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)

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Nepotism: Part One

Who’s Your Daddy?

“Nepotism: favoritism shown to a relative (as by giving an appointive job) on a basis of relationship.”
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

From the day I rode my motorcycle to LA, determined to crash through the walls of The Industry, I heard stories about nepotism in below-the-line Hollywood: the clannish ritual of doling out work via family dynasties, from fathers to sons, brother to brother, uncles to nephews. Most of these stories turned out to be true, and then some. The tendrils of nepotism extend from the top levels of many craft unions right down through the roots and into the very groundwater that nourishes the Industry.

Nepotism is more than a stubborn weed happily thriving under the hot sun and eternally smoggy Hollywood sky -- it’s a basic fact of Industry life.

The last job I had as a full-time member of a set lighting crew – not just a rigger or day-player – was a on a sitcom that went 12 episodes-and-out, lasting slightly more than half a season before the network pulled the plug. Ours was a five man crew, composed of a gaffer, best boy, dimmer operator, and two juicers. The father of my fellow juicer had retired as a gaffer. The dimmer operator’s dad worked a full career as a grip. The best boy’s father spent his working life as a teamster driving for the major studios, while the gaffer grew up watching his dad pound out screenplays, one after another, in the shadow of the Warner Brother’s Studio in Burbank. The Director of Photography – sitting atop the entire crew food chain -- got his first union card thanks to the pull of his father and uncle, both long time members of IATSE local 728. I was the odd man out: the only member of our crew who didn’t grow up in Southern California, with direct family connections to the Industry.

Despite the widespread practice, nepotism still carries a taint, conjuring up the image of some weak-chinned, under-qualified twit being promoted over a square-jawed, hard-working, up-through-the-ranks All American guy whose only fault is not being related to the boss. Allowing blood lines to trump honest merit seems inherently unfair, and thus un-American – exactly the kind of slimy, underhanded practice our ancestors thought they’d left behind in fleeing the class-stratified, socially sclerotic world of 17th, 18th, and 19th century Europe. According to Sanctified Myth, that sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen here in America, where anyone by dint of his or her own hard work can grow up to become President. In this world, though, myth and reality seldom live under the same roof.

I came to hate the word “nepotism” during my early years in Hollywood, watching people breeze into the various unions – guys whose fathers were union members – while I remained outside, taking whatever non-union jobs I could find, working with no protection or benefits beyond the daily paycheck. Eventually I managed to join a small union whose members worked mostly on television commercials, but the big union -- the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, which handles all big-budget feature films and a majority of television shows produced in this country – remained beyond reach until 1992. At that point, my little union merged with IATSE, at last endowing me with the coveted IA card. But that, it turned out, wasn’t quite enough. While most IA locals allowed these newly minted members to work under the contract and accrue benefits, mine followed its longstanding tradition of Jurassic-era obstructionism by refusing to grant “roster status” to any new member (merger be damned) until we worked a full thirty days on a union show. But since a union member is not allowed to work a union job without first gaining roster status (with limited exceptions), we were caught in a classic Catch 22, required to pay annual dues to maintain our membership without being allowed to accept union work. This was a rude and unexpected twist of the knife, and damned near enough to make a mild-mannered guy go postal.

The only way around this roadblock was to get a job on a non-union film or television show that would at some point “turn” -- sign a union contract with IATSE after production commenced -- or else accumulate thirty days of work in the course of twelve months at one of the studio lots as a “permit.” When the industry is so busy that all eligible union members are working, studios are permitted to hire non-union workers off the street. This has long been the traditional route into the industry, but without the necessary connections, accruing those thirty days remains a steep hill to climb. I heard countless stories over the years of people doing permit work for twenty-nine days, only to be laid off, one day short of the goal. Then it happened to me – after twenty eight days of work at Warner Brothers, I found a yellow lay-off slip waiting for me when I clocked out. Close, but no cigar, kid. Better luck next year.

Que the backstage laughter...

It took me three years to land a television movie that finally turned union, and at the ripe old age of 45 – a good twenty-five years later than most career juicers – I finally achieved the roster status allowing me to work any union job. It was only then, working shoulder-to-shoulder with members of various family dynasties, that I realized just how deeply nepotism is rooted in the bedrock of the Industry. I also learned to be very careful what I said, and to whom I said it. In a business where everybody seems to be related, a little loose talk can put you in the doghouse – and that’s not a good place for an unconnected, unrelated industry outsider to be.

But by then I’d also learned something else: nepotism will get you in the door, but it won’t keep you there if you don’t perform.* Working below-the-line is a punishing business, where those unable to take the pace and pressure won’t last. The hours are often absurdly long, the physical demands relentless, and the working conditions can be atrocious. Anyone who thinks working on movies is a glamorous endeavor should ponder the reality of slaving all night in a driving rain, muscling heavy cables charged with enough pulsing electricity to vaporize steel, all the while moving, setting up, and constantly adjusting very hot movie lamps – and doing this until the sun finally rises to put an end to the suffering. But sometimes the director decides he’s not ready to go home just yet, so the crew moves inside to shoot interiors on stage for another few hours... The money can be good for a job that doesn’t require much in the way of formal education (and certainly not a college degree), but this work isn’t for everybody. Still, people flock from all over the country to Hollywood every year, hell bent on getting into “the movies” – most of them without a clue of what they’re in for.

