I’m Back!

… But now only once a week… And also safer!

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted on my blog in a couple of weeks. Well, I’m finally back, and here’s what I have been up to lately, and why I will be reducing to one post a week moving forward. 

Safety First

First of all, a couple of weeks ago I participated in a week long intensive Joint Health & Safety Committee training course through the Workers Health & Safety Centre. It’s a certification program that teaches workers and supervisors how to read and interpret the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the various other government regulations around Occupational Health and Safety. 

As the production industry prepares to return to work during the pandemic, the unions are taking a strong initiative to make sure that more of their members are trained in the area of workplace safety. It’s important now more than ever that our sets and production offices will be safer places to work moving forward. 

This course was a major eye opener for me. And if you belong to any of the trade unions, either in the film and television industry or in another field, I highly recommend that you look into how your union can cover the cost of you doing this training. I learned SO MUCH! And although much of what you learn in the course seems like it should be common sense, we all know that common sense is not particularly common. 

But not only that, some of what you learn is completely counterintuitive to the way that our industry currently works and has always run. There are a lot of things that we are doing wrong, that are extremely unsafe, potentially harmful, and we could all benefit from reviewing the way that we work in this industry. Covid-19 is forcing us to take a long hard look at the way things work in every area of life. It’s time to take this opportunity to look at what’s really not working in the film industry as well. 

The biggest eye openers for me were in the areas of Hours of Work, and Violence and Harassment in the Workplace. The course really forced us all to take a long hard look at the way things are, and everyone in my class had a story or five about how these issues have affected them and/or people they know in the industry. It made me realize that these issues I’ve been having while working in my industry, over the past 15 years or so, are not mine alone. Others are struggling too. And it’s past time for all of us to get together and support the trade unions in advocating for permanent changes to the industry on our behalf. 

Starting with Hours of Work, the film industry is one of a very short list of industries that do not have protections or legal requirements regarding a standard length of work day. We do not have daily or weekly limits on hours of work, or adequate daily rest periods throughout the day. We don’t get as much time off between shifts, or as much time for meal breaks as frequently, when compared to what other industries are legally entitled to under the Act.

A standard work day in the film industry is a 12 hour day and a 60 hour work week, instead of the usual 8 hour day and 40 hour work week that most people are accustomed to in their work. And anyone who works in the production industry knows that rarely is it ever even as short as a 12 hour day on set. Some departments regularly come in earlier and work later than anyone else on set. For example locations, and the art department are often the first in and the last out at the end of the day. 

Sometimes we can be working as many as 16-18 hour per day, or more, and often crew are given only a 10 hour turnaround before they have to be back on set the next day to do it all over again. And sometimes the travel time to get home is lengthy. We get a 1 hour unpaid break for lunch every 6 hours of work, and that is not nearly enough or as often as is needed for someone working so long and hard. Think of all the coffee breaks and long lunches that most people with office jobs get to take. 

Now just imagine you’re in film and that you start work at 9 am, but you don’t get to break for lunch until 3 pm in the afternoon. You’re starving and exhausted already, and then you are back to work again at 4 pm for usually at least another 6 hours, and you don’t get to go home until 10 pm usually at the earliest. And maybe you have to travel an hour or more to get home after your day ends. 

If they let you go before 10 pm, they don’t even have to give you a second meal break. They don’t need to feed you dinner, and now you have to go home and pick up some quick unhealthy takeout on your way home, that you will eat in bed before you pass out. And you might need to be back on set as early as 8 am the next day. And that shit is dangerous!! 

Plenty of people in my class had stories of crew falling asleep at the wheel and getting into accidents late at night after having worked crazy hours on set. Stories of people driving home tired and hungry at 3 am on a Friday night. And maybe nobody even knows there is anything wrong with them until they don’t show up for their call time on Monday morning. 

Many people in this industry seriously struggle to maintain their relationships. They don’t get enough time with their families. And they often might not even get a chance to see their children at all accept on the weekends. Many struggle even to find partners to have families with because they dedicate so much of their time and energy working. Some people don’t feel they have the physical, mental or emotional capacity for a relationship outside of work because their job is so demanding of them.

But this isn’t the only problem with the long hours. There’s also the fact that when people don’t get proper and regular sleep, this puts enormous amounts of stress on the body. And almost every time I’ve worked on a show, I, and much of that show’s crew, always get sick. Every time! I’ve had bronchitis, walking pneumonia, and strep throat that lasted for months, all because of the stress of working long hours and not getting enough rest and relaxation in between shifts. 

Now in the time of Covid-19 this is even more of a concern, people are much more likely to catch and spread this virus if their immune systems are low, due to working long hours. Even one case of Covid-19 could end up affecting an entire production and force it to shut back down again. It’s in the best interest of everyone including the producers to make sure that everyone is safe. And that’s going to have to mean decreasing the standard length of a production day to something a lot more reasonable.

