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, January 27, 2008

Reaper Madness

The stitches are finally out, meaning I can type with two hands again -- a vast improvement over the one-finger, hunt-and-peck mode. Free-range typing is just too damned hard. Recovery has meant watching more television than usual, which will be reflected in the next few posts. Working or watching -- it's all below-the-line.

Ray Wise -- he's the Devil, all right.

"Laughter is the best medicine, other than being rich."
Garrison Keillor

Last week being dedicated to post-operative recovery (read: powerful prescription pain killers + alcohol = a soporific reptilian torpor resembling the much-desired False Sense of Well-Being), I eased my newly stitched and oh-so-tender corporeal presence onto the couch to bask in the healing glow of the Cathode Ray Gun. And what should pop onto the screen but CW’s semi-supernatural, quasi-romantic dramedy, “Reaper.” I’d caught the pilot episode many weeks ago, B.T.S. (Before The Strike) and enjoyed it – if not as must-see, howl-at-the-moon, gots-to-have-it viewing, then as a cute, funny, and diverting show. It’s not without flaws, often straining to fill those 44 minutes of screen time, but the show is so good-natured, you can’t help but forgive. “Reaper” reminds me of a dog some friends of mine used to have: an affable Golden Lab with a bad habit of peeing on the rug every now and then. Not a good thing, that, but the dog was so friendly -- I swear that mutt could actually smile -- that nobody could stay mad at her very long. “Reaper” is a bit like that – kind of clumsy and a bit goofy, but it makes me laugh, and sometimes that’s enough.

I know: this is Wrong. Rather than watch such fluff, I should be strapping on the hair-shirt of intellectual responsibility, using this precious time for educational purposes that will make me a better person, a Better American, and thus better equipped to help our country, our people -- our species -- meet the monumental challenges of our time. And truth be told, I love PBS as much as the next unemployed juicer. “Nova,” “Frontline,” “Bill Moyers Journal,” and “Now” consistently float to the top of my viewing list -- but sometimes a guy just isn’t in the mood to get beaten over the head with how grim and unfair and miserably hopeless things really are. I fully understand that the ice is melting, seas are rising, and the polar bears are drowning, even as the tight-lipped ideologues currently in power do their best to fatten the portfolios of their corporate pals while driving this shared cultural asylum of ours right off the cliff. I know that at any moment, we could all be morphed back into the stardust from whence we came under a billowing mushroom cloud triggered by some ululating religious fanatic desperate to kick down the doors of Paradise and claim his 72 virgins. But sometimes I just want to relax, lean back, and let somebody else do the heavy lifting, okay?
Ahem. That’s the chemical cocktail talking...

“Reaper” isn’t a great show, but unlike most of CW’s hopelessly lame offerings (“One Tree Hill” – now there’s a wet sack of reeking garbage), it has at least managed to avoid turning into a giant, steaming pile. With a lineup of attractive young people -- remember, this is CW -- leading the way (Brett Harrison, Tyler Labine, and the lovely Missy Peregrym), it’s a fun, lively, undeniably silly show.

And then Ray Wise enters the screen.

Perhaps you were one of the cult legions addicted to “Twin Peaks” back in the last century. Alas, I was not, remaining unmoved by the single episode I sat through. Whether I was blind to the True Beauty Within, too dumb to understand what was going on, or simply incapable of grasping the sheer, riddle-wrapped-in-a-mystery-inside-an-enigma genius of David Lynch, I just couldn’t drink from that particular kettle of Kool Aide. Those who did, though, will remember the name of Ray Wise, portraying the infamously devious Leland Palmer. As an actor, he dominates the screen – when Ray Wise is on camera, you can’t look away. His weathered face and tight, all-knowing grin take charge, and that’s it: you’re hooked.
In “Reaper,” Ray plays Satan – the Devil Himself -- who has come into possession of young Brett Harrison’s indentured soul. Each week, he appears out of the ether with an assignment for Brett to find and return another escaped soul back to Hell. And Sweet Jesus in Heaven, does Ray Wise play the hell out of this role. It’s a safe assumption that without the sleek, silver-haired gravitas of his mesmerizing performance, “Reaper” would have long since faded from the screen. The kids are fun and all, but Ray Wise IS the Devil – and he’s great.

