It’s no secret that choosing the right shooting location can make or break a production’s budget, but understanding the factors that go into that decision can nonetheless prove a complex task. Beyond the basics of travel and lodging, producers must also consider the impact that varying crew rates might have on their project’s bottom line.
In this post, we’ll help you choose the right location for your next shoot by demystifying the budget implications of crew travel days within the IATSE commercial contract. We’ll break down what it means to shoot inside of Los Angeles, outside of Los Angeles, and even the gray areas in between.
Let’s dive in.
The decision to shoot at a remote (or even slightly remote) location can carry major consequences for your production’s schedule and budget. Of course, the choice might bring additional direct costs in the forms of hotel fees or airfare purchases, but it may also affect how you’re allowed to pay your crew.
In California, it all depends on the Zone.
Also known as the “Thirty Mile Zone,” the Los Angeles Studio Zone is a 30-mile radius centered in Los Angeles that’s used by union productions to determine exactly how their crew members will be paid.
The Studio Zone itself has a few interesting quirks and exceptions, some of which we’ll touch on later, but the gist of working with it revolves around one simple concept:
Notice that we’ve used the word “rules,” not “rates.”
Critically, crew member scale pay rates do NOT change inside and outside the Studio Zone. What does change is the method by which those rates are accounted for and calculated.
So, exactly how does the method change?
I’m glad you asked.
Below, we’ll break down how pay rates function in each of the three primary categories, starting inside the Los Angeles Studio Zone and working our way out.
Please note that this post only covers terms dictated by the IATSE commercial contract. While general principles will likely carry over to other circumstances, it’s important to remember that each union and production-type operates under its own negotiated regulations.
If you have a specific question about this or any other contract, don’t hesitate to reach out to the appropriate labor organization directly. Click here to see a full list of filmmaking unions and guilds.
Before we divide up the conversation by category, there are a few terms we should review.
Here are four keywords that might pop up when discussing travel and labor options in union filmmaking:
The term “Nearby Location” refers to any situation in which workers are driving themselves to and from your production location every day. A nearby location could either be inside or outside the Studio Zone, provided that crew can make the commute within a reasonable time limit.
This is in opposition to a “Distant Location,” which would require substantial travel to reach.
In some cases, cast and crew may be housed overnight. It depends on the production, but after a long day of shooting, a hotel could be offered.
An “Overnight Working” or “Working Overnight” day refers to a situation in which a crew member has worked on set during the day and returned to a hotel or similar accommodation at night.
In other words, “Overnight Working” days occur when a crew member travels to a distant location, works, then stays near the distant location (instead of their own residence) for the duration of the shoot.
An “Idle Overnight” day refers to the situation in which a crew member is staying at a hotel for a production but is not actually working on that particular day. Idle overnights are essentially off days, like a weekend, that more commonly occur on shoots of extended duration at distant locations.
Idle overnights may or may not be paid, depending on the specific contract.
A “Travel Only” day is exactly what it sounds like, any day in which a worker travels to or returns from a shooting location but does not work. Travel only days are common when shooting at distant locations. If a crew member has to fly or take a train to another state, it is unlikely that they will work (or have the time to work) upon their arrival. In that case, they would receive compensation for a “Travel Only” day.
Now, let’s talk about our first production location category.
Shooting inside the Los Angeles Studio Zone is the bread and butter of film production in Southern California. For the purposes of this post, it is the norm, our baseline for comparison against productions that travel.
When shooting inside the zone, crew wake up in their homes, get ready for the day, and travel to set as if it were their office. They clock in at their call time, clock out when their department wraps, and return home afterwards for a good night’s rest. When a crew member receives that day’s paycheck, it will account for their contracted day rate, plus any additional bumps from relevant overtime, meal penalties, or kit fees.
But they will receive no extra fees or rate card modifiers due to their travel to or from set.
At any shooting location within the Studio Zone, a production’s payroll expenses will be determined by agreed-upon rates of pay and the production’s ability to avoid unnecessary overtime.
In short, shooting inside the Zone will usually cost less than traveling a crew outside of the Zone.
As detailed above, the Studio Zone is determined by a 30-mile radius centered at a designated point within the city of Los Angeles. However, there are a handful of specified exemptions to the thirty-mile rule. Certain locations that are technically outside of the Zone are treated as if they’re inside the Zone for union payroll.
These exceptions to the 30-mile radius include but may not be limited to:
If you believe you’re shooting at an exception location not listed above, contact the Contract Services Administrative Trust Fund for official, up-to-date guidelines.
The most common form of travel in production is to production locations outside the Studio Zone but still at a nearby location, usually within Los Angeles County.
