‘Rust’ Tragedy Reflects Troubling Trends on Movie and TV Sets: ‘We Did This to Ourselves’

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The details of what went horribly wrong on the New Mexico set of “Rust” will be gathered in the coming weeks through multiple public and private investigations.

But as production veterans grappled with the tragic news that cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed Oct. 21 in a gun accident on the set involving star Alec Baldwin, knowledgeable sources pointed to a number of concerning industry trends that are reflected in the behind-the-scenes story of the low-budget independent Western.

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Inexperience among crew members: The huge spike in the demand for content during the past decade has stretched below-the-line talent beyond its breaking point. “In some places you can’t find qualified people for these jobs so you are taking (crew) with very little experience,” said a veteran producer.

Inexperience among producers: The low barrier to entry in producing for streamers who pay production costs upfront has allowed smaller companies and startups to attempt large-scale productions without adequate staff, skills or equipment. Among the seven production entities listed as backing “Rust” was Streamline Global, a company founded in 2017 to use films produced with production tax incentives as vehicles to create tax breaks for wealthy investors. Streamline Global co-founders Emily Hunter Salveson and Ryan Donnell Smith serve as executive producer and producer, respectively, on “Rust.” Industry sources cite inherent problems that can occur when goals and incentives among producers are not aligned.

“We have developed new financial models to attract capital that would otherwise be unavailable to the film industry,” Salveson told Variety in 2017. “Films are the byproduct of the comprehensive tax planning strategies we employ for our clients.”

Complacency: Many producers and crew members have been working at the kind of high volume and pace that can breed a sense of complacency and over-confidence in key positions.

Attorney Jeff Harris, who represented the family of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant killed in 2014 in a horrific accident on the set of indie movie “Midnight Rider,” said that in his experience accidents are often the result of complacency about requirements to follow safety bulletins and protocols for dangerous activities.

“You live in this fantasy land where you’re fake shooting people and blowing things up,” says Harris, of Atlanta-based Harris Lowry Manton, who also represented the family of “The Walking Dead” stuntman who died of a head injury on set in 2017. “It’s easy to get into a false sense of complacency of ‘Oh we’ve done this a million times.’ ”

Producers were quick to blame the Peak TV phenomenon for stretching the talent pool for below-the-line, craft and technical crew positions well beyond the breaking point.

The strain at every level created by the spike in the number of original scripted TV series is reverberating throughout the creative community. The pace of production has more than doubled in a decade, rising from 216 scripted series airing across broadcast and cable networks in 2010 to 532 across broadcast, cable and streaming in 2020, according to research by FX Networks.

The biggest evidence of the tension caused by the windfall of so much work was the strike drama that gripped Hollywood this month. IATSE, the union representing most production workers, threatened to walk out over quality of life issues in volatile contract talks that may yet be influenced by the jolt of Hutchins’ death.

Producers and other industry veterans spoke to Variety with both anger and anguish about the turmoil surrounding production workers that is reflected in larger IATSE labor conflict. And now the “Rust” death puts a giant spotlight on an problems that sources say are all too common on sets these days. As a picture emerges of an allegedly chaotic low-budget film set, the only certainty is that an accident took the life of a 42-year-old cinematographer, wife and mother of a 9-year-old son.

“As an industry, in Peak TV times, we did this to ourselves,” said a producer.

Multiple sources pointed to the importance of having experienced skilled technicians on set when weapons are involved. The details of “Rust” situation are not clear, but industry veterans noted that Westerns typically involve a number of firearms for multiple actors.

“On some shoots you might have a truck full of (firearms) and somebody has to keep track of every one of them and how they’re being used,” the producer said.

The armorer on set typically “spends a lot of time coaching people how to handle a gun safely,” the producer said. “In between takes that person is always standing around coaching.”

The producer added that there can often be problems with actors not taking the gun safety training seriously – that’s another reason for having experts on the set and maintaining safety protocols down to the letter. “This protects people from themselves,” the producer said.

Attorney Harris noted that the use of firearms on a set involves extra layers of disclosure and planning for insurance purposes. Harris and other industry veterans said producers are usually required to submit their plans for using firearms on set for review by insurance officials as part of the overall bond for the production.

Harris emphasized that he has no information about the “Rust” case. But if it turns out that safety protocols were skipped, that would be a big problem for the film’s insurer.

Evidence that corners were cut could lead to “a coverage fight with the (insurance) carrier who will say, ‘You told me you were doing this but instead you did this,’ ” Harris said.

Experienced producers and one veteran on-set safety expert who spoke to Variety emphasized the fundamental importance of having crew members with proper training and experience. That’s traditionally been one of the perks of hiring union workers. But in recent years, there’s been so much demand for crew positions that key jobs with big responsibilities have gone to younger members who haven’t had as much chance to learn from seasoned mentors on set.

