Time tracking is a method of recording working hours (per day, per week, per month). In almost all contracts of employment, the employer and the employee agree on three basic parameters:
The type of work or task to be done
The amount of time the employee is expected to perform this task
The amount of money the employer has to pay
In the following article, we will investigate the impact that time tracking tools can have on these basic issues. And why everything is so much more complicated in the film industry compared to other industries.
The Problem with Freelancers
Working on Own Account vs. Being on Payroll
Producing media content is not only hard work – it’s also teamwork. Dozens or often hundreds of highly specialized people come together with the mission to create a great movie, a new episode of a show, or an amazing commercial.
And despite the “threat” of AI replacing human beings, the average number of crew members on a movie or show has even increased over the past two decades by 51%, from 185 in 2000 to 280 in 2018.
Whereas a conventional manufacturer will employ the same people for the same task over years and years, a film production is very much project-based. A production hires most of the staff only for this project, hence for a very short time. More than 95% of an average production’s crew members are freelancers.
Different Unions, Different Rules
Now, does that mean a production company has to negotiate all terms with all crew members for every single project over and over again? In theory, that’s the case, as working on payroll requires a contract, of course.
However, over the decades, some standards have emerged. And to protect most crew positions from being treated in a less favorable way than others or being treated in different ways by different production companies (employers), most filmmakers (employees) have joined forces and created unions.
These unions negotiate some fundamental parameters with the production companies - on behalf of the filmmakers that are members of these unions. As mentioned at the start of this article, most regulations circle around these three factors:
The type of work or task to be done
The amount of time the employee is expected to perform this task
The amount of money the employer has to pay
The problem is that there are many different crafts in the film business, hence many different unions in many different parts of the world. In the United States alone, there are hundreds of unions and associations and their local sub-associations in the audiovisual industry. And there are just as many overseas.
Here are a few important ones:
IATSE – International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees: This super union represents approx. 200,000 employees in technical positions, production personnel and craftpeople, e.g. directors of photography, but also production office coordinators, etc. IATSE itself consists of 375 local unions in 13 areas across the United States and Canada.
A numerical code indicates the department and the area the sub-union is responsible for. E.g. IATSE Local 600 means this crew member is part of the Cinematographers Guild in the area of Los Angeles.
SAG-AFTRA – Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists: These have been two separate unions that merged into one in 2012. Today, SAG-AFTRA represents approximately 160,000 actors and other performing artists and media professionals in the United States.
DGA – Directors Guild of America: The DGA represents almost 20,000 members in the United States. Not only film directors but also First and Second Assistant Directors and other positions in directing and production.
WGA – Writers Guild of America: The union of screenwriters in the United States. Actually, there are two independent unions, the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE), with approx. 5,000 members and the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) with approx. 25,000 members. Although they have not merged, they fight for their rights mostly united under the umbrella of WGA.
IBEW – International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers: This union represents all kinds of members working in the electrical industry. It also includes a section for those working in the audiovisual sector, such as set electricians.
Teamsters or ITB – This trade union (more commonly referred to as the “Teamsters Union”) represents about 1.5 million workers in a huge variety of professions. Filmmakers like casting directors, animal wranglers and many other specialized people, are represented by the “Motion Picture and Theatrical Trade Division” within the Teamsters Union. Similar to IATSE, there are subdivisions by regions, also called “locals” followed by a numerical code.
PGA – Producers Guild of America: This union promotes the interests of film producers in the United States with almost 10,000 members. As approved members, producers can add the so-called “producers mark” (p.g.a.) to their credits.
AMPTP – Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers: Whereas the PGA represents individuals in the field of production, AMPTP’s members are film production companies (studios, networks, streaming services). This trade association sits on the opposite side of the table when WGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and others are negotiating their contracts with the biggest players in the industry.
Although AMPTP has just over 350 members, these members are quite powerful, including Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros. | Discovery, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures, Apple TV+, Netflix, Amazon Studios, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and so on.
bectu – Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union: The largest trade union for filmmakers in the United Kingdom, represents more than 40,000 members from diverse fields of filmmaking.
Ver.di FilmUnion and connex.av: Being a part of Germany’s largest labor association ver.di, the units FilmUnion and connex.av represent approx. 4,000 filmmakers in Germany. Apart from lobbying for better working conditions and safety aspects, these subsidies of ver.di negotiate the collective labor agreement with the two main producer associations of the country (Produzenten Allianz and the smaller and more independent-focussed Produzentenverband).
The large number of unions doesn’t make producers' lives easier, as it means just as many different sets of rules. All of them require one crucial thing: tracking work times to calculate the exact salaries.
Time Tracking On Today’s Film Sets
Astonishingly, time tracking is still a manual pen-and-paper process in many productions. Crew members start working according to their call times on the call sheet. At the end of a shooting day, a production assistant or a similar representative is running around collecting work start, work end, and break times for the day.