Despite the peerless efforts of Ray, however, this episode was not so great. A weak “A” plot meandered in and around an even weaker “B” plot, and after twenty-five minutes I began to notice the commercials. I mute commercials religiously, of course, refusing to listen to their inane blather, but there’s no escaping the visuals -- and doubtless, the subliminal imprinting. Besides, after twenty years working on thousands of commercials, I like to see what they’re doing these days. It’s no secret that being deviously clever bastards, those ad agency types aim their spots at a particular demographic niche, which means the products being advertised on any given show tell you exactly who the network assumes – and desperately hopes -- is watching. Larded through “Reaper” were ads for the following:

Pantene hair care products
Trident gum
Dominoes Pizza
Some sort of home-baked frozen pizza
A nasal tissue supposedly softer than Kleenex
Pediasme” -- which sounds like a disease, but apparently is a drink for small children
Pantene hair care products, again
Trident gum, again -- “to keep teeth white and breath clean”
“America’s Top Model” and the odious “One Tree Hill” (CW shows, naturally)
Pantene hair care products, yet again
“The Pussycat Dolls Talent Search” and “Smallville(more CW offerings)
Pantene hair care products. I'm starting to wonder if CW owns Pantene...

All that and more was just in the last half hour – and then it hit me: I was watching a chick show, with ads aimed directly at the nurturing, care-for-the-family-and-still-look-sexy hot button of American women. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since most “guy” shows tend to be repetitive cop dramas, endless sports programming, or comedies featuring young men who belch, fart, punch each other, and stumble all over themselves in dim-witted attempts to attract the interest of young women. If “Reaper” is a chick show, so be it. There are worse things when all you want is a good laugh.

At least it’s got Ray Wise -- and you can’t beat the Devil Himself.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Water Tower Project

I received an e-mail last week from a reader in England named Nat Bocking, who has a background in Hollywood (check out his IMDB page) and now runs a blog called “The Water Tower Project.” A man of eclectic interests and a wry sense of humor, Nat has crafted a rather cheeky flow chart outlining the power structure of the Industry – who sucks up to or gives the shaft to whom. It’s funny, informative, and pretty much dead-on. Check it out at:

In a follow-up e-mail, Nat added “I would like to encourage others to investigate for themselves how Hollywood works. I suppose I should revise it that Axium shafts everybody but that's a given.”

You got that right, Nat. While our system of justice holds the accused to be innocent until proven guilty – even the likes of O.J., Jeffrey Dhalmer, and Cary Stayner -- I personally feel that the bastards who drove Axium off a cliff should be beaten to a bloody pulp by the cast of American Gladiators.

Unless they’re innocent, of course. We shall see. The fallout from the Axium implosion has yet to be fully assessed, but one thing’s for sure: it’s gonna be ugly.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Suzanne Pleshette 1937 -- 2008

I hadn't planned to post anything today -- typing with one finger isn't easy -- but that was before I heard the sad news about Suzanne Pleshette.

Suzanne Pleshette died yesterday, finally succumbing to a long battle with lung cancer. Nearing the end of her long and colorful career, she took a recurring role as a worldly and decidedly randy grandmother on the sit-com “Good Morning, Miami” (2002-2003), filmed on Stage 16 at CBS Radford. I worked on the set lighting crew for that show.

I’ve met a lot of actresses in the past thirty years, but never one so gracious as Suzanne. She always came on set with a big smile and that wonderful whiskey-soaked laugh, greeting all of us – PA’s, grips, juicers, camera, set dressing, props, sound, hair and make-up, and the drivers – with a warm and generous respect that came straight from her big heart. She could be bodaciously bawdy one moment, dropping good-natured, perfectly timed F-bombs on the delighted live audience -- then turn slyly and sweetly demure the next: but always, there was that wonderful laugh, that big beaming smile.

Her husband, Tom Poston, used to drop by from time to time (and eventually did a few guest spots), while Bob Newhart -- a living legend on the Radford lot -- came on stage to say hello to her and the crew. Suzanne Pleshette was television royalty.

For reasons I’ll never understand, she wasn’t invited back for the second (and final) season of “Good Morning, Miami.” I thought that was big mistake – the audience loved her as much as we did – but the giant brains upstairs work in their own mysterious ways. Still, she made a point of coming back onto Stage 16 every now and then, cruising through the sets like a queen, smiling, laughing, and hugging us all, one by one.

What a great, classy lady. She was one very sexy broad who loved her life and the people in it – and everybody who had the pleasure to meet her loved her back. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Thanks for the memories, Suzanne. We'll miss you.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

I'll Be Back...

