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Sunday, September 4, 2011
The Money Machine
Like Randy Newman said, "It’s Money that Matters"
The goal of every commercial (non-PBS) television show -- broadcast or cable, scripted or unscripted, drama or comedy -- is to become a money machine. Once a show attains that lofty status, it can feed a lot of people for a long time. For an actor or producer atop the food chain, that money machine can buy a monster McMansion in a gated community and fill the six car garage with expensive German automobiles. For the rest of us, the machine will pay the rent or mortgage, make the monthly car payment, and keep the fridge full of food. Call it "trickle-down economics" if you will, but everyone employed by or connected to a successful show will prosper so long as the money machine keeps running.
Every successful show – and by definition, any show that earns a second season has achieved a certain level of success – experiences growing pains from one year to the next. If the first season is something akin to a blind stumble through a minefield, the second season feels very different while facing the same challenge of attracting and maintaining a big enough viewing audience to avoid the sudden death of cancellation -- the network’s way of saying “you’re fired.”
Studios will often cut a lot of slack to a brand new show, giving them a break on equipment and stage rentals with the unspoken but implicit understanding that if the show does well enough to reach that second season, the largesse will vanish faster than a five dollar bill dropped in the abyss of downtown LA’s infamous “Shitter’s Alley.”
From the studio’s viewpoint, turnabout is fair play: after helping a brand new show find its legs and stand tall, they expect a return on their investment now that the money-machine has survived to enter a second year on its own two feet.
Production companies don’t always fully understand or appreciate the dimensions of this unwritten deal. Consumed and distracted by the pressures of running the Season One gantlet, they sometimes assume that the same nurturing kid-glove treatment from the studio will continue -- but Hollywood doesn’t work that way, a hard lesson the producers of my little cable show are beginning to learn. Faced with considerably higher second season rental expenses, our UPM has been grinding the grip and set lighting departments hard to minimize costs over the first two episodes. I don’t know for sure, but imagine the other variable-expense departments (set dressing, props, and wardrobe) have been tied to the budget-cutting whipping post as well.
It wasn’t so bad for the first episode, which had only one swing set – but episode two called for four swing sets. Depending on the area involved and the action required, we'll use up to twenty lamps of varying sizes to properly light a modest three wall set, which is why the UPM’s head spun around in a full Linda Blair 360 when he saw the lighting order. He was not a happy man, but there wasn’t much we could do to ease his budgetary pain. Our job is to light every set so that it and the actors look great -– that’s our bottom line -- and if the production company can’t afford it, then something else will have to give.
My guess is money will be pulled from future shows to cover our suddenly-bare asses right now, while the writers are urged to craft scripts that make full use of our existing permanent sets rather than setting scenes in extensive (and expensive) swing sets over the weeks to come. Not that we won’t still need more equipment to tweak the permanent sets as well -- that never stops -- but a few additional lamps here and there are nothing compared to what's required to light new swing sets. Still, this semi-rosy futuristic scenario depends on the writers behaving themselves and doing as they’re told – and anybody who knows writers will tell you that’s a lot like herding cats. It can be done, but believe me, it ain’t easy.
What makes this situation rather awkward is that we on the crew can’t seriously bitch about all this pressure to minimize our equipment because – will wonders never cease -- we actually got a Season Two raise from the standard five-bucks-an-hour-under-scale-fuckyouverymuch cable rate of last season. We’re still not up to full scale, but four additional dollars per hour sweetens the weekly paycheck rather nicely. Although this was rumored to be in the works as we came down the stretch last spring, I never believed it would really happen – so this juicer will not squawk about our shrinking equipment budget. We'll get the job done one way or another in the hopes that a third season -- inshallah -- might finally close that last one dollar-per-hour gap with full union scale.
My little cable show will never be a big network money machine, but even if it isn’t perfect, at least we've made significant progress. In such tough times, when so many people in this country would kill for a job like mine, I’m just happy to be here.
And while on the generally distasteful subject of money, I’m happy to report yet another miraculous occurrence on this job.* Attentive readers might recall my dismal trail-of-tears futility and endless defeat at the week-ending post-show ritual of Dollar Day. My spotless record of failure in this tradition is unrivaled among my peers – everybody I know has won Dollar Day at least once. Not me. Despite the countless one, five, ten, and occasional twenty dollar bills I’ve fed into the big plastic jar over the past thirteen years of working in sit-coms, never has mine emerged a winner. When it comes to serial losing, I’ve been right up there with Al Smith and the Chicago Cubs... until last Friday night when the lovely star of our show reached her delicate, perfectly-manicured hand into the jug of five dollar bills and pulled out the one with my name on it.
Was I stunned? Was I shocked?
Is the bear a Catholic? Does a Pope shit in the woods?
For me, this was right up there with an alien spacecraft landing on the White House lawn, nice guys finishing first, or Rush Limbaugh taking to the airwaves to urge that his legions of followers acknowledge evolution and global warming as accepted scientific fact – in other words, a sure sign that the the world has turned inside-out and the Apocalypse Draws Near.
And so a week that started out rough and only got rougher ended up pretty well. As we head into our first short hiatus -- me with thirty utterly unexpected five dollar bills in my pocket -- I’m beginning to feel pretty good about Season Two.
* I know, it’s bad form and a sign of poor upbringing to openly discuss money, but being abandoned at birth and raised by wild goats in a leaky, drafty barn, I never had the opportunity to learn proper manners at good old Pencey Prep. I have thus labored under this crass and splintery cross ever since...