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Sunday, January 10, 2010
Pilots are a Bitch
"Work, work, work, work,
Work ‘til holes are filled..."
“Cool Water,” by the Talking Heads
Street parking in LA can be hard to find at 11:30 on a soggy Friday night. After shooting the pilot in front of a live studio audience -- a 13 hour work day from start to finish -- I drove home, then spent fifteen minutes searching for a non-ticketable parking spot. The rain came down hard. I finally found a spot four long blocks from my warm, dry apartment, and on the wet walk home, passed a big ugly cinder-block apartment building with the sprinklers going full blast out front, turning an already water-logged lawn into a soupy swamp.
That's LA for you -- not enough of anything when you really need it, and way too much when you don't.
After three weeks of seemingly endless toil, sweat, and frustration*, another pilot is in the can. This one was a cheap-ass production right from the start, hitting a new low by paying the odious cable rate -- meaning an up-front 20%+ pay cut, among other things. Until now, every pilot I've ever done paid the previous year's scale, meaning roughly a buck-an-hour under whatever the current union scale happened to be. But this is the era of the New Raw Deal for workers everywhere, and Hollywood is no exception. With the notable exceptions of elite professional athletes and ridiculously overpaid Wall Street scumbag/banker-maggots, everyone is taking it on the chin and in the wallet these days. Most of us feel lucky to be working at all.
But if landing a pilot is always good news (never more so than now), once the giddy rush of actually getting the job passes, the harsh reality of doing the work sets in -- and a pilot is all work, all the time, pushing the big rock up the steep hill every minute of every work day right up through shoot night. That's ten solid days of unrelenting labor, after which we either do a "fold and hold" -- leave everything as is pending a thumbs-up/thumbs-down decision from the network -- or tear the whole thing down into its component parts over the next three or four days, leaving nothing but dust floating in the air of a suddenly very quiet, very empty sound stage.
Meanwhile, as every one of the suddenly unemployed crew members does their own personal Rain Dance looking for work, the production company cuts the pilot together and prays that the network (be it broadcast or cable) will greenlight the show to go to series. No matter how well the show played in front of that live audience, there's no guarantee anything good will come from all this intense work. Trying to get a show on the air is always a high-risk roll of the dice from start to finish, with success held hostage by forces far beyond our control.
In a way, all this is more like some ancient religious rite -- burning incense and making animal sacrifices to please the Gods in the hopes they might smile upon our efforts -- than a modern logic-based business model. But that's the way things are done in Hollywood, even in the withering shit-rain of today's economic climate.
This show was done on the cheap right from the get-go, with Production fighting us over just how many hours we'd work (and get paid for) each day. It turned out that the nucleus of this particular production department had never done a multi-camera sit-com before, and were thus unfamiliar with the protocols of what is a unique beast in the television industry. Coming out of the single-camera world, these people seemed to assume that drawing a hard line on hours and battling the crew every inch of the way was Standard Operating Procedure. They didn't understand how a sit-com works or the give-and-take trade offs a crew makes with production in working a multi-camera show.
They just didn't know the deal.
Why any Executive Producer would entrust his/her precious pilot -- possibly their one and only shot at landing a series and thus moving way up the ladder of Hollywood success -- to such a woefully inexperienced production team remains a mystery to me. Then again, the list of things I don't understand these days would circle the block a couple of times, and then some.
In the end, they finally caught on (or gave up), and seemed to understand that an experienced multi-camera crew really does know what they're doing. They still rode us with ass-less chaps and freshly sharpened spurs when it came to expenses, but at least they relaxed enough to let us do our jobs without too much bullshit. A pilot is hard enough without having to leap over idiotic hurdles set up by the very people who are supposed to be clearing a nice smooth road for the crew to work on.
So this one's in the can, and if there was more bruising and bleeding than strictly necessary, I suppose that's par for the course these days, when everything seems to be getting harder. Will it go to series? Who knows. The live audience was rather underwhelmed on shoot night, but that means nothing. If the final edit pleases the right focus groups and network executives, then it'll go. If not, it'll die in its crib like a thousand other pilots in the past. At this point, I've learned the hard way that there's no point in getting excited about any pilot. If it goes (and we're invited back), fine. If not, something else will come along. Thus far, it always has.
And that, friends, is the sound of carefully crossed fingers and a very silent prayer...
* I won't bore you with another long description of what it's like to work on a sit-com pilot. If you missed it, and are interested, click here, then scroll down to "The Making of a Pilot," where you'll find a four post series offering a blow-by-blow account of a pilot I did two years ago...