There will be no Sunday post this week, since my own strike-survival strategy involves having some long-delayed shoulder surgery taken care of tomorrow morning, Friday the 18th. At least it’s not Friday the 13th... but with the strike dragging on into its eleventh week, I’m rolling the dice that now is the time. Not that there's ever a really good time for surgery, mind you, but such is life. This will take some time, too – the doc says I won't be ready to start slinging cable again for a good four months, if all goes well. Now I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the Axium Payroll implosion didn't take my disability benefits with it.

This whole thing seemed like a pretty good bet six weeks ago when I loaded the dice into the cup – a bet that looks rather less promising with today’s announcement that the DGA reached a settlement with the AMPTP in their contract negotiations. If the deal they struck satisfies the WGA and SAG, this strike could be over in a matter of days. In that case, the loud, flesh-on-flesh sound you’ll hear will be me doing a one-handed dope slap worthy of Homer Simpson.
Doh!” indeed...

You pays your money, and you takes your chances -- and you sleep in the bed you made. That’s okay. Even if it ends up that I’ve hung myself out to dry, I really do hope they settle this damned strike next week. Too many good people are suffering; too much of real value teeters on the edge of the abyss. Get the wheels of Hollywood rolling again, put those tens of thousands of below-the-line and above-the-line people back to work. Do it before it’s too late, before more people get hurt. Just fucking do it...

At any rate, trying to type with one arm in a sling and a head full of Vicodin would be a waste of time for you and me both. A week of recovery should enable me to put something up by next Sunday – if not by me, then perhaps the debut of a guest-poster I’ve been pestering to contribute to Blood, Sweat, and Tedium.

And on that note: I’ve said it before, and will say it again -- if any of you have a good Industry story you'd like to tell, send it along to under your real name or nom de plume. Anonymity will be respected. Share and share alike, my fellow work-bots. We’re all in this together.

And in the words of our only-in-California state Governator: “I’ll be back...”

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Little Magic on the Boulevard

We were all dog-tired as darkness enveloped Hollywood Boulevard, our third location of a long day that started out on a helipad atop a building in downtown LA, then moved to a nightclub in Hollywood, and now was finishing up out here on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. With two grips, a gaffer and a juicer (that would be me), we weren’t exactly flush with manpower. Thank God for our Production Assistants, without whom we’d never have made it this far.

This whole job had been depressingly stupid right from the get-go, starting with a very ambitious schedule that lacked the budget to do anything right. Nearing the end of Day Two (of three), we’d emptied the truck to film in the nightclub, and were now running as light as possible, with only a handful of low wattage lamps powered by a “putt-putt” -- a 1500 watt Honda generator small enough for one man to carry. So here we were, tired and pissed-off, looking at another three hours of work on Hollywood Boulevard at night, and without a cop. Normally, a shoot like this would include one or two off-duty cops to establish some semblance of order and keep the roaming legions of crazies away. But that would involve spending money, something this cheap-ass production company simply refused to do. Instead, they’d decided to hope for the best and rely on the crew to make it happen out there on the sidewalk.

In other words, we were winging it.

I don’t have much patience for this sort of tight-fisted, close-your-eyes-and-pray optimism anymore. It’s one thing for a no-budget student film to break all the rules shooting on a wing and a prayer, but those projects are done by kids who don’t know any better -- indeed, that’s how they learn. It's something else altogether for a supposedly professional production company to pull this kind of crap. Still, sometimes you just have to take what you can get, and with the WGA strike slowing television production to a crawl, this bullshit job is it.

It’s probably been twenty-five years since I’ve done a shoot out on Hollywood Boulevard, but things haven’t changed much. There weren’t nearly so many tattoos back then, nor anything like the rings and studs kids stick through their ears, noses, lips, cheeks, tongues, and belly buttons these days. Half the young people out here look they'd tripped and done a face-plant in their dad’s tackle box. But some things never change. The street still boils with a sense of barely-restrained chaos, as if some kind of human missile might come hurtling out of the crowd at any moment. And they’re out there, all right -- the drunks, the drug-addled, the terminally insane -- people whose lives have been so warped and bent by circumstance, disappointment, and chemical imbalance, that they often seem more animal than human: quasi-feral creatures who feed off the wild, carnal energy rising up from the pavement. For them, the sidewalk is a movable feast, their living room, kitchen, and home entertainment center all at once. Out here, it’s not easy to shake the feeling that Hollywood Boulevard belongs to them, not us.

