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Sunday, July 25, 2010
Is Hollywood on the verge of another shut-down?
(I had a very different post in the works for today, but events overtook the process. Barring any further drama, I'll post it next week.)
Returning from our first one week hiatus -- during which I picked up four days of work on the studio gang -- we shot episode four on Friday night, putting me in line for my sixth straight weekly paycheck. None were (or will be) the fat checks that come from working a feature film or long-hours episodic show, or anywhere near the kind of money I used to make doing television commercials, but it's enough to stem the endless outgoing tide that made 2010 such a dismal year up ‘til now. I can’t imagine any remotely realistic scenario that could turn this year sunny-side up, but considering how bad things have been, I'll be happy just to break even by the time Christmas rolls around.
As the audience loaded in for Friday night’s show, I was wrapping some stingers when our laborer (a guy who cleans up the stage as fast as the crew trashes it) put down his broom and leaned in.
“Sure hope the teamsters don’t go on strike,” he said.
That caught me by surprise. Now that the DGA, WGA, SAG, AFTRA, and the IATSE have more-or-less synchronized contract schedules, I assumed all would remain quiet on the labor front until 2011, when the grim promise of Armageddon –- a knock-down, drag-out confrontation between the Producers and Everyone Else that could shut the Industry down cold -- will loom as all our contracts run out at the same time. With the business finally picking up, I figured we were safe until then, at least.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“They vote on Sunday,” he replied. “The teamsters want a three percent raise, but the Producers are only offering two. If they go on strike, we could all get shut down.”
This being the first I'd heard about a teamster's contract in the works, I paused to consider the source. As it happens, this particular laborer is a real talker, always jawing at somebody -- anybody within earshot, actually. He'd trapped me into a five minute conversation about nothing at all the week before, and I figured he was just stirring the pot to generate more meaningless talk.
"Let's hope not," I nodded, then rapidly moved out of range.
The next morning's newspaper delivered a rude awakening. It turns out that laborer was right after all – Teamsters Local 399 will indeed hold a strike authorization vote today, July 25. If the membership gives the thumbs up, they could strike as early as August 1.
Exactly what this means remains muddled. The article states that a strike would affect location filming first, and that "Studios have drawn up contingency plans to film more on their lots, shift production to Canada and hire replacement drivers."
Retreating onto studio lots wouldn't work for long -- one way or another, all studio productions are supplied with the help of teamster drivers. Hiring replacement (non-teamster) drivers would be a very iffy tactic that could turn ugly. Teamsters take strikes -- and potential strike breakers -- very seriously. In some ways, they’re a bit like the Hell’s Angels: fuck with one local and you risk fucking with them all. When push comes to shove, teamsters aren't afraid to play rough.
As for "shift(ing) production to Canada" -- no offense to any Canadian readers, but I'd really hate to see yet more US productions head north of the border. Enough is enough, and as far as I'm concerned, we blew right past "enough" a long time ago.
What might begin as a relatively limited labor action could easily mushroom into a worst-case scenario with the potential to shut us all down just as the television season is kicking into high gear.
I’ve worked with countless teamsters over the years, most of whom were (and are) solid people. As in all the crafts, a few bad apples in the ranks can stink things up for the rest, but by and large they’re a hard-working group. They arise before dawn to get the equipment trucks on location before the rest of the crew arrives, and are among the last to leave at the end of a very long day. The nature of their work -- lots of waiting all day long -- makes them ripe targets for a cottage industry of teamster jokes*, but a good teamster crew can be an enormous help to any production. I didn't realize just how good those guys (and women) were until I saw a teamster hop in the cab of a five ton truck towing a genny, then back the rig a quarter mile down a narrow country road at 15 mph as if the truck and genny were on rails. The driver made it look easy, but believe me, it’s not. Next time you have occasion to rent a U-Haul trailer, hook that baby up behind the family SUV and try backing down the block at even 5 mph.
