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, March 21, 2010

Orbital Velocity

“Should I stay or should I go?”
The Clash

AJ put up an interesting post over at The Hills Are Burning recently, tackling the “should I stay or should I go” conundrum facing many young free-lancers as they struggle to reach a level of career and financial stability solid enough to provide decent housing, health insurance, and some kind of IRA, 401K, or pension plan to build for the future -- a goal I've come to think of as achieving orbital velocity.

In the good old/bad old days when feature production thrived in LA, joining the union was the most direct method of solving such problems. For those lacking familial connections (that would be me), getting in the union was the hard part. Most new members faced a couple of lean years after paying the budget-busting initiation fee, but once they learned something about the job and got their names in circulation, enough work would come in to qualify for the health plan, with pension benefits (such as they were/are...) accruing from Day One of union work. Back then, a lot movies were made right here in Hollywood, with most location pictures bringing in a full crew from LA. Even the crappy low budget, non-union features I worked on in the early days always flew most of the technical crew from LA out to distant locations. Television was much fatter back then as well, following a predictable schedule making it possible to work much of the year, rather than in the desperate fits and spurts typical of Toob work nowadays.

Ours is a very different world, with very few features being shot in and around LA, while television staggers along trying to cope with an economic model disintegrating under the relentless assault of the digital revolution. Many veteran union members are having a hard time finding enough work these days, which doesn't leave much for those proud owners of brand new IA cards. I don’t mean to channel my good friend DJ Bummerpants (a gaffer I occasionally work with), but these are not good times to break into the film/television industry or climb the Hollywood ladder of suck-cess following traditional routes. With so many of the old paths blocked or washed away in the recent shit-rain of change, young people today have to find their own ways up. In this Darwinistic Dystopia, anyone who puts forth a disciplined, sustained effort can survive, but only the fittest – meaning the most connected, determined, creative, and imaginative people – have a realistic hope of making a truly comfortable living over the long haul in Hollywood

That’s the bad news. The good news? I'm not sure there is any good news here in the once-Golden State, where so many voters remain firmly in the grip of an angry me-first/tea-bagger form of denial, but for young people hoping to carve out an Industry career far from the smoggy confines of Southern California, opportunities are more abundant than ever. With so many states offering significant subsidies luring production from California, Industry wannabes all over the country can find feature films and television being shot relatively near their local community. In the zero-sum game of film production, Southern California’s loss has been everyone else’s gain. For those just starting out, Hollywood is no longer the celluloid Mecca where all their dreams might come true. Right now, entry-level and below-the-line workers in every craft here in LA are being squeezed from both sides and kicked where it really hurts by the precipitous decline in our homegrown Industry.

Not that it’s easy to kick-start a career in New Mexico, New Orleans, Florida, North Carolina, or Michigan either – when a production sets up camp, everybody wants in on the action – but locals and semi-locals now have a fighting chance at breaking in without making the long drive west to this sprawling and hugely strange megalopolis, where the cost of living rises with the unemployment level as the pool of Industry work continues to shrink.

This will be no comfort to AJ or her peers working hard to build a viable career in Hollywood. It’s hard enough to gain altitude while fighting constant headwinds and periodic Industry downdrafts, let alone generate sufficient momentum to break free and achieve orbital velocity. The questions young free-lancers wrestle with are brutal:

1) How long should I hang tough in pursuit of a Hollywood career when real progress isn’t evident?

2) When is it time to face reality and say “enough”?

3) What if I keep chasing the Hollywood dragon only to find myself still stuck in the no-zone at age 35 or 40?

These are deeply personal questions, answerable only by the person staring into that bathroom mirror. Nobody else can supply the answers -- that’s what makes such decisions so hard.

Although things were easier in some ways when I was in AJ's shoes – working non-union, trying to generate some career momentum -- I know very well what she’s talking about. The unions were locked up tight back then, but with plenty of non-union productions filming in and around Hollywood, finding work wasn’t the problem. Non-union features paid no benefits or overtime – we worked on a “flat,” meaning each day went as long as the director felt like shooting – and the money wasn’t great. On my first feature working as a grip (having shed the label of PA as fast as possible), I received a flat $65/day working 90 hour weeks. With union scale around eight bucks an hour at the time, I was getting screwed out of roughly a hundred bucks a day over those 16 hours, not including the benefits I wasn’t getting.

