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, October 12, 2014

The List

How much are YOU worth?

                                            Crystal the Monkey…

According to the Hollywood Reporter, chances are Crystal the Monkey makes more money than you. That’s assuming you’re not a studio chief, network president, film, TV or porn star, of course or an agent, manager, talk-or-game-show host, entertainment lawyer, successful director, writer, cinematographer, Kim Kardashian, or one of the astonishingly hirsute Duck Dynasty cast.  The annual income of those considerably larger and far less hairy primates (except for the Duck Dynasty boys and their ZZ Top mega-beards) outstrips Crystal the Monkey's take by several orders of magnitude.  

But the rest of us -- grips, juicers, prop people, set dressers, script girls and the like -- will have to work long and hard to make as much as that stupid little monkey.*

Hard to believe?  Take a look at THR’s list, which -- admittedly -- has enough bad information to cast doubt on its overall veracity.  For one thing, there’s considerable variation between different people in the same business.  THR claims that a make-up artist earns $100,000 per year, and I’m sure many do, but while working on a feature with Ed McMahon back in 1981, his personal makeup man made a point of informing the rest of us that he’d raked in $325,000 the year before.  Accounting for inflation, that would be more than $800,000 in 2012, the year THR used as a baseline for its list. 

Nice work if you can get it.

THR lists the annual income of a “Grip” as $102,000 per year, a “Gaffer” at $59,000, and a “Best Boy” at $92,000, which is evidence enough that the writers didn’t bother to do their homework when sniffing out the income situation below-the-line. Just for the record, a Gaffer and Key Grip hold equal status on set as department heads, and are paid a very similar hourly rate -- more than either of the Best Boys and crew.**

The $102,000 figure isn’t out of line -- a skilled, hard-working grip or juicer can make over a hundred grand per year, but it takes some doing in a business that's anything but steady.  

Consider the breakdown:  Current full union scale in Hollywood for grips and juicers is a tick over $37/hour.  A forty hour week brings in around $1500, but very few grips or juicers work such a short week.  Most episodics drive their crews for at least sixty hours per week, which adds twenty hours of time-and-a-half (at $55/hr) to the tally. The additional $1100 of overtime brings the weekly gross for a sixty hour week to nearly $2600. 

Many (if not most) episodics work longer than twelve hour days, and working just one extra hour every day -- each of those hours at a double-time rate of $75 -- adds another $375.00 to the paycheck.  With vacation pay factored in, the weekly gross for that grip or juicer’s 65 hour week will top $3000.  A successful one-hour episodic typically runs for 22 episodes, and at eight filming days per episode, that’s thirty-five weeks of work.  Assuming a full season of 13 hour days (which is not unusual), a grip or juicer on the core crew of that show would gross a bit more than $105,000.00.

Not a bad year, that -- and one that can grow even fatter if those 13 hour days stretch out to 14 hours, or the juicer or grip in question lands more work doing commercials, music videos, or day-playing on other shows during the ten to twelve week spring-into-summer hiatus between seasons.  But that’s an “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scenario, and after working nine or ten months of 65+ hour weeks, the last thing most people want is even more work.  The hiatus is time for some R&R and a badly-needed vacation.

The feature world is different, with each movie a stand-alone production that comes to an end for the rigging and on-set crews once principal photography is completed.  Most features run anywhere from two to six months, at a less-frenzied pace than episodic television. Still, feature days are generally twelve hours, with some feature crews able to negotiate above-scale rates for the duration of the shoot.   

The flip side of the coin is that only a limited number of people are able to land jobs on features and lucrative full-scale episodics. The flood of cable programming over the past decade has been a positive development overall, but most cable shows start out paying considerably less than scale (with no double-time until 14 working hours have elapsed), which takes a heavy toll on the weekly paychecks while sapping crew morale. The work is just as hard in cable, but you get paid less.  My own current cable show didn’t reach full union scale until our 4th season, after shooting 80 episodes at below-scale rates -- and on this show, the juicers and grips only get 48 hours per week.***  

Put it this way: since plunging head-first into multi-camera sit-coms at the end of the 1990’s,  I’ve never pulled in anywhere close to the $108,000.00 Crystal the Monkey made in 2012.  Not once.  If you account for inflation over the decades, I did beat that hairy little simian during my years doing commercials and occasional features, but I had to work a lot harder than she did.  

THR's figures for below-the-liners are suspect, to say the least, but given their institutional bias towards above-the-line issues -- and insider's proximity to sources of information -- I imagine their figures for the income of big-bucks executives, actors and their parasite/leaches agents/managers (who seldom break a sweat while working their cell phones and conducting power lunches) are reasonably close to the mark.  If nothing else, THR's list might give you some idea just where we all stand on the industry food chain.  

You may or may not like what you find.

Still, the question posed at the top of this post is as misleading as it is unfair, because how much you’re paid seldom equates with your worth to the production.  I’ve done countless jobs over the years where the PA’s worked harder and smarter, and were much more valuable to the overall production and crew morale than the director, producers, UPM, or the DP.  And PA's, of course, occupy the very bottom rung on the Hollywood ladder of suck-cess.

The obscene disparities of income between the worlds above and below-the-line can get you down if you let it, but that way lies madness.  It is what it is, as the saying goes -- we live in a world where the rich really do get richer, and that's not going to change anytime soon.  But so long as you're having a reasonably decent time doing good work with a solid, supportive crew -- and not feeling too insulted by your weekly paycheck -- you're doing fine.  

And if not, maybe it's time to make some changes.  That's what Crystal the Monkey would do.

* I just don't like monkeys. They give me the creeps

**  Don't quote me on this, but I think full scale for a Gaffer or Key Grip in Hollywood is around $42/hr.

*** Which is fine with me, btw.  Shorter work weeks and more humane hours are why I work in the multi-camera world...


k4kafka said...

I'm not digging the monkey...

JB Bruno said...

The issue of below-the-line rarely making what they are "worth" comes up all the time for me on low budgets, and it's a point I try to make all the time when negotiating as line producer with crew. Sadly, I am never paying these talented folks "worth" (with the rare exception of DPs and, as you suggest, make-up)

And, I could not agree with you more about PAs - if ever there was a position that is underpaid on every budget, it is those hardy folks.

Michael Taylor said...

Kafka --

Me neither.

JB --

Ours is a business of extremes, where so many people are woefully underpaid until a certain tipping point is reached, and then -- if and when it happens --they suddenly join the ranks of the absurdly overpaid. We can only hope it evens out over the long run… but yeah, PA's definitely get the shit-end of the income stick. If nothing else, I suppose this serves as powerful motivation to move on and up from being a PA.

Jerry www said...

Over the years I've often heard the phrase "Same circus, new monkeys", thanks for putting a face on it.

Peter McLennan said...

Sitting on the Chapman waiting for lighting (heh) one day, I gratefully accepted my latte from a PA. It was manufactured off-set in a truck that visited most of the sets in town each working day.

Considering that it was delivered right to my hand, the $5 cost didn't seem to extreme, but the tariff got me thinking.

A few back-of-the-callsheet calculations revealed to me the distinct likelihood that the owner/operator of that coffee truck was making as much or more per day than most of us on-set worker bees.

Just sayin'

Still loving you, Michael. Keep it up.