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Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

The Wild West of the US Entertainment Industry: On Unions and Set Safety

"Cold gun." These were the words announced on the set of Rust moments before a live round was fired, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. This tragic event was an accident, but to fully understand the sequence of events leading up to its fatal culmination, we have to look beyond this singular day. The fact that this even happened should be enough to make us all hit pause and stop the show. 

The problems seen on the set of Rust are indicative of larger issues at play in the film industry. A reckoning is currently underway, with members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) standing up for themselves in the face of low wages, long hours, and a lack of adequate breaks on set. The entertainment industry notoriously treats its workers with a "that's show business" attitude, but the reality is that if these workers were to go on strike, all production would halt. 

The irony of this tragedy occurring on a wild west film set is poetic. It feels as if the industry has been roleplaying a vagabond that terrorizes a settlement, but the workers have now become the heroic sheriff aiming to bring order and justice to this lawless place. As one Rust crew member described, “It was the most unorganized set I’ve ever seen.” Other members expressed concern over the inexperience of the head armorer, which only heightened after two accidental discharges occurred. Some workers walked out amid a lack of safety meetings, coupled with hotel lodgings that were over 50 miles away, and an overall rushed feeling to the production with corners being cut. Actions have consequences and in this case, the consequences were fatal. It shouldn't take a drastic event like this to make people care about problems in the industry. 

Considering that the entertainment industry is worth over $717 billion, it seems that the problem lies in the distribution of finances. The union is fighting for the basics: "A living wage for the lowest paid among us, health and safety for those members who suffer abuse working unsafe hours or days without breaks, and the fulfillment of an unkept promise to share streaming success,” says IATSE president Matthew Loeb. These are the bare minimum conditions that should have already been met. 

We all consume the media they produce, so we have a duty to ensure that our consumption is ethical. We should all support the IATSE, especially if it is pushed to strike. Initiatives such as taking a break from binge-watching could be a supportive statement. The strike won't be immediate and most networks have content to last until the end of the year, so don't be surprised if the effects are not felt until the next season of your favorite show. Regardless of when the effects are felt, the IATSE needs our support now. Social media has proved powerful in sharing workers' stories; consider reposting to amplify the reach. This industry is built on content creation, so it's time to beat it at its own game.  

Why are guns with the ability to fire live rounds even near a movie set? We literally can CGI entirely new worlds onto a screen, so it seems entirely unnecessary and reckless to use a prop with the potential for danger. Though "sensory effects from firing blank rounds are hard to replicate with sound effects," this seems a small price to pay for protecting the lives of those on set. This is just another instance of a lax American attitude towards gun safety having fatal consequences. 

This tragic event requires us to evaluate American values on two critical issues: worker rights and gun safety. It's past time to take action, as unchecked attitudes have led to the formation of harmful norms. This incident may be an outlier, but the larger implications at play are all too present. These workers were out of a job for months during the pandemic and the fact that they are now willing to strike and go without pay should speak to the gravity of the situation. We cannot simply be viewers in the audience—we must join in this final call.

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International Studies student whose main fun fact is that she's from Arkansas. And yes, I'd love to explain the linguistic history of why Kansas and Arkansas are pronounced differently.