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, March 16, 2008

Nepotism: Part Two

What you know -- or who you know?

You hear it all the time, at every level of society concerning any paying job in creation: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Whether one seeks employment flipping burgers at the local Golden Arches, as a CEO steering a major corporation, or occupying the hot seat in the Oval Office, it helps to be connected -- and there is no more fundamental connection than blood. Family takes care of its own: always has, always will.

In this, the film/television industry remains Exhibit A. Above and below the line, relationships are crucial to opening doors that would otherwise remain locked. A would-be screenwriter with the world’s greatest script will get exactly nowhere until he or she can find a sympathetic insider with the right connections and clout to unlock those doors. Even then, the odds are high that some grinning hyena in a three thousand dollar suit will take full advantage, leaving that young writer sadder but wiser to the bruising, dog-eat-dog nature of life in Hollywood -- where real knowledge always comes at a price. Trust is more of a concept than a reality above the line, where every transaction seems to be a zero-sum game in which one person’s success can only come at the cost of someone else’s failure. The brittle smiles exchanged in the executive suites are not meant to convey warmth or affection, but rather to mask the naked, shake-your-hand, stab-your-back reality that comes with playing on high-stakes turf. Above-the-line Hollywood remains a Darwinian jungle ruled by the biggest, baddest, and most devious, while all the lesser furry creatures engage in a ceaseless struggle to acquire and maintain position on the banks of the watering hole.

Things aren’t quite so treacherous below-the-line. Who you know is important down here, but there’s generally more room at the feeding trough below decks, where connections tend to be more tribal than anything else. The power structures within crews are very much like those found among our hairy primate cousins in Africa, the Great Apes. The larger crews (set lighting, grip, and camera) are run by a department head who serves as the tribal leader -- the Silverback -- without whose blessing, nobody joins the tribe. Immediate family has priority, of course, but not everybody in the film biz has the good fortune of being born into a well-connected family, nor does every Industry son particularly enjoy working for his father. There’s usually room for a few worthies who lack blood ties, although they must find other ways to forge the bonds necessary to keep them inside the metaphorical cave by the warm fire of employment, rather than outside shivering in the cold.

The essential ingredient in creating and maintaining such bonds is as ancient as intelligent life itself – the I’ll-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine symbiosis that binds all primate societies, hairy or not. These Industry bonding rituals range from very subtle to brutally straightforward. I’ve seen Key Grips demand that their crews work on weekends maintaining and repairing grip equipment the Key then rents to production companies on the job. In a stark quid pro quo, the crew is not paid for this maintenance work, nor do they receive any cut of the rental income -- but they do get hired to work the jobs. Refusing to participate is not an option: anyone who balks at the unpaid extracurricular work is off the crew: in effect, banished from the tribe. As in the dark green jungle, the penalty for crossing a Silverback can be harsh.

Most working relationships are more casual. Department heads (Director of Photography, Gaffer, Key Grip) want people on their crews who take the work seriously, do a thoroughly professional job, won’t cause needless problems on the set, and have a good sense of humor. A good, experienced crew forms a tight unit able to get almost any job done without need for detailed instructions. Once the particulars are understood, they get to it, working as a team with the smooth precision that comes from constant repetition. A department head with such a crew knows that his guys will do the job right – they won’t screw up – which leaves him with one less thing to worry about. This makes it hard for newcomers to crack the lineup, though: why take a chance on a new guy who hasn’t yet earned one’s trust?

Working on a good crew is a pleasure, offering the very real satisfaction of doing physical teamwork quickly and well. Toiling on a bad crew riddled with personality conflicts -- incompetent, selfish, or lazy personnel -- is like doing prison time at union scale. One truly bad apple can make life miserable for everybody else, and if that jerk happens to be related to the boss, there’s not much you can do but endure the ordeal with all the professionalism you can muster – and pray that another job with a different crew comes along soon.

