Midnight Rider Incident Casts Shadow on Film Industry

Working on a major motion picture is the dream of many aspiring entertainment job-seekers. However, in early 2014 a movie set turned into a nightmare when Sarah Jones, a 27-year old camera assistant, was killed while trying to avoid an oncoming train. She was working on the set of Midnight Rider, a Gregg Allman biopic that was indefinitely halted in the wake of the tragedy.

On March 10, Randall Miller, the film’s director, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass. He will serve two years in prison and is the first filmmaker to be convicted of a felony for an on-set death. Miller, who initially pleaded not guilty before accepting a plea deal in the case, had set up a shot on an active rail track in rural Georgia just prior to the train’s approach, doing so without permission from the railway operator.

The incident has brought ruthless scrutiny to film production in the state of Georgia, one of the country’s up-and-coming locations for moviemaking. Because Georgia lacks any local film agency or union, the policing of movie set safety is left to OSHA, an entity described as “chronically understaffed”, that struggles “to issue fines substantial enough to alter behavior”. While Georgia’s local government was responsible for checking the production’s insurance and its danger to local residents, it was not responsible for overseeing its safety. Nonetheless, the state’s image as a blossoming hub for the film industry has been shaken.

“[The accident] hurt Georgia’s reputation,” said Jay Self, former head of the film office in Savannah, GA.

Jones’ death has also shed light on movie set safety across the industry, with film professionals all over the world, including legendary actor Dustin Hoffman, sending film slates in tribute of her, sparking an industry-wide movement to improve on-set safety.

 “We hope the sacrifice of our daughter’s life will continue to change the film industry,” Jones’s father, Richard Jones, told reporters after Miller’s sentencing.

Even as the grandiose aura of the film industry dims in the wake of what happened to Sarah Jones, a girl who loved reading, writing, and The Wizard of Oz, the tragedy should be a lesson that, while movies push the boundaries of fantasy, what happens away from the camera is very much reality.

"Art requires sacrifice, right? But the truth is, no producer, director, executive or any boss should put their workers in harm’s way for any reason," wrote Sarah's brother. “Sarah is changing the industry at the cost of her own life."

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