The following year, I landed a feature working as a juicer for an even $100 a day (roughly $300 in today’s money) on the same flat-rate deal. I didn’t bother with health or auto insurance – hell, I was young and immortal – nor was I the least bit concerned about pensions or other means of funding my retirement. All of 28 years old, film work was still an adventure, and I saw no point in worrying about the far distant future.

A couple of years later, I was ready to quit. In fact, I did quit. My highest annual income to that point was around $20,000, and with the doors to the union still closed to me, I saw no clear path to improve my situation in life or the Industry. Besides, I’d met a girl about to graduate from law school, and she had me thinking about a very different kind of life. The film biz had been fun for a while, but enough was enough. I have a very clear memory of driving along a freeway in the San Francisco Bay Area one late summer day, thinking to myself “That’s it. I’m finished with Hollywood.”

My dance with the movies was over.

Only 30 years old, I was still young enough to chart a new course. Still, I had a few lingering job commitments in LA, so I decided to grind it out through Christmas, then pull up stakes and start the new year fresh, four hundred long miles away from all that smog. In a way, it felt like I was giving up -- but I also sensed a great weight being lifted from shoulders.

But as AJ – wise beyond her years -- put it:

“...this town of ours is like being caught in an abusive relationship. After a good pummeling, whether it be from a rough few days at work or a dry spell that's gone on for too long, it knows just the right thing to say to lure you right back into its arms. It'll throw a good day or two your way; just enough to fool us into thinking that things will change. That life from here on out will be better. So you stay, but before you know it, the cycle starts all over again.”

Back in LA, a Key Grip called. I didn’t know the guy, but he needed a best boy to work a commercial, and got my name from somebody. The rate was $275/10 -- more than twice what I was accustomed to making -- and the gig paid overtime. We worked very long hours, and by the end of that three day job my paycheck added up to well over $1200, an amount that would normally take me two full weeks to earn. Best of all, that Key Grip called me back for the next job, and the next -- and suddenly I was on a roll. I worked as his best boy right up ‘til Christmas, at which point I’d grossed $35,000 on the year, almost double my previous best. The following year I made a full $50,000, and was on my way to achieving orbital velocity. The next year I left gripping to do commercials, music videos, and the occasional feature as a juicer and best boy electric. Eventually, I ended up as a commercial gaffer for another dozen years.*

Just as AJ said, Hollywood knew exactly how to suck me back in and keep me here -- and in the back of my mind, I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I’d missed that one crucial phone call. The lawyer? She ended up marrying some computer geek who worked in a place I'd never heard of: Silicon Valley. Just as well. Later -- with clear, dry eyes -- I could see we’d been a bad fit anyway. Sometimes things really do work out for the best, however raw it feels at the time.**

I really don’t know what to tell AJ and all those other young people trying to make it in this stupid town. I was fortunate to start out riding the wave of a strong economy in Hollywood, but that’s all over for a while -- maybe forever. Until the constantly evolving digital revolution stabilizes, the future of feature/television production and distribution will remain in flux. Meanwhile, all of us – but especially the young people – are cursed to live in what the Chinese describe as “interesting times.”

Given my own checkered Hollywood history, I won't recite the shopworn homilies on the virtues of Hard Work, insisting that putting your head down and pushing with all you’ve got will make everything work out fine. Success in any field demands hard work and persistence -- that's a given -- but when flying into the wind, it's not always enough. Right now, the wind is in Hollywood's face, and until it shifts, getting up enough speed to reach orbital velocity will require the usual hard work along with a timely and generous dose of good luck -- that, or some solid-gold connections, neither of which can be conjured up out of the mist. Making it in Hollywood is still doable, but will take an enormous effort with absolutely no guarantee of success. Those still scrambling just to gain an Industry toehold have to ask themselves just how badly they really want that Hollywood dream.

