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, June 15, 2008

Oh Canada...

Mexicans have a traditional lament about the difficulties of living next door to the United States: “Pobre Mexico, tan cerca de Los Estados Unidos, y tan lejos de Dios.”

Poor Mexico, so close to the United States, so far from God. 

Canadians doubtless have their own pithy phrase to describe the ups and downs of living in such proximity to the U.S. It can’t be easy having such a loud, arrogant, and obnoxious neighbor downstairs: We play the boom box all night long, litter the lawn with garbage, let the dogs run loose in the neighborhood, and pass out drunk on the front porch – metaphorically speaking. Meanwhile, a very real tsunami of gray-haired Americans surges across the border every day to strip Canadian pharmacies of cheap prescription drugs. When anyone has the temerity to speak of our boorish behavior, we get all red in the face, draw our guns, and start bellowing "USA! USA! USA!" Adding injury to insult, the last few years have seen some of Canada’s most beloved hockey teams – the heart and soul of that northern country -- uprooted by the dynamics of modern capitalism, and transported south to places like Texas and Florida, where the only ice most people ever seen is the crushed variety in their snow-cone Margaritas.

Canada – a beautiful country populated by really nice people -- did nothing to deserve this. They stand by us through thick and thin, even as we remain ungrateful for (and thus unworthy of) such loyal support, and are generally too polite to complain when we routinely abuse their good nature. I’ve met a lot of Canadians over the years, here and across that northern border, and the vast majority were terrific people.

And so to those few readers of this blog in the Great White North -- this post is not directed at you, personally, but rather at certain actions of your government that had a great impact on Hollywood, and thus upon me and my fellow below-the-line workbots.

Nobody who works in the Industry needs to be reminded about “runaway production.” We’ve all suffered to a certain extent over the last ten to fifteen years – some more than others -- as work once done in Hollywood migrated elsewhere. Production has fled Hollywood in search of lower costs, including cheaper labor, which often means non-union workers willing to toil under considerable abuse for less money at the hands of ruthless producers who don’t give a damn how much hell they put a crew through so long as their precious movie/commercial/video is completed. Non-union workers enjoy no health or pension plans (and often, no overtime), which means they’re in it for the money they make each day, and nothing more.

I’ve been there – like many others, I started there -- and know very well how bad a place that can be.

There are compelling reasons to film outside of LA, particularly for lower budget productions. Not every movie can afford to shoot on a studio sound stage, where elaborate (read: expensive) sets must be designed, built, dressed, and propped for each scene. Nor is location filming particularly cheap here in LA, where permit fees and local regulations (not to mention the demands of our increasingly cranky residents*) can blow big holes through a small budget in short order. Depending on the circumstances, it can be cheaper to take a non-union crew from LA out of state to film on a distant location, or else take only the essential union personnel, who then staff their crews with local labor as much as possible.

In the late 80’s, I did a feature in Oxford, Mississippi – a period-piece set during the early days of the civil rights struggle in the Deep South. We shot in the same locations that had appeared in grainy black and white on our nightly news broadcasts back in the late 60’s – including the infamous steps of the Lyceum at Ole Miss, where James Meredith once walked into the vortex of a cultural shit-storm. Most of the limited budget went to a few “name” actors: Treat Williams, Alley Sheedy, Phoebe Cates (and a very young, very hot Virginia Madsen) – but by using a non-union crew in a state where permits, locations, and housing were relatively cheap, the producers were able to get the film made. To shoot that same movie in LA would have cost considerably more, which means in all likelihood, it would never have been made at all. While this wouldn't have been a tragedy for the movie-going public, those of us who worked on that movie appreciated the employment. So did our landlords, back home in LA.

There was a time when most location shoots far from a major population center would bring the entire technical crew from LA. Film making seems to be a mysterious process at first, but the basics aren’t all that complicated -- and as the locals watched, worked, and learned, they caught on. Nowadays, a decent crew can be found almost anywhere, and the best of them are solid professionals.

This is all well and good. Anybody willing to invest the time and effort to learn the essential skills of the craft has every right to put those skills on the market. LA doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have a hammerlock on every last film job in the country. For a long time, we competed on a relatively level (if ever-shifting) playing field here in the U.S., where each region had something to offer. So long as nobody got too greedy, there was enough work to go around.

