Alberta is feeling an exciting buzz of large-budget film and television productions, and locals can’t help but feel a little starstruck when big names like HBO and Disney’s FX are filming in their own backyards.
However, behind the smiling faces of beloved actors, the bright lights and expensive cameras there’s a somber truth about movie magic – film workers are dangerously fatigued.
In an industry where deadlines mean everything, where content is being pumped out faster than ever to meet the needs of ever-growing streaming services, the film industry is an environment that has normalized overworking their employees – in some cases literally to death.
WHO NEEDS SLEEP?
In 1997, camera operator Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel while driving home to his family after a 19-hour shift for Pleasantville in California. He was killed when his car hit a telephone pole, and his death inspired director Haskell Wexler to make the 2006 documentary Who Needs Sleep? which addressed the epidemic of fatigue in the industry and the potentially fatal effects of the industry’s demands.
Wexler’s documentary, along with numerous studies, shows that sleep deprivation results in levels of impairment similar to those for using alcohol or drugs.
Nearly 25 years later, people in the industry are still working the kind of hours that lead to Hershman’s, and many others’, deaths and injuries.
A visit to the @ia_stories Instagram page, where film workers anonymously submit their experiences about the industry reveals over 1,000 stories of individuals who have experienced the negative effects of sleep deprivation first hand, some with their own falling-asleep-at-the-wheel horror stories, tacked on with mistreatment from higher-ups and exploitation.
These issues are not contained to Hollywood; it is industry-wide, including in Canada. Working in film comes at the expense of one’s personal life, and likely your mental and physical well-being – this is a truth embedded in the culture of the industry, and Conor Samphire, Hrachya Tokmajyan, and others in the Canadian industry don’t see things changing anytime soon.
Samphire, 36, has worked in film for just over 10 years, having experience with both the private sector and with union projects. Samphire says he worked “19 to 22 hours every day” his first week on the job for a major production company.
“You just worked,” Samphire says, “And because it was my first union one, it’s like, I’m not going to complain because you do the work, you keep getting hired.”
Samphire compares his experience with fatigue to being on a sports field.
“It’s just mind boggling to me that people would think that that’s safe and it’s really scary. But as a very young person, who’s just starting out in this industry, I don’t want that to happen to me.”Kiara Rivers
“I play sports and I always liken it to when I’m on the field and I’ve been like, it’s the end of the game and there’s a guy running by me and I know I should be able to catch him but I just don’t have the energy to do that. That’s usually the kind of fatigue I feel,” Samphire says.
It’s so common for five-day work weeks to turn into six-days when Friday shifts bleed into Saturday that there’s an industry term for it: ‘Fraturdays.’
“That leaves basically Sunday to do all of your shopping and laundry, and like day to day stuff, which really doesn’t leave much time for anything else,” Samphire says. “It’s really hard. I’ve seen quite a few divorces because of the industry, and God forbid you’re trying to start something new.”
Samphire, working as a locations production assistant during a filming in Calgary at the time of his interview, says, “We’ve been going for months and the burnout is real. Like it’s not so much, they’re overworking in a daily sense, but just, they haven’t had time off for a few months now.”
Hrachya Tokmajyan, 22, is newer to the Canadian industry, having graduated from SAIT’s film and video production program just over a year ago, yet is already familiar with the heavy demands of production companies.
“It becomes your life. It’s not really a job. It’s more like, for six months this is your life. It’s not a nine to five where you have some time to breathe. It’s more of you need to shape your life to accommodate for this giant production.”Hrachya Tokmajyan
Like Samphire, he has worked long shifts with short turnaround times, but says you just power through it because “there’s about a 100, 200 people who would take your job if you don’t want it.”
Tokmajyan adds, “Especially if you’re just starting out, like I am, or even if you’re working those jobs in the mid-tier range … you are replaceable and they need to remind you of that.”
With the long, unpredictable hours in film, Tokmajyan said when it comes to having a personal life, “it affects it to the point of where you don’t have any.”
The young filmmaker points out that he sees his co-workers more than he sees his friends and family.
“It kind of just becomes all encompassing. It becomes your life. It’s not really a job,” Tokmajyan said. “It’s more like, for six months this is your life. It’s not a nine to five where you have some time to breathe. It’s more of you need to shape your life to accommodate for this giant production.”
Tokmajyan describes working in film as “more than a full time job. It’s a full-time lifestyle.”