On second thought, don't -- if you're not a professional driver, you'll likely end up with a jackknifed trailer and God knows how much damage to it and your car. The point is, driving big, heavily loaded equipment trucks around LA and beyond is not a trivial task. It takes skill, experience, and a bleary-eyed stamina to do the job day after 16 hour day on set. And although many teamsters have taken full advantage of their position to milk productions down through the years, so has everyone else above and below the line.
If you think producers and studio execs don't feather their nests at the expense of every type of production, you're living in the deepest wells of denial. One way or another, this goes on at every level of the biz -- it's just the way things are -- so I'll be pulling for the Teamsters to extract their additional one percent raise (just like the three percent the rest of us got last time around) over the terminally greedy, cheap-ass, penny-pinching, motherf***ing Producers Association, a group that tries to grind us all further into the dirt with every new contract.
But the bottom line is stark -- none of us who work in Hollywood can afford another strike right now. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that push doesn't come to shove as this next week unfolds.
* How can you spot a teamster’s kids at school? They’re the ones watching the other kids play. Why does the teamster logo feature the image of horses? Because teamsters and horses are the only animals that can sleep standing up. Ba-da-bump...
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
There’s a reason I’ve listed (and linked) three KCRW shows – well, two half-hour shows and one four minute weekly commentary – over there on the right under the heading “Essential Listening.” If you’re in the biz, interested in the biz, and/or hoping to someday be in the biz, these three programs have much to offer. None will tell you how to make in this town, but each has something to say about the true nature of Hollywood and the film industry in general, and will broaden your understanding of (and appreciation for) the complexity and creative insanity endemic to the process.
Last week, Elvis Mitchell interviewed Chistopher Nolan, talking about his new film “Inception.” If you’re a fan of Nolan’s previous work (“Memento” convinced me he's a director worth watching), or simply interested in different approaches to making the modern feature film, this one is well worth your thirty minutes.
Rob Long knocked another ball into the bleachers last week, with a pithy commentary on the notion of Idea Theft. Writers beware – Rob has been there, and he knows your deepest, darkest fears. It’s worth a listen, and will take less time than stepping outside to smoke a cigarette.
Check ‘em out.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Oh baby, it burns...
The cool, gentle extended spring we've been enjoying here in LA for the last few months came to an abrupt and sweaty end this week. Monday was nice, Tuesday a bit warmer, but by Wednesday the heat was beating down on this urban desert like a blacksmiths hammer. Thursday dawned hotter still, and by Friday it was simply brutal, as fat gray clouds laden with moisture hung low over the city, ratcheting the humidity up to East Coast levels.
So much for the fabled “dry heat” of Southern California.
The heat makes everything about work harder. Driving to and from the studio, stage, or location is bad enough, as sweaty, cranky drivers jam pedal to the metal in a futile attempt to escape the merciless thermonuclear blast of the sun. The result is more accidents and people mired in gridlocked traffic, with tempers overheating along with the cars. But the real trouble comes at work, especially if you’re unlucky enough to be on a location job outdoors – and in that case, you’re in for one long, ugly day.
The endless sweating under such conditions is bad enough – after a couple of hours, it feels like you haven’t showered in years as the dirt and grime from wrangling heavy cable soaks into your open pores, but even worse -- infinitely worse, actually -- is the painful scourge of Monkey Butt.
Early in my career, I recall watching the gaffer I worked for – an enormous whale of a man (who was also the smartest, most well-read person I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet), stagger bow-legged across a sound stage, both hands clutching his ass in an attempt to pry those massive cheeks apart.
“Razors in my pants,” he bellowed, “razors in my pants...”
To which our sweet little production coordinator looked up from her computer to ask, “Do you have a rash, Jim?”
Oh honey, that was no mere rash – the poor bastard had a raging case of Monkey Butt.
Although it was thirty-odd years ago, I vividly remember the day this new form of physical misery came into my life. While rigging a van interior with lights and a battery pack for a low budget feature on a hot summer day, I suddenly felt the Monkey's Kiss -- an ominous tingling down below that rapidly escalated into a fiery pain. As soon as I could break away, I hacked the legs off my long pants with a Buck knife to turn them into shorts. This emergency action helped, but the rest of that day was an ordeal far beyond anything I could have imagined back in college studying film. It was only after confiding in my fellow, more experienced crew members that I learned the nature of my affliction: Monkey Butt.
