EXCLUSIVE: Current buy-out model could be replaced with hourly rate; cost-neutral reform of blue book scheduled for March 2013.

Producers alliance PACT and crew union BECTU have set a new employment reform deadline for March 2013.

As previously reported by Screen, the two bodies had been hoping to achieve a new set of guidelines for working hours by autumn 2012, but negotiations have taken longer than expected.

The central platform of the reform concerns the current crew buy-out model, which has led to growing frustration among a number of production departments over a perceived abuse of labour.

“We thought we’d get it done by a few weeks ago but we’re now looking at March,” one BECTU official told Screen. “The central platform of this reform is to replace buyout deals, potentially with an hourly rate. If you only did a 40-hour week the buyout model would be fine. But if, as is often the case, you do 60, 70, 80 hours your hourly rate goes down. That has created difficulties on both sides and we’re looking at replacing it. We want to try and end the long hours culture.” 

The buyout model sees crew paid a daily flat rate, however preparation, wrap time, time away from set and travel are often not factored in to workers’ schedules.

PACT and BECTU are both open to more clarity around working hours, with one BECTU official describing a “spirit of cooperation” between the two.

PACT chief executive John McVay told Screen: “This is us trying to respond to BECTU’s concern about the lack of clarity around working hours and the work-life balance. From our side, we believe the buy-out model does pay crew for all the hours they work but because it’s a buy-out you don’t always specify the basic rate and overtime rate. So it leads the residual feeling that people aren’t paid for what they work.”

Both sides have agreed that any changes should be cost-neutral, meaning workers’ hourly rates will not increase as part of the reform. The agreement is expected to cover all budget bands of film production and most major departments, excluding construction, which already has a separate agreement in place.

“This is not about a pay rise, it’s about a pay structure,” explained McVay. “The last thing we want to do is inflate the cost of production in the UK. If that’s the case then we don’t have an agreement and we have reminded the union of that. We don’t want the reputation of the wild west of industrial relations. This agreement will stop militants as it puts a dispute resolution process in place.”

The two parties hope that the revised agreement [previously called the blue book] will be available as a free phone app: “We want to modernise the style,” said the official. “I want an agreement that a new young film producer can understand straight away,” added McVay.

However, while discussions have been constructive to date, one BECTU official warned that union members would not tolerate delay beyond the spring: “This has to go through in March. Our members won’t wait any longer.”

Producer Rebecca O’Brien of Sixteen Films is sanguine about the discussions: “We are making genuine progress. I think there is a real willingness from all producers to make something work. I think the tightening of rules will be welcomed by producers and workers alike. Sensible working practice makes for a better working environment and benefits all.”

She reiterated that the changes are less about a pay increase than working practice, with crew often being asked to do “more than they can stand physically and emotionally”: “A wardrobe mistress might work 16 hour days. It’s very hard for them to work like that without cracks appearing.”

The two sides had initially hoped to have a deal in place by autumn. BECTU explained why discussions have taken longer than expected: “We’re talking about converting one modus operandi to another,” said the official. “It’s like converting to the euro from sterling. Things don’t match up neatly, that’s why it has taking longer.”

According to McVay and producers Screen spoke to the reform has the broad support of independent producers and studios in the UK: “Everyone is keen to go on this journey,” said the chief exective. The agreement is unlikely to extend to high end TV, however, with McVay describing that eventuality as a “twinkle in the union’s eye.”

One head of a shooting department told Screen that conditions had improved for crew in recent months, particularly after Working Title’s turbulent Les Miserables shoot: “Les Miserables was a watershed production in some sense. The makeup department said enough is enough and PACT and BECTU really took notice. I’ve spoken to some members of the crew on that film who have since then worked on productions that have embraced overtime, even before crew have asked for it.” The same source also said that it had recently received a proper overtime deal from a studio that had previously not met overtime payments.

PACT and Production Guild member Steve Clark-Hall is negotiating with BECTU on behalf of the studios, alongside McVay. The agreement will need the approval of the Pact Council before ratification.