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, August 31, 2008

Cable: The Dark Side of HBO

(Note: since this post was written, HBO finally came around and now pays their crews full union scale.  It's about fucking time…  MT -- 2016)

And why those who work for Disney are some of the unhappiest employees on earth....

I recently took a rigging call for “Greek”, a single-camera television comedy produced by the ABC/Disney media conglomerate. Since “Greek” premiered on the ABC Family cable channel, the rate of pay is based on one of the many “sidebar’ deals negotiated over the years to keep cable and other low budget productions from filming non-union. There’s no doubt these deals helped stem the tide of non-union work, thus providing health plan and retirement benefits to Industry workers, but the trade-off was substantial -- a nearly 20% pay cut, along with a much longer work day: 14 working hours before the crew goes into double-time.

I’ve never had a rigging call go that long, but have done plenty of days on first-unit crews that did – and most were cable shows. So here I was, laying out 4’0 (at nearly a hundred pounds per roll, the heaviest cable we deal with) in the hot sun on a studio lot, working for one of the Industry majors at an hourly rate less than what I’d made a decade before at full union scale on network sit-coms. Not less money as in “adjusted for inflation”, but less actual dollars per hour – and on those jobs ten years ago, we were guaranteed double-time after 12 working hours.

This is the dark side of cable, the slimy underbelly of sweatshop labor unknown to civilians relaxing at home, basking in the flickering glow of their Cathode Ray Guns.

Disney has long been notorious for its anti-union stance, and once the unions took hold, for being the cheapest of cheapskates among the major studios. First in animation, and later in live-action, Disney invariably seeks to beat the crews down as much as possible, striking the hardest deals, and never bending an inch. When you work for Disney, you do so on their terms, a my-way-or-the-highway stance that extends to the theme parks as well. In the early 90’s, I worked on a series of commercials filmed inside the Anaheim Disneyland. Part of the deal was using Disney workers to help our crew move, set up, and power our lighting equipment within the park. They (and their immediate supervisors) were great people, hard workers, and very helpful – and once they learned to trust us, they began to open up. I promised then to keep quiet about what they told me, and will respect that -- but there’s one revealing nugget I can share: among themselves, they referred to their place of employment as “Mousewitz.”

That tells you all you need to know about Disney.

Episodic television is a meat grinder under any circumstances, even when working under the standard union contract. Since actors get a minimum 12 hour turn-around (meaning they can’t be called back to work until 12 hours from when they were wrapped the night before), most episodic shows end up working their way around the clock as the week wears on. The crew might start work at 7 a.m. on Monday, but that 12 hour turnaround means the call time will be pushed at least an hour later – and sometimes more -- on each succeeding day. Depending on the show, by Friday, the first unit crew isn’t coming in until sometime between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. This virtually guarantees they won’t get off until early Saturday morning (sometimes at dawn) leaving them utterly exhausted, with a very short weekend to recover. Come 7:00 a.m. Monday morning, the same vicious cycle starts all over again – and it goes on week after week, month after month, at eight days per episode until all 22 shows are in the can. That kind of schedule is a real bitch, but on a network show, at least the crew will receive full union scale (with double-time after 12 hours) for their suffering.

Life under the HBO/cable sidebar deal is infinitely worse. Since the producers don’t have to worry about paying double-time until after the 14th hour, cable episodics typically blow past 12 hours and work right up to the limit before calling wrap – and they do it for the same reason dogs lick their balls: because they can. If the crew starts at 7:00 in the morning, they'll work until 10:00 at night, including a one hour lunch break. For juicers and grips, this translates into 70 hours worked over a five day week for almost $650 less than they’d be paid for toiling the same hours under the standard union contract -- and doing it all on very little sleep. A fourteen hour work day means fifteen hours on set, and with at least half an hour drive time each way, this leaves eight hours to shower, wolf down dinner, get a few hours sleep, wake up, inhale some coffee, and go back to work. For people with families, this is no life at all – and after a couple of weeks, even the young strong studs are walking around the set like zombies. In the end, this isn’t just a “quality of life” issue, but a matter of safety: tired workers make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes result in people getting hurt.

This is bullshit.

I did a fair bit of work on HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me” a while back – mostly rigging, but occasionally -- and reluctantly -- going out with first unit to take a 14 hour beating. Getting my ass kicked for considerably less money while having to work those additional two hours was a physically debilitating and profoundly depressing experience. The only saving grace was that I didn’t have to do it five days a week, like the guys who’d signed on to first unit. Those poor bastards were not happy campers.

It’s not so much the money issue that bothers me – although after spending all those years in the incredibly abusive, laissez-faire world of non-union film production, it’s rather galling to find myself (and my union brothers) working in similarly painful conditions under a certified union contract – but the 14 hour double-time rule is a real killer. Double-time wasn’t created simply to squeeze more money from the producers into the hands of the workers, but as a financial hammer to prevent productions from forcing their crews to work excessive hours. Because of this elemental union protection, most network episodics wrap for the day at or before twelve hours. Not all of them, of course, but the rules ensure that when a show decides to go long, the producers will have to pay for that privilege -- and at least this makes them think twice. The hammer of double-time forces producers and directors to do their homework, and come to the set fully prepared for the day's work.