There’s doubtless a more genteel, scientifically accurate term for the hideously painful affliction that, under proper conditions -- a hot, sweaty environment -- can emanate from the region of one’s digestive exit portal to inflame large portions of the surrounding (and endlessly chaffing) skin. Thus the term "Monkey Butt," presumably taken from the Mandrill, a truly ferocious-looking primate found in tropical rain forests and known for its brilliantly colored face and protuberant buttocks.
I don’t suppose the what-and-why of Monkey Butt can really be explained by anyone other than a dermatologist, but the end result (pun intended) is all too familiar to every guy I’ve ever worked with on set. A bad case of Monkey Butt feels like somebody dropped a glowing red charcoal briquette down your pants. Once the precursor tingling sets in (the Monkey’s Kiss), fire is soon to follow, and if not treated immediately, it will only get worse. Having to work in severe heat and humidity is bad enough, but when every step brings another flaming napalm attack to one's personal subtropical jungle regions, the misery is compounded to the Nth degree.
I was surprised to learn that female juicers don’t seem to get Monkey Butt. Although my research sample was limited – four female juicers and one female grip – the results were clear: none of the female juicers (including two who are thirty year veterans of the biz) ever experienced the dreaded simian affliction. They knew about it from the frequent complaints of their male co-workers, but no matter how hot and humid conditions were, they remained unaffected. The only exception was the female grip, who had indeed been kissed by the monkey.
When I wondered aloud how such a disparity between men and women could exist, one of the older female juicers looked me straight in the eye.
“Men have hairy asses,” she replied. “We don’t.”
“Women have a lot less blockage down there,” shrugged another. “That makes for better air circulation.”
Maybe they’re both right. Whatever the cause, there’s only one thing I’ve tried that really prevents or contains the damage: Gold Bond Medicated Powder.* Baby Powder (in the form of cornstarch) can help as a preventive in milder conditions, but usually won't stand up to serious heat and humidity. When things get truly ugly, there’s nothing like the cool, mentholated relief of Gold Bond to quench the burning fires down below, and turn a potentially horrendous day into a tolerable ordeal.
The flaming misery of Monkey Butt may be a subject of much rueful humor, but it’s no joke. It’s also one reason so many grips and juicers wear shorts in all but the most inclement weather. Some don’t even let that stop them. When I was still working as a juicer and Best Boy on commercials, one grip I knew never – ever -- wore long pants on set, even on location in cold rain, sleet, or snow. Wearing shorts in such conditions might seem extreme, but if his legs turned blue, at least he didn't have to worry about his ass turning red.
If this sounds crazy, then you probably haven't suffered the curse of Monkey Butt. Laugh if you will -- as most people do until they too feel the hot, clammy embraced of the monkey -- but it’s a bitch.
* There's another product I haven’t had occasion to try, but judging by the name, it probably works...
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Resistance is futile...
More than a few of my posts have started out with a link and a nod to one of AJ’s recent offerings over at The Hills Are Burning. There's a good reason why I've responded to so much of her work -- thirty years ago, I was pretty much where she is now. Like so many others before and since, I came to Hollywood from a very different world, and had to find a way to crack the seemingly impenetrable walls of the Industry, then claw my way up through the non-union ranks until finally getting my union card. While we're separated by the vast gulf of three long decades -- my Hollywood journey nearing an end, hers just beginning -- many of the dilemmas and conundrums she describes in her current work life resonate with me in a big way.
I’ve been there.
So why not just reply to her posts in the comments section of her blog? I do – quite often, actually -- but sometimes there’s more to say than will comfortably fit in the form of a comment. So in the unlikely event that you haven’t yet read Just One More Time, you might want to, or the following won’t make much sense.
