Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

What's Next?

Having returned to my home planet, far from the dark shadow of the Hollywood sign, I find myself peering back through the telescope at what might just be the end of the WGA strike. It appears that the plucky WGA rebels really are on the verge of signing a peace treaty with the AMPTP (aka: The Evil Empire, or as Nikki Fink calls them, “The Moguls”), which could bring picket lines down as soon as next week. All this is depends, of course, on cooler heads in both organizations muzzling any further outbursts from their more emotional comrades -- those whose flair for incendiary, my-way-or-the-highway rhetoric helped sabotage previous efforts to reach agreement. One must never underestimate the ability of either the WGA or the AMPTP to snatch defeat from the jaws of compromise.

In other words: hold your breath while keeping all available fingers crossed.

Although generally loathe to stray from the time-tested, believe-it-when-I-see-it philosophy of life, I remain cautiously optimistic. And if as appears likely, this strike really is over, then what’s next? Work, that’s what. Not for me (being locked in the cell of recovery for at least another three months), but for the rest of below-the-line Hollywood. Not that Happy Days are Here Again – because truth be told, things weren’t all that great before the strike. Something’s better than nothing, though, and most of us would be happy to see that situation return. Whether that will come about remains an open question. Damage has been done, bridges burned, deals cancelled. A number of surviving-but-not-thriving shows were already on the bubble before the strike, and are likely gone for good, meaning all those crews will be looking for new jobs.

With pilot season looming, this wouldn’t ordinarily pose a huge problem, but these are not ordinary times. In the wake of the strike, Jeff Zucker -- the grinning, goggle-eyed homunculus at the helm of NBC -- declared his network will no longer indulge in their annual springtime orgy of 15 to 18 pilots, instead putting all their chips down on five or six carefully chosen for their potential to make the fall lineup. This translates to ten or twelve fewer pilots from NBC alone, and with each pilot representing sixty to eighty below-the-line jobs, that’s a huge hit. If the other networks follow Zucker’s little munchkin footsteps, the avalanche of lost work could leave many of us buried for a long time to come.

That said, I’m not among those doom-and-gloomers who think the way the Industry has done business will radically change from this day on. Yes, the ’08 pilot season could be something of a disaster (for that matter, 2008 as a whole will probably suck), but when little Jeff and his fellow network heads watch 90% of their “carefully chosen” pilots go down in flames next Fall, they’ll be in a terminal panic to stop the bleeding – and the only way to do that is with new shows. They could turn to the quick-fix of reality programming in the short run, but there’s only one “American Idol” (thank God), and although the networks do make money on most reality programming, it’s nothing like the sustained tsunami of green that comes with a long running hit. By next Christmas, scripted shows like “Friends” and “Will and Grace” might be looking awfully good to NBC, and at some point -- one way or another-- they’ll have to get back in the game. Making a hit show is an art, not a science, and a poorly understood art at that. Until hit-making becomes a predictable, repeatable endeavor (and pigs will fly over the frozen pits of Hell on that bright and shiny day), the networks will have to fall back on what they actually know how to do, what they’ve always done: try a host of different ideas – and that means lots of pilots. If so, 2009 could end up a pretty good year. Compared to the unfolding disaster of 2008, of course, anything would look like a good year, but I’m thinking (read: hoping) that after a few more dark and ugly months on the bottom, things just might start looking up.

Will Hollywood return to the glory days when sit-coms ruled the earth? No. Will things even get back to the way it was -- good and bad -- before the strike? Not for a while, if ever. Change has been happening for a while now, and will keep on coming -- evolutionary change that invariably brings trouble for the old and opportunity for the young. The only thing I’m reasonably sure of is that the great “paradigm shift” so many have been shouting about won’t come overnight. Whether the shows that arise from the ashes of the WGA strike are destined for broadcast or the Internet, they still have to be made: and we’re the people who make them. I harbor no illusions that life below-the-line will actually get better -- we’ve been on a downward slide for a long time now, and there’s no reason to expect that situation to improve. But there will be work, at least, and after the last three months we’ve all endured, that’s a good thing.

The road back starts with the writers giving the nod to the deal their leadership hammered out over the last two weeks – and that’s assuming SAG manages to cut an early deal rather than go to the mattresses come June 30, when their contract is up. But that will be then, and this is now.

Get it done, writers. It’s time.


monsterdog said...

I've read as well as heard the writers say, that if they agree with the terms of this new contract.. then they will be back at work on monday...
(they're idiots if they think that...) oops.. sorry... they're idiots period.

D said...

I think you're right about the studios eventually having to go back to the old 18 pilots a season scenario. That's what it takes to see what will fly. They weren't making that many in the past because it was fun, SOMEONE thought each of them had merit.