The cable contract is bad for everyone, allowing pampered young directors to play in the sandbox for an extra two hours each day, indulging their cinematic fantasies while the crew takes a pounding night after night. The last thing a young director needs is the unfettered freedom to reinvent the movie-making wheel, playing auteur while tap-dancing on the backs of their crew. Young directors need discipline in the form of a time limit forcing them to focus on what really matters, to learn the essentials of their craft, and how to tell the story in an elegant, economical manner. A twelve hour workday is plenty long enough -– fourteen hours on a daily basis is abusively absurd. In all but the most extreme cases (under unusual circumstances, or when working for one of Hollywood’s famously obsessive lunatics*), there’s seldom a real need to go past twelve hours.

These money-saving sidebar deals made a certain sense back when cable was still flapping its baby wings, struggling to fly and survive in a broadcast world dominated by huge, powerful networks. That was a long time ago, and since then, things have changed considerably. Although it’s hard to get reliable figures from HBO, I’m told they have between fifteen and thirty million subscribers, each paying $15 per month. Even using the lower figure, this translates to nearly three billion dollars a year in gross income. Splitting the difference, it’s reasonable to assume they’re grossing at least four billion, and possibly more than five billion dollars every year.

All those subscribers didn’t come out of nowhere, of course – it was the stunning quality of HBO programming that drew them in: “Sex in the City”, “Six Feet Under”, “Oz”, “Deadwood”, “The Wire”, and “The Sopranos”** have reaped a bonanza for HBO. They doubtless took a beating on “Rome”, “John from Cincinnati” (and probably on “Tell Me You Love Me”), but that’s why God and the Republicans created tax write-offs – and Industry lawyers are among the very best at finding and exploiting such money-saving loopholes. HBO deserves full credit for bringing high quality drama to episodic television, liberating us from the tedious, formulaic crap excreted by the network TV machine. There’s no doubt that making quality television is expensive, but anyway you look at it, five billion dollars is very big money indeed.

These sidebar deals were meant to give cable a helping hand in the early days, not to stretch on into perpetuity. HBO is no longer a fledgling network, but a powerhouse that puts the so-called Big Three – and Fox -- to shame. Yes, the networks still have a wider audience, but cable has been consistently beating them to the punch with excellent, edgy programming for years now, and eating their breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the award shows. I don’t know much about Showtime – the other big subscription cable outfit – but HBO is doing just fine.

It’s high time they shared the wealth -- if not in the form of an immediate hourly raise to full union scale, then at least by ending the odious 14 hour rule. We’ve all been carping about this privately for several years now, but somebody finally came up with an on-line petition urging Mr. Tom Short and the IATSE to renegotiate the HBO contract. The goal is five thousand cyber-signatures. I signed on this week, but thus far am one of barely 200 to do so. That leaves 4800 signatures to go. Whether such petitions have any real effect remains unclear – and truth be told, I doubt it -- but it can’t hurt to try. If enough of us shout loud enough, maybe our union leadership will finally do something about it. I hope every IA member reading this will read the short petition, sign on, add a personal comment, and urge their fellow crew members to do the same. Check it out here.

There’s a reason the crews who work for “HBO” will tell you those letters actually stand for “Hey Bend Over.” ABC/Disney is even worse, a major Industry player using what amounts to a legal loophole to reap as much profit as possible while screwing the hard working crew of “Greek.” Unfortunately, this is typical of the Gilded Age, robber baron attitude at Disney. It’s time this ridiculous charade ended, time to help those workers currently being ground into the dirt under the heels of the cable contract, time our union stood up for us instead of selling us down the river.

It’s time.

*A story from a friend of a friend who lived to tell the tale: On the film “True Lies”, director James Cameron drove his crew relentlessly over a grueling seventeen straight days – working right through weekends. The crew made a ton of money in forced calls, overtime, and meal penalties, of course, but this was a Death March by any other name.

**I tried – asking everyone from our local union reps to Industry workers on the East Coast – to find out what the deal was on “The Sopranos,” but got a different story every time. It’s hard to believe HBO wouldn’t sweeten the pot for the crew of such an astonishingly successful show, but when I did two days of pick-up shots for the final season of “The Sopranos” here in Hollywood, we had to take the same sidebar deal right up the ass. Fortunately, the director was a pro (as was James Gandolfini), so we didn’t have to work past ten hours.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hiatus Week -- Is The Crew Laughing?

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”
Peter Drucker

I’ve been blathering a lot about life in the sit-com world lately, a niche of the Industry that remains a mystery to all but those who work there. During my first twenty years in Hollywood, I knew nothing at all about sit-coms, and cared even less. I came to LA to work on movies -- but after spending several hard years tied to the whipping post of low budget, non-union features, it dawned on me that I really wasn’t having much fun anymore.

And this kind of work is much too hard if you're not having any fun.

