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, March 16, 2014


                            Welcome to the show -- now fill out these... 

"The job isn't finished 'til the paperwork is done," goes the old saying, but the opposite is true here in Hollywood, where we can't even begin a job until a fat pile of start-paperwork has been completed. Back in the good old/bad old days, all we had to do was sign a deal memo, time card, and a W- 4 form -- or on some jobs, nothing at all until the end of the shoot, when we'd turn in an invoice -- but these modern times bring start packets half an inch thick, requiring us to record our personal information again and again on a dizzying array of forms. There are boxes to check and initials to scrawl signaling that we’ve read and understood the previous three pages of dry legal text... which nobody actually reads, mind you -- we just sign here, sign there, and repeatedly surrender our precious (particularly to identity thieves) social security number in every applicable slot until the papers run out. After that, we are required to present a driver’s license and Social Security card (or passport) to a duly authorized functionary in the production office -- and only then are we allowed to get to work.
And there’s the rub.  
Whether jumping onto an ongoing show as a day-player or starting a new season as a member of the core crew, there’s a lot of work to be done and only so much time to do it. A location or sound stage being readied for filming is like a factory floor -- trucks coming and going, power tools howling, boom boxes pounding, people yelling -- and such cacophonous surroundings are not particularly conducive to filling out paperwork. Besides, the emotional makeup and skill set of grips and juicers -- those of us who do the heavy lifting on set -- seldom includes a predilection for meticulously picking through thirty pages of forms. For a core-crew member, the focus is on the task ahead of getting a show up and running from a dead start, and with only eight or nine days before the first day of filming, there's not a minute to waste. The aim of a day-player is to do a great job, and thus impress the Best Boy and department head that you really are one of the Good Ones who deserves a call-back. On Day One of every show, the crew arrives on set geared-up, fully caffeinated, and ready to work -- and definitely not in the proper frame of mind to deal with the tedium of filling out start paperwork. 

Yet it must be done, which is why some clever person in production came up with the idea of highlighting those endless pages of paperwork with a brightly-colored magic marker wherever a signature, address, social security number or other information is required. With highlighted paperwork, there’s no need to pour over every last word -- we just grab a pen, find a place to sit amidst the ongoing chaos, then look for the color-coded sections.

To err is human, however, which means some of us (including me, on occasion) still manage to miss a signature here, leave a box unchecked there, or forget to leave our initials after a particularly dense thicket of stilted legalese written by some corporate drone with no fucking clue what any of us actually does on set. This happened a lot more before highlighting became the norm, but it’s no big deal -- the Best Boy is notified who to send back to the production office to correct the oversight, after which the world can resume spinning merrily around the sun. Highlighting saves time on the other end as well, making it a lot easier for the production office to spot and correct any mistakes before those forms proceed on though the alimentary canal of the parent corporate entity. 

Of course, this means that some hapless PA must first go through each start packet to highlight/tag every applicable form, line, and box -- and I can only imagine what a soul-crushing task this must be -- but such is the life of an office PA: to assist the production by saving time for the much-more expensive crew and office personnel further up the food chain.  The sooner that PA finds a way to crawl up the production ladder, the sooner her/she can leave the highlighting to some other wide-eyed newbie.

The Anonymous Production Assistant recently put up a post contending that highlighting start-work is a mistake that allows the crew to turn off their brains, and that "we should stop trying to guide people through each and every step.  Let them figure it out for themselves." 

With all due respect, I disagree.  It's not about "turning off our brains," but saving time.  We arrive on set mentally and physically prepared to do our jobs, which are a world apart from the quiet routines of those in the production office who sit at a nice clean desk and deal with paperwork all week long. The crew fills out their start-work while on the clock, and highlighting allows us do get it done considerably faster.  Time being money in Hollywood, the value of preparing that start-work is clear to me... but not to everybody.  One response to TAPA's post cast a particularly jaundiced eye towards those of us who don't always swim through our paperwork like a fish through water. 
“Good lord. I don’t think I’ve ever had my start paperwork marked for me. If you’re too clueless to fill out some simple forms, you’re too clueless to be allowed on set.”
I have no idea what this person does in the industry, but I'm willing to bet heavy lifting is not involved, nor anything more physically challenging  -- or dangerous -- than driving a keyboard. The next time she walks on a soundstage, I hope she remembers that many of those deemed “clueless” are working high overhead, wrangling heavy cable, lamps, and unforgiving steel pipes. Granted, some of us trip over our start-work on occasion, but if we're as clueless as she suggests, there'd be carnage down below, where the entire floor crew would be required to wear hard hats... so she might want to lay off the glib, snarky assumptions about people she's never met and knows nothing about. 