When shooting at a nearby location outside the Zone, the production day proceeds in a fashion similar to shooting inside the Zone but with a few critical exceptions.
Producers will now have to calculate a few new costs to accommodate their IATSE crew members’ extra travel, regardless of how limited that travel may in fact be.
Let’s start at the beginning of their day.
When shooting at a nearby location outside the Zone, crew members will wake up in their homes, get ready for the day, and drive to set, just like they’d do when shooting within the Zone.
However, the moment each crew member hits the Zone’s boundary, their pay rate for the day takes on additional characteristics.
A mileage fee is a specified amount paid by an employer per mile traveled by their employee. In this case, the crew member’s mileage fee would be computed by finding the number of miles between the Studio Zone perimeter and the production location, then multiplying that number by the current mileage rate established by the IRS.
A mileage fee must be paid for journeys both to and from the production location.
Note that mileage must be calculated according to the “quickest travel route” and not “as the crow flies.” If your crew has to drive around a mountain to get to set, you’ll have to pay them for each mile of road required to make that drive.
A travel allowance is an amount paid at an employee’s regular hourly rate in explicit exchange for time spent in transit. You’ll compute a crew member’s travel allowance by simply multiplying their regular hourly rate by the amount of time required to traverse the “quickest travel route” between a production location and the Zone perimeter.
Time allotted for the travel allowance may also affect your shoot schedule and its impact on payroll. For crew members traveling outside of the Zone, their day begins when they hit the Zone’s boundary on the way to set and doesn’t end until they hit the boundary again on the way back after wrap. This extra time may affect the amount of overtime a production will ultimately pay for that particular day.
Despite the calculation method, however, it’s important to note that a travel allowance is not technically paid compensation for labor. It is an “allowance”, which means that it does not require additional payments to the IATSE pension fund. Pensioned time does not begin until the crew member’s official call time, regardless of time spent in transit.
Shooting outside of the Zone but at a nearby location most commonly refers to situations in which the production location is just outside of the Studio Zone’s perimeter.
In Los Angeles, there are many areas that one individual may think of as close while another- on the opposite side of town- thinks of it as far. The Studio Zone provides a simplified standard to guide the union production industry as a whole.
But some nearby locations are definitely outside of the Zone.
To accommodate situations in which a production location rests notably beyond the border of the Zone but not so far that it’s clearly an overnight location, the 2019 AICP IATSE Commercial Production Agreement makes the following provision:
“On any day in which an employee covered under this Agreement works in excess of sixteen (16) hours including travel time from the edge of the zone and the location is more than thirty (30) miles from the edge of the zone, the Employer shall offer that employee (and, if accepted, pay for) either first class nearby hotel accommodations or offer to provide third party return transportation.”
In other words, if travel time unexpectedly pushes your crew’s workday over sixteen hours, your production may be required to foot additional, potentially costly expenses. Productions should be conscious of this risk whenever shooting outside of the Los Angeles Studio Zone.
Commercial production at distant shooting locations requires a higher degree of logistical strategy compared to shooting anywhere in or near the Studio Zone.
While productions no longer have to worry about mileage or travel allowances, they will have to pay attention to several new costs, some of which may impact crew payroll.
Let’s take a look at these potential new costs:
The first expenses incurred by shooting at distant locations are those associated with physical travel.
First, productions are required to pay any costs for the travel itself, whether it’s by plane, train, or automobile.
The current IATSE commercial contract explicitly states that,
“The Employer shall provide transportation to and from overnight locations” and further elaborating that “all travel by commercial jet shall be not less than coach class.”
In other words, a production must pay for any travel fare required to reach the location for each and every IATSE crew member being traveled.
In addition to any tickets to ride, the production will also need to pay the crew members themselves.
While “Travel Only” days are not technically workdays, productions are still required to compensate crew members for their time. On Travel Only days, IATSE crew must be paid for a minimum of four hours and a maximum of eight hours at straight time. Productions must also pay for eight hours of pension fees, including any PH&W contributions, regardless of the amount of time paid for travel.
Of course, it is possible to plan for a “Travel Work” day, during which a crew member first travels then works for a period of time at the distant location. However, the risks of such a decision should not be underestimated. Between standard travel durations and the usual unexpected delays, attempting to pull off an ambitious long-distance travel work day could be a recipe for costly overtime.
While at the distant location, production must supply their traveled crew members with a per diem. In this case, a per diem is a specified amount of money intended to cover food and similar costs of living while on location.