It was time for a change, so when opportunity knocked, I spent the next decade-and-a-half doing television commercials and music videos, with only an occasional return to Feature Land. The base rate of pay in commercials was much better, and unlike low-budget features, commercials actually paid overtime. An added bonus was the relatively short duration of each individual job -- there was always light at the end of the tunnel, which helped make even the toughest jobs tolerable. Earning twice the money with a lot more time off was an equation I could (and did) live with for a long time.

Now we pause for a brief digression...

Any film students reading this -- young people straining at the leash for the opportunity to work on feature films -- will be properly horrified right about now, convinced that I must be the worst form of sell-out imaginable. For so many young and idealistic film students, anyone lured from the True Path of features by the siren song of dirty filthy money is a lost soul indeed. That's how I saw the world back when I was young and falling in love with movies, but time and experience on the front lines of Hollywood taught me that a keen appreciation for movies doesn't necessarily have to be expressed by working on them. Although I know at least one juicer who rose to become a feature director, a person really has to want it to walk that particularly bruising path. I didn't. Not everyone is cut out to be an auteur.

But before you render your harsh and righteously scornful judgement, walk a few miles in my work boots -- and I wish you the best of luck in your own careers.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nothing good lasts for long in Hollywood. When commercials headed north in the late 90’s, fate led me into the strange world of sit-coms. The transition wasn't easy. After averaging two work days per week during the previous 15 years, I found myself toiling five days a week, three weeks a month. Even with the fourth week off (the “hiatus week”), this felt way too much like the ball-and-chain of a full time job.* Then there was the matter of money: sit-coms paid standard union scale, roughly half what I used to make doing commercials.

Still, you do what you must in life, so I made my peace with sit-coms. In time, I realized this type of work suited me better than any other option as I limp down the stretch after thirty hard years. I even came to like that three weeks on, one week off schedule – and like it enough to adopt it for this blog. Until now, my goal has been to post something readable every Sunday, but since I don’t have a show heading into the new television season (and those of you who slogged through the last two posts know exactly why...), I’ll go back to day-playing and rigging wherever and whenever I can. That means longer, harder, more physical work days, which equates to a lot less free time. Rather than strain to put up a decent post every single Sunday, I’ll shoot for three posts a month, followed by a “hiatus week.” When sufficiently inspired/motivated, I might post something short on these Hiatus Sundays -- hopefully an occasional guest-post from other Industry voices -- but on some of those fourth Sundays, you'll find nothing but flies circling a plate smeared with crusty leftovers here at "Blood, Sweat, and Tedium."

Such is life.

That’s the plan, anyway – and if plans are nothing more than something to hang one’s hat on (Peter Drucker’s nose-to-the-grindstone Puritan Ethic philosophy notwithstanding), then that’s where my hat now hangs.

I leave you with two items: a short and amusingly confusing bit of dialog from Ashton Kutcher on his new reality show (courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman), and a recent meditation from Rob Long, offering his above-the-line perspective on those of us who do the heavy lifting: The Crew is Laughing.

It’s a good one, and only four minutes long. Check it out.

*Yeah, I know – compared to the vast majority of jobs in the real world, this is dream schedule. We all grade our lives on the curve, however, and I speak here in the highly relative terms of life in Hollywood. Bear in mind that for the lowly juicer, that hiatus week is unpaid. Still (assuming I have enough to cover the monthly nut), I’ll gladly trade money for time. When the money runs low, I can always work to get more – but when my time expires, it’s Game Over.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Christopher Isherwood Quote

Two of the comments on last Sunday's post had to do with a passage on Hollywood by Christopher Isherwood. I know almost nothing about Isherwood or his work, but as luck would have it, an old friend ("RD", a 30 year veteran of the camera department) sent me the following a couple of months ago -- and I believe this is the quote referenced in both comments.

Here's the e-mail, followed by the quote:

I came across this insightful simile by Christopher Isherwood and wanted to share it with you and your readers. It's from Christopher Isherwood's 1945 novel about the movie business, "Prater Violet". Christopher Isherwood spent time working as a screen-writer in both London and Hollywood. His writings about his experiences in pre-Nazi Berlin were the inspiration for the play, "I Am A Camera", and subsequently, both the Broadway musical and movie, "Cabaret".

“You see, the film studio... is really the palace of the sixteenth century. There one sees what Shakespeare saw: the absolute power of the tyrant, the courtiers, the flatterers, the jesters, the cunningly ambitious intriguers. There are fantastically beautiful women, there are incompetent favorites. There are great men who are suddenly disgraced. There is the most insane extravagance and unexpected parsimony over a few pence. There is enormous splendour which is a sham; and also horrible squalor hidden behind the scenery. There are vast schemes, abandoned because of some caprice. There are secrets which everybody knows and no one speaks of. There are even two or three honest advisers. These are the court fools, who speak the deepest wisdom in puns, lest they should be taken seriously. They grimace, and tear their hair privately, and weep.”

That's Hollywood, all right. Looks like I'll have to find a copy of "Prater Violet" to put on the shelf next to Nathanael West's harrowing X-Ray vision of life in Hollywood during the 30's: "The Day of the Locust."

Thanks, RD.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Rich Get Richer

“It’s Chinatown, Jake...”
“Chinatown” 1974

Note: You might want to read last week's post first -- otherwise, the following might make even less sense than usual...