While working on my first sit-com in the late 90’s -- roughing in the lighting on a swing set for that week’s episode – one of my fellow juicers (who had vastly more experience in the multi-camera world) gave me some very good advice. Using man-lifts and ladders, we were hanging lamps over a set with unpainted walls, bare floors, and no set dressing whatsoever. With the sets still unfinished, the director hadn’t yet rehearsed the actors, so nobody knew who would stand where or how the blocking would evolve for the show.
We were “lighting air” -- Industry slang for what has always been a highly abstract endeavor.
Lacking any solid information, all we could do was lay down a basic lighting scheme common to most multi-camera shows. We hung a couple of back lights, several back-cross keys, then added the front bounce-fill and moved on to the next unfinished set. As the week unfolded, rehearsals (and script re-writes) would tell us (then change) everything we needed to know. We'd then move and adjust every lamp accordingly while adding others (sometimes including a "special" or two -- lights meant to illuminate a particular area or actor at a specific moment in the scene) to render the set ready for prime time.
Twelve years later, this process feels completely normal, but back then I was a refugee fresh from twenty years in the single-camera world, and had no familiarity with these strange new ways. For a long time, I kept fretting over exactly where to hang the lamps on Day One.
“Don't worry about it,” my fellow juicer said, shaking his head with a weary, patient smile. “No matter what we do, it’s all gonna change.”
Over the next few years, I learned exactly how right he was. By now, I can’t count the times we’ve all but completed lighting a set only to have the UPM walk in and tell us to tear it all down because that scene had just been written out of the show. In an instant, three or four hours of hard, concentrated work by the entire crew was rendered useless – and even now, it’s very frustrating to turn right around and start taking all those lamps down after just putting them up. Worse, this usually means that a new set will be coming in that night – a set we'll then have to light the following day along with the rest of our already scheduled work.
Change is the nature of the Hollywood beast, and cannot be avoided. Ours is a creative medium, not a factory assembly line for widgets, and if you can’t embrace that – or at least accept it -- then you might be better off finding another line of work.
The same lesson applies to each of us throughout our Industry careers. No matter where you are at the moment, or how comfortable things might be, it’s all going to change sooner than you think. In fact, the change is usually already underway -- you just haven’t figured it out yet. To expect anything else from such an inherently unstable business (for which the metaphor of the geologically shaky ground beneath our feet remains a perfect fit) is to indulge in deep denial. It’s almost as though an elemental law of social physics is at work – seeking some semblance of stability in a chaotic world, we bond quickly, forming alliances that morph over time, then disintegrate even as new bonds are being made. In such an upwardly mobile, ambition-driven business, people are always on the move. Nobody comes to Hollywood just to sit in a corner stacking boxes for the rest of their lives.
One way or another, it's all going to change.
During my Hollywood experience, I’ve often found myself in places very similar to where AJ is now. Having worked hard to establish myself and put my name in circulation, the phone would ring with enough jobs from different sources to keep me going. I knew who my friends were, who my competition was, and where I stood in my own little corner of Hollywood -- and thus I felt as secure as one can in such an inherently unpredictable Industry.
Then something would happen to blow the whole thing apart – an unexpected falling out, an opportunity to move up, or another source of work beyond what I was accustomed to – and suddenly I’d have to leave my comfortable old world to struggle for a toehold in the new one. Each time this happened, I looked back thinking I could always return to the old routine if the shiny new one didn’t work out, but nothing stands still in Hollywood. As I was outgrowing my comfortable little world, so was everyone else who’d been there with me, each individual moving on in his/her own way. In reality, there was no going back, nothing to return to -- that comfortable old world simply didn’t exist anymore.
I went from non-union everything – juicing and Best Boy work on features, commercials, music videos, and industrials – to union commercials under the aegis of NABET, then dipped back into low budget features before becoming a gaffer for commercials and music videos, working with many different people from job to job, year in and year out. Each of these transitions was stressful, leaving a relatively comfortable situation working with people I knew, liked, and trusted, for something new and scary – something that held the distinct possibility of failure. When I finally thought I’d finally arrived at a place that really did feel secure, it turned out to be just another smiling illusion, like everything else in Hollywood. Just as an earthquake can suddenly turn solid ground into Jell-O, external forces over which you have no control can turn your professional world upside-down. What I assumed was a sustainable, reasonably lucrative work situation good for the long run turned out to have been the quiet calm before the shit-storm.
