Never has a film torn me in two like this before I’ve even seen it. You see, as I sit here I cannot decide whether or not I will goto the cinema to watch Les Miserables or pointedly refuse, due to the approach its production company took refusing to pay a fair living wage to its full compliment of Supporting Artists, that being the standard FAA / PACT Agreement that most films work under.
For a movie – whose setting deals with the abject squalor of the lower classes, depicting how they rose up to fight for their rights – to blatantly ignore the document which sets out not only the pay, but also the working conditions the majority of people on it will work under, is ironic to say the least. And for many, possibly including myself, Working Title has forever tainted this production in a way which negates any of its qualities, whether that’s Hugh Jackman’s singing, Russell Crowe’s frowning or Anne Hathaway’s haircut. (Ed – sorry Anne!)
So, should I stay or should I go? Well, I would ‘like’ to go. I would like to go because I liked the theatre version, I like the score and I would like to support the thousands of Supporting Artists who worked on it, the majority of which were recruited outside normal channels and so would never have known they were being exploited. But, it is that exploitation – not only the reduced pay (about half what FAA/PACT would have earnt) but also the working conditions that many SA’s have complained of such as the apparent, though unconfirmed, non-availability of food/water or regular breaks – which acts as the justification for the scores of people who are expressing their intent to stay away from Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.
And if you read this and prematurely conclude that it’s only the Supporting Artist’s complaining then think again. Working Title were said to have invoked ‘loyalty hours’ for wardrobe, hair and makeup too, apparently forcing them to work unpaid at times, over 12hrs straight, in order to be retained on Les Mis. Many cited safety concerns being asked to drive long hours to distant locations after production broke the standing turn around hours. Here’s a link to Screen Daily for more on that.
But then, you may ask – what’s all the fuss about? £110 a day is still £110 a day. Well, for me if you go outside the agreement that governs your pay, it doesn’t just mean they can pay you what they want. Typically, this means the production company can vary your working conditions too. A point not lost on Spencer MacDonald, the outgoing National Officer of BECTU in his piece to the Stage newspaper. So yes less pay, but how about less pay and nowhere to relax too after being on your feet for 6hrs on a cold, muddy set – in the rain. Suddenly darker thoughts emerge. If production throws the agreement out, they throw the whole agreement out and who will you speak to later if you are mis-treated? Perhaps this was the reason regular recruiting channels were not used…
So I am sad. Already. Before I’ve even seen the flick. Sad because I truly believe this could not have happened in any other industry and it is this situation, this perfect storm of innocent naivety and mass general good willingness, that enables some people to exploit some other people for no better reason than profit. And, what does this mean for the future? With another Working Title production, Bridget Jones Baby, on the way – will that honour the standard or will Working Title once again write their own terms and get another number of people who simply don’t know better or cannot afford to say no?
And who, if anyone, will rise up and say enough is enough, who will stand on the proverbial barricades like those admirable extra’s did in Greenwich last April? Will the Film Artist Association, or BECTU, or even PACT, the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television – of whom Working Title is a member – allow, or be able to stop the flagrant abuse of the long standing agreement, painfully negotiated year on year by well meaning volunteers.
Or, will it be left to people like you and me to vote with their feet and hit production where it hurts them the most – their bank balance – by saying no, I won’t pay to watch a movie that was made in that way. But, I’m possibly saddest of all, because as I sit here – maybe I will, but maybe I won’t.
James has been a Supporting Artist based in London for a ‘considerable’ number of years. During that he’s appeared in alot of television & film productions which you’d undoubtedly know and he’d love to mention, and several slightly dodgy embarrassing ones that he wouldn’t – but suffice to say, he’s done quite a bit. He is also the founder of this site. So please, be nice to him.