Early in June, the set lighting Best Boy from the pilot of “Gary Unmarried” phoned to tell me the show had been picked up for CBS’s Fall lineup. I’d already read the good news in the trades, but his call was a welcome confirmation that I would indeed have a job on the crew. In late July, the construction gang began assembling the sets on stage, and two weeks later, the set lighting crew started hanging lights. Now, in mid-August, production on the first of twelve new episodes -– and probably many more -- is well underway.

But as the Gods of Hollywood giveth, so do they taketh away – which is why the crew that worked so hard to make the pilot (including this juicer) will once again be on the outside looking in. Yet another Hollywood promise evaporates into the smoggy haze above LA.

Why am I not surprised...

Disappointed? Sure, but I had a lingering suspicion something might go sour with this deal. Call it intuition or just a hunch, but everything seemed to fall into place a little too neatly – and although good things do occasionally materialize without much visible effort (and truth be told, the pilot dropped right into my lap out of the big blue sky), this was not one of those times.

What happened? We got hosed, that’s what, and if the manner in which this hosing occurred is a rather convoluted tale, it’s also a useful lesson in the facts of life here in Hollywood – and yet another graduate-level tutorial from the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education.

First, some seemingly irrelevant background information, then what I actually know, followed by an intriguing (if unverifiable) rumor.

The cancellation of “Back to You” at Fox a couple of months ago was a blow to all of us who work – or used to work, and want to work again -- in sit-coms. Starring Kelsey Grammer (still glowing from his eleven year run on “Frazier”), “Back to You” was widely viewed as the White Buffalo of the sit-com world: a very tangible symbol of hope and renewal. This wishful thinking sprang from a basic Industry truism: all it takes to start a stampede in this desperately restless town is one Really Big Hit. If “Back to You” became a monster smash, the networks might see the light, burn off their reality-show garbage over the summer months, then rush en masse to fill the Fall lineup with multi-camera sit-coms. This would provide work for us all – not the easy life of picking hundred dollar bills from the heavily-laden branches of the Money Tree -- but decent, humane, non-abusive work at union scale. Such was the gauzy, sepia-tinted dream, anyway: a return to the fat-and-happy glory days of sit-coms. Adding fuel to the hopeful fire was a wide-ranging media blitz accompanying the launch of “Back to You,” painting this new show in the shimmering rainbow hues of the Next Big Thing. I turned on NPR one afternoon – the public radio network known for its measured, thoughtful coverage of national and world events – and was amazed to hear a twenty minute piece on “Back to You”, including long interviews with Grammer and legendary director/executive producer Jim Burrows.

The buzz was hot before the first episode even aired, but buzz alone can’t make a hit. In a season hobbled by the WGA strike, “Back to You” never quite managed to hit its stride, and was eventually overwhelmed by the dark shadow of failure. That such a high-profile show would flop isn’t in itself so unusual (shows drop from our television screens with metronomic regularity), but the real shock was that it happened to a Jim Burrows show. In the shaky world of television -- a hothouse of ass-covering, over-caffeinated insecurity -- Burrows is as close to a Sure Thing as ever walked the star-spangled sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that deep in the plush enclaves of the network suites, high-echelon executives sink to their knees and pray at shrines dedicated to Jim Burrows, murmuring His Name in hushed and reverential tones. In above-the-line Hollywood, there is no more enduring love than that generated by a long track record of big-money success. Having cut his teeth on shows like “Bob Newhart” and “Mary Tyler Moore”, he moved on through “Taxi”, “Cheers”, “Friends”, “Will and Grace”, and dozens more to emerge as the Big Dog producer/director of the sit-com world. More than any other living human, Burrows has the Midas Touch in television. If ever there was a Messiah to lead us all back to the Promised Land of sit-com heaven, Jim Burrows was the man. Given his track record, “Back to You” was an exceedingly rare failure -- the proverbial exception that proves the rule.

I got a chance to watch Burrows in action while day-playing on “Will and Grace” during that show’s final two seasons. He’s everything a director/executive producer should be: smart, quick, and blunt. He knows what works and what doesn’t, and will neither mince words nor waste time in his drive to make each show as good as it can possibly be. His intolerance for incompetence pays off for everyone involved; Burrows routinely blocks a complete show by noon, at which point, most directors would still be picking their way through the rubble of Act One. Having already made more money than God, he continues to work because he likes to, and is thus in the enviable position of not having to take bullshit from anybody.

Given all this, there isn’t a new sit-com on the Fall schedule that wouldn’t gladly sell its soul to have Jim Burrows involved. How much “soul” our pilot had in the first place is debatable, but when “Back to You” went down, Burrows suddenly became available – which is why he will now be directing “Gary Unmarried.” The specifics of who approached who remains a mystery, but none of that matters now. With Jim Burrows on board, this show’s chances of success just got a lot brighter.

You might assume this would be good news for moi. After all, with The Legend Himself at the helm, might not that eight year ride into the sit-com sunset I’ve been looking for have a better chance to morph from fantasy to reality?

