“It’s A Pressure Cooker”: Low-Budget Movies Like “Rust” Are Dangerously Cutting Corners, Former Crew Members Say
People involved in other low-budget movies say film leaders create unsafe conditions by rushing production schedules, spreading staff too thin, and not following safety standards when shooting in risky environments.
Two filmmakers involved with Rust, the indie production in New Mexico where Alec Baldwin shot and killed the movie’s cinematographer, own a company known for working in unsafe conditions and not paying crew members, according to documents and interviews with workers.
The producers, Allen Cheney and Ryan Donnell Smith, run Thomasville Pictures, an up-and-coming Georgia-based studio that specializes in creating indie movies that are usually shot in rural communities — away from the film infrastructure and expertise available in Hollywood. While their films have yet to be released, they’ve made a name for themselves in the industry by wrangling stars including Mel Gibson and Nicolas Cage into their low-budget projects with the goal of snagging big distribution deals with companies like Netflix.
But people involved in their projects say that Thomasville Pictures has created unsafe conditions for workers by rushing production schedules, spreading staff too thin, and not following safety standards when shooting in risky environments. BuzzFeed News spoke to 15 people — including portable toilet operators, stunt performers, and managers — who have worked on three other films under Thomasville’s supervision. Most asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
Crew members and industry veterans say Cheney and Smith are emblematic of a flourishing trend in filmmaking in which ambitious projects are shot on shrinking budgets with overworked staffers in states like New Mexico and Georgia, which offer attractive tax breaks and have fewer regulations than California. Workers allege that they were put in a variety of precarious positions; a young production assistant performed as a stuntperson, crew members almost got clipped by live cars while filming, and COVID protocols were not followed during the height of the pandemic.
“The film industry has a systemic issue that needs to come to light,” a longtime industry higher-up who worked with Thomasville Pictures told BuzzFeed News. “The way that these people do business is to take advantage of people who can't fight for themselves to make these movies. I don't know how they get away with it.”
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In a statement, Cheney defended Smith and the other producers of Rust, pointed to the film’s good standing with various unions and guilds, and said he had no involvement in the day-to-day production. A spokesperson for Thomasville Pictures declined to answer questions and referred BuzzFeed News to Cheney’s statement.
On top of issues on multiple Thomasville Pictures sets, workers and higher-ups told BuzzFeed News that it took months for crew members on these low-budget films to get paid. Seven people said that they, either on behalf of themselves or members of their team, had to constantly hound the production company for money, often getting the runaround. Some of them are still waiting for their checks.
The lack of payment, which industry veterans and a union spokesperson described as highly unusual, caused turmoil on several productions. The day before cinematographer Halyna Hutchins died on the Rust set, her camera team walked off over workplace conditions and lack of pay.
People who worked on three other projects with Thomasville Pictures said that the producers had hired less-experienced workers for key jobs or would make them take on roles that they weren’t prepared for, piling on responsibilities in order to save time and money. That can lead to serious accidents, the crew members said, and on the Rust set, it was deadly.
In 2019, Cheney and Smith founded Thomasville Pictures with the goal of bolstering the entertainment industry in southern Georgia. Cheney grew up in Thomasville and is the son of a prominent bank CEO. Smith, from Nashville, thought he was going to be a doctor before he decided to pivot in his sixth and final year of college and pursue his passion: filmmaking, he told AwardsDaily.
Smith said he started small, working on web videos and commercials. In 2016, the pair were trying to form a production company, GCS Films, to make a biopic on Cheney’s grandfather, according to a lawsuit. That project got them into trouble after they allegedly embezzled funds from a family friend, who agreed to invest $250,000 to help them get off the ground. In her claim, she said they withdrew $40,000 without her knowledge or approval and transferred it to their personal accounts. They used the funds to pay for things like Cheney’s mother’s health insurance and his father’s credit card bills, the lawsuit said. According to the complaint, Cheney’s father, the CEO of Thomasville National Bank, got involved and remedied the situation. The family friend dismissed the lawsuit a few months later.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Cheney said that the investor was repaid in full within months of her filing her lawsuit.
