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Sunday, March 21, 2010
“Should I stay or should I go?”
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...