Despite many recent ups and downs – the latest insult being a withering blast of wind-borne heat that howled in from the desert to broil Southern California like one of those supermarket rotisserie chickens -- it’s still early Spring here in LA. And even in this most troublesome of years, with Hollywood wallowing in the choppy wake of one strike while another looms on the June horizon (the actors this time, should SAG and AFTRA fail to make a deal), we remain in the midst of pilot season. Not the normal, frenzied, pedal-to-the-metal pilot season, mind you -- but an ear placed to the ground at the right time, in the right place, can detect the busy hum of pilots being hammered out all over town.
For me -- twice-burned in the Pilot Derby already during this most uneasy Spring -- the sound and fury of all these pilots has been just that: the low rumble of very distant thunder. A raft of cancellations threw sand in the gears of the pilot schedule at my home lot, and after three days of rigging/wrapping, I took work on the outside doing TV promos for the “up fronts”* in NY later this spring.
I’m fairly new to Promo Land (yet another port of call on my long and winding Hollywood journey), and although not particularly physically taxing, promos do present their own set of challenges. With a generally minimal lighting package (we used less than a dozen small lamps on each promo), there’s no heavy cable to run through stinking alleys, or B.F.L.’s** to drag up onto location rooftops -- but the crews are very small (often just a gaffer, juicer, and a grip), which means everybody has to pitch in to make it happen. That’s fine so long as the Giant Brains higher up the food chain stick to their original plans, but when they wander off the reservation and start getting “creative,” the problems -- and subsequent fuckage du cluster -- are sure to follow.
At the moment, promos remain in the nether world of non-union production, which means the crew earns no contributions towards union health or pension plans. Some of the crew are non-union, so for them, this is a non-issue. For those who do the occasional day of promos between union gigs (moi), this is irritating but tolerable, since I get enough union hours working at the studio. But those union crew members who (for one reason or another) have come to depend on Promo Land for their bread and butter are caught in a decidedly uncomfortable squeeze between a rock and a hard place. That's not a good place to be.
Still, television promos offer gainful employment, and in this year of living dangerously close to the Hollywood edge, work is money, and money is life. I haven’t yet met the landlord or credit card company that gives a damn where the money comes from, so long as my check ends up in their hands in a timely manner. We do what we can -- and what we must.
That said, there are downsides to Promo Land. These production companies tend to fly on a wing and a prayer, and thus bid their jobs on a 12 hour rate – that is, the crew receives no overtime until 12 working hours have elapsed. Maybe I’m just incorrigibly lazy, but even after thirty-plus years of this kind of work, I still consider 12 hours to be a long day, especially considering this doesn't include travel or meal time. Factor that in, and you’re often looking at a 14 hour day from the moment you walk out the front door until you return home. Fortunately, most promos are one-day jobs, so I haven’t had to work two consecutive long days in Promo Land. Not yet, anyway.
Then there’s the tedium: once the lights are set up, there’s nothing to do but wait for the “talent” (the show cast members) to become available for our camera. So we wait, and wait, and wait... and when the actor/actress finally does show up, there’s a mad scramble to adjust the lighting to that particular individual, then we sit in absolute silence while the interview proceeds. Over the course of twelve hours, this means a lot of waiting.
I have to remind myself that I’m getting paid to wait. Sure, it's tedious -- but at this point, a little tedium is better than breaking my back lugging tons of cable, as on countless other jobs.
For me, the worst aspect of promos for me is the sense of trespassing -- like a carpetbagger -- onto someone else’s set. I’ve done enough features and television shows to know exactly how if feels to have another crew come onto our stage, and shoot on our sets – our turf -- and I didn’t like it one little bit. Whether it was an Entertainment Tonight crew showing up in the snows of Vermont to tape a brief snippet with our actors, (then hop back in their warm van and head to the hotel bar while we worked another 12 hours in the miserable cold), or a video crew filming interviews on one of our stage sets to promote a network sit-com, I couldn’t help feeling an ugly resentment towards such interlopers. After all the hard, painstaking work we'd done lighting a location or stage, it was galling to watch another crew saunter on set to as if they owned the place. To me, they were just parasites, taking full advantage of our labor while offering nothing in return. That we were expected to supply these auslanders with power for their lights only served to sprinkle salt into the wound.
