“Rust” Tragedy Highlights Challenges of Low Budget Movies

To consumers, today’s entertainment landscape can feel like a kind of digital nirvana, an endless all-you-can-eat buffet in which every conceivable form of entertainment is just a click away.

The tragic death last week of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set in New Mexico of Alec Baldwin’s movie “Rust” – coming just days after a strike threat from the International Alliance of Theatrical Workers almost put an end to the industry – revealed a harsh reality.

For many film workers, especially those working on low budget projects, the Hollywood Dream Factory too often begins to look more like a sweatshop. Along with the business models that have long supported the collapse of the independent film world, they say the death of Hutchins, coupled with reports of workplace tensions and lax safety standards on the set of “Rust,” is under -product of a struggling system that increasingly puts lives at risk. in the pursuit of declining profits.

“The situation we find ourselves in makes you think of Upton Sinclair,” said director Adam Egypt Mortimer, who worked with Hutchins on last year’s low-budget sci-fi superhero film “Archenemy”. “. “There is a continuum between how a team is treated on a project like this and how people working in Amazon warehouses are treated. There is this amount of money that does not go to the safety and well-being of workers, and their labor is converted into product. We cannot continue to crush people.

Speaking to hundreds of film workers at a candlelight vigil for Hutchins in Burbank on Sunday night, IATSE Vice President Michael Miller sadly noted that Hutchins’ death came just seven years later that camera assistant Sarah Jones was hit and killed by a freight train on an easel in Georgia while filming another low-budget feature film, “Midnight Rider,” which director Randall Miller pleaded guilty of criminal trespassing and manslaughter and served one year in prison prior to his release.

“The circumstances are not the same but they are far too familiar,” said Michael Miller. “The idea that there is no time for safety is simply wrong. The concept that the schedule is more important than safety or that the budget is more important than people is a concept that simply cannot persist. If you’re on a set and your teams tell you it’s not safe, listen to this.

The major studios said they had taken important steps to address workers’ complaints about unsafe working conditions on sets. An alliance representing major production companies, including Walt Disney, WarnerMedia and Netflix, recently negotiated a draft contract with IATSE that aims to cut long filming hours. The deal, for example, includes 54-hour weekend breaks for the first time, but has drawn mixed reviews among some union members.

While film and television-related deaths have declined over the past decades, in part thanks to the increased use of digital effects to replace dangerous physical stunts, the deaths of Hutchins and Jones are not the only ones. large-scale deaths on the plateau in recent years. . In 2015, two crew members for Tom Cruise’s film “American Made” died in a plane crash during production. Two years later, stuntman John Bernecker died of injuries sustained while filming a scene for “The Walking Dead”. Also in 2017, stuntwoman Joi “SJ” Harris died in a motorcycle stunt on “Deadpool 2”.

Since Hutchins’ death, questions have arisen about the mishandling of firearms on the set of “Rust”, with attention focused on the inexperience of gunsmith Hannah Gutierrez Reed.

Santa Fe County officials said Wednesday the projectile that fatally injured cinematographer Hutchins was a lead bullet, one of some 500 rounds recovered from the set of the movie “Rust.”

The film’s production company, Rust Movie Productions, said in a statement Friday that it “had not been made aware of any official complaints regarding the safety of weapons or props on set” and would proceed to a internal review.

“The safety of our cast and crew is a top priority for Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company,” the company said. “We will continue to cooperate with the Santa Fe authorities in their investigation and to provide mental health services to the cast and crew during this tragic time.”

In the days that followed, film and television productions began to reconsider the use of live weapons on film sets, and a California state lawmaker called for an outright gun ban on film sets. film sets.

But some argue that the focus on guns misses the big picture.

“The discussion around guns on set is valuable,” wrote director James Gunn, who made small-scale genre dishes on Sunday before moving on to big-budget shows like “Guardians of the Galaxy.” from Marvel on Twitter. “But my fear is that this now obscures discussions of the many ways in which dozens of people died or were seriously injured on sets due to irresponsibility, ignorance of safety protocols, inappropriate leadership and an established culture of mindless rush. “

Speaking to The Times vigilante in Hutchins, set doctor Margarita Velona said the real toll of the long hours and short delays on sets is found in the sorts of near misses and daily incidents that don’t make not the headlines.

“I had to take care of someone because they fell asleep at the wheel on the way to work,” Velona said. “The extreme hours give you a boost at the end of the week. We don’t see our families. If you just took a few more days and added it to your budget, you wouldn’t have to treat us that way. Instead, they just bring a coffee truck.

With the crater in art house distribution, which has only accelerated since the start of the pandemic, the already struggling independent film industry has weakened further, putting pressure on the market. larger drop in production budgets.

Once successful independents such as Open Road Films, Overture Films and Alchemy have died out. In some cases, private equity firms have taken over the libraries. The international distribution market has practically collapsed and available sources of funding have dried up.

Yet as the independent theaters market evaporated, supply has not slowed down. On the contrary, it has only increased, fueled by a proliferation of new digital platforms and by rich streaming services like Netflix and Amazon with an insatiable appetite for ever more content.

Attracted by what they see as an ongoing gold rush, potential new producers have entered the business and attempted to mount ambitious productions often without the experience, connections, or understanding of film culture. required.

Among the various entities behind “Rust” is Streamline Global, a company founded in 2017 whose website compares feature films to “buying an airplane” in terms of its “tax benefits in the form of depreciation bonus or tax credits ”.

Producer Rebecca Green, whose credits include the 2015 low-budget horror hit “It Follows,” recently helped form the Producers’ Union, a collective bargaining organization that advocates for fair wages and human rights. work for independent producers.

“The dilution of producer credit over the past two decades has absolutely something to do with this tragedy,” says Green, who is the union president. “There are so many vaunted credits: directors are producers, actors are producers, financiers are producers. But who is the person who really knows how to make an assembly work properly? I think it is more and more difficult to determine that.

Matt Miller, who runs indie production studio Vanishing Angle, says producers need to understand how to work within budget, without sacrificing professionalism or the well-being of the cast and crew.

He notes that on the upcoming dark and comedic thriller “The Beta Test,” which had a relatively small budget of less than $ 300,000, the production still hired a privacy advisor to make sure the cast felt safe. playing scenes of sexual activity.

“It’s really about trying to encourage a community culture to show that there is a better way to treat people,” Miller says. “You don’t have to have long, crazy days and you don’t have to do things in a dangerous way. You don’t even have to do it altruistically. Do it because you will get a better product and it will improve your next movie because the teams will want to work with you again.

Ultimately, however, Green thinks the way to create safer, more humane movie sets may just be to have less.

“Nobody wants to accept that there is now a very, very small place for independent cinema,” Green said. “We produce a high level of content that has nowhere to go. What should really happen is that we don’t do so many movies and TV shows, and we do them right. This is what has to happen for that to change. But I don’t know if the powers that be are ready to do it.

Times editor Meg James contributed to this report.

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