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, April 3, 2016

Pilot Season 2016 -- Part Two

                               "Bitter, party of one…"

The good news is that those six lovely days back at CBS Radford were only the beginning of my last dance in the mosh pit of pilot season. A pilot I agreed to a while back is about to start -- unfortunately at another studio. Radford is my favorite lot, but like an itinerant farm worker, a juicer's fate is to follow the crops wherever the cinematic harvest might be.

The bad news is that this gig is for one of the many cheap-ass cable networks that take full advantage of the odious 20% under-scale cable rate to fuck the crew and save a few dollars for the corporation. Oddly enough, it's the same company I worked for on my last ball-busting show -- a job that was tolerable only because it paid full union scale. Rumor has it that since then, some corporate scumbag from Disney* transferred over to this company like Darth Vader in a business suit, bearing a message that's catnip to every executive drone:

"I will save you a lot of money."

He did that by having the company cease paying their hard-working crews full scale -- now they pay cable rate -- and why am I not surprised? After all, we live in a world where the rich get richer while the rest of us fight over whatever table scraps hit the floor.

                                  Cable rate -- always a raw deal  

I have to remind myself to keep a sense of perspective about all this. The film and television world is one of the last industries where a blue collar worker can earn a decent wage with health and retirement benefits, and although cable rate is an undeniably raw deal compared to full union scale, it still pays better than thirty dollars an hour -- and a lot of working people in this country would be thrilled to earn that much.** But with the cost of living in LA rising much faster than our wages (especially at cable rate), we're losing more ground every year. As an article in the yesterdays Los Angeles Times reported: "LA has become one of the least affordable cities in the country."

Not so long ago, full scale was the very least a union job paid, but nowadays it feels like a luxury to get that much. With so many sweetheart "sidebar" deals the union has forged in recent years, working for considerably less than scale has become business as usual. As this handbill I recently spotted on a utility pole shows, even a handyman in LA makes more than a juicer or grip at cable rate these days -- considerably more.

But we have to deal with the reality at hand in this business, and after my brief Cinderella ride on the magic carpet of a broadcast network pilot, I returned to earth with a thud, landing below decks on that hard, splintery cable-rate bench I know too well. There was the same old oar -- polished smooth from so much sweat and effort over the years -- upon which I'll be pulling hard over the next fifteen days, for three skimpy paychecks.

Do I sound bitter? Moi?

I'm just weary of taking it in the shorts, that's all. For those of us who break our backs doing the heavy lifting in Hollywood, life has been getting steadily harder over the past twenty years. Tax-subsidized runaway production (which is nothing less than government-sanctioned bribery of the sort routinely employed by Third World kleptocracies) to Canada, Europe, and dozens of states across America, hit the Hollywood workforce hard -- and that pain was compounded by the proliferation of cheap-ass cable networks that took advantage of the situation by offering low rates of pay.***

Those corporate assholes have been pouring salt in our wounds while laughing all the way to the bank.

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is strictly personal and utterly self-serving: it'll make it so much easier for me to pull the plug on my Hollywooden career when the time comes… and that time is coming soon.

There's other work to be had right now, but I committed to this gig several weeks ago, and can't bail on the gaffer at such a late date. With the town suddenly extremely busy, he'd have a hard time getting and keeping a crew to work such a low-budget pilot. Besides, a promise is a promise, and although keeping your word might not count for much in the executive suites of Hollywood, it means everything below the line.

Where you make your bed, there you sleep, fleas and all -- so I figure to do a lot of itching and scratching over the next three weeks…

Next: Pilot Season Part Three

* As a kid, I loved Disney for their TV shows and that famous park in Anaheim, which was Nirvana for young children at the time -- but over the decades in Hollywood, I've developed a withering contempt for everything about the notoriously tight-fisted Disney Empire. There are worse television production entities around (ahem: that would be you, TV Land), but Disney has been grinding crews into the low-budget dirt longer than anyone else. 

** Trouble is, we lose ground more of our benefits with every new contract. When and how this downward slide ends -- if  it ever does -- nobody knows.

*** Yes, California has its own $300 million tax-subsidy program to help stem the outflow of production. I don't like that either -- why the hell should taxpayers subsidize film and television producers? -- but sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Without those tax subsidies, production here in California would eventually wither away to nothing.

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