I'm just sayin'...

Beyond all that, another start-work related issue has long been a thorn in the side of those who work in the crafts below-the-line. I don't know what happens outside Hollywood, but here in LA, Contract Services administers and maintains the Industry Experience Roster, the Safety Passport Program, and several other mind-numbing bureaucratic functions.  All members of IA locals are supposed to report to Contract Services every three years and present their ID -- driver's license and social security card -- proving that we really are who we say we are.  Although this ritual made a certain sense the first time I did it, the passage of time revealed it to be an utterly meaningless waste of time.  Given our periodic vetting by Contract Services, showing a paid-up union card to a new employer should eliminate the need to fill out much of that endlessly repetitive start-paperwork -- and certainly the I-9 immigration forms* -- but no, we still have to do the entire dog-and-pony show every time we start a new job.

So what's the point of this periodic show-and-tell with Contract Services?

Damned if I know.  I once went ten years without reporting to C.S. and nothing happened. With the advent of the mandatory Safety Passport classes over the last decade, the many functions of C.S. were combined under one roof -- so whenever we show up to take a newly-required class nowadays (assuming it's been three years since we were last ID'ed), we're immediately shunted over to another window to do stand and deliver.**

This a lot less painless than it used to be, but again, what's the point?  

There seems to be no end to the ongoing blizzard of bureaucratic bullshit, though, and I see no reason to expect that will change anytime soon.  

* Every time I fill out yet another I-9 form to prove who I am, I start to wonder... does the government really think that since my last job, I revoked my American citizenship, snuck across the border to Mexico to live as an illegal alien, then had a change of heart, swam back across the Rio Grande and made my way to LA,  where I managed to move back to the exact same mailing address with the very same phone number I've had for the past twenty-five years?   

** Given the recent focus on set safety, this may sound like heresy -- but the widely-held consensus among those who work below-the-line is that the Safety Passport Program is more about erecting a legal shield to protect the producers and production companies from liability than making sure workers don't get hurt on set. 


Anonymous said...

This post hits home. I do auditing work. We're actually paid reasonably well given a state license prohibiting competition by others without the right paperwork.

The first killer is the *incredible* repetition of information.

I will mention that absolutely NOTHING compares to government paperwork for folks inside govt projects. This is on all sides, from the expanding list of pamphlets that need to be handed out / posted or mailed within various periods to employees to the paperwork that must be collected and completed by employees. By the time Federal, State, County and City and employer boilerplate forms and acknowledgments are completed (beyond the ones everyone does by law) - that can easily be a FULL day of work.

I especially love the ones that just reference obscure code sections without explaining even what they are about. Employee agrees that they understand that US code section xxx, sub-paragraph 2 as interpreted items a-e, exclusive of d applies to this agreement (over and over)

The government will in some cases make it a condition that VOID paperwork be completed. So staff are required to fill out paperwork that must simply be shredded at some point after termination (usually obsolete forms like W-5's etc).

Now pity the auditors, who have to write up someone very low on the totem pole for not forcing someone higher up on the pole to fill out some random form no longer even used within the allowable time-frames.

It truly is a wild system.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

No doubt government paperwork takes the cake when it comes to bureaucratic redundancy. I suspect much of what we in the film/television industry confront when starting a new job stems from efforts by the parent corporations to comply with government rules.

Far more distressing than the hassle of filling out all this paperwork is what happens to it once the job is over. I've talked to people who found masses of such paperwork -- with personal ID info for an entire crew -- in dumpsters on studio lots or used on other shows as set dressing for office sets.

Back at the dawn of the digital era, there was much talk of the future "paperless office." It didn't quite work out that way, did it?

Thanks for tuning in...

odocoileus said...

Given the desperation of recent film school grads to get hired as PA's, I'd say, "Too good to do the paperwork? I'll find someone who'll be happy to do it."

Now the real "fun", for me, was getting into what should have been an avoidable confrontation with an actor, on location, because he's sure that he provided all the required docs, but the production office insisted that he didn't. (The production office was wrong, btw, and I had to take the hit. Yay!)

Michael Taylor said...

Odo --

Ouch -- taking the fall for a production office mistake like that sounds like one very bad day on set. You have my sympathy.

PA's who think they're too good to do PA work baffle me, and I suspect most of them are not long for this business. Anybody who isn't willing to take the lumps and pay their dues isn't worth hiring in the first place.

It's been a long time since I've seen your e-moniker here -- so welcome back, and thanks for tuning in...