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As IATSE Threatens Action, Are U.K. Crews Ready to do the Same?

As negotiations between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) resume this week, crews across the pond will be watching closely. Because while a film and high-end TV production boom in Britain has seen rates and opportunities blossom, it has also resulted in longer working hours, pressurized working conditions and an acute skills shortage.

“IATSE is the biggest entertainment union there is in the world, so it has a clear leadership role,” said Johannes Studinger, the head of the media and entertainment industry branch of the UNI, a global federation of unions, of why crew unions worldwide are closely following the dialogue.

The long-hours culture set by members of AMPTP also “gives us a blueprint for patterns that unions are facing, not only in the U.S.,” he added.

The U.S. negotiations were, in part, galvanized by an anonymous Instagram account, @ia_stories, which has been anonymously broadcasting stories of the egregious treatment of crew members by their superiors. In what the U.K. industry may interpret as a sign of similar frustrations, a local Instagram account called @britcrewstories has also sprung up. In just four weeks, it has already amassed over 6,500 followers and posted dozens of horror stories.

“We wanted to show that we are conscious of what’s going on [in the U.S.] and feel the same about hours, rates and deteriorating conditions in some productions in the U.K.,” one of the three crew members behind the U.K. account, who requested to remain anonymous, told Variety.

The outcome of IATSE’s negotiations are particularly timely as Bectu, which represents the U.K.’s below-the-line workers from costume designers to riggers, is also currently negotiating its TV drama agreement with producers’ trade org Pact.

The agreement covers everything from high-end drama to low-budget comedies. “That break between when we had the first lockdown back in March 2020 and then coming back now, people just want to see change,” Bectu’s national secretary of London Production and Regional Production Divisions, Spencer MacDonald, told Variety.

“They’ve had time to pause and think about the sort of industry they want to work in. And I’ve never seen anything like [it] in terms of the response from some of the crew now, [who are] pushing for the change.”

According to the Film and TV Charity’s 2019 Looking Glass Report, more than 1 in 8 in film and TV workers work more than 60 hours per week (compared with 1 in 50 on average) and 62% of those surveyed said work intensity “negatively impacted their mental wellbeing.”

“What that research found was that it was not just the intensity of work and the length of working hours, it’s also the control that people have over their working hours that impacts on their wellbeing and their mental health,” the charity’s CEO, Alex Pumfrey, told Variety. The organization has recently launched a new campaign, “Let’s Reset,” to raise awareness of working conditions and payment in the industry.

“Too many people are leading incredibly damaging and unhealthy lifestyles in terms of family life and relationships, and it means they don’t function very well in any aspect,” said the anonymous crew member behind @britcrewstories. “All the research shows that better hours make for better output.”

Skills shortage puts work conditions in sharp relief

The pressure on crews has only been underlined by the production boom that comes as the industry also grapples with a national skills shortage.

“[Working conditions have] got massively worse since we’ve gone back after the lockdown just because there’s been a backlog in terms of productions that are all shooting at once now and they’re all trying to get the best crew and they’re all competing with each other,” said MacDonald.

The pandemic has also impacted crews in other, less obvious ways.

The lockdowns provided a rare moment of tranquillity for those who usually enjoyed a peripatetic existence. And when productions got back up and running, crew members went out of their way to ensure productions ran as smoothly as possibly, whether that meant wearing uncomfortable personal protection equipment, submitting to weekly COVID testing and even voluntarily self-isolating away from friends and family to lessen the chances of testing positive and shutting down a shoot.

“[Crews] have done everything they can to get the industry through this very, very difficult time,” said Studinger. Now, they want to see a similar consideration shown from producers and whether there is “a willingness for a fair deal.”

However, one producer, who spoke to Variety on condition of anonymity, said the situation in the U.K. is not comparable to the one in the U.S., citing the booming industry and higher wages. “If you’re any good, you are commanding a high price in the market right now because we’re short of workers,” he said. “Some jobs have gone up by 70% in under a year.”

So in demand are crew members, he said, that not only can they be choosy about the jobs they want but some are walking off sets before their contract expires to take on more lucrative or appealing gigs.

“These freelancers — before they take the job — know what they’re getting into,” said the producer. “So after the fact complaining, ‘Oh, by the way, I took this job, and I didn’t know I was going to be doing nights’? Well, I’m sorry, all that is agreed upfront. People know that. Okay, things go wrong, sometimes you have to re-shoot and you have to do overtime. But people get paid for that.”

There is “absolutely more choice,” Macdonald acknowledged, “But the choice is the same. From one production to another level, they’ve all adopted the same working practices.” He said most members would be willing to take a pay cut if it meant getting their weekends and evenings back. “It’s about the human cost, not the financial cost.”

The pandemic also showed that, when they want to, production companies can quickly adapt to new working practices. “The industry has already proven that it can change and adapt its scheduling to allow for more time,” said Studinger, referring to the extra time needed for COVID-19 safety protocols.

“There’s a legacy that this industry is tough, with long hours and days, unrelenting schedules and tough bosses,” said the crew member behind @britcrewaccount. “That just doesn’t have to be true any more.”

So could U.K. producers see a similar threat of action on this side of the pond? Bectu’s negotiations with Pact are progressing, albeit slowly, with Pact acknowledging there are issues that need to be addressed.

“The IATSE negotiations went into a cul de sac, so we’re not there yet, we’ve only just opened up negotiations,” said Macdonald. “We haven’t got to the stage where we’ve said we want to do something similar to what IATSE are doing in terms of balloting our members. But if the negotiations weren’t meaningful, or they didn’t deliver in terms of what our members’ expectations are, then obviously, we’d have to consider all options in terms of what we do next.”

For his part, Pact’s CEO John McVey told Variety: “We need more people in the U.K. audiovisual economy. We are roughly 30,000 short; we have more work than we can manage; and pay rates are at the highest they’ve ever been.”

Both Pumfrey and MacDonald also cited a fear that the industry’s reputation for long hours and inhospitable working conditions could ultimately repel much-needed below-the-line audio-visual talent, who, many acknowledge, are already eschewing traditional film and television careers in favour of building their brands on digital platforms like YouTube and TikTok, where they have complete autonomy.

“Ultimately we want brilliant people working in the industry,” said Pumfrey. “And we’re going to drive them away if we don’t make it a fun, creative, pleasurable, joyful place to work that it really should be.”

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