Doing that for hundreds of positions, for a few shooting days – or mostly weeks and weeks of principal photography – means a lot of work. Piling up thousands of paper time sheets. Back in the production office, all the data is added to spreadsheets and shared via email with accounting or shared with a payroll service.
This process is not only cumbersome but also error-prone.
Why and For Whom Tracking Work Times Matters
Crew and Cast
Working on movies is fun but exhausting at the same time. Especially on stressful days, you might literally forget about the time. However, you should never rely on others when it comes to work times. That doesn’t mean others, including production companies, want to fool you.
But you often get paid days or weeks later. If you discover some inconsistencies on your payroll, it might be difficult to remember the exact working hours back then. So make tracking working hours a routine – every day. And be ready to prove with data – not feelings – if your working hours are in question.
The same is true for the production company and the representatives of the employer, like a line producer or production manager. Accurate timesheets and accurate daily production reports are the top insurance against arguments related to compensation with the cast and the crew.
Reliable reports which show that regulations on rest times and maximum work times have been fulfilled are priceless in case of accidents on set or other issues involving insurance and third parties.
In addition, time tracking is essential for calculating the actual salaries of the cast and the crew. At least if flat fees or allowances are no option. Usually, crew and cast salaries make up for more than 50% or even 75% of a production budget. All individual working hours of the cast and the crew are collected in so-called “daily production reports” that are created for each shooting day.
Only if you stay on time, will you stay on budget. But you can only tell the actual payments due to the crew and the cast if you know their exact working hours. That means the faster and the more accurate you get the data on work times, the faster you get actual cost reports to see if you are over budget or if all is fine.
Financing Institutions and National Authorities
You might think that public funding and tax rebates should be tied to the accurate payment of cast and crew salaries, making accurate time tracking a must. But most institutions don’t have the necessary capacity. They are not financial management experts.
However, in some territories, discussions have already started to make time tracking a required process. That’s currently the case in Europe. In a ruling in May 2019, the European Court of Justice obliged employers to record the working hours of their employees systematically.
The court interprets that the obligation to record time derives from the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and thus the fundamental right of employees (right to healthy and safe working conditions, including the explicit right to limit maximum working hours and to daily and weekly rest periods) as an important social principle.
Since 2021 national courts of member states of the European Union have ruled accordingly, leading to further pressure on the topic - and forcing governments to make the recording of work times mandatory in all industries, including audiovisual productions produced in the European Union.
The old “trusted work time hours” model is not sufficient anymore. This will certainly have an impact on national film funding and its regulations.
No doubt, any union would love to see shooting days end after 10 or maximum 12 hours. However, that’s an illusion, as filmmaking is a process hard to predict. Thousands of things can happen that delay your shoot. Or circumstances like the availability of talent or locations simply force you to plan for longer shooting days.
If you are a filmmaker, you are used to long working hours. However, many filmmakers on set actually also see the upside of these long working hours: getting paid significant upcharges for the hours exceeding regular work times.
But not everything can be solved by simply paying overtime fees. Ultimately, the safety of the crew and the cast matters just as much as getting all the scenes and shots done.
Whether it’s about overtime payments or other regulations, a union can only control a production and do its job if individual working hours are properly tracked. To do so, many unions provide special reports that must be filled out by the production company and the crew and cast members, e.g. the SAG-AFTRA Exhibit G for all actors.
We have added a list of the most important rules you should know. Many of these rules affect the actual payment to the filmmaker and the fringes that come on top, e.g. for pension, health and welfare-related payments.
Base Salary, Base Time, Straight Time and Hourly Rate
In the contract, a production company and a crew or cast member will agree on many terms. As stated before, the regular working hours and the compensation are the base of any contract. If the cast or crew member is part of a union, there will already be parameters set that both parties need to adhere to.
Let’s say the base time or straight time is 10 hours. That means that a freelancer is expected to work for 10 hours on each (shooting) day. Together with the base salary for this amount of time, it is easy to calculate the hourly rate.
Example: A gaffer receives $500 per shooting day. With a base time of 10 hours. That makes $50 per hour.
However, most agreements are more complicated. You might read something like this: 8 hours of straight or regular work time and 2 hours of guaranteed overtime, e.g. with an OT factor of 1.5x or +50%.
This still means we expect our gaffer to work 10 hours each day. However, the hourly rate is not a tenth of $500. Straight work time means each hour of working is actually counted as one hour.
But each overtime hour is different. If we take a factor of 1.5x for the 9th and the 10th hour, it means that each hour worked would count as having worked for one and a half hours for payment. Hence, we calculate like this: Daily rate divided by (straight work time or overtime base plus (guaranteed overtime times OT-1 factor)).
In our example, this would mean this hourly rate is not $50 but $45.45: $500 / (8 hrs + (2 hrs*1.5)) = $45.45
This means for the 8 hours, our gaffer gets $45.45, and then for the two additional overtime hours, he gets $68.18 (1.5x of the hourly rate).
