‘It’s only a matter of time’: Australian film industry crew say long days are dangerous and potentially deadly

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Two out of three Australian screen workers participating in a union survey say they have fallen asleep while driving either to or from work, with dangerously long hours alleged by workers in 85% of cases.

The findings by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), which followed interviews with more than 200 screen professionals, are being used to launch a national campaign called Wake Up Call, to put pressure on film and television producers to improve working conditions and set reasonable production schedules in an unpredictable and highly competitive industry.

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Negotiations between overseas studios and producers to renew the industry template for international feature films will take place in the coming months, and Australian screen professionals will be given the opportunity to outline how the industry can develop safer working practices and more family-friendly work hours.

Earlier this year, a young crew member working on a major new international series being shot in Sydney, fell asleep at the wheel after completing an unscheduled overtime shift ending after midnight.

He crashed his van into a power pole. No one was injured in the accident.

The Australian campaign kicks off amid a similar industrial dispute in the US. A strike of more than 60,000 industry union members threatened to bring Hollywood to a standstill on Sunday before a last-minute three-year agreement was reached between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSI) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The agreement includes improved wages and working conditions and a 10-hour turnaround time between shifts.

Along with the MEAA, the UK’s Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (Bectu) was watching the North American developments closely.

Kelly Wood, the director of the MEAA’s entertainment, crew and sport sector, told Guardian Australia the local screen industry was operating on a dangerous level of fatigue, with working hours commonly stretching between 12 to 16 hours.

“We need to change the culture of extremely long working hours,” she said.

“It’s really clear from our survey, that it’s not just about the data; it’s the stories that people are telling about their experiences working on productions. It’s clear that these hours are not sustainable – they’re not healthy and they’re not safe for people.”

Different rules

The chief executive of Screen Producers Australia, Matthew Deaner, said his association recently released, in collaboration with the MEAA, new national guidelines for screen safety.

The guidelines discourage excessive hours and contain built-in safeguards such as minimum breaks between shifts, significant penalty rates, night loadings, caps on pre-purchased overtime, and travel on paid time.

“We find that productions that have their own separate agreements with the MEAA, and not the Australian framework, often don’t have these built-in protections for their workforce and that can create greater risks for our talented crew,” he said.

Wood disagrees, saying unrealistic production schedules, seeking to save time and cut costs, is as much a problem with local productions as international ones.

“The problem is across all productions, it’s really to do with the working culture,” she said. “The squeeze on schedules, essentially trying to get too much done in too little time, pushes the hours out.”

Sydney-based hair and makeup artist Helen Tuck, who specialises in prosthetics and special effects, said she regularly works 16-hour shifts, and sometimes the 10-hour mandated break between shifts is broken. Under Australian conditions, breaking the mandate attracts triple pay for the hours worked within the 10-hour timeframe, a penalty rate Tuck said she received on a number of occasions.

While travelling home from an all-night shoot on a Hollywood film made in Sydney in 2019, Tuck awoke in her car to the blast of a horn. She had fallen asleep after stopping at a red light.

“What’s unsustainable is the unrealistic scheduling by the studios and production companies,” she said.

“If they just added an extra week to the schedule the shoot would have shorter days, the crew could be more rested, people won’t fall asleep at the wheel.

“But it’s cheaper for [for studios and producers] to work crew into overtime than it is to add more days to the schedule, because of factors like location and actor availability – the most expensive things on a film. Adding an extra week for an A-list actor costs so much more money than working 100 crew into overtime.”

Tuck says a lack of work-life balance puts added mental health pressure on screen industry professionals. Over the years, she has missed family milestones and forgone family vacations.

Production designer of 30 years Fiona Donovan said choosing her career meant choosing not to have children with her partner.

“That’s the only way I’ve been able to keep my career going – because of the unsustainable hours, a lot of my contemporaries just left the industry when they had kids,” she said. “This isn’t a cottage industry, it’s an industry that should be getting the professionalism it deserves.”

Tuck said that on sets with cranes and heavy rigging equipment, productions with exploding cars and weapons as props, fatigue becomes a serious workplace health and safety issue.

“It’s only a matter of time until there’s a fatal mistake on set … it shouldn’t have to get to the point where someone dies for people to actually start making a change.”

The MEAA said the developments in North America over the weekend were encouraging.

“What it has shown is that it is possible to create change, if [unions] have power at the negotiating table,” Wood said.

“That’s something we will be talking with crew about over the coming months. We know what it will take to do it. And it’s been going to be in their hands. Certainly industrial action is something that could be on the cards. That decision is ultimately up to members of the union.”

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