion bond company Entertainment Coalition, Universal City, says: “Myfirst reaction was, ‘Give me a break. We all know a 12-hour day is best.’But this information is provocative.”

Does Smith believe an eight-hour shooting day to be practical? “Yes, Ithink it is, but I feel 10 hours will win out. This is an original ideathat would be decent, better, more thoughtful… and economically smart.”

Penelope Foster, whose co-producer credits include the feature filmsRosewood, Operation Dumbo Drop, Silent Fall, and Free Willy and the NBC MOWFive Desperate Hours, says: “This is something that the industry shouldtake a serious look at. I think it may be a more viable option for in-townshooting as opposed to distant locations, but, in my opinion, companiesshould start doing comparison budgets on a per-show basis, and the proofwill be in the numbers. Then companies may actually start shortening thehours.”

Tom Joyner, executive producer of That Old Feeling, former vice-presidentof feature production at Warner Brothers, and current senior vice presidentof production for World Wide Film Completion, Santa Monica, concurs. “Sinceeach picture is individual and unique, and some would lend themselves toshort days more than others, it only makes sense to look at it to see whatis the most efficient way of working.”

Schneider elaborates: “The economic viability is just common sense. Eighthours of work that gets eight hours of pay is cheaper than 14 hours of workthat gets 17-1/2 hours pay, and beyond that it becomes almost geometric.When you get up to 16 or 17 hours, you’re paying for 22 or 23. It’s nuts!And I say that having done a huge number of budgets over the past fewyears. It just works that way.”

Schneider revealed the results of his experiment in an October, 1997 letterto the editor of Above & Below, the newsletter of Media Services, LosAngeles (an industry payroll service). Editor Jette Sorensen (writing underthe name B. N. Counter) responded: “That experiment certainly shot holes inmy theory about equipment cost. I don’t know if any of our readers havecreated similar budgets. I certainly would like to hear about it.” To date,only one response has been logged.

Sorensen, who was production accountant on An Officer and A Gentleman, 48Hours, Staying Alive, and Major League, elaborates: “I gave that answer topoint out what most people believe, but I have always argued with producersthat shooting shorter days would be cheaper-especially now with daysgetting much longer than 12 hours. It’s the salaries that are expensive. Iwould love to see shorter shooting days.”

The questionable assumption that working extended hours is cost-effectiveis so widely accepted that it is routinely reported as fact. In the August13, 1997, issue of Hollywood Reporter, an article on SAG’s support ofefforts to establish a 12-hour maximum work day ends, “Limiting hoursworked in a day would result in longer film and TV shoots, which would costthe companies more money.”

Schneider contends that axiom becomes false when the work day has aneight-hour straight-time base, rather than an overtime-heavy 12-hour base.Likewise, an article in the August 8, 1997, issue of Daily Variety onIATSE’s support of efforts to cut back extended hours says: “Some industrysources say as long as it’s economically advantageous to work 19-hourshifts, the long work days will continue. In short, paying an A-level actorfor extra, unscheduled days is more expensive than asking cinematographers,grips, and gaffers to work into the night.”

Schneider disagrees. “When a picture is scheduled and prepared properly,and A-level actor deals are made with a real understanding of what it takesto make a movie, there is enough leeway created that emergency’unscheduled’ measures don’t have to trigger megabuck penalties.”

Schneider goes on: “If you’re going to pay somebody $20 million to be in amovie, you pay them $20 million whether it’s a 20-week schedule or an18-week schedule. Those big salaries don’t get extended substantially. Infact, actors who get those kinds of salaries often have a finite number ofwork hours written into their personal deals.”

Bennett advocates shorter hours because of the safety factors, not thefinancial benefits. “It is unforgivable that people have been injured andkilled making movies. If working shorter hours can prevent these tragedies,then it’s an idea we should all embrace regardless of cost.”

Bennett’s first assistant director credits include The Game, I’m NotRappaport, The Client, and Pleasantville-the movie Hershman was working onwhen he died. That tragedy compelled Bennett to form the Directors GuildSafety Committee where she has met with industry leaders from all theunions and guilds to discuss ways of implementing a shorter, safer workday.

“There wasn’t a person I met with who wouldn’t like to work shorter hours,”Bennett says. “What they’re afraid of is that the studios won’t extend theschedules accordingly. If you say to any producer, director, or actor,’Would you like to have two extra weeks and work shorter days?,’ the answeris, ‘Yes!’ The catch is: Are you really going to get the extra time at theend? Everybody’s afraid the answer’s going to be ‘No.'”

How would the shorter work day effect episodic TV, where air dates oftenadd pressure to work extended hours? “Oddly enough, in episodic, you havetwo extremes,” explains Bennett. “You have shows that have so little money,they pull the plug after 12 hours. Then you have the other extreme: showsthat repeatedly work 19 and 20 hours. What this proves is that it’s aboutstyle and personality and what the people in charge feel about the issue.It’s not about what’s possible and what’s not possible.”

Bennett adds: “The key to shorter working hours is changing a mind set.People are creatures of habit, and we do what we’ve always done until westop and think about it and say, ‘There’s got to be a better way.'”

Veteran Murphy Brown producer Bob Jeffords, author of Jeffords Rules andRegulations, a widely used compendium of union rules that is organized bysubject, agrees wholeheartedly with Schneider’s theory. At first, Jeffordsfeared producers might resist working shorter days. “It removes some of thecreative flexibility in their minds. But we know from various aestheticsphilosophers that limitation is a great impetus for the creation of art. Soif we give them good guidelines, the quality of the product might very wellimprove.”

