Author’s Note: I originally wrote and published this article at my site Optimize Yourself (as part of my ongoing “Dear Hollywood” series). But despite the fact this article largely discusses the current ongoing battle between the “below-the-line” crew and “the producers” specific to the Hollywood craft unions (specifically IATSE), I don’t believe what’s at stake right now are just union issues. Quality of life, being valued for your contribution to a project, and being respected are human issues.
As a fellow editor myself (currently cutting Netflix’s Cobra Kai) I understand the challenges we face as creatives in today’s landscape of endless content that comes with equally ridiculous schedules and demands (and laughably undercut budgets). So no matter if you are a union member, a non-union member of the post-production world, or other, what is decided during these negotiations will have a huge impact on setting the standards for our entire industry for decades to come.
Thanks so much for reading and sharing. Be well.
– Zack Arnold, ACE
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received from a friend & mentor is the following:
“Don’t let others determine your value. Only you can determine your value.”
Unfortunately the idea that we as creative professionals are undervalued for the unique contributions we bring to the entertainment industry is not a new one. For decades we have been considered replaceable widgets that are expendable.
As legendary editor Walter Murch explained in our podcast together, several decades ago when approaching a studio executive to address the extreme working conditions, relentless stress, and impossible deadlines on a big budget tentpole film he was editing, he described the situation as:
“People are dropping like flies.”
The studio executive simply replied with: “Then get more flies.”
We’ve now reached an impasse where decades worth of delivering miracles has become today’s expectation, and how we function as a collective industry is no longer sustainable.
Finally….FINALLY we have the opportunity to change how we live and work in the entertainment industry. But the only way things will change is if there are simply “no more flies” because we’ve all collectively decided to advocate for our needs and say ‘NO’ to the impossible expectations asked of us every single day.
Unfortunately as much as I want to believe we finally have the power to affect positive change, my greatest fear is those of us who value our work-life balance and our lives beyond our paychecks are still the vocal minority fighting against a much larger majority clutching their “golden time” in their cold, (nearly) dead hands.
The only way for us to become the majority is to share with everyone who will listen – union, non-union, above the line, below the line, or otherwise – why we are fighting, how we ended up here, and why we deserve respect.
It’s Gut Check Time
I don’t care what anyone has told you in the past about the brutal realities of what it really takes to “make it” in Hollywood or the necessity to “pay your dues” at the expense of your own life (figuratively or literally), the truth is:
We deserve to love what we do for a living…but not at the expense of our health, our relationships, or our sanity.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a PA getting coffee or if you’re a department head with decades of experience, you as a human being deserve to be respected for your contribution to a project and valued accordingly.
You are not obligated to show gratitude for the meal penalties and the endless 6th & 7th days in your paycheck earned at the expense of skipping lunches, sleeping on a couch or on apple boxes at hour 18 of the day/night, having to pee in bottles because you can’t leave your post, or the countless missed medical appointments because there simply “isn’t time in the schedule.”
You don’t have to consider yourself “lucky” for the opportunity to work in Tinsel Town at the expense of not being able to start a family or missing countless once-in-a-lifetime memories like weddings, funerals, birthday parties, and kids’ recitals simply because whoever manages the budgets is completely incapable of building a schedule designed to set everyone up for success instead of failure.
You don’t need to sacrifice sleep, recovery time, and throw away entire relationships just so you can “suck it up” and wear your burnout badge of honor proudly alongside your colleagues who are literally shaving years off their lives simply to maintain a lifestyle they couldn’t afford if they worked more humane hours.
I’ve been saying for years that I don’t believe work-life balance is a union issue, it’s a human issue. But guess what – right now it’s a union issue. And for those of you in the union like me, here comes the gut check:
Are you willing to speak up for the respect you deserve?
Because if you’re not willing to speak up right now and advocate for more reasonable working conditions and compensation commensurate with your contributions, the way things are at this moment is the best it’s ever going to be again. The current version of Hollywood and the entertainment industry as we know it will be dead.
Here’s Why We Need to Speak Up
If someone shared this article with you – whether you are friends or family outside the industry, non-union colleagues in the industry, a member of another craft above or below the line, or even if you’re a union member unaware of the ongoing lack of negotiations – here is the best resource to explain what IATSE is and learn more about the pending strike authorization vote.
