Thursday, July 30, 2009

Overtime - and why your low film budget should have it.

By Rachael Satlzman

Before you look at me as though I’m mad, and say ‘I can’t afford to pay overtime!’, realize that I may not be talking to you.

This is not for you Weekend Warriors who call upon the talents and resources of your close friends in exchange for coating them with homemade blood and feeding them pizza. If your friends remain enthusiastic after all you’re going to put them through – then you are doing something right.

First things first – what is overtime actually, and how does it work?
The Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into being by Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York on July 14, 1938. It set a minimum wage law (twenty five cents at the time), and a maximum number of hours worked per week (44 the first year, 40 by the third) without additional compensation.

Before this, there was no maximum number of hours, or minimum allowable wage – you could be forced to gut chickens eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, for a nickel an hour (sounds familiar, right?).

Of course this legislation was not created from kindness or love for fellow man; if you want a more in – depth story, look up ‘Muckrakers’, ‘Upton Sinclair’, and ‘The Jungle’.

What overtime means to the receiver – and this is probably the most important bit of this article.

Younger, less experienced technicians tend to get very excited over the prospect of overtime, seeing dollar signs in their eyes. The first breakdown they actually do is probably a bit of a shock.

Overtime is very heavily taxed, when you’re working on something that tracks an hourly rate (some of these little guys don’t). In fact, if you work more overtime on one project than straight pay at others, you can end up taking home far less money.

Just one link regarding how that works, since I’m not getting in depth here – that’s not what this is for.

Overtime is not really a bonus for the working stiff; it is meant as a penalty to the employer – extra cost to try and offset the potential abuse of employees. Most of that money goes back into the government pool, not to your pocket.

Somehow, rather than seeing the penalty aspect, many large employers, particularly in entertainment, have come to see it as the cost of doing business (along with meal penalties, travel, et al.). The problems with this tend to be exactly what were the issues in the first place – people getting hurt on the job, falling asleep while driving, making bad choices.

A short I worked on recently would have benefited a great deal from offering overtime. There are specific reasons for this.

First, the shoot took place over two twenty hour days. This is a bit ridiculous, and we were lucky as hell that nobody got hurt on set, or after. I ended up driving back with the DP, who kept falling asleep behind the wheel, despite my endless chatter, prodding, cold water splashes, etc.

I expect none of the other vehicles fared much better. Had we an overtime clause, it would have been less expensive for the producers to add a third day to production, rather than risk killing every crew member working on this thing due to over tired drivers.

The other highly avoidable bit was on the second day, when the production was held up for six hours while a key prop was being completed. Yes, six hours. Had we been on an hourly, rather than a flat rate, you can bet that wouldn’t have happened.

We were all fairly pissed off, and I have added an overtime clause to my low budget agreements because of situations like this.

Would I have been less angry had I been making more money? A little, I suppose. But at a rate that low, it’s not about the money. (Though my Best Boy did the math, and we all made about two dollars an hour after it was all said and done – adding insult to injury.)

Let me repeat that – it’s NOT about the money. It’s about respect. This shoot, and others like it, leave a bad impression with your crew. They say that the crew’s expertise, hard work, and safety are of little concern. It will make it more difficult to find talented crew willing to work with you, when you take advantage of them like that.

Again, this is the difference between begging your friends to help on a project, and putting up an ad to hire strangers – or even recruiting through your professional network. It’s flat out telling people that they have no value to you, and that you’re willing to exploit them, whether that is the intention or not.

So what does offering overtime on a low budget project mean?
One, it tells the crew you have your act together, and they won’t be waiting around for hours while some minor issue is addressed – or if they do, you will be trying to fix the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because if you don’t, it’s going to cost you, not the crew.

It implies that you’ll have your shot list figured out, and the production will move quickly – because if you spend three hours dickering around with the setup for one line, it’s going to cost you, not the crew.

It indicates that you haven’t unrealistically overscheduled your days, have thought about potential issues in advance, and have at least thought about how long your days may end up being.

Plus, it also tells the crew that you respect them and their time, even though you can’t pay them what they’re worth. Most of these little guys offer a fraction of what a typical day rate should be – the least you can do is say ‘I understand that, and I’m trying to run as professional a ship as I can with the resources available’.

Most of the shoots I’m referring to here, pay about as well as flipping burgers. That burger guy also gets paid overtime. Yes, we do these for the love of the craft, not the money. You should at least respect your crew as much as the guy who fills your gas tank.

This will lend confidence to your crew that you know what you’re doing – of course you can’t afford to pay the overtime on a crew, so you’ve done all the preproduction you possibly can to ensure a smooth shoot. You don’t plan on exploiting them, as you can’t afford to. You won’t run twenty hour days, because you can’t afford to. You won’t go ten hours without providing a meal, because you can’t afford to.

So the next time you think ‘I can’t afford to offer overtime!’; think that maybe, you can’t afford NOT to.

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