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, May 31, 2015

Fade to Black?

       Sometimes it just doesn't work out quite the way you hoped…

A lot of things seem to be coming to an end these days.  My own show walked the plank into the oblivion of syndication three months ago, but if that was a big deal in my little world, it barely sent a ripple through greater Hollywood. On a bigger stage, the iconic cable drama Mad Men just closed out its historic run, as did the darkly stylish Justified earlier this year.  Two and a Half Men ended after a lucrative-but-tumultuous twelve years on the Toob, and even American Idol -- the famously all-conquering “Death Star” that ruled the ratings wars for a decade -- was handed walking papers and told leave the building after one final season.  
The bigger they come, the harder they fall.
Change is the only constant in life and Hollywood, but there seems to be a lot more churn than usual going down lately, indicative of tectonic shifts underfoot. In the last few weeks, too many of my industry friends awoke to the bad news that their shows had been cancelled when the networks announced the Fall lineup for the new season.
Although turnover is inevitable in a business where shows live and die on the whims of the cultural tide, this purge feels a bit different: if you listen close, you can hear the shrieks of panic from the plush network suites high above-the-line. As web-based programming captures the attention of more and more viewers tired of paying through the nose for cable or satellite hook-ups, ever more advertising dollars are migrating towards the web as well -- and that scares the crap out of television executives. Fear then generates the need to do something -- anything -- to demonstrate leadership in challenging times, so out came the executive's long knives as the bloodletting began.  
So it goes in the turbulent waters of Hollywood. Much like a surfer, the freelance Industry Work-Bot must be flexible, balanced, and adept at riding the ever-shifting waves to survive.  Doing so (and thus remaining employable) has been a constant challenge for me over the last three-and-a-half decades, but with the end finally in sight -- a year and change to go -- I saw a relatively smooth ride ahead onto the sunny beach of retirement... but not so fast, Surfer Joe. An unexpected storm blew in out of nowhere, and suddenly there’s a lot of very choppy water between me and that vast expanse of warm, dry sand.  
I’ve said it before: this is a tribal business where you’re only as good as your network of connections and your crew: your tribe. Absent those, you’re on the outside looking in. Once upon a time I had a book full of numbers to call when things got slow. Being young, reliable, reasonably competent and always ready to work, my employment dance-card was full much of the time. There were dry spells, of course -- a couple of them long enough that I seriously pondered looking for another way to make a living-- but the phone always rang before it came to that. 

So here I am, still standing, but as the years passed, so did many of those contacts. Some  died, many retired, while a few had their careers take off, rocketing them into an orbit far beyond my reach. Of those that remain, not many want to hire a juicer my age. This is a business of youth, where three years of experience can mean just as much as thirty, and when push inevitably comes to shove, youth will be served. Besides, there's no denying that I’m limited in what I can do on set at this point. A twelve-hour call wrangling 4/0 -- “picking it up and laying it down” -- might put me in the hospital, while a week of 14 hour days on an episodic would leave me crawling back to my car on all fours come Fraturday morning.   
Realistically, all that’s left for me are multi-camera shows, where I can still pull my own weight without letting them see me sweat.  
Given all that, you can understand how hard the news hit  -- delivered via Facebook, no less --  that the Gaffer I’ve been working with since with since this pilot back in 2008 decided to retire a full year ahead of schedule. With thirty-odd years in the biz, he’s earned the right to call it quits whenever he wants, but his departure leaves the tribe -- our tribe -- in the lurch. With the click of a mouse, the bonds that held this team together through good times and bad over the last seven years vanished in an instant and I'm once again a free agent, a juicer without a tribe.
The last time this happened, I wandered through the wilderness day-playing for three full years before working my way into a new tribe and onto shows again -- but there aren't three years to play with now.
The rest of the crew will be okay. Being in their 40‘s and early 50‘s (and very good at their jobs), none of them will have much trouble finding a new tribe, but I’m nipping at the heels of Methuselah in an industry where gray hair is seen as the kiss of death.
So what to do? The same thing I’ve always done -- what every Hollywood Work-Bot does when it all goes to hell: adapt to the new reality and find a way to keep my head above water. The next six months will say a lot about how that goes. If I can’t land a show for the new Fall season, I’ll hope for one of the mid-season replacements that come along once all the mainstream shows are well underway, or maybe a cable show will materialize from the ether with my name on it.   

Then again, maybe not.
Without a Gaffer willing to grant membership into his tribe, my odds of joining the core-crew on any show show lie on the far side of slim to none. It could be this was my last good ride after all, in which case I’ll just have to suck it up, hope for the best, and ride the waves of whatever day-playing calls roll my way. And if that's not how I wanted this career to end, hey, that's Hollywood -- or more to the point (to quote one of my all-time favorite movies), "It's Chinatown, Jake."

Still, something may yet come up -- it always has in the past -- but if not, I'll lean on another iconic quote from my youth: "You can't always get what you want,"* because one way or another, I will get through this final year. If it's not a free and easy path, what else is new? Nothing about this Hollywood life has ever been easy, and in a way, a year of day-playing would bring my journey back full circle. I started out a stranger in this very strange land, desperately scrambling to find some traction, and if I have to finish up the same way, so be it. Come what may, I'll work another summer, fall, winter, and spring with all the dignity I can muster, then drop my tool belt and walk away. 
Then -- and only then -- will it be time to roll the end credits and fade to black...

* "but if you try sometimes, you just might get what you need."


Austin said...

...Sending positive wishes your way. Good luck sir.

Michael Taylor said...

Austin --

Thanks, I appreciate the good vibes...

Anonymous said...

I have realized that in this industry your JOB is working on different projects. So hang in there mike because its all worth it.. hanging up the tool belt and fade to black is the coolest accomplishment of the JOB. And as those credits roll you will have a smile like nothing you have ever felt. Because it isnt the JOB that defines you.. its finishing the JOB and the prize is... you get your life back. k

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

Work is still mostly more fun than not -- a good thing, that -- but I've been doing this long enough to understand there are more things in life than getting to set fifteen minutes before call time. Although there will certainly be things (and people) I'll miss about Hollywood, when the final "wrap" comes, I'll be ready for the next phase. Enough is enough.

Thanks for tuning in...

A.J. said...

I'm a little late to the party, but I have no doubt that you'll keep at least a little busy during the next year. If anything, I'll (selfishly) have more blog posts by you to read. I need to soak up as much Blood, Sweat and Tedium as I can before it fades to black. :)