A Look at the Long Hours Culture in Film & TV Drama Editorial

“Recently I worked 27 hours straight on a high budget feature. I did not receive full paid overtime for this. I also recently worked 20 hours straight on a small TV series before getting onto a 6 hour train journey while working remotely from my laptop throughout this journey”.

“I have worked a 24 hour shift 2 times and 20 hour shifts many times”.

“My post supervisor would ‘joke’ if I left at 10pm that I was doing part-time hours”.

These are some responses to a recent survey on long hours in the cutting rooms.

In the UK film industry, shooting hours are tightly regulated. If you go over your 15-min grace period at the end of the day, the production start paying overtime. Try asking a grip or a spark to stay a little longer for free and see what response you get.

However this doesn’t apply to all disciplines. Office-based crew like the art department and cutting rooms usually just get a flat fee for a week’s work, regardless of the hours.

The consequences

Working too many hours is bad for your health. You are at higher risk of stroke, of heart disease, even of cancer.

“I think MOST shows impact things like exercise, eating habits and sleep. It takes a LOT of discipline and often time we don't have to stay on top of those things”.

‘I was diagnosed with acute heartburn (similar symptoms to a heart attack) caused by stress and anxiety”.

“I have often felt very unsafe to drive home from a studio after working a 16hr day and have had near misses. I also have found that it's taken me a few months to recover from jobs like that”.

That’s not to mention the toll it takes on your mental health and emotional wellbeing.

“When working long hours I’ve felt depressed, not slept properly, not exercised, not eaten properly, drunk too much…”

“I still suffer from anxiety and am treated for acid reflux”.

“I was working 14-16 hour days minimum, not including travel time. I spent a lot of time quietly crying at my desk… My friends and family all commented on how sad and tired I was on the weekend, if I was allowed a weekend”.

And of course it can have a negative effect on relationships, on your family life.

“I have a 1 year old at home and saying goodnight to her again and again on Skype is depressing”.

“Your free time becomes completely about recuperating so that you can manage the next intense wave of work”.

“I have had to miss out on many family commitments - I can rarely guarantee when I will be available so I often avoid committing to anything”.

Legendary US cinematographer Haskell Wexler made a documentary entitled ‘Who Needs Sleep?’ looking at long hours in the US film industry. The film goes into the death of Brent Hershman, a camera crew member who died falling asleep at the wheel after yet another 19-hour shift.

In the film he describes how when he started in the industry, back in the 50s, the norm was to shoot 8 hour days. He made it home in time to have dinner with his family every day. But over the decades, the hours just crept up.

The EU Working Time Directive was brought into being in order to protect people’s health and safety. It makes several stipulations which apply to every worker within the EU:

  • at least 4 weeks paid holiday every year
  • rest of at least 11 hours in any 24h period
  • at least one day off in any 7-day period
  • the right to work no more than 48 hours per week

The first three of these stipulations are set in stone. However, individuals may choose to opt-out of the last one. Every contract you will be presented with whilst working in the film industry will contain a clause verifying that by signing the contract, you agree to opt out of the 48-hour limit.

Why do we do it?

Why are people in the film industry prepared to work so hard? People need to work, the London-centric nature of our industry means they have extortionate properties to pay for. They’re on a treadmill.

“There’s often the sentiment that you should be grateful to be involved in the project so therefore happy to sacrifice your free time, and if you don’t do it, someone else will”.

“I felt like a cog in a machine. Get on with it or get replaced. Which is what they did do with other members of the team”.

“I made no complaints because I wasn't in a position where I could gain anything by complaining”.

“When I have questioned the hours and requested that more assistants be brought in to cover the hours, it was agreed that I should leave the job, which in a sense was constructive dismissal”.

Overtime

I’ve recently met an assistant editor who spent 25 years working in LA. He described the last two years working in cutting rooms in London as ‘humbling’. In the States editorial work long hours too, the difference being that if you are asked to go over your allotted hours, you get paid overtime. For the crew member the extra money sugars the pill somewhat and in reality, the fact that a production has to pay must mean that they’ll think twice about asking people to work additional hours.

There seems to a haphazard approach to overtime in the UK, based on each individual’s negotiating skills:

“I’ve never been paid overtime”.

“Overtime payment (£35/hr) after 12 hours”.

“As Editor I received no overtime. I petitioned for my team to get £35/hour after 10 hours but as this was never contractual, the studio rarely paid it. Instead they preferred to offer ‘time off in lieu’, but whenever the crew asked for the time off, it was denied on the grounds that the schedule would not allow it”.

“I always negotiate overtime on big jobs or I will not work longer than a 10hr day, 5 days a week. I negotiate overtime as a way of protecting my hours”.

“I resented being made to feel guilty that I asked to be paid. The Editor had my back though. The expectation was I would be paid, and the Editor made it clear to Production”.

“I worked nights for about 10 days without any extra recompense for the anti-social hours”.

“I worked 18 hours a day for 2 months. I got a nice card at the end, thanking me for all my hard work”.

There’s also a fear that if we kick up too much of a fuss, all those big studio films we currently enjoy working on may go to Bulgaria instead.

“It feels like if we were to negotiate hours and work something more in line with normal hours, they’d pack up and find another place where people won’t complain”.

Why do they do it to us?