In 2018, Smith was named president of production and development at Streamline Global, a Las Vegas-based film production company that uses a unique business model to bring big investors into the entertainment industry through tax benefits. A year later, under the newly formed Thomasville Pictures, Smith and Cheney started making low-budget movies in Georgia, also capitalizing on a tax credit incentive program designed to make it much easier and cheaper for producers to create content. In three years, Thomasville Pictures has been involved in half a dozen projects, often alongside a recurring crew of financiers, companies, and producers, as has become common in the indie film space.
Industry veterans say many new indie and low-budget films have anywhere from 8 to 20 people as associate or executive producers, who usually help get funding for the film but do not have much history in the industry. As one industry expert explained, giving a financier a producer credit is a nice selling point: “They’re trying to gather as much money as they can from various sources.”
Rust, for example, has seven production and financier companies listed: Thomasville, Baldwin's El Dorado Pictures, Cavalry Media, Brittany House Pictures, Short Porch Pictures, as well as financial backers BondIt Media Capital and Streamline Global.
That’s one of the reasons it’s been difficult to discern who from the mishmash of collaborators, production companies, and financiers attached to the Western was responsible for putting the movie together. People have largely remained silent, and Rust Movie Productions said it was conducting its own internal investigation.
An early version of the script from Sept. 13, obtained by BuzzFeed News, lists Baldwin from El Dorado Pictures and Anjul Nigam from Brittany House Pictures on the front page. In a release three weeks later, the New Mexico Film Office announced that the film, produced by Rust Movie Productions LLC, had started shooting. Smith, one of several producers listed, said in a statement, “We are excited to be working in the beautiful state of New Mexico.”
Instagram stories from the film set showed Smith sitting at a table eating with other crew members. A source close to the production told BuzzFeed News he was heavily involved in day-to-day operations and also brought on 3rd Shift Media, an Atlanta production services company with which Thomasville and Streamline worked on another upcoming movie featuring Baldwin, Supercell.
KC Brandenstein, another Thomasville associate, is listed as a Rust coproducer, a role that usually requires one to work alongside the producer. Cheney is an executive producer, a title usually given to those who fund a movie. In his statement, Cheney said that he and Emily Salveson, another Rust executive producer, “had no involvement with the physical and day to day production.”
Salveson started Streamline Global and is now partners with Smith. The company is often attached to Thomasville Pictures projects. Smith, Salveson, and Cheney have worked with several of Rust’s other producers and executive producers on previous films.
Producers are usually responsible for nearly every aspect of a film — financing, hiring, managing logistics, and supervising on set. There’s a hierarchy, and they’re at the top. When things go awry, veteran production workers told BuzzFeed News, the mistakes made on the ground — whether by an assistant director, an armorer, or a unit production manager — should be traced back to those who built and set everything in motion months before. And, workers say, there had been issues on several past Thomasville projects.
“They should have learned lessons from [previous films],” another industry veteran who has worked intimately with Thomasville Pictures but asked to stay anonymous for fear of retribution told BuzzFeed News. “What is evident to me is, based on the Rust model, they either didn't learn or did learn and refused to change, and that's the crime: willful negligence.”
People close to the production of Rust have decried those accusations, reiterating that Thomasville was not involved in the production and that protocols were followed. “‘Rust’ is a union-certified production, in good standing with all of the major production unions and guilds, including IATSE, the Teamsters, SAG, and DGA,” Cheney wrote in his statement.
Since Hutchins’ death, those who worked with the photography director on Rust have expressed their grief, as well as concerns over how the film was staffed. In a long and impassioned Facebook post describing how he held his friend as she died, Serge Svetnoy, the film’s chief electrician, said it was “the fault of negligence and unprofessionalism.” He called out the producers specifically: “To save a dime sometimes, you hire people who are not fully qualified for the complicated and dangerous job, and you risk the lives of the other people who are close,” he wrote. “There should always be at least one professional in each department who knows the job. It is an absolute must to avoid such a tragedy, like the tragedy with Halyna.”
With streaming services creating more demand for content than ever before, many new small production companies like Thomasville Pictures have jumped into the game, with the ability to be more nimble than larger studios and more easily cut through the red tape, industry experts and workers say. While the model has been around for a while — Blumhouse Productions set the standard more than 20 years ago for making blockbusters like Halloween for little money — companies like Thomasville are gaining popularity because, essentially, all they really need is a good script and cash.
