Welcome to the Balkans
This business is going into the toilet...
Back in the early 90's, the country and Hollywood were suffering hard economic times. Still learning the ropes of gaffing television commercials, the only work I could find was toiling for low-rent commercial production companies that depended upon a DP/director to wear both hats, thus saving the producers one big paycheck. At lunch during an all-day scout in and around LA, the shooter/director took a sip of iced tea, then looked around the table -- at me, the Key Grip, and the agency people -- and in his clipped Austrian accent, said "The way things are, we all must work harder and faster for less money."
It wasn't what I wanted to hear then (particularly from a guy who sounded disturbingly like Colonel Klink), but in time Hollywood pulled out of the slump, taking me along for the ride. As the 90's unfolded, twelve hour rates became ten hour rates, and the jobs got better. Like all great rides, it finally came to an end as the 20th Century gave way to the new millennium, and now, with the entire nation (and much of Europe) suffering through an even rockier economic downturn, the echoes of those hard times are everywhere.*
Harder and faster, for less money.
None of us are strangers to hard work here in Hollywood, and thus far this year, work has been plentiful. I've been fortunate to catch my share, working sixty-eight days since Jan. 1. This isn't something I take for granted -- just two years ago, I started out the first three months of the new year working all of three days, a drought that had me wondering if my time in Hollywood might finally be over. So I'm grateful for all the jobs that have come my way in 2012... but there's a flip side to that coin: during four months of solid work, only two of those work days paid full union scale -- eighteen days were at pilot rate (last year's scale), while the other forty-eight days paid the odious cable rate, roughly 20% under scale.
It's not just me. Everybody I talk to -- carpenters, painters, craft service, you name it -- has been taking it on the chin, rate-wise, the past few years. Not so long ago full union scale was the minimum a crew member got paid. Department heads were often able to negotiate a higher daily rate for their crews on big features. Nowadays, full scale is the highest rate most of us can hope for. Features and broadcast episodics still pay full scale and benefits, but not much else does.** There are so many side-bar deals and sub-scale rate structures nowadays that I can't keep track of them all -- and some of those deals pay a lot less. At the bottom of the barrel is the New Media Rate, which (as I understand it) is basically minimum wage, or whatever each individual can negotiate. Having adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy to thoroughly Balkanize union scale, the big media corporations and their henchmen at the AMPTP are now going after what's left -- our health coverage and benefits. Sometimes I think the producers won't be happy until they've driven us all the way back to the Gilded Age, when factory workers toiled endlessly in miserable conditions while the lucky few -- the robber barons and their families -- enjoyed the good life.
The business I've known for the past three decades is undergoing seismic change these days, and not for the better. The corporations run things now, and their ruthlessly bottom-line, grid-pattern mode operation is making life harder on everyone, above and below-the-line. Bit by bit, crew people -- working people -- are being ground into the dirt beneath the corporate heel of big media.
Both the shows I worked on early this year happened to be low-budget Disney productions. Anyone familiar with the Industry knows what that means... but while Disney squeezes every last production penny by paying its crews as little as possible, guess who's making out like a bandit? That would be the Disney Corporation, which posted record profits last year.
Why am I not surprised? While those of us who do the real work on set keep falling behind -- working harder for less money, with a benefits package under relentless assault -- the suits up in the executive suites are swilling chilled Cristal and smoking Cuban cigars.
How nice for them. No wonder they call Disneyland "the happiest place on earth."
Negotiations on the new IA contract were recently concluded, and the results are not encouraging. I don't know all the details, but in addition to slashing the up-'til-now standard 3% annual raise by a full third, there will be no relief from the long-hour/low-pay cable-rate sidebar deals, and for the first time ever, those who log enough hours to qualify for the health plan will face a monthly co-pay for dependents.
This deal makes it abundantly clear that our corporate overlords will never be satisfied with more money than any sane person could ever spend -- they won't rest until they see our blood on the floor -- and with the tide running against labor the past two decades, there's no end in sight. We in Hollywood are on the same slippery slope that has steadily lowered the wages, benefits, and standard of living for all working people in this country. And if you think this is an ugly contract, wait 'til you see the rollbacks the producers demand when the next negotiation rolls around in three years.
The question is, what are we going to do about it?
Given the trend over the past fifteen years, I'm not sure I'd want to be young and just starting out a career below-the-line in this business. In the current economic and political climate, it's hard to envision a realistic scenario that could actually improve conditions for those who do the heavy lifting on set, but if we don't find a way to reverse -- or at least stem -- this black tide, things will only keep getting worse.
We'll all find ourselves working harder still, for even less money.
* Except for Wall Street, of course. Those over-paid bastards always find a way to make money no matter how bad things get for everybody else.
** Successful cable episodics typically upgrade the crew pay scale after two or three seasons, but with the cable season half the length of broadcast shows, those crews still need to land at least two shows -- or the equivalent in day-playing -- to make it through each year.