Then again, we have lights and a camera, the very things that made Hollywood and its namesake boulevard famous in the first place. That means we belong here too, and suddenly I understand that we’re just another act in tonight’s floor show, and thus as much a part of all this bubbling entropical madness as those wild-eyed zombies staggering down the sidewalk, cursing at demons no one else can see.

We begin to set up the equipment, and it's not long before our bright lights have drawn a crowd in the midst of this human zoo. In minutes, we’re encircled by a growing ring of curious kids, tourists, and street crazies. The crowd gapes at the camera, the lights, and our “talent” – in this case, two sharply dressed young men and one very attractive, extremely voluptuous young lady wearing a stunningly form-fitting dress that could -- in the words of Raymond Chandler --“...make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”*

The zombies like her, staring like hungry lions at feeding time. Then again, so is every other heterosexual male in the vicinity – our crew included. I’m looking too, of course, but strive to maintain some degree of professional courtesy, even out here on the Boulevard of Anything Goes.

This is a weird job for me, shooting promos for a reality show the name of which nobody ever bothered to mention. The name hardly matters, since I'll never see the show, but this is the same kind of non-union, no-benefits, 12 hour-rate job I did when I first started in the business. Not exactly the same, of course – back then this would have been a “flat rate” job, meaning we'd be paid a certain amount (and no more) regardless of how long the day dragged on. Now, at least, there’s a good chance the producer will pull the plug at the 12 hour point, since the only thing these low-rent cheapies hate more than paying a decent rate to begin with, is paying overtime. But after so many years of doing features, commercials, television, and music videos (the ultimate in ridiculous, high-decibel stupidity) – jobs that were for the most part professionally produced on well-controlled location or sound stage sets -- this run-and-gun style of filming feels like an enormous step backwards. It’s embarrassing, in a way. But when you take a job, you do it the best you can, regardless.

Not having a cop to watch our backs bothers me, though, especially in a day and age when every pair of crazy eyes might well be packing a weapon. With each new location featuring fresh talent – real people, rather than actors – we don’t get the chance establish any true sense of rapport. This adds to the loose, disjointed feeling on set. A film crew usually functions as a tight unit, but here, we’re all just flying by the seat of our pants.

It feels all wrong.

The director picks a spot on the sidewalk between a liquor store and a ratty black motor home parked on the boulevard. Presumably this is to shield the sound man from traffic noise. It’s rush hour now, and the boulevard is jammed with cars, a slow-motion river of steel, plastic, and glass creeping along in fits and starts as if by some sort of automotive peristalsis. I understand the director’s strategy, but it doesn’t seem to help. The cool night air reverberates with the pounding, window-rattling pulse of rap music blasting from many of those cars, while inside the dull black motor home, a petulant young woman glares at us as her frantically barking pit bull adds his neurotic voice to the cacophony of the streets.

But here we are and here we’ll shoot.

Featured in this setup are three young, up-and-coming con artists – a card shark, a sleight-of-hand specialist, and the young lady whose most obvious talent is her shimmering presence. As we start filming, the crowd presses in like a mob of extras from “Day of the Locust.” With no cop to hold them at bay, our on-camera “stars” remain unprotected from this growing mass of twisted humanity. I can’t tell if this bothers them -- all three seem comfortable performing in public -- but the rudely unprofessional nature of this situation bothers me. Besides, these drooling zombies are getting too close to the lights now, so I move in behind the lamp closest to the camera, barely an arm’s length from our on-camera talent. This puts my back to the crowd, preventing them from getting close enough to knock the light over, and provides a physical and psychological buffer -- however tenuous – between the talent and the mob. Filming in public is always an “us vs. them” situation, with the crew and actors on one side, and the public on the other. Although these three young people aren’t really actors, and are new to the shoot, they’re still part of “us.”

The tourists are merely curious – here on a Hollywood vacation, they’ve had the good fortune to stumble across a real live film crew in action. A moon-faced man in a check shirt and loud shorts leans in to ask a question. I feel his presence before I see him.

“Are they anybody famous?” he asks.

It’s an honest question, but I can’t really enlighten him.

“Not yet,” I shrugged. More or less satisfied, he slides back to his wife and kids.

Others stare with something other than casual curiosity. Cameras do strange things to some people – those whose disturbed personalities carry a free-floating charge of hostility that, like electricity, always seeks a ground. For some reason, these troubled souls see the camera as a lightening rod for all their pent-up frustrations and grievances against the world – and they head for it like a moth to the flame. Such people can be scary.