For a simple cheat sheet, here is where things presently stand as of writing this article (according to the official press statement from IATSE 09/21/21):
I have no intention of diving deep into new media streaming residuals (see what I did there?), rest periods and turnarounds, “Fraturdays,” pension & health plan contributions, or the multitude of other minutia being discussed. Instead I intend to boil down this entire negotiation to a very simple value proposition:
Our contribution as creative professionals is not valued appropriately, and our lives are treated as expendable. This is no longer acceptable.
This is obviously the moment where we provide the mob with pitchforks, light our torches, and storm the ivory towers at Apple, Amazon, all the major studios, and all the other mega corporations raking in their gazillions of streaming dollars, right?????
Not so fast.
This is where my argument veers from the common discourse (and might even piss you off). If we’re going to be as focused and strategic as possible, this is not about us versus the AMPTP and the Mega Globo Corporations (at least not yet).
I have no intention of calling out “the producers” or “the executives” as monsters. Frankly a lot of them are my colleagues, my friends, and my mentors. I work with these people every single day, and I believe that by and large they are decent people who also have families (and good intentions) and want nothing more than for all of us to collaborate and create inspiring and meaningful content as a unified team.
(But there are some tremendous pricks in this business too…let’s be honest).
Without a strike authorization vote there is no battle with AMPTP to be won. Which is why right now this isn’t about us vs the “producers.”
If we are intent on getting the votes necessary to pass a strike authorization and wield actual collective bargaining power (which by no means guarantees we actually strike, btw)…are we willing to speak out and advocate for ourselves?
Here’s How We Got Here
I’ve been writing & podcasting for the last seven years about the necessity to prioritize our health and work-life balance if we want to not only survive but thrive as creative professionals in this industry. This is not the first time I’ve written an impassioned plea to Hollywood that things need to change. (If you’re counting this is attempt #6)
For six of the last seven years, I was convinced I was living the life of a chocolate popsicle salesman at a white glove convention. I was practically radioactive.
Then last year when I shared the following:
…the conversation suddenly changed (like 150,000 page views in 5 days changed).
The pandemic forced all of us to involuntarily hit the ‘pause’ button and reevaluate our lives. Having literally had thousands of conversations with readers, listeners, and hundreds of my coaching & mentorship students, I can boil down every single conversation to one simple thing:
“The pandemic forced me to confront everything I’ve sacrificed. And I’m no longer willing to give these things up for the sake of creating entertainment.”
When work picked up again shortly after we were all promised that with the Covid precautions things would get better. Our health would finally be valued and prioritized!!!
I hate to say it, but back in June of 2020 I called bullshit when I said, “You think it was bad before? Just wait.” Reading that section in hindsight is not only depressing, it’s also eerie and downright terrifying how on the nose my predictions were. (Go ahead and take 2 minutes to read for yourself, you’ll see what I mean.)
Over the past several weeks the entire industry has been forced to pay attention to our current reality thanks to the tireless efforts of those managing the @IA_Stories Instagram profile (which has amassed over 80k+ followers in like a month!!!).
There are literally HUNDREDS more of these at @IA_Stories on Instagram.
While so many have been appalled by what they’ve read (I had one client in tears just today reading these posts realizing their own horror stories were shared by thousands of others), I personally haven’t been shocked by any of these posts because I’ve been getting messages like these in my inbox for seven years. (I only wish I was brilliant enough to begin sharing anonymously like they have….bless their hearts!!!)
Reading through these stories just solidifies my belief that directing our mob mentality towards the producers is the wrong strategy at this time.
If we’re going to collectively stand up as a unified front, we need to speak up to Bob down the hall who continues to wear his ‘burnout badge of honor’ because he believes it makes him better than everyone else and more valuable (despite the fact all of his late nights essentially make him useless).
We need to speak up to Suzy at the other end of the crafty table who thinks anybody that can’t “suck it up” doesn’t understand what they signed up for when they took a job in Hollywood and they should “pick a different job and stop crying.”
We need to speak up to anyone who falsely believes the horror stories shared on a (literal) minute-by-minute basis on pages like @IA_Stories are by and large the exception, not the rule.
