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, November 4, 2007

Collateral Damage

When elephants fight, only the grass is trampled.
African proverb

The hammer finally dropped late Friday afternoon, when word came that the writers have voted to unplug their laptops on Monday, Nov. 5. At long last, the subject of so much discussion on sets, executive suites, coffee shops, restaurants, and bars throughout Hollywood the past few months has made the final, fatal turn. Until a month ago, it looked as though the writers might kick the can down the road to next Spring, then join their SAG and DGA comrades in grabbing pitchforks and torches to march on the Evil Empire, also known as the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.) But the wind shifted a few weeks ago, and the nervous fretting began. That’s all over now. War has been declared, and the strike is on.

Nobody’s quite sure what this means yet. Frantic negotiations are doubtless taking place throughout the weekend, so it’s possible we’ll all wake up Monday morning to headlines announcing that a deal has been cut, and Armageddon averted. But given the heated rhetoric thus far, it seems entirely likely this is could be the beginning of a long and bloody siege. The last WGA strike lasted 22 weeks, and this one could too.

I don’t know enough about the issues to judge those in the Writer’s Guild leading this jihad. They claim the AMPTP has pushed them into a corner and left them no other options, and maybe they're right. Those able to make a living at the keyboard are generally pretty smart, so I can only trust (and hope) they know what they’re doing here. I’m just a juicer, a tiny, squalling, easily replaceable, cable-hauling cog in this vast Hollywood machine. After a day of work, everything hurts -- my back, feet, neck, shoulders, arms, and hands – and I’ve never seen a residual check, ever. But you don’t have to sip chilled champagne in the executive suites above-the-line to understand how bad things are between the writers and producers these days. Tensions have been simmering, the pressure rising, ever since the WGA got screwed the last time around. Thanks to that benighted contract, a writer receives the munificent sum of four cents on every DVD sold -- a DVD made from a movie that would never have graced the silver screen nor earned a dollar of profit for the production company if the writer hadn't sweated bullets to turn in a finely polished script. A script is the essential blueprint for making a film. No writer, no script. No script, no movie. And for creating that blueprint out of nothing more than his own sweat and imagination, the writer receives four cents. Not even a nickel.

Of course they deserve more, a lot more. So how much do they want? Four additional cents, that’s all, to bring the total residual payment to eight cents per DVD. Less than a dime. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, not when the multi-millionaires crowding the top floors of the Industry pyramid continue to rake in truckloads of cash every year. But this unholy alliance of producers and the Devil claims they can’t afford such an egregiously outrageous hike in residual fees. Four cents. Even a blind man can see those bastards of the AMPTP have no shame at all.

Granted, WGA members are very well paid upon turning in their work. I don’t know the current rates, but twenty years ago, one of my apartment building neighbors – a barely articulate, dese-and-does kind of guy with no real interest in writing or being a writer – managed to sell a movie-of-the-week script for the then-standard fee of forty thousand dollars. Feature film writers make a lot more: at his peak in the 90’s, Joe Esterhaus (“Flashdance,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” “Jagged Edge,” “Sliver,” “Jade”, “F.I.S.T.”) was making three million dollars per script. Successful writers do very well indeed here in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, but for every sit-com scribe and Joe Esterhaus, there are thousands of writers working their tails off for scale, if they’re lucky, and on spec (read: for free) if they’re not. And of those that finally do make a sale, it’s often a one-shot deal. This is a fast-paced town in more ways than one, and it’s not so easy to stay on that Merry-Go-Round if you get there – one has to be very nimble and equally tenacious to avoid being flung off into the slush-pit of has-beens and one-hit-wonders. Sooner or later it happens anyway, and at that point, residual payments come to mean everything to the vast majority of WGA members. As far as I’m concerned, the WGA has every right to kick the AMPTP as long and hard as they can – and kick them where it hurts -- until they get their eight cents per unit fee.

There are other issues of course, some of which involve the internet -- everything has to do with the goddamned internet these days -- which may indeed eventually morph into the much-ballyhooed Cosmic Pipeline reaching down from the sky to pump an endless cornucopia of “content” into our homes. TV dramas, sit-coms, movies, infomercials, football games, reality crap, American Moron, er, Idol, the juicy, jiggling young flesh on Sabado Gigante! – all of it flowing to your big screen TV, on demand, via the internet. For a price. And on that golden day, the producers and corporate-owned networks will indeed begin to reap yet another harvest of billions.

