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, June 22, 2014

The Fear

                         "You'll never work in this town again."

It's always out there...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again -- those of us who work in film and television have more in common with construction workers than anyone else.* The essential difference is that while construction workers build houses, skyscrapers, bridges and freeways -– tangible objects designed to last for decades (or until the next fire, tornado, flood, or earthquake) -- we in the film biz put our shoulders to the wheel of creating ephemeral collages of light, color, and sound.  Without a screen of one sort or another, a movie or television show has never been anything but a can of film – useful as a doorstop, I suppose, but not much else.  Now that the Digital Revolution has shouldered film onto the smoldering garbage heap of history, the result of our labors on set is ultimately reduced to a stream of painstakingly orchestrated gigabytes.  

The insubstantial nature of that finished product mirrors the transitory working life of those who create it.  We come together as if out of nowhere to form a tight working unit until the job is done, then melt back into the jungles of our own private lives.  Those fortunate few who get to work on one of the few truly iconic movies or television shows that come along every once in a while have something to be proud of, at least, but such classics are the rarest of exceptions.  The vast majority of what we do and create in Hollywood is instantly forgettable -- and like those fleeting, disposable movies and television shows, we who make them come with the dust and are gone with the wind. 
In such an unstable business, fear remains the constant companion of most careers, above or below-the-line.  A fortunate few are exempt, of course -- those who manage by means fair or foul to bank sufficient millions for a life of endless luxury until their last gilded breath on earth -- but for the rest of us, fear is a Great White Shark shadowing our existence from that first dive into the Industry waters all the way to the final exhausted belly-crawl up onto the sunny beach of retirement.  Even in the mid-life prime of one’s career -- a point where most of us have developed and nurtured enough contacts to keep work coming in -- it doesn’t take much to summon that big shark from the blue depths below.  As many of us have learned the hard way, the bottom can drop out at any time, with very little warning.  In an industry where job security is the most tenuous of illusions, the only thing you can really count on is each day’s work while you’re actually doing it.  For the most part, we who toil below-the-line are “daily hires,” which means nothing beyond that day is guaranteed no matter how sweet the promises that were whispered in our ear.  

Rule Number One in Hollywood: the good times are great, but they seldom last for long.  

Every job comes to an end in this business, where a week off after a long stretch of work comes as a blessed relief, offering time to take care of everything that had to be neglected while your life was utterly consumed by the job.  If the phone doesn't ring after two weeks, you start wondering what’s going on… and after three weeks without a nibble, some of us start seeing that big gray dorsal fin carving through the water in our dreams. 

It's been two full month since I last walked on a set. Not that I haven't been busy, mind you -- life threw me a curveball just as my old show wrapped for the season, and I've been dealing with that ever since -- but in the meantime, the show I'd hoped to jump on right about now was pushed all the way back to October. By then my old show should be grinding through another season.  Assuming all goes as planned, that would carry me into early 2015, at which point we will have cranked out over a hundred episodes. The doors to the financial Valhalla of syndication will then open wide for our above-the-liners, but while they're guzzling champagne with visions of checks rolling in for the rest of their lives, the rest of us who did the heavy lifting will be wrapping the stage for the last time while eyeing the horizon for the next gig. 

But as always, it's impossible to ignore the nagging doubt... what if there is no new job?  At this stage of my career -- late Autumn, staring into the cold face of Winter -- that's a real possibility. 

Not all retirements are voluntary.  More than a few Industry Work-Bots didn't realize this until six months of unemployment checks had come and gone without a single work call.  At that point, the writing on the wall is crystal clear: it's over, and the decision was made for you.  Like it or not, you'll never work in this town again.

It must be a rude awakening to realize that the Industry in which you’ve worked so hard for so long has no further use for your hard-earned skills.  As the countdown clock ticks ever louder in my ears, I'm hoping not to find that out for myself.  Call it foolish pride, but I'd like to exit stage left on my own terms and at the time of my choosing -- not turn around one day and find that the bus drove off down the road without me.  

But that’ll be then, and this is now... so what happens in the suddenly-vacant two months between mid-June and mid-August when our final season commences?

Good question.

Nothing’s shaking right now, but four straight months is a long time to go without work, and the bank account shrinks at an alarming rate when there's nothing coming in. 

That big shark is still out there, and getting closer every day.

* There's another difference, of course.  Those in the skilled construction trades tend to make a lot more money than those of us who do the heavy lifting on set.  Full union scale for a grip or juicer in LA is a hiccup-and-belch under $40/hr.  While back on the Home Planet for a brief visit recently, I was quoted a rate of $120/hr to hire a local plumber -- and that wasn't his emergency/overtime pay scale, but his Monday-through-Friday whistle-while-you-work rate.  Guess I picked the wrong profession...


Jesse M. said...

Damn that's a poetic post.

Last year I was working A LOT - back to back gigs stretching from mid July to November, then I had nothing for the first week of December. I decided to use the week as a well earned break and chill out, I was confident that I had finally "made it", and that calls would keep coming my way. I guess I got complacent. Hell, smug even. The one call I did get I turned down because the rate wasn't what the last few months had made me accustomed to. Anyways, reality kicked me in the ass and I didn't work again until February of this year.

I've also made the construction crew-film crew connection myself, but I like to joke that a major difference is nobody crowds around construction crews and goes "so...whatchu building?"

Niall said...

I can relate to this very we'll. The Northwest has seen a very catastrophically bleak year. What little work i have gotten, 10 days since Jan 1st, has been a god send. The sad part is I'm doing better than most of my peers right now. Luckily I have learned to save for such times. The toll on my pride is steep, and my mind races seeing every shadow as a possible end to my career. As many in my situation I have a lot of hard decisions to make about my going forward. You'd think I'd learn to cope better, but the good times make the bad seem less so. It's like your first bad stretch all over again.

Michael Taylor said...

Jessie M --

It's happened to us all at one time or another (some of us more than once...), and in some ways is only natural. We humans have a tendency when things are going well to assume this will continue -- that "things going well" is the natural order of life -- but as we all learn in time, it's not.

More like the opposite, unfortunately.

"Pride goeth before a fall," the good book says, and on that count the book got it right. All any of us can do is roll with the punches and be a bit wiser next time.

Niall --

Wow -- ten days in six months... that's a real bitch. I had three days over the first three months back in 2010 -- my worst stretch in fifteen years -- but things got a lot better after that.

Sorry to hear the Northwest is suffering so badly, and I hope the good weather of summer brings more work for you all.

Hang tough...

Niall said...

Michael -

I'm too stubborn to give up.