The inevitable presence of these ticking human time bombs is one very good reason to have a cop on any shoot out in public. When the crazies see a cop, they generally stay away. Without the presence of a cop (and sometimes even with it), they might wander in front of the camera and begin disrobing, as happened on a shoot I recently did out on the Venice Strand. There was nothing playful about that particular striptease, either – the guy was a big, bearded bear of a man, full of dark, brooding rage. It took three cops to get him off the set and back into his clothes. That was an exception, though -- usually a crazy will just keep walking back and forth behind the actors, mugging like an overgrown imbecile for the cheering audience inside his head.

Tonight we’re lucky. Only one crazy orbits in for a few minutes, stalking back and forth along the sidewalk with his arm extended, jabbing his thumb down to express his righteous indignation. It’s easy enough for the cameraman to frame him out of the shot, and after a few angry passes, the lunatic spins off into the night.

We film the card-shark first, performing card tricks while the other two pose behind him. Next up is the sleight-of hand artist, rolling a quarter along the knuckles of one hand over and over again as if the shiny coin is flowing down an assembly line. The guy’s good -- he makes poker chips vanish into the ether, then turns one chip into four with the flick of his wrist. I’m standing close enough to see how he’s doing these tricks, but still, it’s impressive.

Everything stops as the camera reloads. The sleight-of-hand guy steps close and asks to see my watch. Taking my left wrist in both hands, he points to the band and shakes his head.

“This kind is hard to get off,” he says, tugging on the watchband to demonstrate that it can’t be slipped over my wrist.

I nod, wondering what this has to do with anything. He gives me a long penetrating look, as if peering deep into my soul.

“You have something of value in your right front pocket, don’t you?”

“My car keys.”

“May I see them?”

I reach deep into the pocket, pull out the keys, and dangle them in the air. But he’s not looking at my keys – he’s holding his right arm up to show me a watch attached to his wrist. It looks a lot like mine. Then I realize it is my watch, and that my left wrist is suddenly bare.

My jaw drops. While I was digging for the car keys, he managed to remove the watch from my wrist and fasten it to his own. It couldn’t have taken three seconds, but I didn’t feel or notice a thing.

I laugh out loud. This guy is good!**

He grins, savoring the moment – the rush –then shows me how he did it, his thumb and forefinger deftly sliding the band under the loop and out of the hasp, hook and all, in one fluid motion. Something very difficult to do suddenly looks simple, but I know damned well it’s not. I shake my head in astonishment – and in that moment, suddenly recall why I got into this silly business in the first place, why I was drawn like all the other moths to the flame of Hollywood. I wanted to get closer to the magic, to participate in the process, and learn how it’s done. In some ways, it worked out. There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from being part of something that really works up on the screen. That hasn’t happened often, since most of the features I did were crap. Hard though it may be to believe, a few of the hundreds of commercials I worked on were actually pretty good, and seeing those the first time was rather cool. But it's a long time since I've seen any magic in this town. Until tonight.

With the camera reloaded, we finally finished up the filming, threw the equipment back in the truck, then headed home to prepare for another day... but I couldn’t get that little display of magic out of my mind. Truth be told, the real magicians in the Industry are the writers who create the scripts, and the actors who turn those scripts into performance. With rare exceptions, the rest is mostly a matter of mechanics and problem-solving: running The Machine. Highly skilled producers, directors, camera people, juicers, grips and everybody else who make up The Machine are essential – without us, the magic can’t happen -- but the real source lies further upstream.

I’m just a juicer. I haul the cables, hook up the power, and set the lights. I can’t make the right cards pop up from a deck, or cause a watch to vanish and reappear right under the victim’s nose, nor could I deliver one of those spellbinding speeches from “Hamlet” or “Macbeth,” much less one from “The Sopranos.” The closest I can come to making magic is working in the shadows deep within the Dream Factory. But it’s hard and heavy work in there, and getting harder all the time -- and as the years pass, it's easy to forget about the magic, and how powerful it can be. It was nice to be reminded of that out there on Hollywood Boulevard.

It turned a bad day good – just like magic.

* Excerpt from “Farewell, My Lovely.”

** How good?  Really good.  See for yourself here,  here, and here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Here's the Deal...

