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 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.


Unknown said...

As the wife of an out of work grip, I am mad and sad and frustrated by this whole mess. I know I'm not the only one.

D said...

Thanks a lot. I am now scared shitless.

Zach said...

Prepare for the worst...Judgement Day, the rise of the machines, you name it...