You Think It’s About Magic But It’s Really About Money

(photo by Marni Colón)

Like many people in the film industry, my mind this week has been on Sarah Jones.  Sarah was a second assistant camera (the person who transports cameras and lenses, helps the focus puller take measurements to get the focus right and slates the take, among other things) who was killed by a train one week ago today during a shoot in Georgia for a film called Midnight Rider.  Sarah and her fellow crew members, along with the film’s producer-director Randall Miller and the actor William Hurt, were setting up to shoot a scene on train tracks running across a bridge.  It now seems more and more clear that they didn’t have permission to shoot on those tracks, and when an unexpected train came through, Sarah couldn’t get to safety in time.  You can read the details of what we currently know about the incident here.

I didn’t know Sarah Jones, but this week I’ve been reading about her and looking at her picture.  She reminds me of a lot of second ACs and other folks I know, young people who are working their way up in the business because they love film and they want to be part of the process of making it.  She also reminds me a lot of me — the me I once was: someone who got into the business because I thought it was about magic.  I see these photos of Sarah and how happy she looks, how much fun she’s having, even though she’s basically just doing menial labor (just like I do).  She’s meeting people and having new experiences on every job, which is a big part of what makes the business fun when you’re first starting out.  More importantly, she’s working alongside talented actors and directors and cinematographers, and she wants and plans to be one of them some day (according to her obituary, she, like most people I know in the camera department, was indeed planning to be a cinematographer).  

We, as crew people, want to be part of the magic.  One big reason why we come to the film industry is because it’s a place of fantasy, where you can have experiences you wouldn’t find anywhere else.  Depending on your job, you might get to crash a car, or make it rain, or watch people “fly,” or get “shot” and then magically rise up from the dead.  Sometimes you get to work with or even get to know people you’ve admired, or whose handsome faces you’ve seen staring down at you, their arresting brown eyes five feet wide in 3-D on an IMAX screen.  And you will unquestionably get to do something that challenges you, maybe even scares you a little and makes you feel daring, like light a city street from a small box at the top of a crane, or swing a 16-foot pole with a microphone on it from a twelve-foot-high ladder…or clap a slate in front of a camera sitting on an active railroad track.  And from your first day on a film set, you also come to accept that you, as an individual crew member, matter relatively little in this vast whirl of production that you’re a part of.  This is reinforced every time the 1st AD barks at someone who’s taking too long to do his or her job, or your superior makes it clear, however nicely, that you don’t really have time to leave set to go to the bathroom, or a star or director gets their ass kissed when they’re acting like a total asshole — because they actually have value.  And this is why you will work 14 hours without a break and without a complaint, in a blizzard when you don’t know how you’re going to get home at the end of the night, or somewhere, or somehow, that you feel deep down is unsafe: because you’ve been told, over and over again, that you are not important compared to the movie-making machine which must roll forward and the money that’s being hemorrhaged every minute you hold up the works asking, “But why?”

We have rules and we have safety meetings and we have unions to look out for us, yes.  We have reps, and we have shop stewards, and we have grips who are supposed to be keeping an eye on safety on set — along with rigging and setting stands and laying track and pushing the dolly and the 30 other things that make up a grip’s job.  But these folks can’t be everywhere at once, and, just like the rest of us, they can’t always stand up to the machine, especially when everyone is always in a hurry and making calls on the fly.  When crews band together, we can say “no” and pull the plug at 18 hours.  But nobody wants to be the first one to suggest that, because we all need to work for a living and get hired on the next job.  So enough people acquiesce to something, and then it becomes just one more crazy thing film crews do that nobody else in their right mind would.  Just this past week, I was on a crew that worked 15 hours, seven before lunch and eight after (I only worked 12 because I had a late call).  Most of the crew was outside in weather below freezing all day, because there wasn’t room for them inside the location.  Those who were inside, however, were breathing in artificial smoke from a smoke machine and fake cigarettes (which sure smells like real cigarette smoke to me on my clothes, still) for practically the entire day, some with barely a chance to get some fresh air.  Oh, and the set was roach-infested, as no small number of New York locations are.  And that was a good set — with a nice, first-class director and first AD and DP who were all professionals, who knew what they were doing, who worked as fast as they could and weren’t in any way unreasonable.  These types of working conditions are just the norm on a big set.  On equally big sets, I’ve fallen, burned myself on lights, received decent-sized shocks from improperly grounded power, and had stands topple over on me more times than I can remember.  On less professional ones, I’ve run backwards in traffic with nobody spotting me, I’ve lain on the floor of a moving car holding a microphone, or been asked to ride in a trunk.  These are things that I wouldn’t do now, because after 20+ years in the business, I’m old enough to know better and established enough to say “fuck that.”  Or would I?  I still regularly come home from work with bruises that I don’t know how I acquired.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I boomed a scene sitting close to the edge of a roof with no railing and no safety line, and didn’t even think twice about it until the actor in the scene said afterwards that he’d been worried about me.  I brushed it off as him being chivalrous because it had seemed perfectly safe to me and I’m no newbie.  But my perspective is based on what I’ve done and seen people do in this business.  Maybe it’s a little off.  Ultimately these decisions are supposed to be “above my pay grade.”  But if all the people who make them care about is money, then, sadly, their perspective is even farther off than mine.