For somebody else, maybe. One of Burrow’s exemplary qualities is loyalty: whenever possible, he uses the same crew. The cancellation of “Back to You” left his crew high and dry for the first time in a decade – a crew not familiar with being unemployed -- so Burrows reached back and brought them on to “Gary Unmarried.” But there are only so many jobs on a sit-com crew, so when they came in, we were out, just like that. The Hollywood promise I was given last Spring vanished quicker than a quarter in a Las Vegas slot machine.

I’ve worked with Burrow’s crew, and they’re good people -- it’s not as though I want those guys to be unemployed -- and I have a great respect for his sense of loyalty. “Loyalty” is not a word generally associated with above-the-line Hollywood, which typically takes a cavalier, there’s-always-more-where-they-came-from stance towards those of us who do the dirty work. In that, Burrows remains a laudable exception, but it’s still galling to watch a crew that has enjoyed such a long and lucrative run of success slide in just under the wire to snatch my show away. A year that started out so badly, then seemed to turn around in a big way, is once again taking on water and listing to port.

But that’s the way it is here in the zero-sum world of Hollywood, where the rich get richer and everyone else fights for the leftovers. Same as it ever was.

There’s a Machiavellian twist to this story, though – and here’s where we venture out onto the very thin ice of a rumor I have no way to confirm. According to the story, while Kelsey Grammar was riding high on the success of “Frazier” at Paramount several years ago, circumstances arose that brought him into conflict with a certain unnamed Paramount executive. Maybe that exec had a good reason for doing what he did, but unless you happen to be Sumner Redstone, it’s seldom a good idea to get in a pissing contest with one of your company’s big money stars. Not being Sumner Redstone, the exec lost the battle, and eventually his job. In time, he slithered over to Fox and managed to worm his way up the shit-stained ladder of success to a position of power – and right about then, who should come tap-dancing onto the Fox lot with a brand new sit-com?

That would be Kelsey Grammer, now needing another hit show, and no longer quite so high-and-mighty. I’m told the ex-Paramount exec waited until “Back to You” was teetering on the slippery side of the bubble, then pulled out the long knife and took his revenge. Only then was “Back to You” officially dead.

If all this is true, I should probably curse Kelsey Grammer when I end up manhandling hundred-pound rolls of 4/0 in the hot August sun, while the fat-and-happy crew of “Gary Unmarried” kicks back in the air-conditioned comfort of the sound stage... but that and five bucks will buy me a small cup of Starbuck's finest -- assuming I still drank the stuff.

Hollywood. It is what it is. Life in the Industry has a lot in common with ancient Greek mythology, where the Gods played their scheming little games up in Olympus, heedless of the collateral damage suffered by those helpless mortals below. All you can do is roll with the punches, hope for the best, and be ready for the next opportunity. But even after all this time, that’s easier said than done.

“Shit happens,” I tell the face in the mirror. Chewing on the hard, sour bone of bitterness won’t land another sit-com, nor lead to that eight-year wave. Maybe something else will come along. It always has, and I suppose it always will... until it doesn’t.

And when that day comes – ready or not – it’ll be time to go.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Gods of Hollywood Giveth

Attentive readers might recall a post back in May describing an untitled pilot I worked on during that truncated Spring pilot season.

A typical sit-com pilot takes eight to ten days to rig and light, followed by a one-day shoot, then three more days to take all that equipment down. For the set lighting crew, this adds up to nearly three solid weeks of work, pushing that big rock uphill all the way. Waiting at the top is a promise -- implied or explicit – that if the pilot gets picked up by the network, the guys who did the heavy lifting will go along for the ride. For those of us who prefer the cozy world of multi-camera sit-coms over other forms of Industry toil, working a pilot represents the first rung on the ladder to employment nirvana. The next step is for the pilot to get picked up – and if that happens, you’ve got yourself a show, at which point you can get greedy and start praying the show becomes a hit. The chances of that are slim, but when a show does manage to click, the results are very sweet indeed. The lighting and grip crews who worked on “Cheers,” “Frazier,” “All About Raymond,” “Will and Grace,” and “Seinfeld,” enjoyed a fat, eight-to-ten year run. That meant no day-playing or jumping from one job to the next, and no more calling around looking for work, hoping some crew might need an extra hand for a day or three. Once you land a hit show, your work-related worries are over: you’re cruising on the smooth side of Easy Street.*

Back in the good old days (which ended a few years ago), sit-coms more or less ruled the television earth. Every Spring, the networks would order something like five hundred scripts for pilot season. Of those, ninety might survive the winnowing process to be filmed as pilots, of which twenty would land a slot in the new fall lineup, or as mid-season replacements. Sit-coms have fallen on hard times since then, drastically reducing those numbers, but I doubt the ratio of success-to-failure has changed all that much. With only one in five filmed pilots going the distance, navigating pilot season has always been a bit like walking across a minefield at night. In the last ten years, very few of the pilots I worked on survived this brutal winnowing process, and of those, none made it past their first season.

Television is a tough business.

