Many nights, Cheli Clayton Samaras has to pull off to the side of the road because she’s so tired she fears she might crash. She works in Hollywood as a “first assistant camera” ― she makes sure each shot is in focus ― and her days filming stretch as long as 14 hours with few, if any, breaks.
Public carpool lots have become Clayton Samaras’ preferred place to lock the doors, ease her seat back and catch a nap before continuing to her house in Highland Park. Then she turns around and does it again the next day. After 27 years in the business, she sometimes feels like her mental health is slipping.
“There’s so much work, but they’re squeezing it into so few hours,” said Clayton Samaras, who spoke with HuffPost on a Bluetooth set during her 7 a.m. commute on Thursday ― the only time she knew she’d be available to talk that day. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
The grinding schedule is a big reason workers like Clayton Samaras are inching toward a historic strike that could halt film production in Hollywood and beyond.
The workers’ union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE), has been unable to reach a new three-year agreement with the trade group representing the studios, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). With patience wearing thin, the union is holding a strike authorization vote starting Friday among 60,000 members who work for major studios like Warner Bros., Disney, Netflix, Amazon and others.
If 75% of the ballots come back in favor of a strike, it would give the union’s leadership the green light to declare a work stoppage at any time if they aren’t making progress at the negotiating table. Such a strike would be the largest in the U.S. private sector since General Motors workers walked off the job in 2007, impacting not just Los Angles but film and TV hubs like Atlanta and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The IATSE members work as costume designers, cinematographers, editors, production and script coordinators and other behind-the-scenes personnel. They are known as “below-the-line” crew, since their names fall beneath those of big-shot actors, writers, directors and producers on budget sheets. But without them, movies and TV shows wouldn’t be possible.
“It’s going to be hard for people to walk away,” Clayton Samaras said of a strike. “But I hope everybody does it.”
The union says it’s demanding more time for rest as well as meaningful wage increases, particularly for workers in the lowest-paying positions. Part of the dispute revolves around the pay rates for streamed content. Under their current contract, studios can still pay workers less for “new media” projects, despite the industry’s huge shift toward streaming.
“People love what they do on a movie set, but we want a quality of life that’s worth living.”
The AMPTP said in a statement that the studios had “put forth a deal-closing comprehensive proposal” that “meaningfully addresses” the key issues, including an offer to cover an expected $400 million shortfall in the health and pension funds. The group also said it offered improved break times for certain categories of workers, as well as “a considerable increase in minimum rates” for workers on the low end of the scale.
But IATSE President Matthew Loeb suggested on Friday that the two sides were still far apart, saying on Twitter that the studios “refuse to answer our latest proposal.”
“Although some progress had been made, the producers have not responded to our core priorities in any meaningful way,” he added.
In the runup to the strike vote, workers have posted on social media about their experiences being overworked and underpaid. The Instagram account @ia_stories, which has racked up more than 130,000 followers, has shared story after story from workers who say they barely see their families due to the long days. One recent post purportedly showed the wrecked car of a member who was trying to make it home after an “overnight” filming in upstate New York.
For Josh Hancher, such stories aren’t hard to believe. Hancher works as a first assistant camera in Georgia, where studios have flocked in recent years due to the state’s film tax credits. He said he is voting in favor of authorizing a strike, with “working hours first and foremost in my mind.”
Hancher shared a log of his hours filming on the third season of HBO Max’s “Doom Patrol,” which showed that he worked at least 60 hours every week. That’s more the norm than an aberration, he said. Hancher’s log indicates he has already worked 1,800 hours this year ― an average of 50 hours per week ― even though he took off the entire month of July.
A father to two boys aged 13 and 16, Hancher said he often doesn’t get home from Friday’s work until early Saturday morning, shortening his weekend before it even begins. Sometimes he only gets three or four hours of sleep before getting up to make it to his kids’ soccer game.
