I just got fired from a job because the producer decided I was untrustworthy. Huh?
I get a little nervous when my phone rings and the area code on the display is located in Southern California. I spent ten years in the Hollywood film and television industries, and while there are many good people working in those businesses there are many, many more that are less than ethical. The ultra-competitive environment breeds a “get ahead at any cost” mentality, and it’s a good idea to regularly brush one’s back against the wall in order to better detect the presence of stilettos or other sharp objects.
A few days ago I was contacted by a company in Orange County: they wanted me to do a small local shoot for them in San Jose, I’d come highly recommended, and they wanted to know if I could help them put it together. All they needed was a simple SDX-900 package with some basic lighting and grip, so I called my regular rental house (Chater Camera) and had them whip up an estimate. I told the coordinator who the package was coming from and told them that I don’t bill equipment through myself, but I have the production company work out billing and insurance directly with the rental company.
There are a lot of DP’s who will rent and insure the gear themselves, because most rental houses will give them a 10-20% discount that they can then pocket when they bill their client full price. I’ll probably start playing this game at some point, but so far in my career I haven’t felt the need to take on that hassle. I don’t really want to be on the hook for a large equipment rental bill, especially when it’s my first time working with a production company.
I explained this to the coordinator, and she seemed fine with all the arrangements. Everything seemed to be on track… until yesterday, at around 5pm, when her boss called me up. “Most of our cinematographers insure the gear themselves,” she said. “I don’t know you, I don’t trust you, and I don’t know that you won’t walk away from the shoot with all the gear and leave me holding the insurance bill. I feel very uncomfortable taking on this extra risk, and I want you to send me something in writing that says that you won’t steal or break anything.”
There’s a divot in my jaw where it hit the floor. I’ve never been called by a producer and asked to write an essay on the subject of “Why I won’t steal or drop the gear, by Art Adams.” I was absolutely astonished, and it showed in my response. I’m normally a very easy-going person, with a reputation for doing good work very, very calmly, but this was too much. I must admit I gave her a hard time on the phone, and then I emailed her this note:
“In response to your phone call:
“I’ve worked in the film/video industries for 21 years. I have never intentionally destroyed, or caused harm to, a piece of equipment. I always treat my equipment with the greatest respect as those are the tools that I rely on to ply my craft. And my reputation, which is how I get work, is based on the quality of my work and my craftsmanship.
“I am a cinematographer first and foremost. I ask the production companies that I work with to work out insurance and billing with the rental house(s) that I typically refer them to and that I have a good working relationship with. I do not get involved in any aspect of the production that I would normally expect a production company to deal with. I supply the rental house with an equipment list, the rental house sends out an estimate, and I work with the production company to finalize the equipment list and cost from there. The production company provides the certificate of insurance as part of their normal responsibilities.
“I can’t guarantee that no equipment will be damaged in the course of the shoot, just because I can’t. That’s why insurance exists: to cover accidental loss of or damage to gear. Accidents can be avoided to a great extent, but by their definition accidents do happen unpredictably.
“I do guarantee that I will take reasonable and customary steps to make sure that no equipment is damaged. I can also state that I am not in the habit of breaking gear or allowing gear to be broken if I can at all prevent it from being broken or misused.
“Please feel free to check my reputation regarding gear with the rental house that is providing it. I’ve worked with them for many years and I suspect they’d be a little weary of renting gear for my shoots if I chronically destroyed it, as it’s a great pain for them to collect insurance and repair gear.
“I can offer other references as well, or you can contact the person who originally referred me to you.
“I promise I will not ‘walk away’ with any gear.
“Please contact me with any additional questions you may have.”
I received a response about an hour later: I was too defensive and negative, and as the company prides themselves on working only with fun, creative people they were going to look for someone else. That’s fine by me. I’ve never been questioned like that before, and I consider such questioning to be highly unprofessional. It’s one thing to call up and ask me why I do business in a particular way, but it’s inappropriate to say, right out of the gate and to someone you don’t know, “I don’t trust you not to steal the equipment, so give me something in writing that says you won’t.” It’s both insulting and stupid: if I was going to steal the equipment, why wouldn’t I write such a note anyway?
Also, if she’s uncomfortable taking on that risk, why does she consider it normal for me to do it? I’ve never worked with her either.
I comfort myself with a lesson I learned a while back, thanks to my days in the Hollywood film world: People most often suspect that you are going to do to them what they would do to you, given half a chance. The producers who think you are going to screw them are more than likely getting ready to screw you.
I think she did me a favor.
I’ve worked with some great Southern California production companies, although I had to leave LA before I found them. They can be a joy to work with. But there are so many others that act in such completely unethical ways that I’m afraid I’ll continue to cringe whenever I see (310), (323), (818), (949) or any of the dozen other Southern California area codes appear on my Caller ID. Sadly, Hollywood’s ethical business people live in the shadow of all the others.