All I can say is this: if you’re young and asking these tough questions, take a good look at the evolving nature of the business, then stare long and hard into the mirror for an even deeper look inside yourself. Keep asking until the answers emerge. They will, in time -- and for better or worse, you’ll know which way to go.

This is not a comforting answer, but these are not comfortable times.

For any of us.

* So why, you might ask, am I back to juicing? It’s a long story...

** She’s now a rich housewife living happily-ever-after in her giant McMansion way out in the suburbs...


anton said...

You know, the people who profess that hard work will eventually lead you to the promised land clearly haven't worked on sets. They say it's better to be lucky than good. Sure being a skilled technician keeps the phone ringing, but sometimes it's that one break that really takes you to the next level. Not that I've ever been there but based on my brief experience as a freelance griptrician, I'll always believe that's how this biz works.

My first grip gig came via a craigslist ad. A Key Grip was looking for a grip intern for an low budget indie horror comedy called I Sell the Dead. I wrote up a quick email explaining that while my on set experience was sparse, I did know how to put a grip sandwich together and knew what a platypus was (although they call them duckbills in NY) A day later, I get the call from Brandon Taylor, the Key Grip. Next thing I know, I'm on the Staten Island Ferry for some overnights in a cemetery. Brandon told me I should bring a set of gloves, a c-wrench, and something to cover my arms and legs (because of the bugs). He also said we'd be digging up some aliens and it should be pretty fun stuff. It turned out to be the most tiring day of work I ever had and I loved it.

I loved it because I was surrounded by some great people who went out of their way to teach me things, instead of just order me to hump sand bags and mombo combos about the set. I met some good folks on that job and apparently they liked me. Brandon would continue to call whenever he needed an additional - mind you, I was still pretty green. I'm sure there were other guys available, but I was the one that was called. And I think to myself, "what if that email went into Brandon's spam filter?" or "what if I didn't pick up that phone?"

If that's not luck, I don't really know what is.

Niall said...

I was having this same problem a few months ago, and the biz dragged me in with fourteen days of day playing for one of the top key grips in town on a feature. I made some mistakes and he taught me a ton because of it. So did all the other guys on the grip crew. It feels like they all really liked me. Enough to keep me in mind for something down the line.

Still i can't quite give up calling people every few months to check in and remind them I'm still alive just yet, but I feel like this year will be a better than the last.

Also on this thing called luck. I have a saying that holds true to what I've had happen in my life.

Luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparation.

Michael Taylor said...

Luck is the ultimate variable, as utterly unquantifiable as it is unpredictable. History, and the lives of millions, have turned on the wheel of that whimsical happenstance we call "luck."

The same holds true in Hollywood.

In and of itself, a little luck isn't enough unless you understand what it represents. Someone who is mentally and physically prepared to recognize and take full advantage of whatever opportunity comes along -- leaning forward, straining at the leash -- will make the most of any circumstances. That kind of preparation can turn a thin slice of good fortune into a career. Anyone entering the free lance world should be prepared to make their own luck.

Still, there's more opportunity -- the cradle of luck -- in flush times than when the pickings are slim.

Ed "sloweddi" said...

I have a question for you and A.J. that sort of, kind of, fits with your current post. Mostly the question is for you as we are of a similar generation.
The film group I attend has raved about "Ghost Writer". I refuse to see it. I have said that this could be the film that does what the mythical music of Bill & Ted was said to have done, remove crime, war and famine from the world and make everyone happy. It does not matter. I refuse to support a director who is a fugative from justice (for this particular crime).
My friends say, "But what about all those 100's of people who would have been out of work?"

At this point my smart-ass gene kicks in and I say," Because there are so few talented directors in the world..."

I realise work is work and when it comes along you have to grab it with both hands. I guess I am asking, is there some work you will not take even when the wolves are at the door.

Ed "sloweddi" said...

...actually that is not the question i wanted to ask, this first cold of the spring is kicking my butt and the minor mental faculties left in my advancing age. I guess what I wanted was your take on the whole "forgive the artist" movement around Polanski. Once again, I am blaming this cold...

Michael Taylor said...

Ed --

If that wolf truly was at the door -- meaning I needed immediate work/income to keep from having to live in a cardboard condo under the 6th street bridge -- then I guess I'd take any Industry job.