“I’m not proud of this, but I’ve done a number of days where I’ve gone on a Boy Scout camping trip with literally no sleep,” said Hancher, 46. “As a dad, you want to be there when you can. You don’t want to sleep away your weekend.”
“People love what they do on a movie set,” he added, “but we want a quality of life that’s worth living.”
“It All Goes Back To The Studios”
Part of the problem is how the industry has changed, Hancher said. He does a lot of work on episodic TV series. A traditional, hour-long TV show would have only been about 42 minutes long after commercials. But many streaming shows are now a full 60 minutes, and Hancher said studios now seem to want to squeeze that extra filming into the legacy schedule, creating short “turnarounds” ― the amount of time workers have between leaving the set one day and being due back the following.
The pandemic hasn’t helped, said Clayton Samaras. She said working 14 hours is especially taxing while wearing a mask. Early in the pandemic, she often received “mask breaks” ― the opportunity to step outside, remove her face covering and catch some fresh air ― but when she asked for such breaks on a recent job, she felt “like a pariah.” She said many studios would also now rather pay the contractual penalty for having crews work through lunch; she often skips the meal and eats a bag of peanuts or almonds while heading to and from the bathroom.
Clayton Samaras believes the studios have wanted to squeeze as much work into as short amount of time as possible, fearing the virus would upend production again.
“It all goes back to the studios,” she said. “It’s that pressure coming from the top ... ′We gotta get the content. We gotta get the content.′”
Film crews work from gig to gig, and at times Clayton Samaras will decline jobs to be able to spend time with her husband and 12- and 15-year-old kids. She budgets her year to work an average of 10 hours a day, which affords her a week or two off between “runs” of 12- and 14-hour days.
“It does something to your head when you work 60-plus hours, sometimes way more, a week, and you're still not be able to afford the basic bills.”
But Colby Bachiller, 30, said she can’t afford to do the same. Bachiller works as a script coordinator, a liaison between the writers’ room, the production team and the studio. It is one of the lower-paying job categories that the union is trying to improve. Bachiller said she earns a little less than $18 per hour under the current contract, but tries to negotiate higher. She said studios often tell her they can’t afford to go above the minimum.
“Not a lot of people know what I do,” she said. “But when I don’t do it, they definitely know.”
Bachiller is a native of the Philippines and grew up in Georgia, where she started work in film production. She moved to Los Angeles, one of the most expensive cities in the country, two years ago in hopes of making it into a writers’ room.
She said she shares an apartment with another woman but still ended up having to cut back to one meal a day. Friends who got laid off during the pandemic were collecting more on unemployment than she was earning. She didn’t begrudge them for that, but felt “humiliated.”
“The only people who can afford to take these jobs have generational wealth or are willing to go into a large amount of debt,” Bachiller said. “It does something to your head when you work 60-plus hours, sometimes way more a week, and you’re still not be able to afford the basic bills.”
More influential voices have to come to the defense of their less visible coworkers like Bachiller. Gennifer Hutchison, a writer whose credits include “Breaking Bad” and Amazon’s upcoming “Lord of the Rings” series, tweeted that “a show’s budget has never once been broken by the salary needs of the writers’ office support staff. Yet it’s one of the places studios always try to cut.”
Rob McElhenney, of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” fame, shared a video of IATSE members styling him for a shoot, saying, “Without IATSE, I don’t have hair.”
“Think what you will of Hollywood but @IATSE is the working-class lifeblood of this industry,” he tweeted.
That kind of backing has meant a lot to workers like Clayton Samara. She said she does wonder if all the strike talk on social media has given her a warped sense of the public’s support and the workforce’s militancy. She hopes the strike authorization vote comes back overwhelmingly in favor. Results will be released Monday.
“I hope I’m not living in a bubble,” she said, just as she arrived at the set’s parking lot to start her day.
About 15 hours after her morning commute, she sent a follow-up text.
“FYI,” she wrote. “I’m just now driving home.”