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, April 20, 2008

Parade Magazine’s Glamorous World of Hollywood

This isn’t the first time I’ve addressed this issue, nor do I suppose it will be the last -- Sisyphus had his rock, and I’ve got mine. So here we go again with the “glamorous” business of Hollywood...

On a recent sweltering Sunday morning (for a while there, April was the “new August” in Southern California), I was sorting out the wheat-from-chaff of the Sunday LA Times – a weekly ritual wherein a blizzard of glossy advertisements and other useless crap flies into the recycling pile, while any potentially interesting/readable sections land on the breakfast table. By the time it’s over, fully two-thirds of a very thick newspaper lies in the big blue bin.

Such is the nature of our consumer economy.

One of the first items to go is usually “Parade,” a cheap-ass, feel-good piece of nationally syndicated fluff/advertising that seems to take pride in masquerading as a kind of poor man’s Reader’s Digest -- all that’s missing is anything useful, interesting, or informative. Not that I’m any fan of Reader’s Digest, mind you, but where R.D. at least makes an honest effort to inform its readers on some semi-useful level (none who read it will forget the riveting “I am Joe’s Spleen”), Parade is content to wallow in the celebutainment muck of soft-core, tabloid-lite trash. Still, even a blind pig finds the occasional acorn, and this issue of Parade tried hard in a cover piece titled “What People Earn: Our Annual Report.”

I don’t know why I should care what anybody else in this world earns (unless I’m a just a deeply closeted reality show fan in major-league denial...) but I couldn’t resist taking a look before tossing it – and for that, I hang my head in shame. As I sat there clucking over the reality of working in America these days – according to Parade, a farmer in Ohio earned $30,000 last year, growing food with his bare hands, sweat, and back-breaking labor, while the odious Dr. Phil raked in $90 million vomiting pre-digested platitudes into the open, waiting mouths of a vast and oh-so-needy television audience – I came across a section titled "What You Can Make in Entertainment."

Well, well, well, my little Droogies -- inquiring minds do want to know.

After disclosing that George Clooney makes $20 million/movie (this is news? I assumed everybody from Jim Carrey to Julia Roberts makes twenty million every time they open their preternaturally large mouths), the piece claimed that the median wage for actors in the U.S. is less than $12/hour. That could even be true, given that the majority of actors are actually waiters and waitresses slaving for minimum wage and tips while counting the hours until the next audition. Then again, it could be complete bullshit -- on this, I’m not really qualified to argue with the Bureau of Labor Statistics as quoted by the editors of Parade.

At that point, though, those same editors revealed just how shallow and polluted their research aquifer really is, in declaring “As for the rest of the crew, they’re clearly doing it for the glamour, not the money.”

Yeah, it’s “the glamour” all right -- clearly. Nothing sends stardust-sprinkled shivers down my spine like getting up at 4:30 in the morning to make a 7 a.m. call, then working 12 to 14 hours doing a very physical job, before crawling home with barely enough time to shower, inhale a stiff drink or two, and hit the sack in preparation to run the same grueling gauntlet the following day -- and the next, and the next, and the next. Apparently the editors of Parade didn’t bother to ask anyone who actually knows what it’s like to work a feature film or episodic television show with a work week that kicks off at 7:00 Monday morning, and doesn’t end until 6:00 a.m. Saturday – a week that burns through a minimum 60 to 70 working hours only to reboot all over again the following Monday. Try working that kind of pace for a full season from July through April, then tell me it’s all about “the glamour.”

Many of these jobs – particularly the ubiquitous crime dramas -- involve lots of night filming in downtown Los Angeles, home to the largest concentration of homeless people west of Manhattan. Given that there are nowhere nearly enough shelters or bathroom facilities to accommodate all these people, parts of downtown LA have become the Calcutta of the West Coast. Certain alleys down there are nothing more than open sewers – and naturally, that’s where so many directors just love to shoot. Maybe they’re attracted by the haunting visual textures of a crumbling city -- or maybe they just like the smell of shit -- but as usual, it's the film crews who suffer the consequences. Production generally hires a water truck to make a pass through those alleys before we show up, which washes some of that human waste away -- but it also serves to rehydrate all the dried crap and urine that’s been deposited and baked into the pavement over the previous weeks and months, thus creating a fetid slurry of raw sewage in which we have to run cable to power our lights. I’ve seen nice neat cable runs fully submerged beneath six inches of shit and piss in those alleys, where a lungful of the foul, choking stench is enough to make you vomit.

If the editors of Parade Magazine consider this to be “glamorous” work, I’d hate to see what they consider a disgusting job.

The last time I worked under such conditions (while filming Rickey Martin’s music video, “La Vida Loca”), I staggered home at dawn after a long night of work and threw my shoes and gloves in the garbage can out back. I awoke later that afternoon with second thoughts -- those shoes weren’t cheap -- so I used a stick to drop them in a Clorox solution for a couple of days. Then I ran them through a Laundromat washing machine and dried them in the fierce LA sun. Still, it was a couple of weeks before I got that stench out of my nose.