Many news reports have pointed to the Rust producers' lack of experience. As the Hollywood Reporter laid out, most of them, including Baldwin, are relatively green for that role. The producing crew of six men had only produced nine movies combined before they started filming the Western earlier this month.
Cheney rebuked that narrative, saying in his statement that the Rust producers “collectively have more than 35 years’ experience producing small to mid-level film and television projects.”
Despite being greenlighted under union certifications, films made in states like Georgia, which have less stringent labor laws, are allowed to bring on nonunion workers and often do so to save money. Crews on these projects say protocols are loosened, especially when they’re on the ground in the thick of filming, which is usually an all-encompassing, high-stress environment. And crews are often too afraid to speak out about the conditions at the risk of sabotaging their reputation in the close-knit, cutthroat industry. Many of those who are nonunion need the low-budget market to survive, they added. That’s all been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has made films more difficult and more expensive to make.
"It’s a pressure cooker," the higher-up who worked with Thomasville Pictures said about the company's strategy. "Rust was a nightmare scenario that played out, but these mistakes are happening all the time because of the extreme pace that things move now. What is happening on these low-budget films is out of control.”
Before its founders got involved with Rust, Thomasville Pictures helped produce other upcoming films: The Tiger Rising, filmed in 2019 and starring Queen Latifah, One Way with Kevin Bacon and Machine Gun Kelly, which wrapped in February, Supercell, another project with Baldwin this past summer, and Bandit, which was spearheaded by another indie company, Yale Productions, and features Mel Gibson and Josh Duhamel. Thomasville came into the Bandit project with some additional funds before filming began, sources said, who added that Smith was also extremely involved in helping get the film to the finish line. They also described him as savvy and a problem-solver.
To try and keep costs down on these types of projects, workers and industry experts say that Thomasville keeps staff lean, speeds up preparation and production schedules, and goes rogue when capturing action shots.
“What I saw in Georgia was abusive,” the industry veteran who was intimately involved with Thomasville said of how workers were treated. “When you are working 20-hour days for seven days straight like we were, you miss details. You get clumsy. Exhaustion has a toll, and it happens quickly.”
On the film One Way, three people said, the film supervisors did not fully lock down streets as is the norm when filming in public spaces, resulting in cars coming through the set. One day in February, they said, a truck drove through the set and got close to crew members, including Dave Halls, the assistant director who would go on to hand Baldwin the loaded gun, according to two people who were there.
Halls would also routinely skip safety meetings, they said, and did not abide by COVID protocols. Most of the filming was done driving around in two older, narrow Greyhound-style buses with closed windows, pictures seen by BuzzFeed News show. Three of the people involved in the set's creation said that the windows were often closed when they were inside and the buses didn’t have the movable wall typical on film sets, leaving the camera crew with only one way in and out.
Two managers refuted the workers' accusations that the movie was unsafe. Eric Napier, the location manager, said that the producers "held multiple safety meetings regarding covid, set safety, stunts, and welcomed any complaints or concerns from crew" and felt that they truly cared about what was happening on the ground.
The Line Producer, Molly Mayeux, echoed similar sentiments. She said that the production spent weeks planning street closures with city officials. Film supervisors did hold daily safety meetings, “most certainly at new locations, or when any set or situation was particularly challenging,” she said. A source close to the production also refuted workers’ concerns about COVID safety, saying that the bus had open windows and ventilators and would stop every 15 minutes to clear and filter the air. Police were also on set at all times when they filmed on the street.
According to the three set workers, though, there were only two police officers monitoring traffic in the area, so cars were able to turn left — right into where they were filming. A prop and set worker said he nearly got clipped two times, once while moving a small barricade, which was not his job. He said he had asked both Halls and the unit production manager to do something. Another senior person who worked on the film confirmed the situation and the complaints to BuzzFeed News.
“Ultimately, there really wasn’t anything done about it. I got lucky twice that day,” the set worker said. “I called my daughter and told her if I end up getting killed or injured on this movie, sue every son of a bitch possible. It’s the most unsafe movie/film I have ever worked on.”
Three people involved with the stunt and set work on One Way also said that those in charge asked younger and less-experienced day workers, including a college student production assistant, to take on risky tasks, such as acting as Machine Gun Kelly’s body double.