Tip: Most payroll services use 4 decimals (e.g. $45.4545). This looks odd but leads to more accurate results when using the calculated hourly for the exact overtime compensations.
Overtime Compensation and Supplements
As stated before, it is more than challenging to finish a shooting day in 10 hours, especially for all those crew members who also have quite some prep and wrap time on set, like the lighting department.
That’s where it becomes complicated. Depending on the regulations of a union, the contract will foresee specific tiers of overtime compensation. Usually stated in additional hours of working beyond the base time and a percentage of increase based upon the hourly rate.
Best-practice cases are:
2x (or +100%) of the hourly rate for the 11th and 12th hour of working
then 3x (or +200%) of the hourly rate for the 13th hour onwards.
This is just the new salary, including overtime compensation. On top of that, all percentage-based fringes will pile up as well. This should already showcase how each tracked working hour can significantly impact the actuals of your budget. But there are even more cases where a production company needs to pay “more.”
Working at Night
A lot of scenes might require a real “night and outdoor” shooting. Or it just happens that a shooting day gets on and on until it’s getting dark outside. In some territories, shooting at night also means upcharges on the salary.
A night is not defined as “between sunset and sunrise,” of course. The contract needs to specify the times that are considered to be “nighttime”. In Germany, for example, night work takes place between 10pm and 6am.
All hours of working during that time will activate overtime payments. Again, as multiples of the hourly rate. For example, 25% or 1.25x of the hourly rate.
Holidays, Weekends, and 6th Day
Very similar to working at night, there can be supplements for working on public holidays, working on “weekends” or working more than five days in a row. Again, usually as multiples of the hourly rates. If shooting abroad, don’t forget that a weekend might consist of different days in other regions.
While most parts of the world have their weekends on Saturday and Sunday, other parts, e.g. the Middle East or North Africa are considering Friday and Saturday as their weekend. Needless to say, public and bank holidays differ in different regions of the world as well.
While you can still shoot on these days, you should be aware that this might (and probably will) cost extra.
Meal Breaks and Meal Penalties
In film productions, the production company takes care of the catering for the cast and the crew – at least for those on set.
While the food trucks are usually open all day long, there also have to be dedicated breaks (no matter if the crew or cast member is actually eating something or not).
At least there is one “lunch break” in which most of the crew and cast members interrupt their work and sit together for a meal. However, the term “lunch” can be misleading as not every shooting day automatically provides a break “in the middle” of a real day.
It also doesn't mean that everyone can participate. Actors in particular might need to change wardrobe, or rigging personnel might need to prepare the next setup. Eventually, it doesn’t matter why a crew or cast member might be unable to join a meal. If they are union members, they are usually entitled to additional reimbursements.
In the United States, that’s usually called a meal “penalty” or meal “violation.” In most European countries, it's called an additional “compensation”. It all comes down to the same thing: you do not only track the start and end of the working day but also have to track whether a crew or cast member has been able to participate in meals or has had a break as ruled in the contract.
As a side note: For crew members that cannot participate in set catering by design – for example, construction people prepping the upcoming sets – there is also a way to compensate such crew members with a daily allowance, usually called a “per diem”.
In some countries, the amount of non-taxable per diems provided is tied to the question of whether a crew or cast member is working near their home or is travelling.
Rest Time and Forced Calls
Even non-working hours are mostly regulated. The tracking of rest time is naturally a part of worktime tracking, which is done by tracking the start and end times of a crew or cast member’s day.
This way, you also know the time between the previous shooting day’s end time and the next day’s start time. This time is meant for rest and recreation (which is necessary after a few weeks of shooting).
In many countries and for many unions, this rest time is meant to be 11 hours. Consequently, you must consider having at least 11 hours of a gap between the end of one shooting day and the crew call of the next shooting day when doing your shooting schedule and call sheets.
As some crew members need to be the first to come and the last to go, it cannot always be avoided to violate this rule for some crew members. As employees, these crew or cast members must follow the call times that the production company demands.
However, they are entitled to additional compensation for such a “forced call”. The upcharge or penalty for a forced call is usually nothing to sneeze at. A complete base rate (e.g. the full $500 for our example’s gaffer) could be a common outcome - “on top” of everything else!
What exactly does driving mean? If you are a production or prop driver and you drive a car to get crew and cast members or props from A to B, that’s clearly your task and thus counts as your work time. The same is true for a so-called “company move,” i.e. if the entire crew has to move from one shooting location to another during a shooting day.
But what about getting from your home to the set and back home? Or from the hotel to the set and back? Some could argue that’s just like for any other employee in any other industry: commuting to work is not worktime.
Others argue that the minute you get in a car to get to the set, you are essentially working. That can be especially true for crew members who drive the generator or trucks and vans, which actually means bringing film gear to a new set.
If the union does not regulate this issue for a particular crew or cast member, it does make sense to mention the terms that should apply in the contract explicitly. If driving to the set is considered work time, it's essential to track that time accurately.