Fortunately, doing a pilot isn’t the only way to land a show. I didn’t do the pilots for any of the five sit-coms I’ve had the pleasure to work on as a member of the main crew -- not because Hollywood is a pit of grinning, back-stabbing mendacity (which it is, of course), but because pilot season has never been remotely even-handed when it comes to doling out the work. At any given time, there are only a handful of “hot” cameraman in the sit-com world: guys with a track record of doing good work on hit shows, who have managed to schmooze their way onto the "A" list. When pilot season rolls around, they're first in line for the best jobs.

The sad truth is, most producers have no clue what makes a show look good on film or tape, so when it’s time to hire a cameraman, they revert to their former insecure selves: high school geeks hopelessly lusting after the “hot” girls -- the cheerleaders -- simply because every other teenaged guy in school wanted them too. Never mind that a non-cheerleader cutie might be a lot more willing to go out with a geek, these guys wanted the "hot" girls. So it's no surprise that during pilot season, all the producers want the same three or four cameramen to do their pilot.

The power of the herd mentality in Hollywood can never be underestimated.

In a way, you can’t blame them -- for any producer, there’s a lot riding on a pilot. If landing a hit show is great for the crew, it’s even better for a producer, who can make enough money on a good ten year run to retire in style. Not that many have any intention of retiring, mind you. The Holy Grail of television producers is to rise to the exalted state of “showrunner,” where the benefits of success transcend mere money to the ultimate high: power. Some (the bad ones) being bullies at heart, crave power for its own sake: they just love being able to make other people jump. Others (the good ones), need that power to put projects close to their heart on film, shows that otherwise would never make it to the television screen. So when a producer needs a cameraman for his/her precious pilot -- and a shot at the brass ring of power -- he’s not about to take a chance on a D.P. he doesn’t know: the first calls go to the agents of the cameramen du jour. It doesn’t matter that any of the dozens of unemployed sit-com cameramen out there could do just as good a job. To the nervous producer, using a “hot” guy means one less thing to worry about. With his ass covered on that end, at least, he’s free to unleash all his nervous energies and turbo-angst on the many other troublesome aspects of production.

A few years ago, one cameraman landed seven pilots during the two months of pilot season – three of which were in production at the same time (including one I worked on) -- which meant he spent most of his days driving from one studio to the next, spending a few hours at each show. In the meantime, another cameraman I know (a guy whose work has always sparkled on the screen) got bupkis that same pilot season, simply because he didn’t happen to be one of the “hot” guys that year.

That’s just the way it is.

This absurdly unfair process holds sway only during the crazed frenzy of pilot season. When the regular television starts up in late summer, the “hot” cameramen go back to work on their established, returning shows (the hit shows they already had, which made them “hot” to begin with), leaving any new shows – pilots that got picked up – for others. This is how cameramen (and their crews) who aren’t considered “hot” manage to get shows, in essence, scavenging the scraps left behind by the in-crowd.

In this rugby-scrum of confusion, occasionally the wheel turns such that none of the “hot” cameramen are available for a pilot, which then goes to one of the many competent D.P.’s out there. If that pilot gets picked up, he and his crew are in business. Such was the case with “The Untitled Ed Yeager Project,” the working title of the pilot I did last spring, shot by a veteran Director of Photography with countless sit-coms under his belt. The show went well, and at the end of the wrap, each of us on the grip and electric crew were promised a job if the show were to get picked up.

That’s one huge “if.” Getting picked up is a bit like drawing to an inside straight – and sometimes you do get lucky -- but after a while, you learn not to get too excited by such a promise. It’s not that people are lying when they swear to give you a job – at the time, they mean well -- but situations change with dizzying speed in this business. A Hollywood promise has all the hang-time of an air-kiss on the warm summer breeze. All you can do is put the memory in your back pocket with a grain of salt, and hope for the best.

Truth be told, I didn’t pay much attention to this promise because the pilot wasn’t all that good. I’ve worked on several that were much funnier, but still didn’t get picked up, so there was no reason to think this one would. Imagine my surprise then, when the announcement hit the trades a few weeks later that our untitled pilot made the Fall lineup on CBS, under the new name of “Project Gary” – an awkward, ugly-duckling title that soon gave way to “Gary Unmarried.”

This was great news. After two-and-a-half years wandering through the wilderness of rigging and day-playing – nine hundred long days and nights without a real show – the dice were finally rolling my way. I was already scheduled to work the last five episodes of “The Bill Engvall Show” (replacing a crew member due to leave mid-season), which meant I could go straight from that show into “Gary Unmarried.” I’d be working all the way to Christmas, and with any luck, on until next Spring. A year that started out in the bleak, wintry despair of the WGA strike was turning around fast – and if this show managed to take off and become a hit, maybe it was that big wave I’ve been waiting for, the one I could surf all the way in to the sunny beach of retirement...

But as the sage advice of everyone from The Gambler to my mother has long warned, a wise man doesn’t count his money at the table, nor his chickens before they hatch: and he never -– ever -- banks on a promise made in Hollywood.

Next week: the deal goes down.