Now, I can understand the temptation, if you’re shooting and have 120 people on the payroll, to want to extend the working day and squeeze the schedule. But once you get into the fine cut, that’s the cheapest part of the whole process. On a super-low-budget movie there are (apart from the producers) literally two people on the payroll, the director and editor. And the end result can be completely transformed by what happens during the fine cut.

So why would you ever squeeze the fine cut?

In TV drama, one scenario may be that you have a transmission date locked in, and the time spent in developing the script overruns, so the rest of the schedule gets squeezed.

“When post gets squeezed, we still deliver. So next time they shave even more time off”.

On big features, the same thing applies, the distributor wants the film by a certain date, it’s booked into cinemas. The shoot gets pushed back for whatever reason. It’s post-production that suffers.

“I think when it's known that crew will work like that, producers will do it again and again”.

On low-budget features, who knows why you’d squeeze the fine cut. Often you are given the hurry-up to finish a film only for it to take a year or more to get released.

You do it to yourself…

We in the cutting rooms want to do a good job, we care about the finished product, we care about our reputations, we want to give our all to a project. You start your day full of good intentions, you have a mental map of all the stuff that you need to do that day. But the phone keeps ringing, you have to go to meetings, you get diverted. So come 7pm you think to yourself ‘I’ll just stay another hour, I’ve got to get *insert absolutely vital task here* done’. One hour turns into two. The next day you come in full of good intentions, but your tired so you get less done, so come 7pm…

“I don’t like the idea of doing something which is good enough but could be better if I had time and space. It’s not what I’m in this for”.

There’s even sometimes a little masochism involved. Like the Silicon Valley nerds who developed the first ever Macintosh who wore T-shirts saying ‘Working 90 hour weeks and loving it!’, those in editorial, especially on big prestige projects, are actually often PROUD of the fact that they’re caning the hours.

“I think there are people wear the long hours as a badge of honour, there’s a weird bravado. It’s a bit of a club.”

“Sometimes it's just the nature of the director or editor to be a workaholic and then the crew have to accommodate them.”

A virtuous circle

You may be surprised to find out that the Greeks are among the hardest-working members of the EU. And that the Germans are among the countries who work the least hours.

You may be less surprised to find that the Germans are among the most productive and that the Greeeks are among the least productive. Here’s the proof.

This is no accident! A Stanford University study which crunched the data gathered by the UK government during WW1 measuring output at munitions factories showed that upto approx. 55 hours a week, the hours you work and the number of widgets you produce develops in a linear fashion. Above 55 hours there is a drop-off, so you produce less work per hour. Above 65 hours the drop-off is very marked. And it is even possible to end up in a situation where if you’re working really long hours, you make mistakes, and because you’re tired it takes you longer and longer to fix those mistakes, so your output goes into reverse. The WW1 case showed that the difference in output between 56 hours and 70 per week was negligible. Those extra 14 hours were a total waste of time.

“I need to be focused to do my job. I nearly always end up having to go over mistakes I made on all-nighters because my brain stops functioning properly”.

“After 12 hours, work does become a lot harder to do. I start to become inefficient from this point onwards”.

“I've often felt near collapse, physically and emotionally. Mistakes get made when you're exhausted”.

This has been known about since Victorian times. In the early days of union movements (whose slogan was ‘8 hours work, 8 hours rest, 8 for what we will’) mill owners found to their surprise that if they conceded to their workers’ demands and reduced their work hours, productivity went up. Henry Ford made himself extremely unpopular with his fellow car manufacturers when he cut hours and doubled pay at his factories. Two years later they all followed suit when they saw his profits rocketing.

Now we in the cutting rooms do creative jobs, we’re not producing widgets. How can you have that spark of creativity, how can you think laterally if you’re smashed?

There has been research showing that knowledge workers possibly only have 6 good hours of focused work in them a day. You can focus really well for 90-120 mins sessions, and you need to have a break of 20-30 mins to replenish your mental energy before tackling the next 90-120 minute task.

Go home already!

There are the beginnings of a fightback. For example in France there is talk of passing legislationbanning out of hours e-mails. In Germany work e-mails sent after 8pm or at the weekend get held on the server, and are released just before you go back to work.

In Sweden they’re doing research into a 6-hour day.

If you want to be productive, if you reach 7pm and think to yourself ‘How can I get more done? How can I improve the quality of my work?’, the answer is simple: GO HOME! See your family, do some kickboxing, watch a movie, GET A LIFE! It’s a no-brainer! It’s a win-win!

Sometimes of course we don’t have a choice. Which is why we need to recalibrate our industry somewhat. We have to convince our employers of the above arguments, show them the data. In ‘Who Needs Sleep’, US DoP John Lindley says “Some people think it makes financial sense to work these hours. If I went to a studio and said ‘Look, I have a method where you can pay people 3 times their normal rate and I can guarantee you that they’ll work at half their normal efficiency’, people would throw me out the door”. In the UK of course they don’t have to pay us 3 times our normal rate…

Many thanks to everyone who contributed.

Further reading (should you be interested!)

What’s discussed above is of course indicative of what’s happening in wider society. This article, based on research by TotallyMoney.com states that Brits are doing an extra 9 weeks unpaid overtime per year.

Here’s an article about how precarious life is becoming for those at the bottom of the pile, as increasing use of robotics makes their jobs obsolete.

This is a terrifying expose of working practices at Amazon.

This is a great article on the relationship between working hours and productivity.