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)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will the Elephants Fight Again?

When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

African proverb

Yeah, I know, I’ve used that line before – just about a year ago, in fact, when the WGA strike loomed over Hollywood. But here they come again, those belligerent, trumpeting elephants, shaking their heads and stamping their feet, threatening to flatten whatever’s left of Hollywood’s rather scraggly lawn. All over town these days -- on location sets, sound stages, coffee shops, and in the pages of our local LA Times* -- people are quietly asking the same worried question: “You think they’ll go on strike?”

The answer is always the same: "I sure as hell hope not."

This time it’s the actors rumbling about throwing a wrench in the gears of the machine early in 2009. If all goes wrong, just about the time our nation undergoes what promises to be a traumatic mass conversion to digital television -- leaving the warm and fuzzy days of rabbit-ears analog in the sepia-tinted past -- we'll all be stuck watching re-runs while waiting for the next in a long series of unemployment checks. The latest effort to settle the issue failed when federal mediators were unable to pour enough free-range, soy-based, organically biodegradable and cruelty-free oil on the increasingly stormy waters being kicked up by the slow-motion collision of SAG -- which looks in the mirror and sees The Unstoppable Force -- and the Producers, who seem to take a thuggish corporate pride in being The Immovable Object. Rather than reach a reasonable compromise to solve the problem, neither side has yet been willing to budge, and so the storm rages on as we slip and slide towards what could be a very ugly New Year.

It’s hard to see any good coming of this. The actors have reason to be leery of the same thin promises already accepted by the other guilds and unions (as the WGA is learning, a promise only means something when both sides agree on the underlying terms), but under the current economic circumstances, I think SAG is missing the point.

I understand that they don’t want to get screwed again, or “leave money on the table,” as happened when the cable/home video deal was signed back in the last century. If I had to pick sides here, I'd come down for the actors -- no way could I support the Producers Association, who would happily crush widows and orphans to death under the wheels of their stretch limo Hummers if it meant stuffing another dollar in their swollen billfolds. But what SAG (headed by Alan Rosenberg, their hard core, no-compromise president who seems bound and determined to lead his thespian sheep right over the cliff) doesn’t seem to understand is that we’ve all been giving ground every three years when the contracts come up for renegotiation. Back when times were fat, the money flowed, and life was good for everyone – actors, writers, and below-the-line crew. But we passed the high point of all that a long time ago, and it’s been downhill ever since.

During those golden years, Hollywood existed in a vacuum of sorts, pretty much as a world of its own making. The Indian film industry cranked out more films every year, but Hollywood’s product dominated the global marketplace, flowing out from Southern California all over the world. Times have changed. There's a lot more competition now that film and television production has gone global. Add in the ever-accelerating digital revolution -- aided in no small measure by some very bad management -- and we see the old economic models crumbling, the fat times over. The Reaganite dream that deregulation and economic globalization would create a rising tide of wealth to “lift all boats” didn't work out so well for anybody whose boat happened to be firmly anchored to the bottom, and as it turned out, below-the-line labor was in one of those sinking boats. The huge corporations that swallowed up so much of the Industry brought a strict bottom-line approach to the biz, encouraging productions to go wherever labor is cheapest. As jobs migrated across our borders, concessions were demanded -- and conceded -- with every new contract. There wasn't much choice, really. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now, but that’s the way it is these days.

I hear some people comforting themselves with the notion that Hollywood is “recession proof.” In hard times, so this line of thought goes, people need and want entertainment more than ever, so production will continue at a steady pace. There's not nearly so much truth here as people like to think. Hollywood might be recession-resistant, but it’s not recession-proof – and anyone who doesn't understand the distinction should try wearing a “water resistant” coat rather than one labeled “water proof” the next time he/she goes for a long walk in the rain. We may not make cars here in Tinsel Town, but Hollywood still rises and falls on the same economic tides that sustain the rest of our economy. Right now -- and for the foreseeable future -- that tide is running out in a big way. The WGA strike inflicted serious damage this past year on most of us who depend upon film and television for our livelihoods, and any recovery is far from complete. With the economy tanking at an alarming pace, there’s very little chance any of us will be made whole in 2009, even if SAG and the Producers pull off a Christmas Miracle by settling their differences tomorrow.

But if the actors do go on strike, the trapdoors will swing open and we'll all plunge into the abyss. Disaster will pile upon disaster, compounding the misery and deepening the pain, as two stubborn entities, strangling each other in a death grip, take the rest of us down with them.

There’s a time to hold the line, and a time to go with the flow. Enlightened leadership on every level of the Industry knows this – everybody, it seems, but Alan Rosenberg and his fellow militant jihadis now steering SAG full speed ahead into these troubled waters. Yes, the Producers Association are miserable scum, but now is not the time to go to war with them. SAG should cut the best deal they can, using the WGA. DGA, and AFTRA settlements as a template, and leave the crucial issues of internet income for the next go-around three years from now. With luck, maybe we’ll be on our way out of this mega-recession by then -- and if nothing else, at least we'll have had three more years to see which direction internet programming is headed.** With more information, better decisions can be made. Plunging into a cage-match, all-or-nothing battle to the death right now is more than stupid, it’s suicidal.

The only good news in all this has been the emergence of a dissident group within SAG called “United for Strength.” Led by 2000 working actors who don’t support Rosenberg’s headlong rush to disaster, UFS seems to be gaining enough strength to challenge the hard core militants. Hopefully, their calm voices will prevail as we settle into winter.

Maybe what were seeing now is just so much kabuki theater, the loud-but-hollow posturing of two bull elephants flapping their ears and rattling their tusks in an effort to frighten the rival away without actually doing battle. Actors read the newspapers too, and they know how bad things are all over these days. I find it hard to believe SAG’s membership would be dumb enough to call for a strike – not now, for chrissakes -- and even if they do, a last minute deal is certainly possible. Stranger things have happened, and after all, this is the season of miracles.

But if push does indeed come to shove, then we might see those all-too-familiar picket lines outside studio gates in 2009. In that event, there won't be much we can do about it – but just in case you find yourself tempted to take some form of rash action like... oh, I don’t know, maybe heading down to a picket line waving a couple of samurai swords to put the Fear of God into those striking actors – don’t. Some heavily-tattooed clown tried that a couple of weeks ago at our local Scientology Headquarters here in Hollywood, and it didn’t work out so well.

Me, I'll leave the swords home and keep my fingers crossed that we don’t all end up with a lump of SAG coal in our Christmas stockings.




Nathan said...

Hear hear!

(But can I take a light saber?)

Leetal said...

AGREED for chrissake.

Anonymous said...

Considering that I am just now getting my career up and going, I am really hoping that a strike does not derail my career before it begins.

Finding work is hard enough, but not having any work to find just is too much.

Michael Taylor said...

Nathan: by all means, but be sure to set that thing on "stun"...

Leetal: Right on, sister.

Chris: Welcome to the boom-and-bust roller coaster world of the itinerant free lance film worker.
In the portentious words of the song by "Kansas", all we are is dust in the wind -- but hopefully the wind will blow our way this time.

Hope your rigging job went well.

D said...

I just keep imagining how the entire rest of the industry will turn on actors if they strike NOW. The WGA strike got everyone stirred up and cost some folks a lot, some haven't recovered. I agree in spirit with what they want, but times are tougher than "normal". As someone who's watched actors merrily sail through an IA picket that I've walked, I'll find it hard to sympathize. I might just go shopping for tomatoes. OOps. did I say that out loud?

Michael Taylor said...

D -- I agree, the potential is there for things to get ugly. I was surprised at how much anger there was in the ranks towards the WGA during the last strike. If the actors strike now -- with the economy going to hell in the proverbial handbasket -- all that lingering resentment could ignite and boil over. Like I said, no good can come of this...

The Grip Works said...

As an observer from very far away, I find it really hard to understand how actors will not support the technicians unions. In India, the Actors strike work to support Grips and Electricians who dont get paid. It seems like an awful case of selfishness when in lean times, they dont care about the guys who really need the daily wage, and are the flag bearers in the process of getting them up on the screen to begin with.