*Until your big hit show runs out of steam and gets cancelled, that is – then you’re back to Square One.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Quake Week

“You can run, but you can’t hide...”
“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” 1981

This might have been “Shark Week” as far as Discovery Channel was concerned, but in LA, it officially turned into “Quake Week” at 11:42 Tuesday morning. As earthquakes go, this one wasn’t much -- at 5.4 on the Richter scale, releasing far less energy than previous quakes in Southern California’s recent memory.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t utterly terrifying to those unlucky people near the epicenter. When an earthquake hits, there’s no way of knowing how big and bad it’s going to be. All you know is that everything you’ve always assumed was real in your world: the physical integrity of wood, cement, and steel – and the very concept “solid ground” itself – is suddenly, shockingly upended. When the ground beneath your feet turns to jello, when the street under your car ripples in liquid waves like a sheet in the wind, or when a plate glass window five feet from your head flexes in and out as though made of rubber, you’ve entered the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the earthquake. Only gravity remains constant, enforcing the ancient mandate that what goes up will indeed come down. A lot what went up did so a long time ago, in the form of bricks, mortar, and glass – and when that comes down, things get ugly fast.

An earthquake is a nightmare come to life with no warning at all. One moment, the world is its normal, troublesome/wonderful place, and the next, all hell is breaking loose. In the meantime, there’s not a damned thing you can do but hang on, ride it out, and hope for the best. And then -- just as suddenly as it came -- it’s over. The ground returns to a familiar state of terra firma, the street becomes as hard and unyielding as stone, and a window is once again something to look through, rather than at. The experience is as surreal as it is scary -- the sense of vulnerability engendered by even a relatively modest quake can be overwhelming. That feeling lingers, too. You don’t soon forget an earthquake.

I missed this one, having fled The Doomed City for a brief return to my home planet, but the images in newspapers and on television evoked vivid memories. I had the good fortune to grow up during a quiet period in California’s tectonic history. Minor temblors rumbled through every now and then, but never anything strong enough to do more than rattle the dishes. As kids, we thought earthquakes were fun. Stories of the great earthquake that nearly destroyed San Francisco in 1906 appeared in newspapers every year around the anniversary of that seminal event, but they were just that – stories from the past. In my na├»ve and youthful innocence, I thought I knew all about earthquakes.

I didn’t know shit.

The first quake to impact my consciousness hit Alaska in 1964, a ground-ripping monster that pegged the Richter scale at 8.4, shaking for a full five minutes. At one point, the meter hit 9.2 – an unimaginably huge earthquake. Alaska’s population was very small at the time, but this quake still managed to kill 130 people, including those who died when a 27 foot tsunami swept into Prince William Sound and smashed through their village.

Alaska was a long way away, though, and with television news technology still primitive, photo/video coverage of the quake was minimal. The pictures in “Life Magazine” a week later were horrifying enough, but in the turbulent 60’s, shocking events seemed to happen with metronomic regularity. News of the huge earthquake in the north quickly faded into the high level of background static. Down in the lower 48, we had other things to worry about.

Then came the Sylmar quake, which struck Los Angeles at 6:00 in the morning of February 9, 1971. As a college student in Santa Cruz at the time, all I knew about LA was the Dodgers (boo...), Disneyland, and the harbor at San Pedro, where my dad and I embarked on a three day scuba diving trip a few years before. I’d never even heard of the San Fernando Valley, just north of LA, which suffered the brunt of the damage: 65 people killed, two hospitals destroyed, and a couple of freeway interchanges brought down. Many of my friends in school had families living in the Valley, and were thoroughly freaked out by the stories they heard. It was “only” a 6.6 quake – miniscule compared to the Alaska or 1906 San Francisco quakes – but the resulting damage gave me an inkling how serious an urban earthquake could really be. Earthquakes weren’t “fun” anymore.

Still, that one happened in Los Angeles, far from Santa Cruz. I’d yet to personally experience the eye-opening terror of a real earthquake -- a state of blissful ignorance that ended October 1, 1987, at 7:42 a.m. I’d fallen into bed only an hour before, after working a brutally long day and night on a Miller beer commercial in a disgusting little South Bay bar. The place seemed okay when we started the job, but 25 hours later, the reek of spilled, sour beer (and 25 hours of endlessly repetitive commercial idiocy) transformed it into the Pit from Hell. LA was in the grip of a typical October heat wave, accompanied by the Santa Ana’s – hot, dry winds that howl in from the desert to turn LA into a giant convection oven. The day was already heating up as I drove home at 6:00 in the morning, sweaty, filthy, and tired beyond belief. Ordinarily, I’d take a shower as soon as I got home from work – especially after a job like that – but I was just too tired. Still sweaty and stinking, I fell face-first onto my bed.

It seemed like I’d only been out for a minute when a deafening rumble shook the bed like a rat in the jaws of a terrier. Too tired and confused to be scared, I stumbled from bed and rode it out hanging on to the door jamb as my apartment bucked and shuddered. Then it was over, with nothing but the sound of barking dogs and a thousand car alarms wailing in the distance.

So much for sleep. I lost nothing more than a few dishes, but although the Whittier Narrows quake wasn’t all that big – a 5.9 that killed three people – I’d now felt the power of an earthquake first-hand.

It wasn’t a good feeling.

Two years later, I was sitting in the same apartment on the phone with a cute make-up artist who was working on a feature in Florida (a young lady I pursued with romantic – and sadly, unrequited - intent), when she suddenly became upset.