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Excerpt from “To a Mouse”, by Robert Burns

Recent upgrades to this site now allow me to have some idea of how many people are viewing “Blood, Sweat, and Tedium” on a day-to-day basis – how many times new or returning visitors check in, how long they stay, how many pages they read, and what city/state/country they logged in from. I haven’t yet figured out how to work all the bells and whistles – old dogs and new tricks don't really mix all that well --but the results thus far have been interesting. As it turns out, the three or four readers I thought might be stopping by from time to time are more like twenty or thirty semi-regulars. Who knew? There are many more who pop in for a quick look, then bounce back into cyber-space -- blog-surfers, I presume, searching for more intriguing sites. It’s possible some of these hit-and-runners are spammers trolling for e-mail addresses (would that be you, Romania, Germany, Canada, and Texas?), or perhaps they’re just porn junkies so far gone they assume “Blood, Sweat, and Tedium” must be some leather-face-mask-and-ball-gag bondage site. In that case, I'm sorry, but no whips, chains, alligator clamps, ropes, barbed wire, or other restraint-and-pain-inducing paraphernalia can be found here. The very real pain and frustration of working below-the-line will be discussed from time to time, but that’s as far as it goes. Better luck elsewhere...

Those of you who do stick around to read a page or two can relax, though: the new software provides raw numbers only -- no names or e-mail addresses that could be traced back. You are safe in your anonymity. Even those who choose to leave comments on Blogger remain nothing more than nicknames at the end of a message. You can, of course, click on the site G-Mail address to comment directly and privately, at your discretion. In any event, I do appreciate each and every comment, public or private. It’s nice to know I’m not shouting into an empty auditorium after all.

I’m gratified to find mystery visitors from Monterey Park, Montebello, Maywood, Oakland, Alameda, and Culver City checking in, joining readers from Colorado, Utah, North Carolina, and Georgia, among others. Many others.

In light of this new reality, it seems a good idea to restate the deal here at B.S.T. -- such as it is. My aim is to post once a week, usually late Sunday afternoon, unless I get motivated to put up something like this – a rare mid-week post spouting off about something or other that just can’t wait, or for informational purposes. This post falls into the latter category.

Such is The Plan, anyway -- but they say God laughs at those who dare to make plans, and occasionally the storms of work or life (or sheer laziness and inertia) swamp this leaky little boat of best-laid plans, and at such times there will be nothing new on Sunday. It has happened in the past, and will happen again. "So it goes..." as the late, great Kurt Vonnegut used to say.

Any newcomers who have come to the conclusion that all I do is whine about the strike (guilty as charged, of late) should click on back through the archives to September and October, posted before the WGA threw up their picket lines. The very first post (“Welcome to the Dream Factory”) will give you a better idea what I’m trying to do here than my more recent bleats about striking writers and unemployment.

Whoever you are, welcome one, welcome all. Hope you enjoy the ride

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Post-Holiday Blues

A big, blustery storm dumped six inches of water on the gray-brown hills of Northern California last week, bringing half-empty reservoirs back up to respectable levels, with hope for more before the rainy season ends. Nature’s response was immediate -- bright green shoots rising up through all that dead grass, bringing a welcome splash of color to the drab winter landscape.

But the holidays are over, and the SoCal tractor-beam is already tugging me back to the great sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles, city of strip malls, gas stations, car dealerships, and endless fast food franchises. Deep within the City of the Future – this entropical paradise -- lies Hollywood, a once-bustling Industry town now locked into a state of terminal, naval-gazing paralysis by the strike.

Ah yes, the strike. Perhaps you thought (or hoped) I was all done blabbing about that – possibly because that’s exactly what I said right here on this blog, not so long ago. Ahem… well, that was then. With a fresh new year staring us in the face, I’ll take one more look at the Strike That Will Not End. Unfortunately, the strike will be the One Big Story around Hollywood until it really does end – and nobody knows when that happy day will come.


Back from the holidays, three weeks far, far away from all that is Hollywood, and thank God for that. The Christmas season came on like an express train, flashed past in a blur of colored lights and tinsel, and then was gone, leaving us to contemplate a bleak new year that already looks like forty miles of bad road in every direction. With the WGA and AMPTP standing at opposite ends of the room -- backs to the table, arms folded tightly against their chests -- hopes for an early settlement of this strike have gone the way of all that New Year’s Eve champagne. This thing is beginning to look like the trench warfare of WW I: both camps dug in deep, neither willing to venture out into a No Man’s Land where hope, reason, and compromise lie bleeding to death in the mud, victims of the withering crossfire. If the strike really does morph into a war of attrition, there will be no winners by the time one side has suffered enough to fly the white flag. We’ll all be the losers.