Reports that “Rust” producers allegedly allowed multiple non-union workers to come into the production at some point were also confounding to industry veterans. Multiple sources with decades of production experience confirmed that the only way a union production is authorized to bring in non-union workers is if there are no union employees available for the job. In that scenario, IATSE or the relevant union has a formal vetting process for the non-union employee and has to grant a waiver to the production for the hire, sometimes on a day-to-day basis.

There’s little question that the “Rust” tragedy will yield litigation, probably for years to come. But the question of final liability can be tricky, Harris said, because producers who merely invested in the movie may not be culpable unless it can be demonstrated that some action on their part led to problems on the set.

The circumstances around the “Rust” shooting will be investigated by New Mexico police as well as the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the insurer for the film. Litigation will drive still more probes and scrutiny of the decision-making leading up to the fateful moments on a ranch outside of Santa Fe on Oct. 21.

“Rust” had seven production entities listed as backing the film: Alec Baldwin’s El Dorado Pictures, Thomasville Pictures, Cavalry Media, Brittany House Pictures, Short Porch Pictures and financiers Bondit Media Capital and Streamline Global.

Streamline Global bills itself as an investment vehicle. According to its website, “Streamline buys, sells, and produces qualified feature films that qualify under the provisions of IRS code section 181 and 168(k)…. Similar to acquiring an aircraft, some asset classes afford the owner with tax benefits in the form of bonus depreciation or tax credits.” The company also touts that it has “unparalleled access to prestige independent projects.”

Halveson, according to her company bio, has been active in film production since 2015.

Thomasville Pictures, which according to Georgia state records is based in Thomasville, Ga., about 35 miles northeast of Tallahasee, Fla., is connected to Ryan Donnell Smith, who is also a partner with Halveson in Streamline Global. Smith’s bio for Streamline Global describes him as “a bondable line producer for projects up to $30M” with “more than a decade of expertise in film production and strong relationships with creatives and executives.”

Smith is credited as executive producer of Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and is a producer on a number of upcoming Streamline Global movies including the Alec Baldwin starrer “Supercell.” That movie is also produced by Short Porch Pictures and Thomasville Pictures.

Cavalry Media, headed by industry veteran Dana Brunetti, is the management-production entity that represents Baldwin. Brittany House Pictures is headed by actor-producer Anjul Nigam. Nigam’s banner previously worked with Baldwin and El Dorado Pictures on the 2019 indie “Crown Vic.”

Short Porch Pictures is the banner for producer Ryan Winterstern, who has a number of indie film credits to his name. Winterstern, Smith, Nigam and Baldwin are credited as producers on “Rust.” Halveson, Bondit Media Capital’s Matthew Helderman and Cavalry Media’s Matthew DelPiano are listed as executive producers.

Production veterans say the industry needs to work to promote a zero-tolerance approach for anyone who tries to avoid or ignore safety protocols. In the case of firearms, producers emphasized that so much can be done easily now with inexpensive visual effects that there is no excuse for pushing the envelope on safety.

“You can add a muzzle flash so easily now with five minutes of green screen,” the producer said.

Producers also need to deeply understand the gravity of what they are getting into when they go into production, particularly on location. And industry veterans say that a strong track record on safety protocols should be a point of pride for producers, who need to adopt a buck-stops-here attitude on set.

“We are asking you to do dangerous things,” the veteran safety officer said. “We put you in airplanes, we put you on mountains, we put you in speeding cars. It’s up to (producers) to make sure everyone gets home safe.”

The “Rust” accident couldn’t have come at a more momentous time for below-the-line workers, as IATSE leaders have sounded the alarm about the problem of over-worked crews and dangerous conditions on set as part of its regular three-year cycle of contract negotiations with Hollywood’s major studios. Industry sources said the new hard-fought terms that IATSE achieved in its tentative contract agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (Hollywood’s collective bargaining unit) will hopefully ease some of the pressure to work long hours at a grueling pace.

But in the near-term, there’s also growing fear among industry veterans that the shock of Hutchins’ death to Hollywood’s rank-and-file production workers may drive IATSE members to vote down the agreement that was reached after marathon negotiations on Oct. 16 and send leaders back to the table to push for greater concessions. IATSE is expected to begin its ratification vote among about 60,000 eligible members by next month.

In terms of long-term solutions, production pros say another crucial factor will be training a new generation of crew, craft and technical workers with a reverence for safety. Just as the shocking death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones on the set of “Midnight Rider” led to safety reforms for location shoots, the “Rust” tragedy will likely have a broader impact across the often-dangerous world of physical production.

“The takeaway here is there’s hundreds of productions going on every day with firearms,” Harris said. “It’s inconceivable that somebody gets killed on a movie set with a prop gun if everybody follows the rules.”

(Pictured: Halyna Hutchins)

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