Mayeux told BuzzFeed News that she did not remember any of these incidents and never received any complaints from crew members about safety concerns or any other issues. “I can attest with 100% certainty that One Way was extremely safety conscious and all safety protocols were followed,” she wrote to BuzzFeed News in an email.
“I am sickened by these ‘sources’ trying to capitalize on such a horrific accident,” she added. “Having worked very closely with these producers, I found them to be extremely safety-conscious and professional."
Budgets for these indie films usually hover around $7 million to $10 million, but according to two industry veterans who worked closely with Thomasville, most of the money goes “above the line” to the big-name actors and producers. On Bandit, which Thomasville joined weeks into production because Yale Productions was allegedly having cash problems, the budget ended up being around $10 million, according to two people familiar with its finances, but just $3.4 million was available for actually making the film, including paying those below the line.
As a result, some crew members and vendors on One Way and Bandit would not get paid for weeks or months, if at all. The pay discrepancies are another example of the chaos that can come with having a hodgepodge of many types of producers and companies involved in an indie film.
Although Cheney announced on Facebook in May, “here comes our 4th film for Thomasville Pictures being made in my home town…,” a source close to the production company said that it only invested in Bandit and was not responsible for paying its workers. That fell to Yale Productions, which did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment. And since these films are under a union contract, the source said, everyone has to get paid.
But for some, it took — or is still taking — a very long time.
An on-set decorator walked off set for not being paid; he and others had sent emails to managers, according to text messages seen by BuzzFeed News. In response, a production supervisor expressed shock, apologized, and promised to figure it out. The decorator said it took five weeks to get paid in full.
A team lead on One Way said that even though the movie wrapped at the end of February, he was still recently hearing from members of a New Orleans–based union construction firm, a prop master, and a Georgia company that made bus seat covers for the film asking for help getting their paychecks. The producers haven’t been answering or returning their calls, he said. One crew member said he’s still out of “a lot of money” and has been contacting the film’s producers and accountants every week since March.
On Wednesday, he finally got an email, seen by BuzzFeed News, from a One Way accountant, apologizing for the delay, asking to confirm how much he is owed, and promising, “We are doing everything we can to get this wrapped up.”
An actor from Bandit, which wrapped in June, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that they were never paid for their work. Two higher-ups on that film said they had spent weeks hounding Thomasville Pictures to pay their workers.
About a month after a crew of about 35 people did a daylong shoot for the film in Los Angeles, a higher-up started getting “blindsided by people saying they had not been paid.” They were collectively out about $30,000, the person said, and it ultimately took 46 days of consistent prodding on the crew’s behalf before people started seeing any cash.
The situation got so egregious that on June 9 many of Bandit’s department heads signed a letter addressed to the producers and financiers threatening to “completely shut down this show” in 24 hours due to their “deceit and willingness to lie to this crew regarding their per diem,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by BuzzFeed News.
“We no longer trust your organization, as your word is meaningless and has proven time and time again to be worthless,” the letter reads. “Writing and signing this letter does not come easy for us. But we are a crew that is killing ourselves for you, and your inability to appreciate that with the bare minimum of the commitment you made is a glaring example of how little you care about our livelihoods or well being.”
The major issues were resolved before any action was taken, according to sources involved with the letter.
Charles LaHood, who runs Advanced Portable Restrooms with his wife and grandson, says he’s still owed $8,023.56 for his work shuttling bathroom trailers across Bandit’s various set locations this past summer. On Tuesday night, LaHood told BuzzFeed News he’d just sent another text to an associate producer from Thomasville Pictures, who promised him he’d get paid “sometime soon.”
“They've been telling me that this is the first time they had this happen, got in with some bad people or something,” he explained. On Thursday morning, LaHood said they promised him a direct deposit was imminent.
From June 1 to 18, LaHood said, he moved the restrooms at all hours, sometimes at 3 a.m., and usually with little warning. “They said, ‘We don't know what time we might need you to move it, so we will just call you when we need you,’” he recalled.
LaHood said he’s used to big, demanding jobs, from golf tournaments to disaster zones, but this may have been the most taxing. And in his 16 years managing the family business, it’s the first time he hasn’t been paid.
“They told me, ‘That’s the way Hollywood movies run.’”