Monday, December 18, 2023

Wearing all the hats is NOT the solution - Symposium Reflections - Part VI

Attempting to create a database—to say nothing of maintaining one—is demanding work. Trying to formalize a “blacklist” of ostensibly suspect filmmakers—in addition to being legally and ethically problematic itself—would not be practical in part because it would always be subjective. Most people in the workforce at large have had enough negative experiences with others in their fields that they probably already have a personal blacklist.

Narrow them down to a selection of filmmakers, picked at random, in a common market, and this author is reasonably confident that their individual lists would be practically identical, consisting of the same “quasi-professionals” and “working amateurs” that most in their community already know, have dealt with, and perhaps continue to deal with anyway—better the devil you know.

"Wearing all the hats"
Prompt by the author.
Image by Adobe Firefly
As mentioned in the previous installment of this series, the justifications for blacklisting are varied. Second-hand allegations from disgruntled contractors, unflattering opinions from established and respected professionals, even first-hand testimony, accompanied by verifiable evidence of deliberate malfeasance. Yet, it would have no real effect on those listed because their misdeeds and questionable practices are often already commonly known. It wouldn’t change their behavior or livelihood because they tend to have a loyal—often sycophantic—following of reliable talent that won’t allow themselves to believe that they are not respected or are being regularly exploited.

It should also be considered that there’s a good chance that everyone reading these words—as well as the person writing them—is probably already on somebody else’s blacklist, perhaps even placed at the very top. Were anyone to ask why they’ve been blacklisted, the initial reason may have been forgotten or grossly misremembered. Still, their names will undoubtedly trigger an emotional justification not to remove them from said list.

While legal recourse exists for blatantly illegal behavior, witnessing exploitation and the fear of being exploited can motivate people to try and find solutions to prevent it. Subsequent actions, however, can be subject to implicit biases rooted in local culture, its political climate, personality types, and whether the root cause of a problem can be discerned from its apparent symptoms.

This author believes that the most pressing issue for workers in most sectors is stagnant wages that can’t keep up with a perpetually rising cost of living. Within the context of the film industry, the perception of these issues can vary considerably. A simple “Studios” vs. “Auteurs” or “Above” vs. “Below-the-line” analogy may superficially resemble the conflicts between management and labor.

Like any business venture, the decision to greenlight a film is heavily influenced by its projected return on investment (ROI). While most novice filmmakers tend to limit their budget estimates to the cost of production—i.e., just making the movie—investors require a more detailed and long-term prospectus. A comprehensive budget doesn’t just go beyond the wrap party. It starts with everything from development costs to rights clearances, option agreements, preliminary contracts, marketing analyses, securing distribution, and many other line items with associated costs, salaried employees, contractors, and consultants, all of which must be paid before starting PRE-production.

Another major factor is where production will take place. This is where regional tax waivers and rebates, like Utah’s Motion Picture Incentive Program, come into play. While production incentives are an excellent means to attract feature film and television series productions to markets like Utah—employing local talent and strengthening infrastructure—effectively communicating how it benefits the local economy often proves challenging.

When some local filmmakers have discussed these matters in Utah Filmmakers’s official forum, this author has noted the use of some troubling talking points and misinformed justifications that—to put it politely—are counterproductive. While the film incentive practically sells itself to prospective film productions, some local filmmakers also emphasize Utah’s status as a so-called “Right-to-work” (hyphenated) state as an additional selling point—often without fully understanding what “Right-to-work” legislation is intended to do, beyond reinforcing the deliberately vague and politically motivated stigmatization of labor unions.

The phrase “Right-to-work” sounds benevolent because one may infer its purpose is defending a right. As if the Founding Fathers somehow neglected to include it in the Bill of Rights.

The concept of “...the right to work”—note the absence of hyphens between each word—as a right of all individuals that should be protected was defined in Article 23.1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948 thusly:

“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

In 1966, the “right to work”—as well as the “right to health,” the “right to education,” and the “right to an adequate standard of living”—was recognized in human rights law in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. An international treaty in which the United States is a signatory but has yet to ratify it.

Meanwhile, 27 out of 50 states in the Union have taken it upon themselves to enact their own “right-to-work” legislation, which—at least superficially—may seem like a noble effort to make up for an unfortunate oversight by the federal government. In reality, all these laws accomplish is codifying an individual’s “...right to refrain from paying or being a member of a labor union.”

They have nothing to do with protecting workers’ rights to employment, protection from unemployment, and their ability to achieve “an adequate standard of living.”

They have everything to do with undermining the effectiveness of trade unions to advocate for workers—regardless of whether or not they are members—without explicitly outlawing organized labor. And yet, its wording creates a false impression that union membership would otherwise be compulsory without such legislation.

With the ability of unions to negotiate contracts impeded—not by the specific wording of the legislation itself but by the confusion it sows in the minds of workers—employers, including film production companies, feel that they have carte blanche to offer lower rates to local below-the-line workers. It’s not even as if the wages offered are only marginally lower than current rates, equivalent to those guaranteed by previous contracts. In the case of entry-level cast and crew—background actors and production assistants—rates can be tied to what any employer can legally get away with paying. In other words, the federal minimum wage, which, as of the publication of this article, has not been adjusted in any way—not even for inflation—since 2009!

Cast and crew positions with greater responsibilities and obligations and require specific skills don’t fare much better. Actors represented by local “talent agents”—operating in a state requiring no training, licensure, or professional oversight—will often agree to predatory rates and terms with little or no negotiation.

These issues are no secret because some of the worst perpetrators are local producers. Suspect business models and ethically questionable practices are regular online and in-person discussion topics in the local film community and film industry. Still, most people feel helpless to do anything about it. They are leery of trusting anyone in a position to affect real change—because systemic reform is needed most, addressing root causes would need to be implemented through government legislation.

This lack of trust and frustration with the status quo leaves some filmmakers believing they must take it upon themselves to change things. They feel that local talent agents can’t be trusted because they’re not accountable to anyone. Still, instead of advocating for government oversight, they think they can fix it… by becoming talent agents—who are also accountable to no one.

Because casting directors work with agents, they can’t be trusted either. So, some of these filmmakers, having also become talent agents, decide to be casting directors. This has resulted in the rise of some “one-stop-shop” production companies/agencies/commercial-semi-fiefdoms, insisting they alone can be trusted to meet all their clients’ needs. Unfortunately, their lack of trust in others and the absence of genuine oversight can blind them to conflicts of interest and the ancillary effects of compromises they make to remain competitive. Their efforts to affect positive change in how their local industry conducts business are compromised by systemic flaws that remain unaddressed. More often than not, they just perpetuate existing problematic practices, albeit with newer, friendlier-looking branding.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and—especially where guest posts are concerned—do not necessarily reflect the official policies and/or practices of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its Officers and/or Associates.