You see, what happens to people like Sarah the longer they’re in the industry, at least what happened to me, is that the business becomes less and less magical the more you realize just how much it’s really about money.  No Hollywood project gets made just because it’s “good.”  Yes, good movies and TV shows do get made, but it’s a struggle — because you’re fighting the business, which dictates that your project has to be as risk-free an investment as possible.  How do you do that with what’s supposed to be a creative venture?  You make it derivative of something else that already made money (best of all, a derivative sequel); or you bring in ten hack writers to try to top each other’s previous tricks, adding more and more jokes and action and special effects, and in the process “smooth out” whatever made the script unique to begin with; or you test-market the shit out of your footage until you’ve got an ending that may make no sense but appeals to the greatest number of people — the lowest common denominator audience.  All of this costs more money, of course, but it’s okay to spend the most astronomical budget ever if it’s in the interest of making still more money.  And in that interest, it’s okay to hire large crews of disposable people to be cogs in the machine — because, while most moviegoers don’t realize it, those human beings are what it takes to do all of the jobs that make that machine move.  And it’s why those crews work incredibly long hours, and why safety often goes by the wayside: because, when astronomical amounts of money are being spent literally every minute, cutting all the corners you can to save a thousand dollars here and there becomes much more important than any of those individual human beings being paid $400-600/day — or maybe $300 if you’re working outside of New York or LA, or $100 with no overtime if you’re a PA, or $0 if you’re an intern.* 

The Academy Awards are this Sunday, and a petition has been created to request that Sarah Jones be added to the “In Memoriam” segment. Someone named Tim Gray wrote a response in Variety, and his point was basically that “Every person shown in the segment will deserve to be there. But not every deserving person will be there, because time is limited.”  In other words, again, it’s about money.  The Academy Awards only have a limited amount of very expensive time between very expensive commercials, and they need to spend that time selling movies — because that’s what the Academy exists to do: sell Hollywood movies.  Anyone who has ever deluded themselves into thinking otherwise is ignoring the evidence presented by the lists of winners and losers over the years, which have far less to do with “merit” than with Hollywood congratulating itself about what Hollywood does best: make money.  Does anyone think Forest Gump or Titanic or Gladiator were really the best movies made in their respective years?  Sure, they were fine, but mainly, they just made lots and lots and lots of money.  Even when the movie that didn’t make the most money that year wins — as often happens, because that would just be too easy, then they could just take a look at the box office numbers and everyone could go home — it’s because it involves stars, directors and producers who have made lots of money, and must therefore be celebrated for their past (and future) success.  

Putting Sarah Jones in the “In Memoriam” segment wouldn’t sell movies very well at all.  It might even make it clear that something is wrong with the way that they are made: that the value of money often trumps the value of humanity, sometimes even the value of a human life, in the business that has been built around them.  Everybody in this industry already knows that, but they don’t want the rest of the world to know it, to really think about it, because it might damage the magic just a little bit for everyone else the way that it’s been damaged for me.  

Well, sorry about that, folks.  People need to take a hard look at Sarah’s death and ask, “How did this happen?”  Because until the audience pays attention to the dollar-driven reality that goes into manufacturing their fantasies, nothing’s going to change.

*Update 3-1-14: Thanks to all the comments and interesting discussion on this (you can see them below), I decided to make a small change here. This piece wasn’t really about fair wages per se, but since we are talking about how human labor is valued, it made sense to try to get it right.

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    I think this mindset is in almost any large industry, we just hate to believe it. I was in the Military for over 20...
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