A line from "Chinatown" -- oddly enough, a Roman Polanski film -- has always stuck with me. I can't recall the exact quote, but John Huston's character says something like "Most people never have to face the fact that under the right circumstances, they're capable of anything."

The character was using that line to justify his having committed incest with his daughter -- a disgusting and reprehensible crime -- but the core sentiment holds true. Until we as individuals find ourselves in a desperate situation, we won't truly know what our limits are, or what we would and wouldn't do.

As to your second (or re-stated) question -- I'm torn, truth be told. The Grand Jury transcripts on those events make for some very grim reading (and if that girl was my daughter, I'd probably want to kill Polanski), but it's worth remembering that such testimony does include any adversarial cross examination -- it was the uncontested (and thus one-sided) story of a scared 13 year old girl who had been dragged by her mother and the police before a panel of adults. As the long-ago McMartin case demonstrated (albeit with much younger kids), children are fully capable of stretching the truth beyond all recognition to align with what they perceive as adult expectations.

The bottom line (no pun intended): we don't actually know what happened that day. To me, it's not about "forgiving the artist" -- a crime is a crime, whoever you are -- but those were very different times, the circumstances unique, and at this point Polanski is nearly 80 years old. I doubt he represents much of a danger to young girls anymore. Since the victim -- now a middle aged woman -- has expressed a strong desire that the case not be reopened, my inclination is to respect her wishes.

I say let it go.

Still, we all make our own choices, and I respect yours. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing the movie.

A.J. said...

I'll take a hard look at this industry, but for now, I refuse to look into that mirror. Despite the occasional "WTF am I doing with my life??" moment, I find the insecurity of my future somewhat intriguing and exciting. But then again, that's the way I feel now. In a couple of years, my future self will probably be staring at that mirror going "What the hell were you thinking??"

Ed - This is Michael's blog, so I'll try to keep this brief. When it comes down to it, there's virtually no (legal) gig that I won't take if that's all that's standing between me and that box under the bridge. But when times are not-great-but-kinda-okay, I may turn down certain gigs like political ads that I strongly disagree with, P.A. offers (no offense to P.A.s out there!) and jobs that are totally not worth it (18 hours, a location that's over an hour away, in the rain, griplectric with a little bit of camera for $50). As for your other/rephrased question, if a movie interests me, I'll see it. If an actor or director or producer did something so morally reprehensible that it'd distract from my enjoyment of the film, then I'll decide not to watch it. As for Polanski, I'd have to side with Michael in that it's not really about "forgiving the artist." The whole Polanski thing went down before I was even born, so it's hard for me to feel the outrage many must've felt then. It's hard for me to feel anything about it other than indifferent since I don't know the details and I don't know the whole story (both sides). What I do know is that whatever happened, it happened decades ago and his accuser is urging us to move on. That's good enough for me.

Whether or not I see his latest movie though is still to be seen, but my decision will be based on my own interest in watching it rather than Polanski's past.

Ed "sloweddi" said...

Thanks to Michael an A. J. for their input on my question. It is nice to get comments from both ends of the business, time wise. I will read everything again when this cold goes away :-)

hazel motes said...

another fine post mr taylor. trenchant, entertaining, honest, humorous, on and on.

dj bummerpants

Devon Ellington said...

I'm miserable when I'm in LA for any length of time, so I made the decision early on that I was going to stay east. I also prefer working in theatre to working in film & television, in spite of the money difference.

Out here, I really feel my union betrayed their membership over the past few years, especially when it comes to health care. That was one of the reasons I took an honorable withdrawal last fall and I've been writing full time ever since.

That, too, is a very hard road, but at least I'm somewhat captaining my own ship.

Michael Taylor said...

Devon --

The IA has been selling us all down the river of no return for a long time now, and I don't expect that unhappy situation will change anytime soon. Our health plan out here is scheduled to become much more restrictive next year, and will end up excluding pretty much everybody who can't find steady work day-playing, land a show every year, or get a solid hook up with a working feature crew. Things are gonna get a lot tougher from here on out.

Glad to hear you managed to break free and are making it work.