Goodbye to the 14-Hour Day: The Entertainment Industry’s Shifting Work/Life Balance
“[I]t’s as if our whole society is burned out.”—The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 20, 2022
During the ongoing “Great Resignation,” tens of millions of Americans—including those in the film industry—have quit their jobs. But the employment shifts in the entertainment business have as much to do with people leaving their work as with reassessing the ways in which they work. After months of pandemic-mandated pauses and soul-searching, phrases such as “work/life balance” and “self-care”—previously anathema to a culture of all-hours dealmaking and work—have finally arrived. If, as one executive says, “14-hour workdays, sleep deprivation and, too often, unhealthy meals” used to be the norm, people are now reconnecting with their families, enjoying nature and raising children.
“I think the pandemic shifted people’s priorities,” says Dina Kuperstock, who left her job as an agent at CAA several years ago and now works as a spiritual care provider and chaplain at the Motion Picture Television Fund. “If it was strained before, there was an extra level of stress, and this great destabilization put everything into question about what we all leaned on as default,” she says. “While a lot of awful things have happened, a lot of good reconsiderations also came out of it.”
Longtime producer Ted Hope, who resigned from his top executive post at Amazon Studios at the start of 2020, agrees. “When you witness others’ lives being compromised or even lost, you can’t help but question how you want to prioritize your own life going forward,” he says.
Hope had considered joining a new venture or starting a new company but, like many who have sought new opportunities over the past couple of years, decided to work independently. “I want to spend my life with creative people more than [with] business people,” he says. “I want to use the skills and experience that I think are most unique to me in the service of things I think matter most, and I want to do it as autonomously as possible.”
For many, this has meant leaving corporate jobs, pursuing passion projects, staying home more and no longer feeling wed to the traditional industry centers of L.A. and New York. Some executives welcomed virtual markets at Sundance and the European Film Market and plan to continue to look at packages and pitches on Zoom rather than in formal office meetings. Many business veterans have established new homesteads across the United States. One distribution executive recently decamped to Taos, New Mexico; a talent manager bought a four-bedroom house in Alabama; another executive-turned-freelance-consultant has a place in Spain for six months of the year.
“I think there’s been a change in the mentality of how glued to your desk you have to be,” says Dan Sachs, 28, who used to work “very long hours” at a L.A. production company and now works remotely in music licensing near his family on the east coast. “I remember early on, people were worried about how we were going to stay connected, but conference calls aren’t that hard,” he says. “You can really work from everywhere.”
Likewise, Kegan Schell, a 29-year-old literary manager at Echo Lake Entertainment, now splits his time—half of the year in Los Angeles, the other half at his family’s farm in upstate New York. When he went home during the early months of lockdown, he says, “I found myself connecting to my family in a way that I hadn’t in the 10 years since I’d been gone, and I didn’t want to lose that.”
Some people I spoke with for this article didn’t want to disclose their names for fear they wouldn’t be taken seriously from their far-flung residences, but Schell argues this is the new reality. “There’s this idea that you’re going to put a roadblock in your career if you’re not in L.A., and my response is ‘Just watch me,’” he says. “When I’m in my home office, I work hyper-efficiently and just dig into the day with back-to-back Zoom meetings during the hours I set.”
“I think people my age have thrived in this hybridized state,” he continues. “Some of the older folks in Hollywood like going to their business lunches and after-work drinks, but I don’t think we’re going back.”
Another talent manager, who left L.A. permanently, says their “clients were a little concerned at first, but then they saw the auditions and offers coming in. If you need to be there in person, you can get on a plane.”
Like Schell, Hope argues that new virtual workplaces are far more efficient and less biased than the coastal norms of the past. “It is still really hard to get in the door, but filmmakers of all sorts can now work as efficiently as anyone, no matter where they are,” says Hope. “Everyone seems both more punctual and efficient, and we pack in a ton of meetings not having to commute. Some people once claimed that driving makes you stupid, and all I can say is everyone I talk to now is super smart, witty and charming. So, you tell me: Is that just a coincidence?”
Kuperstock points to another reason why working from afar has become appealing for some. “Working remotely, it’s much harder for someone to sexually harass you,” she says. “It’s still possible, but you don’t have to go do a deal at a hotel at 3 a.m. after everyone is drunk.”
One woman still working in the entertainment industry agrees. “When you’re on Zoom, nobody can slap you on the ass or make a snide comment to you in the hallway,” she says. “Everyone can hear you, so I think this environment allows women to be stronger.”
In addition to productivity and personal care, people are also reacting to an industry that is going through its own irrevocable shifts. With theatrical distribution less viable for independent films and streaming companies dictating the terms and discourse of the business, the reasons that drew some people passionately to independent film are less apparent these days. Says one distribution executive who left New York, “I was unfulfilled, aesthetically, financially and recreationally.”
Another former executive, citing COVID-19 and an industry that “remains in flux,” is concerned about the current industry’s transition “from a qualitative game into more of a quantitative one” where, they say, “there’s too much content, and not all of it is good.” Rather than jump fully back into the fray, they’re currently taking “a step back” to see where they “can best fit in and help the industry evolve, be better and maintain its cultural impact.”
Larger cultural changes owing to the pandemic are also having an impact on people’s work choices. After nearly 12 years at venerable documentary company Kartemquin Films, distribution strategist Tim Horsburgh left with both family considerations and broader questions at the top of his mind. Kartemquin’s founder Gordon Quinn almost died from COVID; the communal aspect of their very community-centered work had become almost nonexistent; and there was a sense, he says, that the industry “needs to change the way society needs to change. I thought, ‘What is my contribution to that, and where can I do my best work?’”
Justine Nagan, who left her prominent leadership position at American Documentary, Inc. and nonfiction broadcaster POV in 2021 in the hopes of “changing the stress to joy ratio,” also suggests there are larger structural factors behind the industry’s “Great Reconsideration.”
“Our field is working to deal with a history of gross inequities and a scarcity mindset,” she says. “Many of us came up in the field during a time when there was a ‘creation by any means necessary’ attitude, and since there was little to no funding to go around, everyone ‘pitched in’ and got the job done, but things are different now,” she explains. “Part of it is generational, part of it is COVID and people assessing quality of life, and part of it is acknowledging the ways that systems of white supremacy interact with labor.”
“All that is to say,” Nagan adds, “I think many of us are thinking critically about the work we do and the way we do it and striving to make changes for ourselves and our communities.”