Kiara Rivers, a recent film graduate who has been working in the industry right out of film school, says she had an older coworker share a story of a 16-hour work day, and having a half an hour drive home after that.
“It’s just mind-boggling to me that people would think that that’s safe and it’s really scary. But as a very young person, who’s just starting out in this industry, I don’t want that to happen to me,” Rivers says.
She says these types of hours are “normalized to a lot of people in the industry.”
“People who have been working here or in the industry for longer and who are at least older than myself are just like, `oh yeah, that’s just another day, it happens. It’s like, no, that shouldn’t be happening at all. That’s so dangerous,” Rivers says.
ALL BEND, NO BREAK
On top of these grueling shifts, those in film often do not get proper breaks, sometimes not even to eat.
Damian Petti, who has been in the Canadian industry for over 25 years and president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 212 for the past 22 years, says ‘rolling lunches’ are a pressing issue for labour unions like IATSE.
“You’re not really getting a break. So my members are loudly asking us to find a way to stop rolling lunches, for example. How on earth do we need language that prevents people from going nine hours without food?”Damian Petti
“You’re just being fed the food as quickly as possible. And you’re not really getting a break. So my members are loudly asking us to find a way to stop rolling lunches, for example. How on earth do we need language that prevents people from going nine hours without food?” Petti says.
Unions exist to mitigate issues around safety and protection of workers, but with larger budget productions, it’s getting more and more difficult for them to protect workers.
Samphire, who has worked both in the private sector and with unions, says working for smaller budget productions with union hours tend not to be as intense because the employer can’t afford the overtime penalties.
When money is no object to production companies, however, they’ll push their workers to work longer because “it’s cheaper to just work people longer hours than it is to end the day,” says Samphire.
Production companies being able to simply pay off overtime, meal, or break penalties may become a more common occurrence in Canada in the coming years.
Petti says his local in southern Alberta alone has seen rapid growth the past year, adding hundreds of new members. This is in part due to the recent boom the Alberta industry is experiencing.
“Alberta has got some unique challenges because our provincial government recently removed the caps that limit the size of the budget,” Petti says, “so we’re finding ourselves with some of the largest budget projects in the world shooting right here and in Alberta.”
Although higher-budget projects and an increase in jobs are exciting prospects for our film industry, Petti says there’s a concerning catch – dealing with rich, multinational conglomerates.
Multi-billion dollar companies that dip their hands into the Canadian film industry may come with the promises of prosperity, but Petti acknowledges the underlying threat present when working under these conglomerates – how do you hold the richest companies in the world accountable for exploitation when the current system relies on financial penalties?
“It’s a David and Goliath story about how much money the streamers have and how on earth is there an issue about ‘these people can’t even eat lunch’ and you know, after nine hours they haven’t had their lunch. What? There’s a disconnect.”
“There’s a lot more money in this industry than there used to be, but the penalties were designed to put a stop, not to be paid,” says Petti.
THE FUTURE OF FILM
A lot of the discussion around film workers’ rights has been centered in the United States, given the higher concentration of productions and workers. This past November, several IATSE locals in the United States threatened the first nationwide mass labour strike of its kind.
The problems the 13 West Coast IATSE chapters highlighted in their demands included excessive and unsafe working hours, unlivable wages, failure to provide adequate rests during both meal breaks and between work days, and the issue of “new media” workers being paid less even on high-budget productions.
A deal was struck on Nov. 15, narrowly avoiding the first strike of its kind in IATSE’s 128 years of existing.
According to the official IATSE press release, the combined popular vote results for the two contracts showed 50.3 per cent for yes and 49.7 per cent for no, meaning nearly half of IATSE members who voted were left unsatisfied.
Although Canadian IATSE locals were not involved with the voting, they stood in solidarity with their neighbours down south as, Kiara Rivers put it, “we’re all going through the exact same thing.”
Even with the rising awareness of the issues in the industry, both Samphire and Tokmajyan say they don’t anticipate significant change happening in the near future.
“I think it will be more of the same,” Samphire says.
“It takes a lot out of you,” Tokmajyan adds, “but that’s the nature of it. And I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon, if I’m being honest. It’s just people need content.”
Petti is a bit more optimistic on the future, but agrees it would not be without great effort.
“I can’t see that happening overnight, but I can see an appetite for the change to come and the leaders have to work with the engaged people that they represent. So I think there’s a larger, louder voice as a result of recent contracts. And I think the push will continue into the next ones, but it will take time,” Petti says.