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First Person

Dying to Work a Non-Union Internet Commercial

“We’re trying to get in as many shoots as possible before they shut things back down.”

My palms started to sweat as I processed the implications. I’d just accepted my first job since early March, Assistant Directing a toy commercial, and my heart was beating out of my chest. I had agreed to this dangerous proposition under duress; my unemployment was running out. After getting the offer, I hung up and immediately opened the PDF I’d filed away days prior. I did not think I would need it this soon. It’s an industry white paper full of “Proposed Health and Safety Guidelines for Motion Picture, Television, and Streaming Productions During the COVID-19 Pandemic”.

Health & Safety Guidelines Document

As an AD, two of my main responsibilities on set are to keep the show on schedule and to keep everyone safe. I started taking notes but couldn’t focus as I scrolled past unending bullet points, my mind aflush with questions that this guide admitted literally no one can answer:

How will I balance these conflicting responsibilities? How do you gather 35 people at a house during a pandemic and keep them healthy? Is this much needed paycheck worth the risk of spreading COVID? Will I get sick? Will the crew? Will the crews’ families? What is a Covid Compliance Officer? Where does one find a certified CCO? Who certifies them? Is filming even allowed yet? What is ethical here?

The next day, June 5th, Governor Newsom announced film & TV shoots could resume beginning June 12th, answering one of these questions. LA’s rush to reopen over the last few weeks has been confusing, to say the least. Two days after Garcetti launched an outdoor dining program, Newsom ordered all bars in LA county closed, citing CAs ever rising spread of COVID-19. On the same day Mayor Eric Garcetti told us, “we are moving this slowly and this deliberately because hasty action …kills people,” he also announced that retail would be opening for curbside pickup that week. Shops had two days to prepare safety plans, acquire PPE, inform staff, and get back to work.

People are struggling through this pandemic with little to no government support and they are desperate to make money. Many more are compelled to go back to work for fear of retribution from their employer or loss of unemployment benefits. But going back to work is not safe. According to Barbara Ferrer, LA County Director of Public Health, 83% of restaurants and bars were found to not be in compliance with COVID-19 protocols during the first three weeks after reopening. LA County is home to 1% of the world’s coronavirus cases. Garcetti is right, hasty action kills people. The rush to reopen film is just that, hasty; there is no safe way to film indoors during a pandemic.

A New Job Description: Not Killing People

Not killing people by enforcing COVID-19 protocols was now an integral part of my job. I spent hours and hours in meetings and on calls discussing the protocols we would follow. I spent many more hours reading and scheming late into the night. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I read the available white papers front to back, making notes and lists, watching videos, and calling other ADs to talk through ideas. Through all the prep I couldn’t shake the feeling that this whole thing was just a bad idea. It was too soon to be filming a commercial, let alone indoors with a crew of thirty-five.

The guidelines suggest two important changes to ensure crew safety and limit transmission. One element is testing for all crew and cast. Crew-wide testing was not possible, a producer told me. They told me testing is too expensive, plus “some tests are only 40% accurate, which can make crew complacent and less safe.” Meanwhile, all the industry guidelines stress the importance of testing and the city’s testing facilities are overwhelmed. One guideline states “regular, periodic testing of cast and crew for COVID-19 is critical for a safe return to work.” The other recommended change is a new position, a Health Safety Supervisor (HSS) or Covid Compliance Officer, charged with ensuring the production follows all the health protocols suggested in the guides. A medical worker first and foremost, they administer tests, screen crew for symptoms using daily surveys, oversee placement of handwashing stations, and ensure sets are well ventilated and disinfected frequently. The guide suggests this person be specially trained or certified.

I called Film LA, the office that issues permits for LA County, to see if they could offer any suggestions for navigating this dangerous frontier. The rep I spoke with, let’s call him Jake, was very frank with me about Film LAs perspective and requirements. Film LA didn’t have to change its process at all, really. Besides suggesting folks follow the guideline document, Film LA would take a hands off approach to all things COVID. They would not require testing. They would not supply an HSS or even check to make sure productions have one. They had no suggestions on where to find a certified HSS. They would not limit or monitor crew size, even for productions shooting indoors. We shared a moment of frustration over the push to open so quickly.

Jake suggested I email email hidden; JavaScript is required with my concerns. He suspected that Film LA’s main goal was to avoid liability. In normal times, the permit office often requires a film monitor to ensure rules are being followed when filming on public property. Larger productions are required to have Fire Safety Advisors to ensure fire codes are followed. Providing a COVID monitor would open Film LA up to unknown lawsuits, so they simply would not wade into those waters. By refusing to take responsibility or open itself up to liability, Film LA deflects that responsibility onto production companies and producers.

What exactly producers do isn’t clear to folks outside the industry. Producers decide how the budget is spent and hire the crew. They have every incentive to cut corners, skimp on resources, and externalize costs in any way possible. Producers changing timecards is an unspoken expectation for many production assistants (entry level film workers). California law requires a meal break every 6 hours. Crew members who agree to waive the penalty can earn a reputation as a “team player,” a loaded term weaponized industry-wide to filter out non-compliant employees asserting adherence to laws. Even in the union world, shortcuts are taken to save money that risk the health and well being of everyone. The non-union world doesn’t have the same protections for crew; we work in higher risk conditions for a fraction of the benefit. There are plenty of producers that will run things safely, but oversight is needed to ensure compliance.

