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, January 19, 2014


Mixed Blessings

                           Sometimes even when you win, you lose...           

The New Year brought the usual blizzard of credit card bills from the recently concluded Christmas spending season, along with stacks of advertisements courtesy of local retailers desperately hoping to squeeze the few remaining dollars from my barren wallet.  But that's not all -- nestled amid the bills and junk mail was a packet from my union with a 2014 datebook planner, a card detailing the myriad pay rates (all below scale, each lower than the last) offered by our thoroughly sliced, diced, and shredded union contract, and a sheet of paper with a list detailing the official union holidays for the year to come.

On the other side was a schedule of membership meetings -- always on a Saturday at "9:00 a.m. sharp" -- but having attended one of those dog-and-pony shows long ago, I'll be ignoring all that.  Some experiences in life just aren't worth repeating.

A little googling reveals that the term "holiday" derived from the Old English halig daeg, which became holy day, and eventually morphed into modern English to describe a religious festival or a day of recreation. Holidays are for spiritual reflection or kicking-back -- and sale prices on large appliances from major retailers, of course.  My union recognizes eight official holidays per year:  New Year’s Day, President’s Day, Good Friday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.

With New Year's Day already come and gone, we're at one down and seven to go.*  

Holidays are a hard-won benefit from the labor movement offering an occasional respite from the relentless physical pounding and mental tedium of work. Union rules dictate that any production company working on a holiday must pay each crew member double-time for the privilege, which is why I can recall working a grand total of one official union holiday over my 23 years as a dues-paying member of the IA.  Given that producers hate to shell out one thin dime more than they absolutely have to, the prospect of paying an entire first unit crew double-time is enough to send most producers into a wide-eyed, spittle-flecked apoplectic fit.  It's no surprise that IA crews rarely work holidays unless under the most extraordinary of circumstances.
So far, so good.  Double-time was designed as a hammer to dissuade producers from abusing their crews, but thanks to the law of unintended consequences, a holiday can be a double-edged sword. Toiling on a show is a finite process -- you only get a certain number of work days before the season (and your job) comes to an end.  My current show is scheduled for twenty episodes, which translates into a hundred days of work.  Add the nine days we spent rigging the stage and lighting the sets before production commenced to the five days we should get to wrap it all up at the season's end, and that comes to a total of 114 days.  Then it's over unless and until the network comes up with money to fund another season in the future.  

Working below-the-line is a zero-sum game, where each missed day (due to illness, family matters, jury duty, whatever) is day you can't get back.  That day, and the money you would have earned, are gone for good.

In the daily grind of television, each week marches to a certain rhythmic beat. A standard (non-hybrid) multi-camera show filmed in front of a live audience allows for three days to light the swing sets before a block-and-shoot day (when the camera choreography for each scene is worked out, then a few scenes pre-shot for the following night’s live audience show), and the actual shoot day.  There’s plenty of work to do every one of those five days, so a union holiday that falls on a work week is a decidedly mixed blessing. Since the block-and-shoot and shoot days can be shifted to avoid budgetary complications, that holiday ends up costing us one lighting day, and although a day off is always nice, we then have to compress three days worth of lighting into just two days while losing one days pay.  

In effect, that holiday forces us to work a lot harder and faster for less money -- not such a great deal.
Whenever possible, production companies schedule the hiatus weeks to accommodate union holidays.  That’s fine with me.  A hiatus week means we're already off, but if I don’t get a holiday from work, at least I don’t lose a days pay either. Such temporal gerrymandering is not always possible, though, and looking up the road ahead at our schedule, I see President’s Day looming like a large pile of steaming dog-poop directly in our path.  We won't be on hiatus that week, so that malodorous mound of crap will indeed squish up between our bare and wiggling toes come February 17th.   Since President's Day lands on a Monday -- which, due to our Wednesday/Thursday block-and-shoot schedule, is the major lighting day of each week -- we'll have only the previous Friday and following Tuesday to get all the swing sets lit and ready for filming.  

And that will be a royal pain in the ass.

Were it in my power, I’d happily waive this particular holiday and work at straight-time to spread the work load over all three days, then receive a normal full week's paycheck in return... but that's not going to happen.  Once again, this supposed "benefit" will make for one tough week in the process of grinding out a television show -- and as usual, those above-the-liners will chalk up the win while we below-the-line suffer another loss.

Same as it ever was.

But such is life in Hollywood and beyond, where we take the good with the bad while hoping for the best.  Hey, at least I’m working in a town where lots of people aren’t.

Especially on President's Day...

That works out to nine actual days off, since both the Thursday of Thanksgiving and the following Friday are considered holidays.

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