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Is UK crew unrest an inward investment issue?

UK union BECTU denies claim that studio-backed productions are inciting more crew complaints than other productions.

Working conditions on studio-backed productions are being complained about by crew more often than other UK productions, according to some UK industry professionals.

“US practice brings this way of working to the fore,” Sixteen Films’ Rebecca O’Brien told Screen. “The culture of working longer hours comes from the states and it is studio productions which are being complained about more than other productions. This is an inward investment issue.” A number of UK crew members (with studio-backed production experience) contacted by Screen agreed with her sentiments.

O’Brien, who is Ken Loach’s longtime producer, is involved in drawing up the new film industry Blue Book, which will give clearer employment guidelines for UK crew and producers. BECTU and PACT (O’Brien is a member of both) are working together on the guidelines.

But that claim has been denied by BECTU assistant general secretary Martin Spence who told Screen that he did not think that crew dissatisfaction emanated predominantly from bigger-budget US-backed productions: “It wouldn’t be fair to say the lower budget UK productions are free from issues,” he said.

Producer Steve Clark-Hall, who worked as a co-producer and executive producer on Warner Bros’ Sherlock Holmes franchise and is involved in the Blue Book negotiations, also denied that most crew complaints about working conditions came from bigger-budget US-UK films.

“If you came and sat on the production of Sherlock Holmes you would wonder what the fuss is about,” he said. “The sort of complaints you are hearing now are the same you would hear over the last 30 years, be it on a larger or smaller production.” Clark-Hall is also a member of both PACT and BECTU.

BECTU, the UK’s largest entertainment union, has been in negotiations with producers alliance PACT since the beginning of the year about a revised Blue Book, which both sides hope will provide greater clarity on working hours.

Spence told Screen that the two sides are on course to deliver a document by October:

“I’m really pleased with the progress we’re making and the continuing spirit that informs the negotiations. There is a will on both sides to reach an agreement and to educate our respective constituencies about its implications.”

Screen last month reported on the significant crew unrest on high profile Working Title-Universal production Les Miserables, which prompted an influx of BECTU members.

While on that production the hair and makeup department were most vocal, BECTU officials have subsequently registered frustration from a number of departments across the production spectrum, including production managers, ADs, location managers and costume and wardrobe artists.

Spence called the discontent “a widespread issue.”

O’Brien believes that “conditions have worsened” on UK productions: “People are expected to do silly hours and it’s dangerous. There was a certain amount of laissez-faire adopted on productions in recent years. That can lead to some freedoms, but ultimately to some exploitation.”

She also said she understood why workers are becoming increasingly attracted to unions: “After all these years of the unions being on the back burner they are becoming important again. As things get squeezed economically, people remember what a union is for. It does have a real role to play in our industry.”

On the flip side, some producers Screen spoke to noted increasing acts of “unhelpful militancy” from crew members.

The US studios are represented in the Blue Book discussions by PACT and the Production Guild.

Warner Bros, which has one of the largest UK production presences among studios in the UK, declined to comment.

The level of inward investment in the UK has surged in recent years, with production spend on US-UK productions topping $1bn last year.

Twitter: @andreaswiseman

Readers' comments (2)

  • Working Title are the culprits, its has nothing to do with the US Studios directly. They green-light their projects with the majority of their budget above the line. They are the only production company with a studio deal that effectively make low budget films, abuse British Crews from production through to post production on rates and deals.

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  • the US studio films HAVE introduced these working hours to the UK where they were passively accpepted, and it has become the Norm- (but not in other countries in Europe), crews are working at Leavesden, Longcross, Shepperton, Pinewood for 12 hrs minimum days, plus a few hours OT per day, plus a few hours travel to set and back daily, 6 days a week, sometimes 7, with only a few hours to sleep... they are exhausted and the smart ones are leaving the industry to do other things-
    no one is complaining- until there is an accidents like in the States with people falling asleep at the wheel and crashing to their death-
    UK producers have done very little or nothing to protect their crews

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