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, January 24, 2010

Six is the New Twelve

“If six turned out to be nine, I don’t mind...”

“If 6 Was 9,” by Jimi Hendrix

The pilot I did in the final weeks of 2009 was nothing to shout about. I’ve done worse, but I’ve sure as hell done better, even if most of those – several of which looked to be very promising shows -- didn’t get picked up. Like so many decent pilots, they were victims of bad timing above-the-line, doomed by a lack of network vision/imagination/support, or else ended up buried by the tsunami of shit known as “Reality Television,” never to see the flickering light of the Cathode Ray Gun. It's always disappointing when a good pilot sinks without a trace, never having a chance to get shot to pieces in the crossfire of snarky reviews by platoons of cranky, trigger-happy television critics.

Especially when it's a pilot I happened to work on...

That’s the nature of the beast – a ruthless winnowing process in which very few make the cut. In theory, forcing pilots to run such a harsh gantlet should result in only the best shows reaching the airwaves, but our modern corporate aversion to risk (defined as any outcome the bean-counters can't predict) often leads to formulaic, paint-by-the-numbers choices dictated by fear rather than trusting the gut instincts of veteran story-tellers. In trying to play it safe by minimizing this volatile human element, the stiff-necked, ass-covering network suits continually slam up against a brick wall of failure. Meanwhile, cable outfits roll the dice on writers and producers passionately committed to stories based on very edgy material (“Breaking Bad” being the prime example among shows currently in production), and often hit the critical bull’s eye. Cable still doesn’t draw like a major broadcast hit – the best weekly numbers from “Mad Men,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Breaking Bad” combined won’t come close to a monster like “American Idol” -- but much as the nimble little mammals darted between the legs of doomed, lumbering dinosaurs 65 million years ago, cable grows stronger and more sure-footed every year. If (when?) Hollywood suffers a metaphorical equivalent of the Chicxulub catastrophe powerful enough to fatally wound the broadcast networks, cable will be well-positioned to exploit the ensuing chaos and rule our post-broadcast television landscape.

Not that I’d be very happy about that, mind you -- for a number of reasons -- but such is life.

Still, the grim future is down the road a ways, and there's no telling how things will shake out. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to get something going in the increasingly problematic present -- and here, this most recent pilot may hold a slender reed of hope. Although the production department took a hard line, cheap-ass stance right from the start, they did spring for an opulent Green Room on shoot night to fete the network honchos in attendance. The usual quick-and-dirty procedure is to create a Green Room with four 10-by-20 foot blacks tied to aluminum speed rail hung from the perms, then sparsely furnish the interior with a few big monitors, chairs, and a cheesy bar. This time, they built a real set, lay down carpet, and brought in nice furniture. The bar was well-stocked, and the hot and cold hors d’oeuvres looked very tasty indeed. I was surprised to see such expense and effort go into the Green Room after production had used every nickel-and-dime tactic they could think of to grind us down while we were actually putting the show together.

A fancy Green Room won't make the live studio audience laugh any harder, but the audience response to a pilot doesn't seem to mean all that much anymore. When it comes to getting a series pick-up, maybe it's now considered more important to make those nervous network execs feel good -- to wine and dine and make them smile -- than to produce a really good show.

It might even work. The wrap last month was spiced by rumors that the show could go to series sometime in late Spring. If true, this would represent the usual bouillabaisse of good and bad news. The good, of course, is that a job is a job is a job -- even at cable rate. The bad news is that “going to series” doesn’t mean what it used to. Once upon a golden time, twelve episodes was the standard minimum order for most new sit-coms, and if the show did reasonably well on the air, it would usually get picked up for the “back nine” to complete a full season. With a successful first season under its belt, any freshman show had a decent shot at coming back for Season Two - and from such tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow, in the form of hit shows. Every long-running sit-com (from “All in the Family” right up through "Cheers," "Frazier," "Seinfeld," and“Two and a Half Men”) started out as a pilot, all damp and wobbly-legged fresh from the sound stage womb.*