As the year closed out, the LA times ran a particularly chilling piece detailing an entirely-plausible scenario wherein the WGA and SAG fracture from the stress of internal divisions induced by a prolonged strike, and eventually implode under the heavy hand and bottomless pockets of corporate network ownership. Subtitled “How the writers strike may finally lead to the end of union labor in Hollywood,” it’s a stark reminder of what’s really at stake here. If you haven’t seen this already, read it and weep:

Curtains for the guilds

How the writers strike may finally lead to the end of union labor in Hollywood.

By Kevin Morris and Glenn C. AltschulerDecember 20, 2007

Hollywood guilds resemble a camel assembled by a committee. They're heterogeneous, with lots of moving parts. Their members have different interests and agendas. A few members get millions for each gig. Most of the rank and file won't make a million if they live to be, well, 100.

Insiders have wondered for years when centrifugal force will pull them apart. With the collapse of the talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Assn. of Motion Picture and Television Producers, we can start to see the outlines of the demise of the system.

Here's how the grim screenplay might read: The WGA and AMPTP break off negotiations on Friday, Dec. 7, 2007, a day that will live in infamy. The AMPTP reaches an agreement with the much less militant Directors Guild of America in January 2008.

Responding to the deal with the DGA, the WGA and the equally activist Screen Actors Guild band together and declare all-out war against the studios in February. The two guilds plan a massive unified labor action to bring Hollywood to its knees on June 30, 2008, the day the SAG contract expires.

Pressure mounts on WGA members to abandon their militant leaders. Major agents begin quietly telling their clients that WGA leaders are the problem. Writers, they advise, should go "financial core" so that false prophets don't squander all hope of future profits. Financial core means you remain in the union but go back to work, forsaking your right to vote on, or participate in, union leadership, but still paying dues for nonpolitical activities and still receiving the benefits of your guild's collective bargaining agreement. (Some soap opera writers have reportedly begun to make this move already.)

Defections occur among screenwriters, who support the strike less fervently than television writers, and among television show-runners, whose decisions to go financial core are said to have ended the last strike in 1988.

Meanwhile, the joint strike of the WGA and SAG commences on July 1, 2008. The business, already slowed to a crawl, shuts down completely. Picketing writers get 100,000 reinforcements from SAG. The studios, backstopped by the resources of GE and other conglomerates, are prepared to shrug it off.

After an initial period of "solidarity" with their fellow SAG members, movie stars and other celebrities feel pressure to peel off. They too go financial core. Self-interest trumps affection, affinity and affiliation between individuals from vastly different classes and groups.

By August 2008, the schism within the guilds is complete. The rank and file have gone to the mats in what they believe is a fundamental struggle for justice, equity and their fair share of Internet revenues. The well-known and the well-heeled are back at work, making movies and television shows.

The coalition of stars and artisans -- which has been both a tradition and increasingly a myth for decades -- evaporates. The vast majority of writers and actors remain locked in a labor movement, while directors, stars, screenwriters and show-runners function as the freelance independent contractors they truly are. The guild system goes the way of the studio system.

Some will say it's the invisible hand of the market at work, with organizations collapsing and then realigning in more homogeneous groupings -- a "creative destruction" that has been a long time coming. Others will cry conspiracy, with the studios dividing and conquering. But after a while, as always happens, everyone will say: Wasn't it inevitable, and isn't it rational?And it can happen here.

Kevin Morris is founder and co-managing partner of an L.A. entertainment law firm. Glenn C. Altschuler is a professor of American studies at Cornell University.

Many who work below-the-line will wonder what difference it would make if SAG and the WGA suffer fatal wounds in this battle. Why should we care if those who make more money than most of us can ever dream of (while keeping their hands clean, no less) end up paying the price for starting this war in the first place? Nobody who works for a living wants to see any labor organization take a beating, but whatever happens to the writers and actors, we’re still protected by collective bargaining agreements hammered out between IATSE and the producers, right?

The first thing to remember is that the writers didn’t really start this thing. True, they fired the first shots by throwing up those picket lines (and shutting down production just in time for Christmas, thankyouverymuch...), but as I understand it, the AMPTP forced their hand, backing the WGA into a corner until they really had no choice but to strike -- the only question was when. We'd all be a lot happier if they’d waited until June, thus allowing those working below-the-line to bank a full season’s wages in preparation, but they chose to employ their best (and only) weapon at the moment of their enemy’s greatest vulnerability. Thus far, this strategy hasn’t worked, but it’s early yet -- faced with the loss of half a season, and the impending demise of pilot season, the pressure is only now starting to be felt by the producers.

