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)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

For Rent

“There’s something happening here, just what it is ain’t exactly clear...”

from “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield

I’ve been seeing a lot of “for rent” signs around town lately – and I mean a lot. In my neighborhood and all over town, people seem to be on the move. Increasing numbers of houses and apartments – one and two bedrooms, and maybe even studio units, for all I know – are suddenly becoming available. This is a stark contrast to the past five years or so, when “for rent” signs were rare and didn't stay up for long. Now I see a dozen or more in a single day. Whether this is due to the recesso-depression currently tightening its coils around the neck of our collective economy, or simply a seasonal migration of some sort, remains unclear. The middle of winter has to be the worst time for anybody to move – believe it or not, it actually does rain in Southern California from time to time (quite a bit, lately), and moving in the rain isn’t anybody’s idea of fun. Schools are still going strong, so it’s not the time of year for college students to be moving out of town.

I don't know what's going on here. Such highly unscientific observations aren't much to go by, but there's no denying that the unemployment rate in California is approaching 10%. People are losing their jobs left and right, and starting a grim slide down the economic ladder. Downward mobility has become the the new reality here and all over America. If the mortgage is too steep, you rent a house. If that becomes a burdensome expense, you cram your life into a two bedroom apartment. If two bedrooms cost too much, you shoehorn everything into a one bedroom unit, and when that busts your budget, there's always the cramped economies of the single room studio, or “efficiency.”

At every step down the ladder, you jettison more “stuff” at yard sales, Goodwill, or simply leave it on the sidewalk for others to take. Once you’ve pared all the way down and still can’t afford to rent on your own, either you move in with friends or get used to sleeping in a cardboard condo under the Third Street Bridge -- and at that point, life will never feel quite the same again. A lot of people who never dreamed they’d face such dire circumstances are learning some brutally hard lessons these days, with more on the way every week.

I've been lucky enough to work fifteen days so far this year, roughly half what I'd normally have logged by mid-February. But this is the "new normal," and the way things are, I'm just glad to get those fifteen days -- and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that more work is on the way.


This week’s “The Business” on KCRW is an interesting show, discussing how the advent of new technology has changed the way movies are made and viewed ever since Edison filmed that first famous steam train. The final segment -- an interview with Dean Devlin, producer of TNT’s “Leverage” – is particularly good. Devlin describes how his show uses digital technology (and the new “Red” camera) to save money while increasing the visual quality. Since I’ve never seen the show, I can’t judge whether or not he’s blowing smoke here, but according to Devlin, this new technology saves him around two million dollars per episode over doing the same show in film.

That’s a lot of money.

But it’s not just about saving money, Devlin says – it’s about offering a lot more options for the writers and directors to tell the story. More options sounds good, and in theory, more choices can make a better show, but there's really no substitute for having someone at the helm who actually knows what he/she is doing in the first place. I can't count the times we've toiled deep into the night shooting "coverage" from fourteen different angles ("Hey, I've got an idea -- let's shoot the POV of the sidewalk"), all because some idiot director (the kind of clueless tool who couldn't direct traffic on Sunday morning) never bothered to learn how to properly stage and shoot a scene.

If Devlin really is saving nearly two million bucks per episode, that means he can easily afford to to pay his crew full union scale, rather than stiffing them with the usual cut-rate, sidebar deal bullshit* so many cable networks force their crews to swallow. Is he? I have no idea, but knowing producers, I'm never an optimist when it comes to such things.

Despite my instinctive below-the-line misgivings (I don’t trust most producers any farther than I can throw them...), the Devlin interview is really interesting. He and his show seem to be on the very sharp cutting edge of truly useful digital technology, which means the rest of us will be using it soon enough. I suspect the real benefits will trickle down to Indy film makers, enabling them to make visually sophisticated movies on much more affordable budgets. In the long run, this could be good for everybody in the Industry.

In this informative and surprisingly entertaining interview, Devlin is describing the shape of things to come. It's worth a listen.

*that would be the meat-grinder rate of five dollars an hour under scale, and no double-time paid until after 14 hours worked...


Dave said...

i've watched one episode of leverage so far and i can say the show is beautiful to look at (i'm really happy to know they shoot it with the RED now). i wish i could say the same for the script and acting though. it has the slick but-can-barely-pull-it-off feel of something that would generally be a tnt original series.

i'll put it this way. my decision to watch it was based on the fact that i'm working on a similar project and wanted to know if i'm screwed or not in the near future. having watched, i'm not nervous anymore.

Michael Taylor said...

Dave --

All the shiny new digital bells-and-whistles in the world can't transform a show saddled with lousy scripts and mediocre actors into something special.

Eventually, though, somebody will combine the new technology with a good script, good actors, and a good director to create a truly compelling drama.

Who knows -- maybe that'll be the project you're working on.