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‘Rust’ Tragedy Reflects Troubling Trends on Movie and TV Sets

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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.

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 film 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.

Complacency: Many producers and crew members have been working at the kind of a 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 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 its 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.

Producers and other industry veterans spoke to Variety with both anger and anguish about the turmoil surrounding production that is reflected in larger IATSE labor issues that took Hollywood to the brink of a strike earlier this month. And now the “Rust” death puts the 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 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 the letter. “This protects people from themselves,” the producer said.

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 fundamental importance of having crew members with proper training and the benefit of experience. That’s traditionally been one of the perks of hiring union workers. But in recent years, there’s been so much demand that jobs have gone to younger members who  haven’t had as much chance to learn from seasoned mentors on set.

Reports that “Rust” producers allowed multiple non-union workers to come into the production at some point were also confounding to industry veterans. The only way a union production is allowed to bring in non-union crew members is if there are no union employees available for the job. In that scenario, the IATSE or the relevant union has a formal vetting process for the non-union employee and has to grant a waiver to the production.

There’s little question that the “Rust” tragedy will yield litigation, probably for years to come. 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.


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