There’s a self-correcting dynamic that tends to limit the tenure of truly bad crew members in the film Industry. In a free lance world, we’re all only as good as our last job -- including department heads, who can’t afford to risk their own future employment prospects by hiring a bad crew. Thus the unofficial below-the-line variation of the Hippocratic Oath: “If you can’t help me, don’t hurt me.” Ultimately, the main goal of every smart crew member is to make his boss look good: because when the boss looks good, you look good -- and the best way to make the boss look good is to do your job in a conscientious, professional manner. Sometimes circumstance and fate will conspire against this, at which point the least you must do is avoid making the boss look bad. Screwing up in a manner that draws attention is serious business that can, in extreme cases, interfere with your boss’s ability to get work in the future. A Cameraman, Key Grip, or Gaffer is judged by many things, including how quickly his crew gets the work done, how smoothly they interact with the other departments, and how few problems they create for the production staff. Production managers are acutely aware of what goes on during the work day -- they remember a crew that’s fast, pleasant, and makes no unnecessary waves. But if a crew member is always mouthing off, squabbling with the other departments, pestering the craft service person, making endless petty demands of the production staff, and who somehow finds a way to disappear whenever there’s heavy lifting to be done – he too will be remembered. In general, a crew member who continually causes problems will have to straighten out or replaced. As one Gaffer I worked for put it: “No flies on electric” – meaning that any of his crew who habitually screwed up or caused needless problems would not be hired for the next job.

All things being equal, having connections can make a huge difference, but since things are seldom equal in this world, even good connections don’t guarantee success. Unless you consistently deliver on the job, only the very best of connections can keep you employed. Over the long run, who you know doesn't matter as much as what you know: not just your actual performance on the job, but how gracefully you handle the pressures and frustrations endemic to Industry work. That said, it’s not an either-or proposition: to stay busy and thrive in a free-lance industry, you need to know what you’re doing and have good connections -- but the former has a way of creating the latter. A good worker with a professional attitude will earn the kind of reputation that helps build a web of connections essential to success. The lazy or obnoxious jerk who relies upon family loyalties to remain employed often leaves a trail of burning bridges in his wake, and in time, will find his connections have gone up in smoke as well. At a certain point, it’s too late to put a shine on such a tarnished reputation.

The value of being connected at the beginning of one’s Hollywood journey is obvious, but those connections can mean a lot near the end of that career as well. This Industry is ruthlessly efficient at culling the herd and making room for fresh blood. No matter who you are, how many years you have in the business, or what you did in the past -- that was then, and this is now. Like a shark that must continually move forward to maintain the flow of oxygenated water through its gills, an Industry free-lancer has to stay close to the top of his game to keep working – and even that isn’t always enough. The wisdom that comes with age and experience may be respected around the camp fire, but “gray-listing” remains a fact of Hollywood life. It doesn’t always matter that you can still do the job: the fact that you’re no longer as young and strong as the competition lowers your perceived value as a crew member. Some department heads wonder why they should hire an older guy when there’s a line of younger, stronger men ready and eager to take the job. Others are plagued by personal insecurities, and thus prefer having a younger, more malleable pup on the crew rather than an older guy with more experience -- a guy who might have a better idea how to get the job done. Age can work against you in many ways. The older Industry veteran has to know when to keep his mouth shut, and his ideas to himself.

When you’re young and starting out, giving anything less than your maximum effort is held against you. You can’t afford to relax in mid-career, either – any slacking off will be noticed and held against you – but it’s worse for the older worker, who has to prove every day that he can still do the work, still carry the load, still uphold his end of the deal. If not, a silent judgment will be made, and the phone will soon stop ringing. By then, only the very best of connections can help: the blood bond of family, giving the older worker a job where sheer physicality is not an issue. This might not be fair to the rest of the crew, who must then shoulder the extra burden, but such is life in an Industry town. Without such gold-plated familial connections, the older worker who has lost a step or three is generally finished. Although it may not add up to a bleak “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” scenario, when that phone stops ringing, it no longer matters who or what you know: like it or not – and ready or not -- you’re done.

And they say we’re always the last to know...

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