There’s nothing remotely glamorous about such hard, dirty labor. It can be lucrative, though, especially if the job is at full union scale.* In that case, a grip or juicer can gross more than $2000 for a 60 hour week – and considerably more if they get burned to a crisp working 70 hours, since those last ten hours are paid at double-time. On an episodic (exhibit A: the “CSI” franchise and spin-offs), a crew member on first unit can expect to bring in $70,000 a year or more – and that, my ill-informed editors of Parade Magazine, is why they do it. It’s not for the dubious thrill of running into Gary Sinise or David Caruso at the craft service table.

We who work below-the-line got into it for a variety of reasons, but I suspect most Industry work-bots were never suited for the “normal” jobs offered by society in the first place. Some people have no interest in (or business) being doctors, lawyers, accountants, or pharmacists. For most of us, that route simply wasn’t an option. I can’t say why (some questions have no answers), but for me, it was either go to Hollywood or join the metaphorical circus -- and they weren’t hiring that week. If my own Hollywood journey didn’t start out to be for the money, that’s pretty much where it has ended up. Not that I make a lot – you have to work horrendous hours to bank those big checks, and I can no longer physically endure the relentless day-in, day-out grind of episodics or features. So I take less demanding, less lucrative work. But that’s okay -- where else am I going to make thirty bucks an hour packaged with a medical, dental, chiropractic, and vision plan? Those benefits represent money too, and are worth suffering for.

Some of my peers may feel differently, but I don’t do this work for the supposed glamor of rubbing shoulders with stars and celebrities. Although I’ve done plenty of freebies over the years (public service spots and spec shoots to help friends trying to break free of crew work and breathe the rarefied air above-the-line), in general, I will not do this work for free. Like any self-respecting Hollywood whore, I do it for the money. Sooner or later, that's what it comes down to for most of us: we do this to earn a living -- that much, at least, we share with the rest of the workaday world.

Even though Parade had now lost any last shreds of credibility, I checked out the rest of the piece, which revealed a few tidbits. Maybe they’re true, maybe not – but according to Parade, a “competitive eater” in New York grossed $25K last year, a “weight-loss facilitator” in New Hampshire earned $27K, Leona Helmsley’s dog “Trouble” took in $12 million, Miley Cyrus (daughter of a man who just might be the least-talented professional singer in the history of music) made $18.2 million, while Oprah raked in a cool $265 million. But even Oprah – reigning She-Goddess of Television, standing astride our media culture like the Colossus of Rhodes – is but a small, noisy insect compared to “John Paulson,” a 52 year old man who (according to the dubious sources at Parade) runs a hedge fund in New York City. He might resemble nothing so much as a pale, startled lab rat, but Mr. Paulson somehow contrived to make $3.5 billion dollars last year – and yes, that’s billion, with a “b”.

And you know what, oh wise and learned editors of Parade?

I’ll bet he does it for the money, too.

* If the show is produced by one of the cable networks (and here, HBO is the prime offender), the crew will work a lot harder and make considerably less money thanks to “sidebar” sweetheart deals signed with the union when those cable outfits were first formed many years ago. More work for less money – now THAT’s a glamorous business. I just wish the editors of Parade Magazine could personally experience such “glamor” by spending a few months working ten more hours each week for a check that comes in nearly 30% lighter...


Burbanked said...

I fully understand that "entertainment" isn't necessarily your goal here, Michael, but oh by the good god of watery coffee at the craft services table is this an entertaining piece. The Parade slick is my Sunday-morning first-stop in the paper, if only because of the speed and efficiency with which its information can be consumed and crapped out again. There is truly no shortage of sarcastic smile-inducing content found therein, and the rag's annual look at What! People! Earn! (which, strangely enough, feels as though it comes out every other month) never disappoints.

Unlike you, however, I didn't read the accompanying "article", so I missed the "they must do it for the glamour" line. I'd like to take your paragraph about working in the alleyways of downtown LA and reproduce it on a billboard, perfectly positioned just outside the bus station where all of these supposed glamour-seeking rubes are disembarking with suitcases in hand and stars in their eyes, having left their insurance-agent destinies behind for the mere chance to stir Splenda into Brian Grazer's latte. Great stuff.

I also noted the annual salary of the competitive eater, and contemplated a career change.

Anonymous said...

For God's sake, man. You belong in that "rarified" air. Your writing is far beyond most I've read, here or among any of newly enhanced scale writers.
Parade? The birds react violently when I attempt to provide them the opportunity to enjoy it from their perch above.
Superb piece!

Peggy Archer said...

This is just laziness on the part of Parade's editors.

There are enough below-the-line crew folks with blogs now that it would have taken about 15 seconds to find one of us via Google and email a few questions.

Nice smackdown, BTW. Have you emailed the URL of the entry to Parade? I think it would make a stellar editorial.