There’s no logic at all behind this sense of resentment. Every film or television show is designed and made to be sold, and the more good publicity it gets, the easier it is to popularize and sell that show. A popular show has a much better chance at staying on the air, and thus offer continued employment – which means I should have been happy to help these crews as much as possible. And of course, I did help them a smile – but it was a shallow, toothy Hollywood grin.
Although I don’t pretend to fully understand this phenomenon (which represents astonishingly childish behavior), I can only assume it goes far beyond the bright and sunny surface world, down into the misty swamps of the most primitive human behaviors ruled by the Reptilian Brain. There in the dank shadows lurks the Cranial Lizard, staring with unblinking eyes that evaluate everything and everyone in the starkest terms of Friend or Foe. Logic stemming from even the most basic understanding of the Big Picture clearly dictates that such promo/publicity crews are Friends -- but some darker, cold-blooded instinct can only view them as The Other.
Nobody likes to be that Other, least of all a small film crew entering the turf of a much larger crew. So when we stepped onto sets of “Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Dance With the Stars,” I felt a distinctly uncomfortable sense of role reversal – suddenly I was one of those reviled interlopers, getting the cold shoulder from the show crew.
And once again I learned how humbling it can be to wind up on the receiving end of Karma.
Fortunately for our little band of trespassing brothers, all three of these shows provided experienced day-players to supply us power and bring up the existing set lighting to the extent needed to shoot our interviews. Day players tend to lack the emotional investment of the regular crew – they’re more like distant cousins of the show, rather than part of the immediate family – and thus are free of the who-the-hell-are-you edge the show crew quite naturally feels. These people (juicers, dimmer operators, grips, and set-dressers) were immensely helpful to us, and at the end of each day, I felt an odd blend of gratitude and shame -- grateful that they were so helpful, and ashamed of my own idiotic, pathetically provincial resentments in the past.
Maybe it’s a good thing to walk a mile in the shoes of The Other.
That said, it looks like I’m done with Promo Land for a while. The Gods of Pilot Season decided not to shun me after all, in the form of an insistently ringing telephone on Friday morning: one of those stalled pilots at the studio had finally solved its casting problems, and the show was ready to go on. With a slot on the crew open, I was to report for work at 3:30 that afternoon.
The good news is this means a week of work. The bad news? It will be a real week of work. Due to scheduling issues with the studio (caused by the delay while the casting problems were solved), we’re plowing straight through the weekend and deep into next week to light, block, and shoot the show -- and then wrap the stage. What with those promos last week, this may turn into a seven or eight day run, with no time off for good behavior. As one who works to live, rather than lives to work, the notion of working eight days a week is daunting.
But we take it as it comes this Spring: feast or famine, for better or worse.
Then there’s the cameraman we’ll be working for -- a genial fellow who also happens to be one of the most notorious “tweakers” in the known world of sit-coms: a man famous for never being satisfied with the lighting. For many years now, I’ve been hearing stories of how he keeps his crew running like meth-fueled hamsters in a rolling cage, constantly adjusting and readjusting the lighting right on through show night. So now I get to find out, first hand, if those stories are true...
That’s okay. Good, bad, or ugly, it’ll all be over in a week. This remains the overriding virtue of an otherwise crazy Industry – few jobs go on so long that you can’t see light at the end of the tunnel. A short but solid run of work at union scale (well, “pilot scale,” meaning a buck-an-hour less) and paying full benefits, is just what the doctor ordered.
In these restive times, that’s a good thing indeed.
* The annual dog-and-pony show wherein the networks trot out their new shows to seduce the advertisers into buying time on the fall lineup. That means commercials: the shit in the shit sandwich that remains the Devil’s Bargain of “free” network television programming .
**Big Fucking Lights: usually 18K HMI’s or 20K tungsten lamps that weigh up to 145 pounds – and that’s just the lamp head. If you include the requisite ballasts, feeder cables, lamp stand, cable and power distribution equipment, you’re talking many hundreds of pounds.