Or not. Nobody knows what’s really going to happen, but whatever it is won’t be coming tomorrow, next year, or anytime soon. Having been fooled once by the producer’s claim that the VCR was an immature, unproven, and not-yet-profitable technology, the writers this time want to have their fair percentage of future profits indelibly tatooed on the forehead of emerging internet sales. To paraphrase the angry, prophetic words of “The Who”, they won’t get fooled again. With technology evolving at an incredibly rapid pace, nobody can say for sure which platforms or internet distribution technology will win out in the end – or even if the golden era of All Internet All the Time will ever come to pass. Personally, I have a hard time believing that significant numbers of people will ever pay to watch Hollywood blockbusters on their minuscule cell phone screens. But I'm from a generation that can't quite grasp the whole "texting" craze in the first place, so who knows what new technologies will be warmy embraced by future generations?

Again, I side with the writers. If the AMPTP had any sense of justice or propriety, they would simply offer the WGA a reasonable percentage of those future (possibly phantom) Internet profits. Then everybody can wait with their fingers crossed to see what happens. If internet sales turn out to be huge, everybody wins. If not, then nobody really loses. So why won’t Evil Overlords of the AMPTP do this? Because they’re cheap, miserable, greedy bastards. They have all the money in the world – more money than anyone could ever possibly spend – but like Johnny Rocco, the reptilian gangster so brilliantly portrayed by Edward G. Robinson in “Key Largo”, they just want “more...”

So I support the strike, right? March on to righteous glory, WGA, and with you I shall be?
Yes and no. The WGA is clearly in the right here, and if this is their last best chance to make a stand, then they’ve gotta do what they’ve gotta do -- but unless the AMPTP is pulling off the biggest bluff in Hollywood history, I’m not sure the writers stand a proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of winning this thing. The power has shifted too dramatically in the past twenty years. Last time around – when the writers got screwed – the producers and networks were much smaller entities far more vulnerable to any labor action. Now each network is owned, lock-stock-and-barrel, by mega-corporations with the deepest of deep pockets – these once-proud networks are little more than bright shiny pimples on the massive warty ass of Corporate America. Should they so desire, the network's corporate overlords have the financial torque to starve the writers into submission without breaking a sweat. That could effectively break the WGA once and for all – and at the moment, the AMPTP has every reason to go for the jugular. With the contracts for actors and directors coming up next year, what happens now will resonate down the line. Any concessions the AMPTP yields to the WGA will in turn be demanded by those other guilds. But if the WGA can be beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead, the echoes of that mugging will reverberate through negotiations with every guild and union for a long time to come. The worst case scenario is grim indeed.

Much was made by the WGA this week of an announcement of support by the Teamsters. At first, I too thought it was great news -- if the Teamsters refuse to roll, the Industry will fall to its knees, putting an almost irresistible pressure on the AMPTP to yield. But the Teamsters aren’t refusing to roll. According to the LA Times, Teamster leadership merely “encouraged” its membership to honor the strike, leaving it up to each individual driver to decide whether or not to cross the picket lines. This is hardly a “union” action – all for one and one for all – in a situation that cries out for total solidarity. If one teamster stops his truck at the picket line only to see the next one go through, it won’t be long before that picket line is shredded by truck traffic. Teamsters believe in labor solidarity, but they won’t play the fool for anyone.

Still, that's between the Teamsters and the WGA. My problem with the strike is that the writers who have made this admirably gutsy decision won’t be the only ones to get hurt. Even a relatively short strike will do tremendous collateral damage to tens of thousands of below-the-line workers – set construction, props, set dressers, grips, juicers, sound, camera, hair, and makeup -- people who never have and never will see a residual payment in their entire careers. The last couple of years haven’t been good for those of us who work in the sit-com world. More than a few gaffers, best boys, and many of my fellow juicers have struggled to make ends meet since the networks lost interest in multi-camera sit-coms a couple of years ago. These people have the experience and skills to work in other venues – episodics, features, reality, or commercials – but most of those jobs are already taken. Some face the added burden of struggling back from extreme low points in their personal lives, people for whom every day represents another battle to fight, another hill to climb. I know and work with some of these guys -- they're good people who just want go to work every day and get on with their lives, but through no fault or decision of their own, all that will be put at risk as of tomorrow morning. If this strike turns out anything like the last one, many of these people will lose their medical coverage, and some may lose their homes. The human and economic cost of this man-made (and thus totally preventable) disaster could be devastating to the film community in Hollywood and throughout the country.

Few of us who work below the line have any idea what it’s like to be one of those elephants in that African proverb, but we know all too well what it means to be the grass.

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