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 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.

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