I know how that feels. Like so many others who roll into Tinsel Town fresh off the turnip truck, mine was a face-first, sink-or-swim education in the realities of Industry life. Clueless but motivated, I worked long and hard to build a good reputation, and in the process, began to understand what those before me already knew: talk is cheap. It’s easy to say you’ll work your butt off doing whatever it takes to learn the business, but actually doing it is something else. Like any truly meaningful knowledge, it can only be learned the hard way, through experience, in the arena of the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education. Industry veterans have good reason to regard the earnest-but-ignorant enthusiasm of young wannabes with such a thoroughly jaundiced eye. After a few years of taking my lumps, it finally dawned on me why I’d been greeted with such naked, lip-curling skepticism by the old-timers – and rightfully so.

Most Industry kids grew up around movie sets, and are thus unencumbered by starry-eyed fantasies of life in the movie biz. Those who follow their fathers into the Industry know just what to expect and how much will be demanded of them: the good, the bad, and the ugly -- and if scaling the walls of Hollywood from the outside is tough, sliding in under the wing of nepotism is no walk in the park. Every father’s son who enters the business has a reputation to live up to – or live down. If his dad was a good worker, the kid will have to work even harder to prove himself worthy. But if the old man was known for less-than-stellar work habits – and many among the older generation were raging alcoholics -- his son will have to make a sustained effort to overcome the bias that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Many of the true legends of the biz, actors and crew alike, were known for burning the candle hot and bright at both ends. Stepping into the oversize shoes of such a legend is an unenviable task.

Unlike outsiders, who get to leave the eternally contentious father/son dynamic at home, an Industry kid often ends up working alongside that father, learning the nuts-and-bolts of the trade from a hard-driving man who never seems to tire of reminding his son that he’d better not embarrass the old man. Learning under the weight of such highly-charged expectations is a bruising process, but out of this crucible comes the backbone of the Industry: solidly-trained professionals who know how to do the job right, do it safely, and do it fast. Workers like these make everyone around them better, and in the process, save time and money for production companies in a thousand unseen and typically unappreciated ways. It’s all part of being a professional.

Things don’t always work out quite so neatly, of course. Some Industry sons come into the biz bitter, stay bitter, and will doubtless die in that bilious state of perpetual bitterness about the whole thing. These people are a drag on everybody around them, making a long work day even longer -- the proverbial bad apples who taint the Industry barrel, and give nepotism such a bad name -- but with the occasional glaring exception, they rarely rise high enough to do serious damage. Nepotism will forever (and justifiably) wear the stigma of being inherently unfair, but without it, the Industry would be a very different place – whether for better or worse is hard to say. A couple of years back, Warner Brothers Studio adopted policies to prevent fathers from working on the same crew with their sons or daughters. This doubtless sounded good on paper to the suits-and-ties who have no clue what it means to get one’s hands dirty at work, but in the real world, such rules aren’t necessarily fair, nor will they work in the long run. With college expenses skyrocketing every year, and manufacturing jobs that pay a decent wage steadily migrating overseas, following the parental footsteps into the film industry remains one of the few viable options left for many Industry kids.

There’s no telling what the future holds for Hollywood. The continual evolution of technology and the Internet are sure to raise thorny challenges to established modes of film and television distribution, with serious repercussions for all of us who work in the Industry. The music business is currently floundering in the wake of the digital revolution, and in time, Hollywood may well get hammered in much the same way. It’s possible the Industry will eventually be turned upside-down, with vastly more work going digital, outsourced to Asia. In that unhappy event, all bets are off. But until then, there’s one thing I know: so long as a domestic work force is needed to do the heavy lifting that puts television and movies up on the screen, nepotism is here to stay.

Next: Part Two

* And the same applies above the line...


odocoileus said...

First rate writing. Again.

(Not getting in til 45? Man, that's rough.)

Unknown said...

In 1974 my husband and I lived a half block from Paramount Studio. He was working as a day laborer, fixing up HUD houses. Crappy job for low pay (but he learned skills that would pay off later!) He heard that the studio was hiring, so he walked over, and filled out an application. He looked at the tool lists, and the one for "grip" was shorter, so that's what he applied for. He worked for a week, and then it took him three years to get his thirty days in. But he was hooked. He said it's been the best part time job anybody could have. He has worked all over the world, from Thailand to Montreal, on films, sitcoms, commercials, laying dolly track in Atlanta, setting flags in Salinas and holding c-stands in the Mekong River. He has worked with a lot of father/son teams, but just as many guys/gals who have made their way through the industry on their own. Yes, there has been/is nepotism in the film industry, but as you say, it may get you in the door, but you rise or fall on your own merits.