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 where construction workers build houses, skyscrapers, bridges and freeways -– tangible objects that 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 whispered in your ear.
Life can be sweet when the good times roll, but it's important to remember that those good times seldom last in Hollywood.
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. Still, two weeks of no work can start you 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.
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 don't realize that until six months of unemployment checks come and go without a single work call. At that point, the writing on the wall comes into crystal clear focus with the message that it’s over – 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 if you will, 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 has driven 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?
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...