So as always, I moved on to the next thing, in this case television. There I had to adapt to a very different set of realities and rhythms that rule this corner of the Industry, learning new skills, meeting new people, and forming new bonds. As I see it now, this is a process that will never really cease until I’m done, retired, or dead -- and even then, it will only stop for me. The Hollywood river keeps flowing towards the ocean, which means everyone in that water will have to keep swimming – and swimming hard -- or be swept out to sea.
Bear in mind that most of the transformations I’ve had to go through occurred before the current (and ongoing) digital revolution. Back then, the basic economic and technical foundations of the Industry seemed relatively stable, evolving steadily but slowly. Now, it's all up for grabs. The economic structure of the biz is in turmoil, while technological progress continues at a breathtaking pace, bringing new cameras and lighting equipment to sets on location and sound stages all over the world. How this will affect the way we work remains unclear, but being flexible, adaptable, and able to make the most of these changes as they come will be a crucial survival skill in an Industry that is no longer what it once was, nor what it will someday become.
If you work in the Industry (or increasingly, anywhere at all), change is always on the way. There are no comfortable safe havens anymore, nor is there any going back. The sooner you accept this, and use it to your advantage, the better off you'll be.
The old cliche holds true now more than ever before: the only constant is change.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
How ugly can a sports trophy get?
Once again, a midweek post that wanders far off the Hollywood reservation...
The World Cup has sports pages around the globe abuzz these days, despite (or maybe partly because of) North America’s typically lame performance in the tournament. That buzz has been everywhere the past few weeks. When I walked into the studio commissary the other day, the entire staff -- line cooks, prep people, cashiers, clean-up staff and dishwashers -- stood like statues, intently focused on the television screen as the Mexican team played a tight early round. The normally relaxed, jovial atmosphere was gone, replaced by a palpable sense of tension in the room.
For all of these people, soccer and the World Cup are a really big deal.
For me, not so much. I caught some of the action on TV in our set lighting room on stage, and although soccer (football, futbol, whatever...) isn’t a game that fills me with rapture, I can -- after some tutelage from my more soccer-fluent crew mates -- understand the appeal. It’s just not America’s game, though, for many reasons, among them the simple fact that to play soccer, all you need is a ball and a field – no bats, sticks, nets, clubs, rackets, or other fancy (read: expensive) equipment is required. Such an elemental game is a great leveler -- kick that ball from one end of the field to the other until somebody scores or it gets dark, and you’ve got something the whole world can play on equal terms. For once, the Third World actually has a fair shot at beating the wealthy First World nations at something other than terrorism and guerrilla warfare.
Thus the “World” Cup.
The essentially egalitarian nature of soccer is antithetical to the "bigger, better, more" ethos of our culture. Above all else, we love stuff – gear and equipment – the fancier and more expensive, the better. Exhibit A are the weekend warriors who storm golf courses every Saturday and Sunday, the vast majority of them duffers who will never get within shouting distance of an honest par, yet happily blow thousands of dollars on high-tech golf clubs in the hope of shaving a stroke or two off their score. In a society that has known little but growth and abundance since the end of World War Two (a situation only now beginning to turn around in a serious way), a game that emphasizes the highest levels of discipline, athletic ability, and improvisational skills over helmets, tight pants, and smash-mouth violence doesn't have a prayer of taking the cultural center stage.
That’s all well and good. We’re already a nation obsessed with our own version of football, basketball, and the former national pastime, baseball. Professional hockey remains a fringe sport in the market, hugely popular in Canada and cold weather states, but largely ignored everywhere else. That's fine too -- the last thing we need is yet another absurdly popular, hyper-violent professional sport to further juice the jingoistic, adrenaline-fueled fantasies of hardcore fans.