It’s true that we’re protected by our existing contract, but don’t think for a moment that the corporate hyenas unleashed by the AMPTP will be sated after drinking the blood of SAG and the WGA. If the guilds go down in the Doomsday scenario laid out in the LA Times, the next round of IA contract negotiations will be a brutal wake-up call for us all, including our Great and Glorious Leader, Mr. Tom Short. Get ready for a lot more of those god-awful “sidebar deals” currently enjoyed by the cable networks – the four-dollars under scale, no double-time until after 14 hours misery suffered by those who toil for HBO and Showtime. It’s not much fun to log 75 hours on set during a five day week and still not get to double-time.

Fuck that, you say? No way will the membership stand for such a lousy deal?

Think again. By next summer, the entire country could be mired in a recession as the mortgage crisis deepens and the floundering U.S. dollar turns into the New Peso in the world economy. If the strike is still going on, we’ll all be desperate to grab any work we can get, no matter how crappy the deal. Should the AMPTP ultimately succeed in crushing the guilds, our next contract negotiations might end up as a choice between keeping union scale or the health plan. “The Industry is hurting,” the producers will bleat. “The strike devastated us all. If you want production to come back here in LA, you’ll have to give up something.” And when push comes to shove, don't be surprised if Mr. Tom sells us short... again. After rising slowly but steadily over the years, union scale for below-the-line workers could begin sliding back into the brackish mire from whence it came. Nor will the producers stop there: once they’ve beaten us down on hourly rates and overtime, they’ll start chipping away at the health and pension plans too. It matters what happens to the guilds in this strike. If they go down, we’re next on the menu.

SAG and the WGA may be above-the-line, but those guilds were formed for the same purpose as the IA: to give the workers – in this case, writers and actors – some control over their wages and working conditions, a viable health plan for them and their families, and a pension plan so they won’t have to spend their “golden years” sleeping under a bridge by the LA river after a dinner of Ritz crackers and Alpo. That the AMPTP would actively seek to undermine and destroy an already tenuous safety net that has meant so much to so many, tells you exactly what those who pull the network strings really are: corporate terrorists determined to let nothing stand in the way of their quest for ever-greater profits. As one hard-campaigning, would-be presidential candidate in Iowa recently said: “They’re already rich. How much money do they need?”

How much indeed?

There has been increasing chatter in the media about writers getting into the production business themselves, developing their own shows for distribution over the web – in effect, doing an end-run around the plodding, sclerotic corporate networks in the race to colonize and plunder the Internet for all it’s worth. Exactly how this would come about is rather vague at the moment, as are the economic prospects for any such high-wire ventures. Nobody has figured out how writers would actually produce and distribute these prospective shows, or how much money they might be able to make. Should any of this come to pass, however, it’s a safe bet that these Internet-based ventures would be produced on the frayed shoe-strings of extremely tight budgets for a long time to come – and that means non-union, low wage, no-benefit work for those of us who would do the heavy lifting. And while it’s true that being paid is the most basic benefit of all, this kind of low-wage/no benefit work is where I started in the Industry thirty years ago, long before getting into any union. I am not exactly thrilled by the prospect of sliding backwards into the future, whatever the cause. Neither, I imagine, are you.

Either way we lose. If the guilds go down, below-the-line workers will end up slaving harder and harder for less money/benefits -- but if the writers pull off some kind of Internet-based coup to beat the corporations to the punch, the same thing is likely to happen. Much like the suddenly-hapless polar bears who find the world melting under their big paws, we too rely on a relatively stable work environment for our way of life. Major changes in the way business is done would seriously alter the economic ecology of Hollywood, and that means trouble. If these physical and metaphorical icecaps continue to melt, the water will keep rising around us all, and eventually we’ll end up just like all those hungry polar bears, swimming for our lives in an endless expanse of cold, dark water.

These are not the only possibilities. Any number of more positive (or at least less damaging) outcomes could result if cooler, more rational voices prevail. A resolution to the strike could arise with very little warning – and for all we know, secret negotiations between the warring parties might be going on right this moment. I hope so. It’s time everybody stepped back from the brink and started talking again. If not, all of us -- above and below the line -- have a great deal to lose. Like it or not, we’re all in this together. The Third World isn’t nearly as far away as it used to be.