'Riverdale' Car Crash Shines Spotlight on Decadeslong Safety Issues

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Cole Sprouse and K.J. Apa

Just months before K.J. Apa was born, another entertainment-related auto crash claimed a life — and sparked a documentary. But has anything really changed?

The single-vehicle crash that destroyed Riverdale star K.J. Apa’s car last week left him without serious injuries, but others haven’t been so lucky in the past, and the late-night incident shines a spotlight yet again on a decades-old problem of fatigue and late-night work in entertainment — and on the larger problem of overall safety in the industry.

SAG-AFTRA will be sending a team to Vancouver, British Columbia, to investigate, as previously reported, and The Hollywood Reporter has learned that union president Gabrielle Carteris will be leading that team — a reflection of the importance of the matter and the scrutiny the accident has invited.

It seems axiomatic that no one should die making a movie or TV show, but many people have: Over a quarter-century, the Associated Press found that at least 43 people had died on film sets in the U.S. and 150 had been seriously injured.

Coincidentally, the crash involving the 20-year-old CW star comes 20 years after assistant cameraman Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel while driving home after a 19-hour day on New Line’s Pleasantville — and, like Apa, crashed into a utility pole. But, unlike Apa, Hershman died. That led one of Hershman's colleagues, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, to create the 2006 documentary Who Needs Sleep?, which focused on the issue. Yet here we are again.

Sources told THR on Thursday that Apa had worked a 16-hour day prior to the crash and that he had a 45-minute drive each way between set and his lodgings. Did that leave him enough time to sleep before the next day's call? Young adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, experts say.

Riverdale producer Warner Bros. said Thursday that Apa and other castmembers can ask for transportation if they are feeling too tired to drive, but that puts the onus on often-vulnerable actors who don’t want to be seen as troublesome. Warners also said that Apa had worked 14.2 hours prior to the crash, and 2.5 and 7.7 on the preceding days. But it’s not clear whether those hours included meal breaks and possibly other unpaid, non-“work time” periods. That could add an hour or more to the 7.7-hour day and two or more hours to the 14.2-hour day.

Warners did not respond to a request for clarification or for additional figures regarding working hours on Warner Bros. or CW shows. Also unknown is whether Apa had been subject to what is known as a “forced call,” also termed “invasion of the rest period.”

Those rather brawny terms refer to a scenario in which a producer fails to accord a minimum 12-hour rest period between dismissal of an actor one day and his or her call time the next, a requirement long codified in the agreement between the studios and SAG, now SAG-AFTRA.

But how that 12-hour period is calculated — when the clock starts and stops — emerged as a contentious issue in the negotiations just months ago between the studios and SAG-AFTRA. The results of those negotiations were deeply unsatisfying to some performers, putting the union on the defensive.

The issue is this: Should that 12-hour clock start ticking as soon as the actor leaves the set and keep ticking until he or she is back on set the next day? That so-called “set-to-set” approach is favorable to the studio because it means that an actor’s transportation time from set to hotel and back again is considered non-working time and is permitted to eat into the 12-hour rest period.

For that reason, actors advocate a “portal-to-portal” approach, where the clock doesn’t start until the performer arrives at his or her hotel, and it stops once the performer leaves the hotel. That ensures something closer to a true 12 hours of rest (or an hour or two less, if one factors in calls home to family, responding to business and personal emails and so on). It means that transportation time doesn’t eat into the rest period — and also means that performers get paid more because the time in transit is considered work time. That makes portal-to-portal doubly frustrating for producers.

According to a SAG-AFTRA outline, portal-to-portal “remains the rule for performers working on overnight locations,” while workdays at “Producer’s Base” are calculated set-to-set. Unfortunately, none of these terms are defined in the union agreement, which, like all of the Hollywood guild agreements, is consistently opaque. As production (and production offices) became dispersed throughout the country and beyond, producers have treated those locations as their base, meaning that set-to-set calculations would prevail.

After its 2014 negotiations, the union announced that portal-to-portal rules remained unchanged, but that wasn’t the case this time around. In the 2017 deal, the union agreed that “the location where the majority of principal photography for a television series takes place can be ‘Producer’s Base.’ ” That generated a lot of bitter disagreement in this year’s SAG-AFTRA elections, with the union (and, implicitly, the dominant Unite for Strength faction) saying that the agreement “merely acknowledges the reality that already exists” and was in exchange for other concessions made by the studios, while the dissident Membership First faction and former MF member and union presidential candidate Pete Antico vociferously disagreed.

All of this comes against a backdrop of safety problems in the industry, including the death of stuntman John Bernecker this year after a fall to a concrete floor and the death of assistant camerawoman Sarah Jones in a 2014 train collision that occurred after Midnight Rider director Randall Miller instructed the film company to shoot on a trestle bridge even though it was a live track and the production had no permit.

Fatigue, errors, recklessness, even indifference: Whatever the cause, the record of death and injury in the entertainment industry is bleak. Who needs sleep? Maybe it’s time for a sequel: Who Needs Safety at All?