Charges could prompt film industry to take crew safety more seriously
Criminal charges brought against producers of the independent film “Midnight Rider,” which was shut down after a deadly train crash, could prompt the movie industry to take crew safety more seriously on risky location shoots, industry experts say.
A Georgia grand jury on Thursday indicted film producers Randall Miller, Jody Savin and Jay Sedrish on charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass in connection with the February death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones.
Six other crew members were injured when a train unexpectedly barreled onto a bridge in Georgia where the production was filming. Authorities say the “Midnight Rider” producers did not have permission to film on the trestle.
Jones’ death galvanized entertainment industry crew members, highlighting their long-standing concerns about worker safety on movie and TV sets.
“What will change — particularly if these people are prosecuted heavily — is that people will pay more attention to safety issues,” said film producer Marty Katz, whose credits include “Reindeer Games” and “Man of the House.” “The reality is, no shot is worth a life and safety has to be the primary concern, whether it is a $100,000 production or a $100-million production.”
Miller and Savin are the owners of Unclaimed Freight Productions Inc., which was filming “Midnight Rider.” Miller was the director of the project. Donnie Dixon, a Georgia attorney for Miller and Savin, declined to comment.
Sedrish, who was an executive producer, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Jones’ father, Richard, said in a statement that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would continue to demand safer work conditions.
“Elizabeth and I are comfortable that the authorities were both careful and meticulous in investigating and bringing charges related to the incident that took our daughter’s life,” Jones said. “We must allow the criminal justice process to proceed unhindered. Our mission remains the same: to ensure safety on all film sets. Safety for Sarah.”
In Georgia, involuntary manslaughter carries a potential prison sentence of 10 years. Criminal trespass is a misdemeanor and could bring a jail sentence of up to a year.
Criminal prosecutions resulting from film set deaths are rare. There appear to be even fewer convictions.
The most high-profile case involved the 1982 deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children on the “Twilight Zone” set, when a helicopter crashed during late-night filming near Santa Clarita. After a 10-month trial, director John Landis and four associates were acquitted on involuntary manslaughter charges in 1987.
“It was startling then that somebody would be charged criminally,” said Loyola Law School professor Stanley Goldman. “These are few and far between.”
Goldman, who teaches criminal law, said Jones’ death and the gravity of the “Midnight Rider” case should get the attention of other filmmakers.
“Once producers and directors consider the possibility of prosecution and the risk to their own futures, I think it could make them even more sensitive to the safety of their workers,” Goldman said.
On Feb. 20, members of the “Midnight Rider” crew were working on the film — about the life of rock singer Gregg Allman — in Wayne County, Ga. Crew members had been instructed to walk out on an old railroad trestle high above the Altamaha River and position a metal-frame bed on the tracks for a “dream sequence” scene.
The plan was for actor William Hurt, who was playing Allman, to lay on the bed positioned on the train tracks. Crew members had been told not to expect any more trains that day. But as they prepared for the scene, a train came racing toward them.
Crew members, including Jones, frantically struggled to pull their gear and the bed from the train tracks —but the train slammed into the bed. Jones was killed by flying metal shards and the train itself, according to witnesses and a police report.
Jones’ death became a rallying point for Hollywood’s production workers, who said it reflected how cost-cutting was putting safety at risk. Hundreds marched in a March candlelight vigil in Los Angeles to remember Jones. More than 50,000 people signed a Facebook petition demanding that Jones’ name be added to the Academy Awards “In Memoriam” tribute. The Academy displayed a photo of Jones during the telecast.
Since the accident, workers have lobbied union leaders to step up their efforts to ensure that other states adopt the same safety standards as California’s. The workers said that such requirements were particularly important on low-budget productions.
“Not a day goes by that we at Local 600 aren’t reminded of the tragic death of our sister and member Sarah Jones,” said Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600.
There have been other recent deaths on film and television sets. Last year, three people died during a shoot for a Discovery Channel show when a helicopter crashed in Acton. In 2012, a crew member on Walt Disney Studios’ “Lone Ranger” drowned while cleaning a water tank in preparation for filming an underwater sequence.
Jackie L. Johnson, the district attorney for Georgia’s Brunswick Judicial Circuit, said a Wayne County sheriff’s detective presented the case to the grand jury on Wednesday. The indictment was returned Thursday.
A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office declined to comment further, saying the case was pending.
Karl Richter, a commercial director who has worked with companies including Capitol Records, Interscope and headphone company Skullcandy, said he is hopeful the indictments would force the film industry to reconsider safety rules, but he wasn’t sure that would actually happen.
“My concern is that the bottom line is the deciding factor when it comes down to pretty much everything,” he said. “I want to think that there is going to be change.”
Times staff writer Madeline O’Leary contributed to this report.
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