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 11, 2007

Crossing the Rubicon

Those of you weary of my typically long and rambling posts will be happy to know this will be very short, by my standards, thanks to the end-of-the-world, ALL STRIKE, ALL THE TIME! frenzy currently gripping Hollywood. On this, my one day off this week, I'm one whipped puppy, with very little time or energy to post.

After working four days at CBS Radford (thanks to the tender mercies of the studio rigging gaffer), I took a job on Saturday juicing for a crew shooting movie promos. It was a very long day (nearly 15 hours) doing the “two minute drill”* from dawn until deep into the night. This was a non-union job on a 12 hour rate, as will be the work I’ve accepted for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week. Working 12 hour rates Sucks the Big One for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it means we’ll work at least 12 hours, and maybe more -- but with shows shutting down all over Hollywood, the pool of work is rapidly drying up. Thanks to the WGA strike, most of us will soon be unemployed, possibly for a very long time, so we’re all frantically making every last dollar we can before the door slams shut.

Something of note did happen last week, though – for the first time in 30 years, I drove across a picket line to go to work. It felt awful to cross that WGA line – to be forced to cross – and I was surprised by the depth of my emotional response as I drove into the parking structure. It felt all wrong, but I had little choice in the matter. To honor the picket line would mean turning around and driving home. No work means no pay, and unlike the members of the WGA, I can’t afford to go on strike. Few of us who work below-the-line can. Although I support the writers in their struggle against the AMPTP, that support must be limited for the moment to the cheap, if heartfelt. sincerity of lip-service. I’ll continue to cross those picket lines as long as there’s work to be had on the other side.

A cyber-skirmish of sorts erupted on a few websites this week between below-the-line workers angry to be facing unemployment, and WGA members who have taken this very gutsy road of going on strike. Those below-the-liners throwing grenades felt that the writers (who they see as knowing nothing about doing actual work) are being incredibly self-indulgent in shutting down an entire industry, thus throwing thousands of people with no dog in this fight out of work for what could be a very long time – and all over the issue of residuals, payments above and beyond the already fat fees writers receive for turning in a screenplay or television script in the first place. The writers, meanwhile, fired back that without their writing skills, there would be no scripts to film, and thus no work at all for below-the-line crews.

To which I say: Stop, you’re both right. Most writers have no idea just how physically punishing working below-the-line can be. They simply have no clue. Sitting behind laptops all day, spinning their brains in circles, many writers go to the gym at day’s end to work out and relieve some of that self-generated stress. Most of us who toil below-the-line have no need to work out, since we’re physically exhausted at the end of each day. We’ve done quite enough heavy lifting by quitting time, thankyouverymuch

Most writers don’t understand -- and thus can’t really respect -- the work done by the crews who turn their words into images on the screen. On the other hand, we who work on set have no inkling of the seven circles of Hell found in that writer’s room. We don’t know what it’s like to stay up until 5 a.m. with a dozen other highly-competitive and deeply insecure individuals trying to “punch up” a sit-com script and make it funnier 12 hours before the cameras roll. True, any writers good enough to make it into that room, or be commissioned to write a movie script, are paid far beyond the wildest below-the-line dreams – but that’s the way it’s always been. Creative brain-work is rewarded more than craft and brawn – or as I heard one sound mixer quip, “the bigger the cable, the smaller the paycheck.” Then again, that’s the kind of pithy needling I’ve come to expect from sound guys, many (most) of whom are major league smart-asses.

The truth is we’re all part of the same machine, which cannot operate smoothly without all the gears and wheels in place, spinning away. The writers were motivated and smart enough to find a way to make a good living without breaking their backs in the process, and for that, more power to them. But theirs is a high-wire act without a net – and once they fall, there’s often no coming back, which is why they’re fighting so hard for those residuals. That they’re taking us down with them is not a comforting thought – personally, I wish they hadn’t gone on strike at all, that they’d been able to sit down and work things out with the AMPTP. But from what I understand, the producers are playing the hardest of hardball, giving not an inch and demanding concessions on all fronts. Right or wrong, the producers feel their power, and see no reason to compromise. It's as much their fault, if not more so, that Hollywood is now grinding to a halt.

When all the work is finally gone, maybe I’ll go down and walk one of those picket lines myself. But until then, I’ll be crossing them – and hating it – every chance I get. Such are the absurd realities of life in Hollywood these days.

* The “two minute drill” refers to the sudden and uncharacteristically efficient offense that often erupts during the last two minutes of a football game, when --after doing nothing interesting for nearly four full quarters -- one team finally wakes up and marches right down the field to score as easily as Godzilla strolling through downtown Tokyo. In the Industry context, doing the two-minute drill means working at a very rapid pace, slamming through each shot ASAP, then jumping right on to the next – and doing it all day long. Generally, this happens when a producer has been overly-optimistic (read: cheap) in drawing up the shooting schedule.


Natalie said...

Michael, I appreciate your comments. i just read your post on Artful Writer from a few days ago and I wish it hadn't been the last post in the thread, because the writers that need to hear it, probably didn't. My husband has been a boom guy for longer than a decade. We know all about the physical toll this business takes on a body. He has to get adjustments and back massages regularly. It is a tough business where you see much less of your family then you want and go days without even seeing the sunshine- dark when you go to work and dark when you go home.

I am a supporter of this strike because I do realize that residuals effect my family's future pensions and health care. It is really too sad that it has left so much collateral damage (there is even a quote from David Young bragging about how much havoc he has caused - how insensitive...). I hope these two groups get back to the negotiation table quickly.

Marste said...

Hey, I found your blog through "Totally Unauthorized" and I'm really glad she linked to you. You have some great, well-thought-out stuff here, and I look forward to reading more!