“There’s been a 15 minute earthquake in San Francisco!” she blurted, then hung up.

I turned on the TV and saw a chunk of the Bay Bridge gone.

Fortunately, she’d got it wrong – the 6.9 quake lasted for 15 seconds, not 15 minutes – but that was long enough to kill sixty-three people, and inflict horrendous physical damage all around the Bay Area. The Loma Prieta quake was centered near the beautiful little town of Santa Cruz, my old college stomping grounds, which lost some of its most historic buildings downtown. Nobody I knew was hurt, but two nasty quakes in two years meant it was no longer possible to ignore the uneasy reality under my feet.

Seven years later, another rough lesson was delivered from below in the pre-dawn cold and dark of January 17, 1994, as the ground began to shake with an intensity that hit 6.7 on the Richter scale. Centered a few miles away in the Valley, the Northridge quake jerked me from a sound sleep into a state of full adrenal panic. I knew what was happening, but the dream-addled image in my mind had me trapped in a shoe box being shaken by some malevolent giant.
As soon as the first shock subsided, I staggered from bed and jumped into some clothes. There wasn’t much visible damage to my apartment, but the power was off – the whole city gone dark. Car alarms blared for a few minutes, then all was quiet. A few minutes later, sirens began to rise and fall in the distance. I waited, flashlight in hand, as an aftershock rocked the building again. It was too dark to see outside, but that wasn’t all bad: in the pitch blackness, it was evident that no fires had broken out my neighborhood. I tried my battery-powered radio, but there was only silence. Sitting there in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise, I felt a sudden kinship for my primitive ancestors – like them, I was just another puny human huddling in his cave, afraid The Monster outside might return. That got old after a while, so I started washing the dirty dishes in the sink by candlelight. It seems absurd in retrospect, but so long as I had hot water, I might as well put it to good use. If nothing else, it was something semi-useful to do while waiting for the sun to rise, and reveal how bad things really were.

Bad enough, as it turned out. As I washed those dishes, people were dying over in the Valley – seventy-two in all - suffering horrific, violent death simply for being in the wrong place at the worst possible time. Earthquakes are fickle killers.

At the time, I had no way of knowing any of this. I was still wondering if any more quakes were on the way – maybe what we’d experienced thus far was only the warm-up for the long-dreaded Big One. Aftershocks kept rocking the building, rattling the dishes as well as my nerves. Then the radio crackled to life – one of the local NPR stations was finally on the air, broadcasting what little was known.

I was lucky. My building stayed up, with the only obvious damage a big pile of bricks that had been a fireplace and chimney a few minutes before. The dawn brought electricity back to to my area, and I watched the television news reports from disaster sites all over the city. One helicopter shot showed a big three story apartment, still upright, but now only two stories tall. The first floor, and all those people who lived there, were dead or trapped underneath. Another shot from the air revealed a street flooded with water erupting in huge sheets of flame as gas leaked from broken pipes below ground – fire and water all at once, like something out of the Old Testament.

The quake hit early enough that most Industry people weren’t yet on the job. A few were, though, one a set-dresser (friend of a friend) who was working on a show at Warner Brothers. Up on a ladder when the shaking started, he reported making a rapid, gravity-assisted descent, then running for his life as the set walls followed him down, like an “Indiana Jones” stunt come to life. He barely made it out in one piece. In a post on his blog here, Nat Bocking tells a good story w/photos (“ a picaresque tale,” in his own words) detailing his experiences coping with the quake’s aftermath that morning, then reporting for work as a prop man on “Full House” at Warners, where the stage’s fire sprinkler system had soaked the entire set with thousands of gallons of water.

Tuesday’s quake in LA was nothing like that. It was only taste, reminding us all of the tectonic Sword of Damocles under which we live here on the West Coast. LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle are all built on geologically unstable ground. According to geologists, California faces a 99.7% chance of a major quake sometime during the next thirty years in LA or the San Francisco Bay Area – or both. Those are steep odds. After seeing the toll of death and destruction in China’s recent devastating quake, the thought of what we’ll face when a major quake hits our urban areas is sobering.

I could always move to Kansas, I suppose, but that would be leaping from the frying pan of earthquakes into the fire of tornadoes, in a land as flat and featureless as a billiard table. No offense to Kansans, but I was born here in the rolling hills of earthquake country, and here’s where I’ll stay, for better or worse. There’s no escape, really -- wherever you go, some sort of cosmic sledgehammer awaits, cocked and ready to smash your world to bits.

As I type these words, I’m looking out at miles of bucolic pastoral beauty, four hundred long miles from Los Angeles. On a day like today, sunny and clear, it feels a lot like paradise -- but a serpent lurks in every Eden. Down at the bottom of the hill lies narrow sliver of water marking the San Andreas Fault – the very same fault that leveled San Francisco a hundred years ago, and which (according to the experts) is once again loaded for bear and ready to rumble. The tectonic clock is ticking, our date with earth-shaking destiny one step closer every day.

No wonder I don’t sleep easy anymore.

Enough of this grim stuff. For a much lighter view from The Onion on the effect The Big One will have on LA, click here