We all need to start fighting for this. Perhaps something like a 10 hour day could make a big difference to people’s health and wellbeing in the film industry. Ideally it would eventually be argued down to a standard 8 hour day, to be in keeping with what’s expected for most industries. As we say in the biz, we are not saving lives here, we are not talking open heart surgery where the patient dies if you don’t finish the job and get your day. 

We need to at least start somewhere. And we need to put pressure on producers to change the way that the industry functions, for the betterment of everyone. It’s past time to look at this seriously. 

It was great to hear from experienced production coordinators in my class, talking about what they have already been doing to try and combat this problem on the productions they work on. One woman mentioned that she always negotiates for a 10 hour standard work day for herself and her office staff. I thought that sounded pretty awesome and perhaps more of us should be negotiating for this on the shows we work on moving forward.

I’m barely even in the door with my union yet, it’s been challenging to get in, and I’m already exhausted from my nearly 15 years in the business working myself nearly to death on passion projects, or Tier F non-union TV movies, etc. These non-union projects can be even more abusive towards crews. Expecting them to work very long hours and often the compensation is nowhere near adequate. 

For example, non-union crews often work well over their standard 12 hour day, which is already way too long, and don’t get paid a cent of overtime for their extra hours worked. This is particularly a problem with production assistants, who’s rates are already so low that enough over time hours can see them making less than minimum wage per hour, for their $200 flat daily rate. 

My union IATSE 411 saw this problem happening with production assistants, and they decided to take on unionizing PA’s in order to prevent this abuse of low wage workers. PA’s in Ontario, previously hadn’t benefited from union protections and standards of work. And 411’s unionizing of PA’s is how I was able to finally get into the union after many years of trying. 

But I’m still struggling to get work as an office production assistant, not just because of the pandemic, but because of the fact that I don’t drive. Doing runs and pickups is considered a large part of the office PA’s responsibility. So because I don’t drive, I’m not as valuable to a production as a PA without that skill, even though I am far more skilled and experienced in other areas, than your average office PA. Areas that are much more relevant to the job of a production coordinator that I’m working towards. 

As we’ve been talking more about diversity and inclusion in our industry, I see this as an example of a barrier to entry for many underprivileged BIPOC folks trying to get into this industry. Many people in this city who have not been given the same opportunities as their wealthier white peers, may not have had access to a vehicle growing up, and therefore they might not have the driving experience required of an office PA. So how do these people get into the union? 

It’s been a serious challenge for me to get in. In order to get into the union I have to be a PA first, but I can’t get work as a PA without a driver’s license. So therefore I’ve been stuck working on non-union projects as a coordinator, where the working conditions are horrible. It’s very challenging even for me to get into the union, let alone someone who doesn’t have my white prillage. 

I at least had access to a car growing up and arguably could have gotten my driver’s license, if I had just applied myself to it more. However there are many underprivileged people in our BIPOC communities, who’ve never had access to a vehicle, who’s families never had the money for drivers education, and they don’t stand a chance of breaking in this field. And that’s a problem! 

The job of a production coordinator is an office job, it’s about paperwork, organization and communications skills. It really has nothing to do with driving skills. So why is being a PA with a driver’s license the only channel of entry into a position that has nothing to do with driving? It doesn’t make much sense to me, and I think it’s another thing that we need to take a look at in our industry in order to help make it more inclusive to a greater number of people. 

How can we make opportunities more accessible to diverse people entering the industry? People with skills in other areas, who could be a major asset to this industry, if given more of a chance. Perhaps they should be separate jobs: office production assistants for assisting in the office working with the coordinators doing paperwork, and some production drivers for doing the runs and pickups needed. 

Next, I want to talk about violence and harassment in the workplace when it comes to the film and television production industries. It’s still a very big problem, even after all of the work of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. And I’m still unsure how we can begin to combat it, even after taking this course, and having some deep discussions about it with some people with a lot more experience than I in this industry. 

At the very least we are seeing it talked about more. And there is more of a zero tolerance policy for outright physical or verbal abuse on set, when witnessed by others who can corroborate or report that abuse. But what about the fact that our industry is entirely without job security, because of the freelance nature and impermanence of working from project to project with different people?

Generally most projects employ freelancers for about 3 to 6 months at a time, and we rely on word of mouth, personal relationships and nepotism to gain our next gig, one after the other. We’re hoping to take on enough work each season to hold us over throughout the winter months, when things usually quiet down. So it’s extremely important to maintain positive working relationships with those above you, particularly with those who do the hiring like a producer or PM. And this is especially concerning for those just working their way into the industry, without enough solid connections. 