When it comes to trophies, though, the World Cup could certainly use an upgrade -- that thing is butt-ugly. They call it a "cup," but the only way to drink from it would be to turn it upside-down -- and seriously, who wants to drink from something that looks like a giant golden scrotum? Granted, championship trophies in general seem drawn to cheap, gaudy flash rather than a sleek, understated look. One of the ugliest trophies around is the ancient Stanley Cup, which resembles nothing so much as a spittoon stolen from a Gilded Age saloon. Millions of Canadians worship this clunky piece of tin not for its inherent beauty – which it does not possess – but for what it represents: blood, sweat, and broken teeth all over the ice. And if the Stanley Cup is ugly as sin, at least it honors a long tradition, however obscure. It's an actual cup, too -- a person really could drink from it, although it's a mystery to me why anyone would want to.
More modern, but just as bad in it's own way, is the World Series Trophy. It pains me to say this, since I do love baseball, but the game's symbol of ultimate success looks like a tiara made for the Bride of Frankenstein, or maybe something that belongs atop a sugary, frosting-encrusted cake. Then you have the NBA Championship Trophy, which seems to represent a giant golden shot glass about to be crushed by a bowling ball. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see adorning the red velvet interior of one of those trailer park whorehouses that have made Nevada the destination of choice for so many overamped young (and not so young) men over the decades.
Oddly enough, America’s most brutal drug-fueled gladiator sport* -- a rabid national obsession during the Fall and early Winter months in this country -- is celebrated by the surprisingly graceful Super Bowl Trophy. Who’d have thought a game that has turned so many young athletes into middle aged cripples or drooling, brain-dead zombies would come up with such a sleek symbol to celebrate the championship?
I don't suppose it matters what the World Cup looks like. "Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone," the bible says -- and given the abundance of ugly, classless trophies celebrating sports champions in our country, I should probably just leave those rocks where they lie.
Besides, it's not like we in America will ever have to worry about keeping that damned thing polished, shiny, and dust free...
* Other than that cage-fighting nonsense, of course.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
“Cable shows will save money no matter how much it costs.”
Every television show must live or die within the confines of a budget. Broadcast network episodics typically run anywhere from two to four million dollars per episode, while multi-camera sit-coms can cost a million-and-a-half for each show. Although the big networks have always had more money to throw around than cable, they too have their budgetary limits. The third season of Samantha Who? -- a modestly successful if rather expensive show -- was canceled last year when the producers couldn't meet the network's demand to cut costs by a cool half million dollars per episode.
A hit show is usually allowed more budgetary leeway, of course, while a true monster can not only push the envelope, but expand it beyond all recognition. “Seinfeld” paid its namesake star a million dollars per week down the stretch run of that legendary show, while the other three co-stars (so I’m told) each got something like $650K/week. That would put the weekly budget at close to three million dollars in cast salaries alone. Add in the rest of the weekly sit-com infrastructure, and each 22 minute “Seinfeld” in that final season was as expensive as any hourly episodic. But the expense was worth it. I read an article recently reporting that world-wide, “Seinfeld” has thus far brought in $2.5 billion, which suggests that once upon a time – hard though it is to believe today – the programming gurus at NBC actually knew what they were doing.
Still, “Seinfeld” remains the exception that proves the rule.* The vast majority of multi-camera sit-coms are considerably cheaper to make than any other prime-time scripted show. When one of them catches the wave of public attention, the profits can be huge -- and that's why the traditional laugh-track sit-com may fade away from time to time, but will never die.
Cable works with a much smaller pool of money than the broadcast networks. It’s all a matter of eyeballs and wallets on the receiving end of the Cathode Ray Gun -- even a middling broadcast network show has traditionally drawn a larger viewing audience than the biggest cable hits. Here too the ground is shifting, as the tectonic forces unleashed by the ongoing digital revolution continue to undermine the long-standing economic model upon which the Television Industry was built. As cable gains strength in the market, a tough business is only getting tougher.