Some very big features have gone to New Zealand in recent years, and there has long been a steady drumbeat of low-rent U.S. productions shooting features in Eastern Europe, but I don’t see this posing any real threat to the domestic Industry or American film workers. You want to shoot your low-budget vampire movie over eight miserable weeks of night-filming in Romania? Please, be my guest…

TV movies began migrating to Canada twenty years ago, to save money and take advantage of modern urban architecture that could easily pass for a U.S. city. I didn’t begrudge them that – share and share alike, remember? Besides, working a TV movie generally means four hard weeks of long, ball-busting days, and I’m way too old for that. But during the mid-90’s, the Canadian government succumbed to the siren call of greed, and began offering incentives in the form of extremely generous subsidies to lure more U.S. productions north. This tactic worked very well, and at a certain point in the mid-to-late 90’s, it was as if a dam suddenly collapsed on the border, sending a flood of commercial and feature production north, leaving much of Hollywood high and dry. At the time, I’d been riding a ten year wave as a gaffer doing television commercials – but it wasn't long before all of my clients ceased operations here and began doing their filming in Canada.

One of my main clients was a commercial company that owned production facilities in West LA, including two stages. This meant they didn’t have to pay stage rental whenever a job came along -- a huge advantage that saved them buckets of money. But once the Canadian subsidies came along, it became cheaper for that company to fly to Vancouver, rent a stage, and shoot their commercials up north (with Canadian film workers), than to do the job using their own facilities and crews here in LA. Even with the added expense of flying a producer, director, cameraman, art director, assistant director, and actors a thousand miles north, then putting them up in expensive hotels (while paying everybody a fat per diem over the duration of the shoot) – it was still cheaper to film in Canada. All totaled, the favorable currency exchange and government subsidies added up to a fifty percent savings over filming in the U.S.

The economic advantage was overwhelming. We cut our rates and agreed to work longer hours in an effort to stem the tide, but it was never enough. No matter what we tried, the work continued to hemorrhage north. Pouring salt in the wound, Canada’s labor regulations made taking American crew members north of the border a prohibitively expensive proposition: for every American grip or juicer on the crew, a Canadian worker had to be hired, needed or not.

With the deck stacked against us in every way, many of us were soon out of the television commercial business altogether. The cameraman I’d worked with for fifteen years managed to land a job shooting second-unit on an episodic television show, while I was lucky to get a job juicing on a multi-camera sit-com. My crew (Best Boy and several juicers) scattered to find employment wherever they could. Our tight-knit little band -- grips, juicers, camera, art department, sound, and production people -- who had done a lot of good work together for a long time, went our separate ways to survive.

Nobody said it would be easy in the Big City. When shit happens, all you can do is shrug it off and make the best of things in adapting to the new reality. I never blamed Canadian film workers for my own misfortune -- in reaping the rich rewards of this tectonic shift in Hollywood economics, they were simply taking advantage of suddenly favorable employment conditions. In their shoes, I'd do the same thing. But it’s one thing for U.S. producers to head north following the cheaper Canadian dollar, and quite another for the Canadian government to further lure producers north with such irresistibly generous subsidies.

That, my Canadian brothers and sisters, was stepping way over the line…

Our government did nothing, of course. The fact that so many of us in Hollywood were no longer paying nearly so much in taxes on our drastically reduced incomes didn’t seem to bother Washington in the least. Nor did our mother union, led by the Great and Glorious Leader for Life, Mr. Tom Short, pay anything more than cheap lip service to our plight. While the LA and New York locals screamed bloody murder, the head of IATSE – which also has jurisdiction in Canada – looked the other way. “My hands are tied,” sniffed Mr. Tom. “Canadian workers are members of IATSE too.”

Translation: Tom Short to Hollywood -- “Drop dead.”

Thanks for nothing, Brother Tom. But really, why the hell should he care? After all, his fat annual income wasn’t cut by a single penny, much less take the two-thirds hit so many of us did out here on the front lines. Apparently he figured this was our problem, not his – and considering how things worked out, I guess he was right.

They say misery loves company, though, and I recently noticed something interesting on the bumpy road from Bad to Worse. Guided by the unparalleled ineptitude of our political leadership these past eight years (the worst politicians money could buy), the value of the American dollar has plummeted. In and of itself, this is not particularly cheery news. Should the dollar fall too far, our once undisputed heavyweight champ of world currencies could end up a punch-drunk has-been, staggering from one bar to the next, glassy-eyed and sliding towards the gutter. But it is indeed an ill wind that blows no good, and the dollar’s plunge has not gone unnoticed by U.S. producers, who no longer find it so advantageous to head north. Large numbers of television commercials are once again being filmed in the US, and although those odious Canadian government subsides remain, I’m hearing that more and more productions are deciding to shoot south of the border – drum roll, please -- to save money. The snow-shoe is suddenly on the other foot, as Canadian film workers find their jobs migrating across the border, thanks to (ahem) “runaway production.”

Believe me, my Canadian brothers, I know exactly how disturbing it is to watch one’s livelihood evaporate right before your eyes. Do you lie awake at night wondering how you’ll make the payments on your house, car, and the Ski-doo? I know the feeling. Well, maybe not about the Ski-doo -- there’s not much call for those here in LA -- but that sense of a trap-door suddenly opening beneath your surprised feet, sending you on a free-fall plunge into the dark, bottomless void?

