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, July 13, 2008

Another Reason to Hate Starbucks

“There’s no way to delay that trouble comin’ every day...”
Frank Zappa

Summer. The sun beats down like a blacksmith’s hammer, pounding every living thing into submission. It’s bad enough in Hollywood, but over in The Valley, heat waves shimmer off the pavement as if rising from a barbeque grill, the asphalt turning soft under the relentless thermonuclear assault from 93 million miles away. Out on the streets, the homeless drag their hopelessly overloaded shopping carts under any available shade – a tree, a billboard, a telephone pole -- to wait out the long afternoons until darkness brings a measure of relief. Everything and everybody moves at a slower pace except the eternal rush of traffic, as air-conditioned, over-caffeinated drivers in big black Escalades and shiny new Beemers mash pedal to the metal in their eternal race to be first to the next red light. To the “winner” goes the honor of sitting there -- baking in the hot sun while waiting for the light to turn green – just a little bit longer than the “losers.”

And when that green light finally comes, the race begins anew.

I suppose this rat-race insanity will be with us in one form or another so long as we live in such crowded cities, but it’s increasingly clear that change really is marching our way – big change. The Arabs have a phrase to describe what’s coming:

"My grandfather rode a camel. I drive a car. My son travels in jet airplanes. His son will ride a camel."

Our kids and grandchildren may not end up riding camels, but the ground is shifting under our feet. Sooner or later, everything we now take for granted will be in flux. Nobody can predict exactly how it will all work out, but a hint of our collective future is there for anyone who fills up at a gas station these days. That's just a taste, though – in Hollywood-speak, a preview of coming attractions. Like it or not, there’s more of the same in the pipeline for us all.

A lot more.

"That will be then," we say, comforting ourselves. "This is now." But if the past is any guide to the future, we’ll keep chewing this comfortable old bone until “then” finally does morph into “now.” When that time comes, we’ll find ourselves blinking in the harsh light of a brand new day.

A day that will feel a lot like summer.

* * *

It was back to work on the sit-com last Monday, after our final one-week hiatus -- lighting, rehearsing, and shooting the first of two remaining episodes for this season. That means two more decent paychecks and then... who knows? The immediate future beyond mid-July remains as murky as Baghdad in a sand storm. AFTRA’s vote to accept their new contract jabbed a sharp elbow into the ribs of SAG’s leadership, which had waged an expensive last minute jihad attempting to sway AFTRA members into voting against the deal. Having decisively lost that battle, SAG then rejected the “final offer” from the studios. The upshot of all this is anybody’s guess -- but SAG still has the option to call for a strike vote. Whether they could muster enough member support to authorize a strike -- given the current dismal economic realities in Hollywood and beyond -- remains the Great Unknown. Nobody with a lick of sense wants to see another work stoppage cripple Hollywood.

Whatever happens, I’ll get through the next couple of weeks. Even if SAG decides to go to war, it takes awhile to make a strike happen, so we’ll finish our show -- but late July/early August is when the mainstream of television programming usually gears up for production in a big way. In a normal year, stages that have sat empty since early May would fill up with set construction crews, painters, grips, and juicers in the next few weeks, working long, sweaty days to get the new and returning shows up and running for the Fall season. In an Industry that walks the high wire over raging waters of uncertainty in the best of times, waiting for SAG to make a decision is like having a giant hand shaking that wire. No forward progress can be made so long as the Industry is hanging on for dear life. What should be a fat, money-making part of the year for most below-the-liners has become a time for staring at the calendar and wondering what’s coming. Will the networks take the chance (and expense) of building and rigging all those sets under the assumption SAG will settle soon, or will they hold off in fear of getting caught with their financial pants down by yet another protracted labor stoppage? And if they do decide to hold off on production, what becomes of the 2008/2009 television season?

I guess we'll find out.

* * *

While sitting in our tiny set lighting room last week (where we wait for rehearsals to end, so we can get to work lighting), we kicked around the subject of another work stoppage, which led to a discussion of the WGA strike last winter. K.C. (our Set Lighting Best Boy) mentioned he’d heard that Starbucks outlets in LA were handing out free coffee to any writer who flashed his/her WGA card over the duration of the strike.

This was news to me, since I'd been occupied with some surgery and subsequent recovery at the time. As a gesture of right-on, power-to-the-people worker solidarity, it sounded pretty good -- and since writers tend to drink a lot of coffee, a shrewd business decision on the part of Starbucks.

The rest of the story wasn’t quite so heart-warming. Since K.C. -- like almost every other below-the-line workbot in town -- had been summarily dis-employed by the writers decision go on strike, he decided to stop by his local Starbucks and show his union card.

“Can I help you?” said the young, too-cool-for-school barista behind the counter.
“I hear you’re giving the writers free coffee.”
“Yeah,” replied Mr. Starbucks.
“Does that go for the rest of us? We’re out of work because of the strike too, you know.”
“Sorry, dude,” the young man shrugged. “Free coffee's just for the writers.”

So much for worker solidarity. In the eyes of Starbucks, it seems, the writers are worthy of respect (in the form of free coffee), while the rest of us -- we who sweat and toil to turn those scripted pages into on-screen entertainment for the profit of all those above-the-line -- remain the dirt beneath their feet. We’re so far under the radar they don’t even know we exist, even though most below-the-liners I know buy a lot of coffee from Starbucks. But Starbucks decided to get some publicity by giving out free coffee to writers (whose paychecks typically dwarf those of the rest of us) while ignoring everybody else thrown out of work by the strike.

I’m not bagging on the writers or the WGA. They made a hard decision to fight the power of the greedy, soulless, spawn-of-the-Devil AMPTP, and were willing to pay the price of going three long months with no income at all. They stood tall behind their principles, and for that, earned my complete respect.

Starbucks is a different story. Had they offered free coffee to all unemployed Industry workers, the public relations victory would have been huge. K.C. told me that when he called a few other businesses also offering discounts to striking writers, many were quick to sign on. “Give us your union’s phone number,” they replied. “We’ll extend the same offer to the membership.”

So why not Starbucks? Yes, such an across-the-boards policy would have eaten into the corporate profit margin for three months, but they could have offered conditions – free coffee for all out-of-work Industry people three days a week, maybe, or even one highly symbolic day per week. But instead they went for the cheap publicity of “supporting the strikers” while snubbing everyone else – people who wanted to work, but couldn’t because of the WGA strike.

I’m no a fan of giant chain stores in general, but for a company smart and compassionate enough to say “we’re all in this together,” I would certainly make an exception.

Not now. From this point on, there’s no way Starbucks gets any of my business. It’s done, over, terminado, kaput, finito. Starbucks, as Tony Soprano might say, is dead to me. As far as this juicer is concerned, they can take their little green mermaid and shove her where the sun don’t shine.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Wouldn't they be giving the whole town free coffee if they gave everyone who was out of work free coffee?
And how scary would Hollywood become with everyone cracked out on caffeine? Think, Mike!

Michael Taylor said...

One day a week of free coffee for all film/television workers unemployed due to the strike -- that's all it would have taken for Starbucks to win the hearts and minds of those who carry the Industry on their backs.

It's about the principle, not the coffee. Starbucks was in effect rewarding one group of Industry workers for putting many thousands more out of work (for three months) a few weeks before Christmas. Had they delivered free coffee to the picket lines, I'd have no argument with them. Instead, they chose to favor one class of in-store customers over everyone else.

That just doesn't work for me.

Come to Hollywood sometime, Carlo, and you'll find that most of Hollywood is cracked out on caffeine (and God knows what else) 99% of the time anyway.