To quote an Oscar-winning song of a few years back, “It’s hard out there for a pimp.”
Cable episodics are a double-edged sword that cuts in favor of the viewers, producing terrific shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad,” along with many other solid shows. I haven’t seen any broadcast episodic that comes even close to the quality of those five cable standouts (the latter two still in production), which just goes to show that money can’t buy everything. But for the crews who do the heavy lifting required to make those shows, that exceedingly well-honed cable blade cuts the other way in the form of very long work days at a big reduction in pay from the standard union scale paid by on a broadcast network show.
The situation is similar (if not quite so dire) in the world of multi-camera cable shows, where the low-budget contract applies to shows budgeted at under $900K/week. The show I’m currently on pays the same crappy hourly rate as a cable episodic, but with only two longish days per typical episode – the blocking/pre-shoot day followed by the shoot in front of a live studio audience – we don’t have to endure the brutal daily beat-downs inflicted on cable episodic crews all week long. Accordingly, we make a lot less money, but at this point of my own Hollywooden career, I’m willing to accept a smaller paycheck to avoid a bloody episodic flogging.
That said, we’ve been taking our licks on this one With a principle actor re-cast from the pilot, we’ve been re-shooting those scenes with the new actor, doing one or two per week in addition to filming each scheduled episode. Thus far, that has translated into three shooting days every week, taking away one of our usual lighting days and thus jamming us up with minimal turn-arounds and the inevitable compounded fatigue such a work-late, get-up-early routine inevitably engenders. It’s nothing like the grind of working an episodic, but I’m still one whipped puppy by the weekend. We get a welcome extra day of rest on this holiday weekend, but even that comes at a price -- next week will cram five days of work into four days to complete the episode, with the crew losing a day's pay in the process.
Such a deal...
But that’s how it is in the wonderful world of cable, which appears to be the rising tide of the future of Hollywood. This is tough on everyone, especially the poor best boys (grip and electric), who get ridden hard and put away wet all week long by a production staff that comes to work each morning wearing freshly-sharpened spurs. They’re nice people, but their job is to reduce expenditures to the bare minimum, thus keeping each week’s episode below that crucial $900K budgetary threshold. This translates into the crew getting nickel-and-dimed in ways that often slow us down on set – and in the long run, that ends up costing the company more.
A prime example came early on before the grips and juicers arrived to start hanging pipe and lamps. Production decided they could save three hundred dollars a week by having the studio remove a row of green beds (a type of hanging scaffolding) that weren’t needed by the sound crew for this particular show. When asked, the key grip said he didn’t need them either – but nobody bothered to ask the set lighting best boy or crew, all of whom had worked on this stage before. Given that the stage lacks the traditional “up high” structure of catwalks and perms, that row of green beds provided crucial access to the cable troughs used to distribute the power all over the stage. Once they were were removed (along with the ladders to reach them), we had no way of getting up there anymore. Another ladder then had to be installed that will cost the producers sixty dollars/week over the duration of the show. The three hundred dollar/week savings on the green beds is now down to two hundred and forty/week, but since that ladder doesn't offer anything like the access the row of green beds had, we had to bring in an extra juicer during the first week and beyond just to help the dimmer operator run all his cable feeds out to the sets. At this point, production might have just broken even on the deal, but the show still has another eight weeks to run. My guess is the final tally without those green beds will far exceed the three hundred bucks a week they “saved.”
This is what happens when you don’t know enough to ask the right people the proper questions.
Would I rather be working a broadcast network sit-com at full union scale with all the equipment we need to get the job done right? You bet, but given the circumstances, I can’t really complain. Our UPM has been fair within the constraints of his budget, and thus far, is treating us as well as he can. These days, that may be the best we can hope for.
At least I’m working, and in that, I'm lucky. A lot of people in Hollywood aren’t.
* Over the final year of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Ray Romano reportedly was paid $1.4 million per week. I have no idea what his co-stars made, but that was certainly another very expensive sit-com.