Been there, done that – and I know how much it sucks.

I resist the sour pleasures of Schadenfreude. Crowing over the misfortune of others is bad karma, for one thing -- life has a way of making sure we all get our turn in the barrel – and as one of many who took a major, life-changing hit thanks to the actions of the Canadian government, I know just how devastating that can be. All I can say to my North-of-the-border friends is this: you enjoyed a very lucrative decade of abundant employment at our personal expense. If what I’ve heard is true – if some balance has indeed been restored to such an outrageously unfair situation -- then all I can do is offer you my hand and welcome you to the barrel. It’s not much fun in here, but it’s certainly been an educational experience for me. I’m sure it will be for you, too.

Tell you what: call me ten years down the road and we’ll hash things out over a couple of beers. Hell, I’ll even buy – Molsen’s, if you like – and lend a truly sympathetic ear. As one who knows exactly how much fun it is adjusting to life on a drastically reduced income, I feel your pain.

Really, I do.

*I completely understand – and have great sympathy with – the frustration felt by civilians who find their street/block/neighborhood under siege by a film production. Suddenly there are huge trucks hogging all the parking spaces, and people everywhere acting as if they own the place. But this is a subject for another post...


D said...

Well said, Mr. Taylor. I also did not begrudge the Canadian grip or electric those jobs that I no longer had access to (which finally caused me to leave my home market that I had been successful in for ten years and move West). I do remember getting into several grade school level internet fights with some of them (Canadians)over whether the productions were fleeing there because the crews were so much better or the incentives made it cheaper (yes, some really thought that). A friend of mine,a talented Dolly Grip, who runs "Dollygrippery" with me is an unfortunate casualty of this global game of monopoly and I hate to see him out of work because of it. It's all a cycle though, and we'll be on the short end as soon as Afghanistan or Namibia become more profitable places to shoot.

Michael Taylor said...

Thanks, D. It's good to have you back -- and you're not far off in your predictions of off-shore production. I recently read of a new television drama set in a hospital in Santa Monica. 12 episodes are supposedly planned thus far, with the writers working here -- while the crew (doubtless wearing helmets and body armor) shoots the show in Bogata, Colombia.

If that's not enough to make a Hollywood workbot's hair stand on end, then he must have a shaved head.

This is all just words on paper thus far, so I don't know if it's really happening or not -- but it shows the general direction things are heading: to Hell in the proverbial handbasket.

Maybe we'll be having those beers with our Canadian brothers sooner than I thought...


As a canadian who got his us papers and is coming to the states to get work I can only say it's a global economy and an "A" crew in L.A. is an "A" crew in toronto is and "A" Crew in Prague. Just because you live in LA doesn't entitle you to a career. There's lost of good talented people working everywhere, and lots of reasons to take shows on the road.

Michael Taylor said...

Maybe so, Darrin, but money is the biggest reason of all, and it was your government's subsidies that sucked so much work out of LA -- not the quality of Canadian crews.

Anyway you spell it, that was unfair -- but it's also in the past. What's done is done, so welcome to the US. It's nice for you that you're allowed to come work here. Too bad we can't do the same in Canada.

secam said...

Full disclosure, I'm a Canadian electric, living in Toronto. I don't disagree with your assessment--everyone would be better off if Canadian production sustained the Canadian industry, and American production the American industry. I have argued for years that a growing Canadian production base would mean a greater stability to my (and other) locals' production slates year to year.

But it can't be ignored that this is an unrealistic hope, in many ways due to the broadcast and theatrical distribution systems in place in Canada--systems defined many decades ago by the predatory practices of American studios and broadcasters.

The American studios and networks largely treated Canada as an additional US territory (and I'll admit that, then, our government was to partially blame for accepting this concept so readily). Because the theatres were owned by American companies, only American films were shown. Is it really such a surprise that Canadian production withered on the vine, in many cases before even sprouting? There is no production without the opportunity of distribution. And the problem has largely worsened with the onset of simulcasting--several of our main broadcast networks show nothing but American fare. Not that the networks are complaining.

Basically, if the industry mainly allows for American films to be produced and distributed, it's not so surprising that our provincial and federal governments would do everything they could to sustain mainly those productions, at the expense of American and Canadian filmmakers both.

Certainly, I can't blame you for what's at work. And I don't. You and I are two guys trying to make a living doing what we do. I merely want to make the point that the reason for rampant runaway production stretches much further back than merely the vision of contemporary governments, and the issue is much more complicated than it would seem--relying as it does on entertainment history going back to the 1920's.