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.


D said...

Excellent post. Disney has been ruthless for years. It's amazing how these "Liberal" companies (TBS was the same way) are so vehemently anti-labor. It's time for HBO to pay for what they get. I signed the petition.

Nat Bocking said...

There is a story that Disney got pissed off with its workers calling it 'Mousewitz' so a memo went around saying henceforth, anyone using that term would be fired. The response from the workers was to refer to it as 'Duckau' instead.

At least the cable crews don't also have to wear the mouse ears at meetings like they do at Imagineering.

Unknown said...

Tom Short retired on August 1. He had started early negotiations on the IATSE contract that expires next year, and suddenly decided to retire. Supposedly not due to any particular reason, just that "life is short, and you have to take time to smell the roses." Yeah right. Roses. Hmmm, I smell sumthin' else...

AJ in Nashville said...

Wow. Fascinating post, Michael. The hubris of most big corporations in truly amazing, but I wonder what the response of the public would be if they became fully aware of the worker conditions you speak of.

Disney is particularly galling. I've despised them for years for their money-grubbing and the head-job/snow-job their marketing has done on my children's generation, making all things Disney out like some kind of birthright. Nevermind the out-and-out hypocrisy of their so-called, 'moral code.'

They actually have the gall to whore out speakers from their organization to speak to businesses about how it is they manage to swindle the public out of thousands of dollars per visit to their themeparks, all the while making it seem like a bargain. They call it 'selling the experience.' I call it institutionalized robbery.

Michael Taylor said...

D -- thanks for signing, and for encouraging the readers of your blog to follow suit. Maybe something good will come of it.

Moose -- (and everytime I see your e-moniker, I can't help but think of "moose and squirrel...") -- I hadn't heard about Short's retirement, but asked around at work today. The rumor is he appointed someone to fill his tiny shoes -- someone who is supposedly less willing to keep giving up concessions at contract time. We can only hope this is true, and not wishful thinking.

AJ -- I'm with you, brother: I loathe Disney and everything connected with that benighted corporatocracy. Sorry to hear about your camera...