This presents a problem because if a producer or PM is the person responsible for the harassment or unfair treatment of a junior crew member, it’s clear what protocols can be undertaken during the production that abuse happened during… But what about how reporting on that abuse of power could affect your ability to gain work on the next show, and the next? Because we all know that there are plenty of “Harvey Weinstein” types still in this business.

There is also often an enormous amount of pressure put on production crew members to work crazy hours, endure uncomfortable working conditions and push themselves far beyond what is reasonable or healthy for them. Oftentimes I find that I have been set up to fail by my producers or PM’s. I often find myself being given far too much responsibility to produce impossible results, with insufficient time allotted in the schedule for it, and without the required support personnel I need to achieve it. 

When that has happened to me, I always end up having to take the fall and suffer the consequences of my producers and production managers’ poor planning, insufficient budgeting, and enormous expectations of me. When things inevitably go wrong, and they always do, it’s me that’s going to get in trouble, get blamed, get fired, and/or lose out on future opportunities with those producers or PM’s I speak up against. And that is so beyond not fair and I don’t know what to do about it moving forward. 

I just don’t know what the answer is… but I know that we have to have some way of holding these people in positions of power accountable for their actions and responsibilities as employers of crew. Because when a producer or PM is abusing their power and I stand up for myself, or say something when it’s just not right, I stand to not only lose my current job on a show, but I also stand to lose out on future opportunities down the line. How can we fix this? 

The discussions we had during this course really opened my eye to what a lot of people have been dealing with in this industry. I felt a kinship with the others (mostly women) in my course, and a sense that we are all in this together and need to start working together to make our sets and offices safer places to be and work in. 

Family Fun

The other thing that’s been happening in my life lately besides this course, is the much preparation and excitement leading up to and including my sister’s bachelorette party last weekend, and her upcoming wedding at the end of this week. It was so wonderful getting to spend some time visiting with my family up north last weekend and I’m so excited to go up again this weekend coming. 

I would normally get up to my parents cottage home for a visit, at least on all the long weekends in the summertime, but this summer has been very strange for everyone because of Covid. It was such a treat to get to go up and spend time on the water floating and partying it up with my sister and some of her best friends, our cousins and their families and friends. 

We went out boating on Georgian Bay, where I grew up spending my summers. It was my very first time sleeping out on a boat on one of the islands since I was a teenager and it was such a gift. Absolutely the highlight of my summer so far, and I would really love to get another opportunity like that in the future. It was so special. 

Being so isolated away from my family during this pandemic and going through this as a single person and living on my own has been a huge challenge for me. It’s definitely making me reconsider my priorities in life. I really would like to be able to spend more time with my family, and take the time to create a family of my own to have close to me at a time like this. 

This has pushed me back onto the dating apps, after a long absence from it, with a renewed vigour, and very clear description of what I’m looking for in a partnership. I’ve been spending more of my writing time each day updating my profile, writing long text message exchanges, virtually or distantly meeting with and getting to know new people, to see if we might have a connection that might lead to a family in the future. 

It has been challenging and frustrating and hard on the ego sometimes, but hopefully my efforts will be fruitful at some point, and I won’t have to go through another pandemic alone. Haha! Hopefully I will be able to create the alternative family that I’m looking for, but if not, even just one monogamous partner to do life with would be a step up from where I’m at right now. Two is better than one. I am really welcoming love and intimacy into my life right now and focusing my efforts on that. 

Writing Time

Also, as the production industry gears up to come back from the lockdown, I’m beginning to realize that soon I might not have a lot of time to concentrate on writing my blog as well as my scripts during the work week. I really need to get my pilot script done for my series, so that I can have a recent sample of my work to shop around for possible TV writing gigs. And I might not have a lot of time left to get that done before I’m back to working 16 hour days on another movie or TV show for the rest of summer and fall.

I’ve been thinking, what if instead of always spending my spring, summer and fall months working crazy hours on the production side of things in the film business, I was employed year round as a TV writer. That way I would be able to work remotely much more of the time, spending more time up north on Georgian Bay with my family. I would really like to have a better balance in my life. I love working in film and TV, but I would much rather do a more creative role and one that doesn’t take over my whole life like production work does.

So, I’ve decided to start focusing more of my writing time on my pilot script and only publish a blog post once per week, or perhaps sometimes every other week, whenever I have other demands on my time. I want to focus more on the script because once I’m working I will probably be doing most of my writing on the weekends. I will likely become too busy, tired and overwhelmed for producing anything of value in my writing time during the work week. 

So that’s me, that’s my update on what I’ve been up to these past few weeks that I’ve been quiet. What’s going on with you?