And most importantly, we need to accept our own fair share of responsibility for getting to this point. We are also responsible for creating our toxic, dangerous, get-it-done-at-all-costs work culture that is literally killing people. We got here because instead of pushing back and setting healthy boundaries we instead said “Yes” to the impossible. And then we did it again. And again.
Like the frog in boiling water, the reality we live and work in today crept up so slowly that we didn’t realize how bad things really were. But the pandemic was the blessing in disguise that has now FINALLY given us the opportunity to affect real change.
Are you ready to summon the courage to speak up and be a part of this change?
Here’s What You Can Do About It
The reason that up until now we’ve accepted a toxic work culture that considers us expendable is because we have been afraid if we speak up, we will simply be replaced – or even worse labeled “difficult” for the remainder of our careers. (For future reference, being labeled “difficult” just means you are “difficult to take advantage of.”)
As long as there are more flies we can always be replaced.
Until there are no more flies.
As a father of two young kids, I’ve spent A LOT of time watching Pixar movies, and one of my favorites is A Bug’s Life. While my kids may overlook the following scene, there is a tremendously profound moment when the grasshoppers realize their power is nothing compared to the ants if they were to stand together.
“You let one ant stand up to us, then they ALL might stand up! Those puny little ants outnumber us 100 to 1. And if they ever figure that out, there goes our way of life.”
Only banded together can we demand the respect we deserve and affect real change for ourselves and future generations of creative professionals just entering this industry with stars in their eyes and a love for this craft in their hearts.
One ant at a time.
Are you a voting member of the union?
You can weigh the pros & cons of each deal point all you want, but here’s what your vote boils down to:
Can you put your head on the pillow at night and sleep soundly knowing that your contribution to this industry is valued and respected?
If you can answer this question with a ‘Yes’ based on your personal circumstances, this warms my heart.
Can you also say the same for your tens-of-thousands of colleagues throughout our industry?
If I had to selfishly vote in a vacuum, I’d vote no. I love the people I work with, and they all value my contribution. And I’m not just talking about my fellow editors, I’m talking about the above-the-line show runners, the directors, the producers, and even the executives at the studio and streaming network that air my show. I am treated incredibly well and have a ton of respect for everyone. If this vote were just about me and my personal needs I’d see no reason to rock the boat.
Unfortunately life isn’t that simple. I cannot stand idly by knowing there are so many whose lives are being destroyed by this industry. So if the previous 2500 words haven’t made it obvious enough yet, my vote is 150% YES for a strike authorization.
To put it as simply and bluntly as possible, a “No” vote will literally be the beginning of the end of the union as we know it today.
Are you a non-union member of our industry?
If you’ve read up until this point thinking, “None of this affects me, I’m not in the union,” I have really bad news for you. As much as you’d like to believe you aren’t part of this conversation, the raminfications of this vote will affect you whether you like it or not.
The contracts you negotiate for yourself as an independent freelancer, and the general structure of working hours, rates, deals, etc in the non-union world trickles down from the union world. Union contracts are the general guidelines by which all other deals are constructed. If we can’t get a strike authorization vote, we lose our collective bargaining power, and as our ship goes down in flames it will take yours with us.
You think your rates are being undercut by that guy on Fiverr.com now? Just wait until we no longer have the power to negotiate union scale or yearly wage increases that keep up with inflation.
As someone who can’t vote, the best thing you can do is share this article with your social circle as the chances are extremely high there’s at least one person with the power to vote who needs the right information to make an informed decision.
You might not be able to cast a vote, but you can do the right thing by encouraging others to do so.
Are you someone who just wants to show your support?
Whether you are an actor, a showrunner, a director, a producer, or even if you are the cousin of your sister’s friend of the second AC on that one show that shoots at the café across the street from you, share this article so everyone understands the immense (and sometimes ultimate) sacrifices we as creative professionals make every single day to provide you and the rest of the world with a bottomless chasm of entertainment.
No matter where you stand, copy your favorite passage from this article that most deeply speaks to your personal challenges and share this with everyone you know so that everyone understands why we are voices are important, how we ended up here, and why we deserve respect.
It’s gut check time.
If we don’t speak up now, the industry as we know it today will never be the same.
The time for change is NOW.