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A Call for Industry to Reconsider Time Limits

Hollywood: Working overtime is a fact of life on television and movie sets, but a petition asking for a 14-hour workday has already attracted more than 10,000 signatures.


Brent Hershman, an assistant camera operator on "Pleasantville," a modestly budgeted comedy for New Line Cinema starring Oscar nominees Joan Allen and William H. Macy, had put in a grueling 19-hour day on the Long Beach set of the film.

The father of two small children, Hershman was headed for his West Hills home about 2 a.m. on March 6, exhausted from the day of filming that had started at 6:30 a.m. But driving on the Century Freeway, barely halfway home, Hershman, 35, fell asleep and hit a utility pole. He was killed instantly.

Tales of similar, if not always fatal, accidents involving healthy people struck down by exhaustion abound on sound stages and location sites around Hollywood. Grueling workdays seem to be taking an increasing toll on crew members, resulting in fatigue-related accidents.

The film set workday has lengthened in recent years--15 or 20 hours a day is not uncommon--with the tacit agreement of Hollywood's labor unions responding to pressure raised by the gradual exodus of productions out of state and to nonunion crews.

Althoughthe state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, monitors accidents that happen on a film set, no government agency monitors work schedules or their possible consequences after the workday is finished.


No statistics on injuries sustained by tired workers are kept by the industry, their unions or government organizations, but Hershman's death has prompted his co-workers to organize an industrywide movement to put pressure on studios and production companies in order to reverse the Hollywood standard.

They have begun by writing a petition--called "Brent's Rule" in honor of the widely respected camera operator--asking that the film workday be limited to 14 hours. The petition has been widely circulated around the country, attracting more than 10,000 signatures, including such famous names as actors Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Tom Berenger, Kenneth Branagh and Lynn Redgrave and directors Milos Forman, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman and Nora Ephron. The petitioners' goal is to institute the 14-hour cap in the union contracts that govern the industry.

"Working exhaustive and excessive hours has become an industry standard, and we all share blame for accepting it," the petition says. "Productions should strive to keep exhausted drivers, impaired by fatigue, from getting behind the wheel instead of contributing further to this clearly tragic situation. We petition . . . this industry to limit our work day to fourteen hours. . . . This standard will improve our working efficiency and morale and certainly allows for a sufficiently productive work day."

The Screen Actors Guild recently endorsed Brent's Rule and the Directors Guild has appointed a committee to examine safety issues related to long hours in the entertainment industry.

"No other industry would consider a 12- to 14-hour day 'normal,' let alone countenance a work span of 17 or 18 hours," said Richard Masur, SAG president.

Directors Guild President Gene Reynolds agrees. "All the people on the crew or cast driving home after one of these ridiculous day's work have become vulnerable," he said. "The problem has to do with the succession of extended days: We all can do one 16-hour day, but when you do four or five, it's beyond stamina."

Shortly after Hershman's death, veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler took out an ad in Variety, asking for the "humane treatment of humans."

Bertha Medina was luckier than Hershman. Bone-weary after a 20-hour day on the set of James Cameron's mega-budget "Titanic" in Baja California, the 30-year-old script supervisor dozed off at the wheel and ran off the road. She spent five days in the intensive care unit of a San Diego hospital, a blood clot having formed on the left side of her brain.

"It's horrible to think that something has happened to your brain," Medina said from her home in Mexico, where she is being cared for by her mother. "I had bad luck with this accident, but I'm happy to be alive."

The problem is not confined to feature film sets. Long hours can be just as grueling, if not more so, on hourlong episodic television dramas. The crew of "Deep Space Nine" has circulated its own letter to producers, "emphatically requesting" that the workday be limited to 13 hours.

" 'Star Trek' themes have always dealt with humanity and a positive hope for the future. Yet we, the crew of 'Deep Space Nine,' are often forced to work excessive and exhaustive hours," the letter reads. "The cumulative result has been mental, emotional and physical fatigue and ultimately a decrease in efficiency, productivity and most importantly, safety, both on and off the job."

The International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, which represents many Hollywood workers, has stepped into the fray as well, even though it is largely responsible for having negotiated the contracts over the last decade that led to the loose on-set restrictions.

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