Your life is in their hands.

Signs everywhere.

Producers themselves are quick to deflect liability as well. For this shoot, we had multiple Zoom calls, recorded for legal purposes, full of very specific language designed to inform contractors we “assume all risk of illness, injury, harm, [or] death,” related to COVID-19. When I finally received my contract with this language three days before filming and three days after we first gathered to scout the location, negotiating the contract was not an option, so I signed away my rights. Quitting now would make the experience less safe for the crew, and hurt these working relationships, plus the producer informed me that this clause was also inserted to protect ME from a lawsuit. That clause won’t hold up to legal scrutiny, but entry level workers minimum wage workers like Production Assistants (PAs) can’t afford a lawyer during a pandemic or otherwise; many can’t afford healthcare at all (source: I spent years PAing without healthcare). All the PAs I called for the job were not interested. When I asked the producer to provide hazard pay for PAs, I was accused of “being political,” so I left it to production to fill those roles. Even Amazon offered hazard pay increases in light of the pandemic.

Production agreed to hire a second HSS officer, which made me feel a bit better about things, but not by much. All the guides suggest this position be autonomous and empowered. As with any freelancer, the pressure to make producers happy is often at odds with doing things safely and advocating for your rights. Producers don’t have to fire anyone that isn’t being a “team player” — they simply don’t hire them the next time. Assistant Directors feel this pressure constantly with regards to safety, but every crew member deals with their own version of it. Add the risks of a pandemic to this dynamic, and you have a recipe for disaster. Commercial producers are not accountable to anyone but their financiers, the clients.

As with Film LA’s Fire Safety Officers, Health Safety Supervisors ought to be assigned to productions, so real autonomy and accountability is possible. When the producers hire, train, and pay the person in charge of COVID safety, it would be naive to expect real accountability. By permitting shoots to self-regulate, Film LA is complicit in enabling unsafe working conditions and the spread of COVID-19.

On our first day of filming, the U.S. identified a record high number of new Covid cases. LA County accounted for about one-third of those cases. The energy on set did not reflect that reality. People were excited to be out, to be working, to see their friends. The first few hours of the day were brutally repetitive. During the morning safety meeting itself, I had to repeatedly remind folks to keep their distance from one another. As soon as the HSS officers gave the crew a rundown of the safety plan and we started the day, people began making excuses and exceptions to physical distancing. With a little help from the HSS, I reminded folks in as many different ways possible. “Distance,” “6 feet please,” “space,” and “Do you need to be inside right now?” were uttered every five minutes for the first three hours. Most folks were receptive, some apologetic, and a few were offended I would dare question their presence on set. We were filming in spaces we agreed each should have no more than 5–6 people at any time. That rule became a suggestion very quickly, a pattern I recognized and resisted. I insisted that the production team be the example, but found little support. Everywhere you went, people were a foot or two apart discussing plans, looking at a monitor, or sorting gear. After lunch, the crew was more comfortable standing close. Day two was even worse.

Who Is Responsible?

An uneasy feeling in my stomach started during that initial phone call and didn’t pass until we called wrap on day two. We stayed on schedule, nobody got hurt, and, as far as I know, nobody got sick. But how would you know? On a two day shoot, you’ll never see symptoms before walking off set. More than once I was told, “it’s going to be impossible to prove someone got COVID on our set.” Deflecting responsibility is a core competency for producers. COVID-19 Infections and deaths are being experienced disproportionally by Black and Brown communities. The disproportionally white and male film industry will not experience this reality the same way, and letting us go back to work will only make things worse.

The people who decided to allow filming to happen aren’t accountable to anyone for that choice, and everyone down the ladder is passing the buck too. Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal, is on the County’s Economic Resiliency Task Force. He has everything to gain from the film & TV industry opening back up during a pandemic. Last month the New York Times reported Shell — a longtime Democratic Party donor — was considering turning CNBCs prime time hours over to right wing talk shows. This machiavellian media mogul is the expert the County Board of Supervisors trusts to reopen the film industry safely.

Recent moves to restart the economy are being walked back all over the US, because they are literally killing people. Gavin Newsom just halted even more indoor operations for restaurants, movie theaters, fitness centers, malls, and personal care, but he didn’t mention filming indoors. We probably shouldn’t be filming outdoors either, especially without limiting, or at least monitoring, crew sizes. Nobody needs these commercials. I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement so I can’t go into detail, but I can assure you the toy we’re advertising is not an essential service. I don’t need to risk my life and others’ to sell toys. Until FilmLA begins active oversight of all shoots, I won’t be taking any more jobs, and neither will some of my union colleagues.

So while the economy shuts back down, right here and in red states, our leaders are excitedly starting up the Hollywood content machine, LAs most famous export. More than a hundred thousand freelance film workers in LA are dying to work, and the largely white male industry “professionals” aren’t the ones it will kill. The city is desperate for tax dollars, but it is not safe to film during this pandemic. We need to shut it down, now.