The Cost of Safety: Low Budgets Never Preclude Safe Productions, but They Dont Make It Easy
The set of “Rust” seemed to produce an unending list of tragic circumstances, snafus, and gaffes: the camera crew quitting in protest over work conditions; the prop gun that fired a bullet, which killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins; the mix of 500 blanks, dummy rounds and suspected live rounds collected on the set by Santa Fe Sheriff’s Office (“Hannah has no idea where the live rounds came from,” said an attorney for set armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed), and even the custom T-shirts reportedly ordered by production staff mocking crew requests for hotel rooms. At this point, “Rust” producer and star Alec Baldwin may be alone in his assertion about his film with a reported budget of under $7 million: “We were a very, very well-oiled crew.”
The “Rust” reports document what might be generously described as gross mistakes and mismanagement, but “low budget does not equal unsafe. That’s not the conclusion to draw from this tragedy,” said Tom Nunan, who was an executive producer of “Crash” and “The Illusionist” and is currently on the faculty of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “This movie is an outlier — this is not what normally happens on a movie set — typically people on movie and TV sets are following rules, following established behaviors and regulations that keep people safe.”
As Nunan points out, budgets don’t keep crew safe; people keep crew safe. However, as Hollywood faces the twin pressures of pandemic-era production and serving the industry’s streaming-first future, veteran crew is in short supply, budgets grow tighter, and timelines are shorter. Set safety and budget levels aren’t intrinsically linked; every year sees about 700 American features — at all budget levels, union and non — and the overwhelming majority wrap without incident. However, if an experienced crew is what stands between safety and disaster, the industry’s voracious appetite for content may place low-budget productions under increasing pressure to create and maintain safe environments.
While scrappiness and ingenuity have always been landmarks for productions with more passion than cash, producers interviewed by IndieWire say there are certain elements that can’t be fudged — starting with the key hires.
“Sometimes an ambitious project is forced to cut corners to save money. But, it takes an experienced line producer at the helm to recognize that some corners can’t be cut,” said Peter Phok, whose credits include the Blumhouse western “In a Valley of Violence.”
The line producer often hires key roles with an outsized focus on safety: first assistant directors, key grips, and, when guns are involved, armorers. Those positions, and other safety-related ones, should not be the target of belt-tightening, producers say: In fact, it may require higher salaries in order to convince the right people to fill them.
“The culture of how things operate comes from those at the top, those responsible for scheduling and employing the right people,” said Sol Papadopoulos, principal of Hurricane Films and producer of the BAFTA-winning “A Prayer Before Dawn.” “That ultimately is the producer, line producer, and production manager, all of whom should be experienced. If the experience of the producer isn’t that great, then at least you get the best people you can in the positions below you. That’s the trick of the producer, to buy in to people who know a lot more in their different departments than you do.”
For indie films, hiring the best can be easier said than done. Independent productions often find themselves running a gauntlet between working with the locations that their movies can afford, meeting the local-hire requirements to qualify for production incentives, sourcing qualified crew, and facing competition from productions that face the same challenges but may have deeper pockets.
Darius Marder and Riz Ahmed on the set of “Sound of Metal,” a film budgeted at $5.4 million that made use of Massachusetts tax credits.
Producers say there’s no question that productions across North America face a shortage of below-the-line craftspeople. Nunan said he fields industry calls desperate for interns who can help edit projects in Los Angeles. Massachusetts-based producer Michael Bowes (“John and the Hole”) said it’s no different in his home state.
“It’s happening everywhere,” he said. “I shot commercials in five different states this summer. Everywhere I went, work was packed beyond the gills. I did a shoot in the Bronx in July, and reached out to 60 people for three positions we needed to fill.”
In those circumstances, independent films may not the be the most attractive option. Many shoot under Tier 1, the lowest of the three tiers in IATSE’s low-budget agreement. Reserved for those with budgets under $7.5 million, they offer lower minimum crew salaries. “Experienced crews are likely to take a Tier 2 or Tier 3 project in a busy production city,” said one indie producer, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the contentious topic of crew pay. “In addition, you’ll be competing against other higher-budget productions likely offering more shoot days.”