Things are a different now. Although multi-camera sit-coms (my work environment of choice as I belly-crawl towards the finish line) are making something of a comeback from the black hole of three or four years ago, these ever-leaner and meaner times have forced the four camera/live audience format to adapt to newer, uglier circumstances – and in this brave new world, six has become the new twelve. If the rumors are to be believed, this cheap-ass little cable pilot might get the green light for six episodes.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, really -- including the rig and wrap, six episodes represents eight or nine solid weeks of paying work, which is nothing to sneeze at anymore. But this “new normal” means that after barely two months, the entire crew will be out beating the bushes for another job at a time when all the other shows are fully crewed up, creating fierce competition for the occasional day-playing gigs that come along from time to time. This is huge step back from the not-so-distant good old days, when a full 22 episode season spanned nine months to provide steady work/income from August through March. With a pilot or two in the Spring, that pretty much filled up a crew’s dance card for the year.** Being a guy who works to live rather than lives to work, I was a big fan of that annual eight-to-ten week spring-into-summer hiatus between the end of pilot season and the start of the new fall season. Guys with big families, costly hobbies, ruinous mortgages, and/or wives with expensive tastes weren’t happy about spending two+ months unemployed every year, but I liked it just fine. Back on the home planet, I could forget all about the insanity of Hollywood and pretend I was living a somewhat normal life.

Not anymore. With a few notable exceptions, network broadcast television seems to be sinking into the slough of commercial and creative despond. While the networks flounder, cable continues to thrive running on a ten-to-thirteen episode season. Given our current dismal economic climate, compounded by the tectonic reverberations of the digital revolution still rattling the Industry’s foundations, many of us consider ourselves lucky to get even a crappy six episode deal – and if such an offer comes, I’ll accept with a big phony Hollywood smile, then bust my ass to make that show look as good as possible.

Beggars can’t be choosers, and as the wheel grinds on in Hollywood these days, that’s exactly what many of us who work below-the-line have become. If this show does go to series for six episodes -- and the powers-that-be end up pleased with the results – there’s always the possibility of additional episodes being ordered. I’ve been the beneficiary of cable seasons that expanded in precisely that manner before, and can only hope it happens again.

If we do go for six – and six does indeed turn out to be nine -- I won’t mind at all.

* It’s equally true that every crappy three-episodes-and-out bomb also began its doomed life as a pilot, but let’s not dwell on the negative...

** That’s for the basic stage crew: Director of Photography, grip, electric, set dressing, props, wardrobe, and production. Like hair and makeup, the camera operators and assistants on a multi-camera show work only two days per episode (with one episode shot each week) -- the blocking and shoot days. Before digital shoved film into the shadows, camera crews (including the dolly grips) were hired on a “three for two” basis, meaning they got paid for three days while working just two. This allowed them to get by making a (barely) livable income while working one show. A good -- and lucky -- camera crew could land two shows each season when the respective schedules permitted (a Monday/Tuesday show and a Wed/Thursday show), and thus get paid for six days while working only four. With a twelve hour guarantee, those lucky few could gross close to three grand a week -- very nice work, when they could get it.

But they can’t anymore. With film replaced by tape and hard drives (and peds taking over for dollies), those fat and happy days are gone with the digital wind.


A.J. said...

Good post. In my world, Producers tend to lure us in with low or no pay in hopes that we'll work on their spec/short/"trailer". "Once we find an investor / When we shoot the feature, we'll hire you with full pay!" is usually the promised line. The number of times I've been called back "with full pay"? Zero.

I hope you have better luck than I do.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ -- I've done my share of those spec/freebies offering a pot of gold at the far end of the rainbow.

Trouble is, we never seemed to find our way to the rainbow's other side. Live and learn, I guess -- or as they said in "The Wire": it's all in the game, yo...