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, July 26, 2009

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Welcome to New Detroit...

Last week, “D” wrote a terrific post for his blog “Dolllygrippery” exploring the long term effects of runaway production on all of us who depend upon the film/television industry for our livelihoods. Although it was great to read such a thoughtful, balanced, and well-written dissection of this thorny problem, I couldn’t help cringing a little inside, because I’d been working on a remarkably similar (if considerably less thorough) post on the same subject.

Seeing no point in proceeding, I consigned my post to a “Department of Redundancy Department” file where never-to-be-seen posts spend all eternity, then sent a “congratulations for beating me to the punch” e-mail to “D,” including a rough draft of the post for his amusement. His reply was simple: “Please post yours... I think this is too important not to post it.”

Well, I think “D’s” post is a lot more important than mine in that regard, but I’m happy to serve as his blog-wingman in echoing our shared feelings on runaway production...

During my semi wild-and-crazy eighteen months working behind the counter of a deli in Santa Cruz during the mid-70’s (oh, to be young again...), I met an intoxicating young woman who just happened to be living with a guy, but – with a come-hither smile – she assured me that he wasn’t her actual boyfriend anymore. No, that was all over, and since she’d be moving out soon anyway, we really shouldn’t let such niggling details get in the way.

So we didn’t, plunging head-first into one of those lust-addled whirlwinds of the sort occasionally depicted in movies that don’t end well. Suffused with the glow of young rapture, I related this to one of my co-workers at the deli one day. She – slightly older and infinitely wiser -- looked up from the sandwich she was making, leveled a meaningful stare over the top of her glasses, and uttered words I can hear to this day:

“If she did it to him, she’ll do it to you.”

"Maybe," I replied, with the brain-dead grin of a self-absorbed 20-something fool heading for a fall.

She was right, of course, a lesson I learned the hard way over the following months. Eventually I packed up and headed for LA in a state of emotional exhaustion from the ensuing roller coaster ride, joining so many refugees who have come here to start a new life by fleeing the ashes of the old. That young woman wasn’t the only reason I came to LA, but she did provide the essential motivation-via-desperation I needed to take a chance and tilt at the windmills of Hollywood.

Most of us have similar stories in our past, experiences that taught us the many profound lessons life has to offer. In my case, I got off easy – there were no guns, knives, or physical injuries involved, no cops called at 3:00 a.m., nor any messy divorce, alimony, or kids to complicate matters. She went her way (leaving a string of similarly confused/ besotted males in her wake) and eventually got married to have kids and live happily ever after.


I left my broken heart in Santa Cruz and headed for Hollywood.


I was cosseted deep in the world of television commercials when I first heard the phrase “runaway production.” At the time, those words held little meaning for me. So what if more and more TV movies were being filmed in Toronto? I was safe and secure in my cozy little nest of commercials, working as much (and often more) than I wanted. TV movies were a pain in the ass – four frantic weeks of non-stop 12 to 16 hour days – and having been burned out on that sort of non-life doing low-budget features, held no appeal for me.

Besides, I wasn’t in the IA at the time, which meant I couldn’t have worked on TV movies anyway. So what the fuck – let Canada have ‘em.

But as so often happens in life, what started as a trickle eventually turned into a flood powerful enough to wash my comfortable life as a commercial gaffer into the great concrete ditch of the LA River and right on out to sea. For a while, every type of film work I knew how to do was flowing north, thanks to generous subsidies provided by the Canadian government. Commercials, features, television episodics – everything was going to Canada.

I wasn’t at all happy about this at the time, but held no grudge against my Canadian peers. Only a fool would turn down such a bonanza, and in their place, I’d have done the same thing. I was (and remain) pissed at my own myopic local and state governments for allowing this to happen without putting up the slightest hint of a fight. Given that so many of us now pay much less in taxes than we used to (thanks to a severely reduced income), you’d think our elected officials might be concerned.

You’d be wrong – instead, they’d rather balance the state budget by cutting funds for education, slashing services for the poor and handicapped, and closing public parks.

The rest of the US wasn’t so stupid, though, and the last I heard, there are something like forty-three states offering significant tax rebates/subsidies to film and television productions willing to pick up and move. California recently enacted a small program to help stem this ebb tide, but the barn door has been open so long that many of our industry horses may be gone for good – and given the economic whirlpool into which the once-Golden State is caught, even this minimal funding might not last.

When I wrote about the flight of “Ugly Betty” from LA back to New York last year, one east coast reader countered that New York was forced to jack up state subsidies in competition with Connecticut and Rhode Island, which had been siphoning off film work from NY. Besides, the pilot for “Ugly Betty” was filmed in New York, so it was only right that the show return to its home turf.

I can’t argue with his logic. To lure an industry from one place to another, you’ve got to make it worth their while -- and unless you’ve got the clout to make a Tony Soprano/Godfather offer-they-can’t-refuse, that means ponying up some serious cash. Whatever works, as the saying goes.

But what should be equally obvious to every Industry worker in all forty-three of these states (and Canada) is that we’re engaging in a race to the bottom, a race that will leave no winners in the long run – instead, we’ll all be the losers. At one point, Hollywood was fat and content enjoying the lion’s share of the Industry, but with production hemorrhaging far beyond California’s borders, those days are probably gone for good. In the zero-sum game of modern life, Hollywood’s loss is those other states' gain, but as New York found out, everybody can play this game – and with everyone frantically low-balling everybody else, the long-run results will benefit only the producers. This is already happening as more and more of us who do the heavy lifting are forced to take below-scale “sidebar-deal” jobs paying 20% less for longer working hours. If this trend continues (and increasing pressure from cable networks is pushing things that direction), the time will come when most of us are looking up at scale.*

“Union scale” was created as a minimum wage to protect union workers, an hourly guarantee forming the basic foundation of each film worker’s personal economy. When working a union job, you got scale or better. Not anymore. The recent proliferation of sidebar deals has so thoroughly Balkanized “union scale” that the term has all but lost its meaning. Although this was done to increase the quantity of union work and thus extend benefits to many more workers, it also had the effect of dividing the very unity every union needs to stay strong and healthy. Nowadays, what we all used to consider “union scale” has become increasingly scarce -- a bonus of sorts --while the growing numbers of us working at cable rates are simply getting boned.

Over the reach of time, what goes around really does come around. While there’s enough film work to keep crews in several states and major metropolitan areas employed, I’m not sure there’s enough to create robust, thriving film communities in forty-three states, and that means we’ll be at each other’s economic throats for the foreseeable future. Just as happened to the auto workers in Detroit and elsewhere, none of us will be able to sleep soundly trusting that our livelihoods are secure.

Because if they can do it to Hollywood – and they did -- they can do it to you.

* The worst of these sidebar deals are truly horrendous, paying roughly half of regular scale...

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