Importantly, the IATSE commercial contract does not stipulate a single per diem rate to be paid literally by day. Instead, the contract mandates that a per diem allowance must be paid for any “meals not provided”.
In other words, the production is only expected to pay for meals that crew members must acquire for themselves, on their own time.
If your production wants to shoot at an overnight location, it will be required to house its crew members overnight. Under no circumstances should a production force an employee to finance their own lodging.
Most commonly, productions will pay for hotel rooms or other appropriate rental residences. Doing so often simplifies the crew check-in process and streamlines any required transportation to and from the set.
However, productions also have the option of paying a “housing allowance”.
A “housing allowance” is an amount paid to a crew member to cover any lodging fees without any particular mandate as to how or where said lodging be arranged. Under the right circumstances, paying a housing allowance can be mutually beneficial for the production and its crew alike.
But it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly.
Housing allowances may grant crew members more freedom of choice, but they also come with a greater burden of responsibility. Productions should consider all relevant advantages, disadvantages, and risks before making a final housing decision.
Travel costs don’t end with airfare. Productions are also required to arrange for transportation to and from set for each day spent at the production location.
Under the IATSE commercial contract, “Daily travel time shall not exceed one hour a day.” This means that traveled crew cannot spend more than one hour in transit between the shooting location and their housing accommodations per day total.
In other words, if it takes your crew thirty minutes to get to the set from the hotel and another thirty minutes to get back, everything’s good. But if it takes your crew twenty minutes to get to set and forty-five to come back (because of rush hour traffic, for instance), then you’ll have breached your travel time limit with a total of one hour and five minutes spent in transit for the day.
And what’s the penalty for breaching the travel time limit?
The contract states that, “Daily travel time in excess of one hour a day shall be paid as work time”, which means that you’ll be paying your crew for any amount of time beyond the mandated sixty minutes.
Depending on the length of your shoot day and the overage of travel time accrued, this might not be a significant issue. With poor planning or a little bad luck, however, paying additional work time can be a serious expense.
After all, both overtime laws and rest period penalties still apply to travel time overages at distant locations.
As stated above, an idle overnight day is a day during which a crew member is at a distant location for a production but is not working.
In other words, it’s an off-day, with some added inconveniences. Even though they’re on R&R, the crew member is more or less restricted to a particular region and is unable to take advantage of other employment opportunities.
For those inconveniences, productions are generally required to compensate crew members that experience idle overnight days, though some contracts may allow for exceptions. As with travel only days, productions are also required to pay eight hours of benefit contributions for idle days.
For the most part, idle overnight days are rare in the world of commercial production due to short overall schedule durations. Nevertheless, it’s a situation (and potential cost) worth noting.
The process of mitigating travel expenses requires that productions take a big picture perspective on the issue. While working to minimize costs is critical, productions must do so within the context of the larger goal of bringing their project to life at the right price and the right quality, with no sacrifice of safety or security.
Simple strategic choices are often the keys to making travel feasible for both schedule and budget. For instance, the relatively straightforward act of giving serious, thorough consideration to the impact that a particular location might have on your shoot before locking it in could very well save you both time and serious money.
But travel is often necessary. Sometimes, a particular location is so appealing for aesthetic purposes that the relative inconvenience of production travel cannot be avoided.
In that event, it’s important to remember your options. Carefully consider what crew needs to travel. A production will likely have to travel its department heads, but there are also many potential benefits to hiring local crew for other positions.
IATSE travel requirements are designed to protect the interests of union crew, but these guidelines can also be a useful tool for productions.
These travel requirements can be used as a predictable framework through which a production can plan their shoots with maximum ease and efficiency.
Managing payroll for travel days can be much easier and more efficient with software equipped to do so.
When your crew is filling out digital timecards, Wrapbook automatically hides fields within travel days so that your crew fills out only what they need to fill out, eliminating extraneous timecard details and minimizing room for confusion.
Wrapbook prevents timecards from becoming overly complicated while simultaneously ensuring that no key information is overlooked.
While you don't have to use software to budget for travel, having an intuitive tool makes it a hell of a lot easier, especially one linked your payroll. Kind of a no-brainer.
We've made travel timecards much simpler for both your view and your crew's view. While this post focuses on the IATSE commercial contract in California, Wrapbook automatically calculates IATSE, Teamsters, and DGA timecards nationwide, making budgeting for travel even simpler.
Travel days are complex and challenging, but they can be plenty manageable with the right level of foresight.
Remember, the above list only covers the IATSE commercial contract. For other contract terms, it’s best to reach out to the appropriate labor organization directly.
If you have any questions about Wrapbook or more complex budgeting questions, reach out here.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.