To make those low budgets stretch, productions like “Rust” often rely on production centers outside Los Angeles and New York that offer generous tax credits and rebates. So does the rest of Hollywood: Georgia is Marvel’s home away from home, while Netflix is investing another $1 billion in its ABQ Studios in Albuquerque, New Mexico; NBCUniversal opened an 80,000-square-foot facility in the same city in July.
ABQ Studios in 2018, before it was expanded by Netflix.
AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan
“Whether it’s TV, or feature film, or commercial production, or even corporate videos, we’re dealing with tighter budgets, tighter schedules, and productions that are not well thought out,” said Colorado-based commercials producer Kent Youngblood. “The problem is we’re seeing a tremendous increase in the number of productions and the attractiveness of these locations that offer these incentives, but they don’t have the same increase in experienced crew members.”
A Tier 1 minimum is just that. Experienced producers often recognize that they have to pay more, whether that means giving a key local hire a bigger rate, or taking on the added expense of hiring someone out-of-state to fill a role that’s crucial for a safe set.
“Most producers and line producers are really struggling to get people in position in their departments that they need,” Papadopoulos said. “That will mean that there’s going to be less experienced folk getting opportunities. But at the same time, you want every head of department to have the knowledge of how to run that department.”
Bowes served as Papadopoulos’ line producer for the Massachusetts unit of “A Quiet Passion” and was key in building a large, local crew. He said working on indie projects means he’s used to giving people their first opportunities in key roles. But in an industry built on apprenticeship, producers rely on deep networks that can refer and vet potential hires. “Everyone needs that step-up moment, but you need to make sure you’re giving it to someone who is right for the role,” Bowes said.
For some producers, “someone who is right” translates to “someone who is in the union.” Said Nunan, “It’s the dividing line between professional and unprofessional, safe and unsafe.”
Messages and mourning are mixed with those of union solidarity at a candlelight vigil for Halyna Hutchins in October.
Ted Soqui/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images
That definition may seem reductive, but union membership comes with a baseline of vetting. Union membership in IATSE, the largest below-the-line union, has a high barrier to entry that requires years of work for qualification. Once a member joins, the union requires ongoing certification, training, and experience. A nonunion worker also could be highly qualified for a role and be a paragon of safety, but it’s harder to be sure.
Some productions skip all the hand wringing over experience and safety; they focus only on meeting the budget. In his nonunion state of Colorado, Youngblood remembers rejecting a project because the budget was too low and “I don’t have the confidence in doing it without it being a total cluster,’” he said. “If I say no, they just go down the list and eventually find someone who will say yes. The project’s not going away. They’ll go to the lowest common denominator to make it happen.”
Low budgets force hard decisions and it can be tempting to eliminate safety roles; on any production, they represent the possibility that a producer will have to pay someone for a job they’ll never need. When every dollar counts, that can be hard to swallow.
Travis Knox, a Chapman University professor whose production credits include “Hairspray” and “The Bucket List,” now heads the school’s micro-budget production outfit. He recounted a lesson he learned during his first low-budget feature, which was shot on location around Los Angeles in close proximity to hospitals. Someone floated an out-of the-box idea: Maybe they didn’t need a set medic?
“I wasn’t really comfortable with it,” he said. “So I talked with a few members of my crew who had made low-budget movies to get their input; they were against it as well. We decided that was a cost we weren’t going to eliminate.”
As it turned out, their instincts were spot on. “We had what could have been a really horrible accident [on set],” Knox said. “At that moment, I was glad to have a set medic there to stabilize somebody waiting for an ambulance.”
“Thunder Road” director Jim Cummings recently spoke to IndieWire about production of his upcoming IFC Films release “The Beta Test.” It’s a low-budget horror film in which Cummings is the star, editor, and co-writer/director. It was a non-union production. And, it was safe.
“It was from the top down,” he said. “Really, you can still be a good person and make sure everybody is happy and taken care of.”
Eric Kohn contributed reporting.
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