Sunday, April 18, 2010

On Unions, Overtime, and Business Plans

From a producer's perspective.

Way back in the olden days I got a job at Olympia Dukakis' Whole Theater in Montclair, NJ. I mixed sound for a musical (which actually went on to a long-ish run off-Broadway but I had nothing to do with it other than this one production).

We didn't get paid overtime (which AFAIK is just illegal on the face of it in the State of New Jersey, but it's the way things were). We lowly technicians just got paid a weekly rate ($250/week? Maybe? It was a while ago.) Whenever the band for the musical needed to do a put-in rehearsal, or anyone needed to do any damn thing on stage, I would get called in early to fire up the sound system so everyone could have monitoring and the intercoms would work, etc. I ended up doing a lot of "overtime" for free on that show.

My next job was at the New York Shakespeare Festival. My understanding was that a few years earlier some electricians and carpenters cornered the production manager at the end of a pier and demanded they be paid overtime -- so everyone was making overtime after (I think) 37.5 hours a week by the time I came on board.

I worked on a bunch of shows for the 9 months I was at the NYSF, including a couple musicals. And you know what? On the musicals when the band needed to do a rehearsal or when anybody needed to do anything on stage -- mysteriously -- I wasn't needed. They would have had to pay overtime to bring me in. It's like suddenly everyone found out how they could practice, rehearse, or whatever, without me.

It was like magic.

Well, no, it's not magic. The fact is that overtime forces the producer to be more efficient. If the producer can't go over 10 hours a day (or whatever) because they simply do not have the money, they will find ways that they don't have to go into overtime.

Having to pony up the real expense of overtime, the producer ends up being better organized. They have to. Otherwise the whole project is a wash. And you know what? As a smart producer you actually want to have a time guillotine hanging over your head each day -- a time after which you simply may not continue to work (or your head gets chopped off). Why? Because you will be better at your job. Your job is to deliver the picture on time and on budget. If you think you have an infinite amount of time in your day that you can work your crew, then you'll start working longer and longer hours - but not actually getting more done. You'll stop planning out the day and keeping everyone on schedule if you're not worried about overtime.

And you will make STUPID mistakes.

I've seen this happen a lot. Shoot is scheduled for 18 days. Days keep getting longer and longer as it gets less and less organized. By day 12, the crew hates you. You hate you. You're endangering the lives of everyone who rides in the van with the exhausted PA who's been working 20-hour days for two weeks straight. And you, the producer, are so tired that you don't understand what the locations manager just said to you when they told you that the cemetery you were supposed to shoot in on the last day fell through because suddenly they want five thousand dollars for you to show up there.

And then... and then you find yourself (and I've actually seen this happen) in the last couple days of the shoot... scouting for locations while the entire crew is waiting for you to figure out where the company move will be to finish off your day. (Which you can't do so you end up adding more days to the end of the shoot which eats into your post-production budget (specifically the dialog edit part of the budget) and you make a crappy film which, even though it's a horror film, can't even get direct-to-dvd distribution or even a freakin' IMDB credit).

But hey, there are some big-budget producers who schedule loads of overtime even though they have to pay it. Sure, they have the money but still I don't really see the point of 16-hour-days. You'll only get about 10 hours of work out of people so you may as well simply hire two shifts. Just like at the factory. Huh? You think that's a bad idea? You think it'll actually make a big difference if, after 8 hours of shooting, you switch out G&E, the camera and sound crews, and even Art, for another crew? It won't. And furthermore, if you're shooting 16-hour days you're shooting garbage most of the time. If not all the time. You're not shooting pictures, you're harvesting them, Brother. So just give up and swap out the crew after 8. Hell, hire 3 freakin' crews so they can be workin' round the clock. It. Will. Be. Cheaper. Than. Paying. Golden. Time.

You, as the producer, will be dead. But nobody will notice and it won't matter. The producer they replace you with? The one who can actually schedule? They'll get the movie back on budget and schedule by working shorter days.

If I were the head of a studio negotiating to the technical union, IATSE, I would tell them to put a provision in the contract that said if one of my producers on a feature film went to a 16-hour day more than once, or if they went to a 20-hour day even once, it would be legal for a grip to come to the producer's house and break the producer's legs with a hammer. Obviously the studio would pay the grip overtime for going out to the producer's house, which would be "golden time" if they continued right from the 20-hour-call. (Which is what? Triple-time pay?) Plus mileage.

And why would I do that? I'd do that because no producer would go to a 20-hour-day. They would magically discover how to produce and get me my movie in on-schedule and budget. No grips would come to their houses at three o'clock in the morning with sledgehammers. Again. And the movies they produce would be better for it.



OK, I'll give producers one break regarding overtime. Sometimes -- rarely -- but sometimes, something happens which is actually beyond your control. And I'm not talking about "We didn't know it was going to rain today!" or "Oh I just had no idea how long it was going to take to shoot that scene!" I mean actual things -- the camera breaks -- the camera crew gets food poisoning from yesterday's fish tacos -- whatever. So one day on the shoot you get to go into overtime.

But only for a couple hours.

And just that once.


So what does this mean for my business plan? Not a whole heck of a lot, actually. I'd like to shoot 4 movies this year. I'd like to have an Aliens-type movie since our last one (Alien Uprising) seemed to do so well, and another 2012 post-apocalyptic movie. I'm just going to keep talking about these things over and over until they actually happen. Unless I'm talking about amplifiers.

No comments: