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, January 21, 2009

The Ugly Future is Now

Links, links, and more links...

Today’s post is pretty much “inside baseball,” offering alternate viewpoints on some of the issues currently facing those of us who depend upon the Industry for our daily bread. Civilian readers are welcome, but probably won’t find much of interest here – in which case, check back on Sunday.

I’ve been dropping in on Jeff Wexlers’s blog periodically for the last few months now. Jeff is a sound mixer, but his blog deals with a wide spectrum of subjects far beyond the sound department, always in a calm and thoughtful manner. He recently posted and linked to further discussions of the new IA contract we’ll be voting on in the not-too-distant future, a deal that includes some seriously onerous provisions. The worst of these will make retaining our health plan a lot harder for many of us come August, 2011. If you thought nailing down 300 union hours every six months was tough (and for some, that’s the case), buckle up, because the new requirement will be 400 hours.

Unless you’re on the core crew of an ongoing show, this is no gimme. Last year I logged all of 815 hours – enough to qualify me under the proposed new rules, but only by a hair. Had I worked just two days less – 16 hours – I’d then have to dip into my bank of hours to qualify. That’s what the bank is for, but with 100 more hours needed every six months, a little leak like that can eventually turn into a flood that will drain one's bank of hours. Take a look around at what’s happening -- every studio slashing jobs, NBC dumping episodics from the 10 pm slot in favor of more lame jokes from Jay Leno five nights a week, more and more shows heading out of state or overseas, and a floundering economy that can no longer support previous levels of production. Less work means fewer hours, and more people falling off the boat, losing their health coverage.

It's getting uglier every day.

Granted, 2008 was something of a disaster, thanks to the WGA strike that immediately torpedoed pilot season. If that wasn’t bad enough, SAG’s yes/no, to-strike-or-not-to-strike dithering began to squeeze the life out of Hollywood back in November, and has now brought much of the town to a standstill. A lot of us are staring at the phone while waiting for the next unemployment check in the mail.

In a normal year, most juicers and grips could log at least 900 to 1000 hours – but that was the old “normal.” I’m not sure if we even have a “normal” anymore, but thus far, 2009 has gotten off to a rocky* start -- I have yet to work a single day in the new year. Given the feeble finish of 2008, this is not what I had in mind, and I'm not the only one. There was a gathering of the union clans last weekend (grips, juicers, and props, among others) to discuss the upcoming contract. I ran into several familiar faces, none of whom are working. That’s the way it is right now: if you’re lucky enough to be on an ongoing show, you’re working. Otherwise, forget it. In such an atmosphere, the rank and file were not very happy to hear the grim details of this proposed contract.

Jeff ran another guest post contending that now – as our economy plummets into the abyss of what could turn into a catastrophic recession/depression – is not actually a bad time for an aggrieved union (SAG) to go on strike. Michael Everett details the bitter history of strikes that took place during the 30's and other periods of major economic disruption, many of which were successful in improving wages and/or working conditions at the time. Not having studied the history, I can’t argue on that basis. My view that this is not a good time for SAG to strike is based on my own situation, and that of so many of my fellow below-the-line workbots. None of the juicers, grips, or camera people I’ve worked with in the past six months is in favor of SAG going on strike. We simply can’t afford another prolonged work stoppage. One juicer I talked with last week told me that he will likely lose his house (which he’s owned for the past 13 years) if we have to suffer through another long strike.

I don’t want to see that happen, and thus am not in favor of a SAG strike.

Still, the other side deserves to be heard, and Everett makes an interesting case for taking the larger view of being willing to sacrifice now in order to create a better situation for everyone later. Is he right or wrong? I don’t know – read it and decide for yourself here.

A rather grim view of Hollywood’s immediate future can be read here, in a Hollywood Reporter piece by Industry lawyer Schuyler Moore, who has been around long enough to have participated in the wave of bankruptcies that swept so many high-profile independent production companies into the gutter during the 80’s.

An interesting and provocative interview with Moore was broadcast Monday on KCRW (listen here), where he elaborated on the problems facing the Industry today, predicting another unwelcome avalanche of economic disaster for Hollywood in the not-too-distant future. He did offer some potential fixes – but given that these "solutions" would require getting rid of residuals altogether, they won't go over well at SAG, the WGA, or the DGA. And since we who work below-the-line receive some residuals in the form of payments to our health plan, I don't much like the idea either.

It’s worth hearing Stroock out, even though the picture he paints is anything but pretty.** I don’t know if he’s right, wrong, or just another over-energetic caffeine junkie who likes to hear himself talk. The KCRW broadcast is more informative than the Hollywood Reporter piece, offering a longer and more nuanced analysis/discussion of the problems our Industry faces. My only complaint: at fifteen minutes, it was much too short. As bad as this guy's news might be, I wanted to hear more details.

If he’s right, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg -- and that big monster is dead ahead.

*The LA Times confirms this here.

**Stroock wrote his piece for the Hollywood Reporter in May of 2008, predicting then that big name actors would be recieving half their accustomed rate to do movies in 2009. Turns out he was right, as this article in yesterday's LA Times attests.

1 comment:

Leetal said...

I heard that interview on KCRW also. Much of what he said seemed very right, and yes I wish it went a half hour longer at least! Hopefully there's a phoenix that'll rise from the ashes. Although I was deeply skeptical of that part about long form contracts vs. residuals, maybe he's right... because of the economic norm in H-Wood of paying later, most of us get severely underpaid presently. Residuals, deferred pay, it's often an excuse. Its rare to get on a show that is successful enough to pay all BTL personell handsomely. Maybe if we adjusted to the long-term, high pay contract, we'd get more out of it. It's a state of mind thing I guess, it hurts to let go of residuals because we're so used to it and to the glamour of it, but if we do, we may actually get paid what we're worth.

PS: I don't fully know what I'm talking about, I'm just rambling.