The logic of a shorter work day is not universally accepted, however. KoolMarder, Universal Studios’ vice president of production, in consultationwith studio estimator Randy Lencioni, takes a more cautious view. “This issuch a general statement that it would be hard to corroborate. Each filmreally has its own peculiarities and restrictions. You have release dates,actor availabilities, location restrictions, and weather problems. You alsohave directors who don’t always shoot as quickly and efficiently as wewould like, so I think each film really needs to be taken on a case-by-casebasis.”

Changing the mind set of studios and directors may be a tall order. LeonDudevoir, vice-president of physical production for New Line Cinema, LosAngeles, points out: “All the arithmetic here is absolutely correct, butthe savings have to come from somewhere, and it’s coming from the pocketsof the crew members. They’d be working more days, but they’d bestraight-time days. There are only 52 weeks in a year, and they’d be makingless money per week. Actors that are getting paid scale like day playersand stuntmen would have a big problem with it. They would be getting moretime in their life, and that is important, but it is more important to someand less to others.”

Pleasantville cinematographer John Lindley, whose credits also includeField of Dreams, Father of the Bride, and Sleeping with the Enemy, says:”I’m sure there are some people who want all the overtime they can get, butthey’re not representative of the body of people who want to work safelyand reasonably. They get equal weight because people are eager to representthe other side of this issue.”

Lindley continues: “Is the 16-hour shooting day a practical idea? Is thereany employer in any industry who can honestly say that a worker in the 16thhour of a work shift is so productive that he or she should be paid twicetheir hourly wage?”

Lindley adds, “It sounds like nonsense, but it is the way a lot of filmwork is done every day. It defies common sense as well as financialanalysis, and it threatens the safety of all involved-both on the set andon the drive home. This process also threatens people outside the industrywhen fatigued workers are let loose on the highway.”

Michael Grillo, executive producer of The Peacemaker and head of physicalfeature production at Dreamworks SKG, brings up a different issue. “I thinkthat limits are terrific. They can be very helpful to a movie, bothcreatively and financially. It makes filmmakers take a look at what’simportant and why they’re making the movie. [But] I just don’t believecutting it all the way down to an eight-hour work day is feasible. I thinkit’s too short for what we do. You’ve got to give the director a good shotat getting his work done.”

Grillo goes on: “I don’t know any director who would support going homeafter eight hours. Most directors with a passion for making the movie asgood as they can would not support that kind of limit.”

But 38-year veteran director Alexander Singer would disagree: “Very few ofus are doing our best work in the 15th or 20th hour, and all of us have satalongside death in our cars, driving home, struggling to stay awake behindthe wheel.”

Singer, whose credits include five features and 286 television shows, waspart of a failed effort by the Directors Guild 12 years ago to limit workdays to 12 hours. He says: “Sleep deprivation is the single most pervasivedamage that the industry inflicts on its talented people. Of course, someof my colleagues have no limits on the hours they want to work.”

Donna Smith observes: “I think the biggest deterrent to setting this up isgoing to be an unprepared director. The first question of the day on setshould not be, ‘Where am I going to put the camera?'”

Leon Dudevoir, who was production executive in charge of Boogie Nights,Dumb and Dumber, and Dark City, says: “The opening shot of Boogie Nightstook 10 hours. We couldn’t have done it in an eight-hour day.”

Cinematographer Lindley points out: “When a movie shoots day exteriors, thelength of the shooting day is dictated by the availability of naturallight. Many of those days are 12 hours or less, and the work getsaccomplished. If we allow nature to limit the length of our work day,shouldn’t we also allow reason to do the same?”

Titanic’s brutally long hours were the subject of a story in Timemagazine’s April 21, 1997, issue. That article reported that a Tijuanawoman was severely injured in an auto accident after working until 3 am asa script supervisor.

Titanic co-producer Sharon Mann explains: “You start out budgeting what youcan predict, but when the picture turns out to be bigger than anyone hadever conceived or made before in the history of movie making, how can yousay it would have been cheaper if? It was the first time any of that wasever done. In retrospect, a lot of things could have been done differently.Maybe hours could have been one of them, but that’s only a piece of thepie. Safety is very important to me, and I do think a shorter work weekwould be healthier for everybody, but if you try to define a movie by howmany hours you work a day, you’re forgetting why you’re working.”

Mann goes on: “Shooting a movie is a world away from budgeting a movie.Making a movie is a very complex, intricate, delicate, and roughundertaking. Pulling the plug is a very tough decision. In fact, we havethe power now to wrap after eight hours. Or 10. Or 12.”

Meanwhile, with feature film budgets rising and production andpostproduction schedules putting directors and studios at loggerheads, theaverage Hollywood work day grows longer and longer.

Marsha Scarbrough, who lives in Los Angeles, has been an assistant directorfor 17 years. Her TV credits include American Pie (NBC Productions), Teech(Columbia TV), NewsRadio (Brillstein/Grey), and Doctor, Doctor (ReevesEntertainment). Her feature film credits include Bird, Skin Deep, Hard toKill, and Sunset. She is a graduate of the DGA, West’s assistant directorstraining program. She also contributes to Written By: The Journal of theWriter’s Guild of America.

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