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, April 29, 2009

Crew Only

No Background, No Laughers

In space, no one can hear you scream...
Alien, 1979

I stood at the craft service table contemplating the vast selection of donuts arrayed before me, feeling a bit like a customer eyeballing the lineup of baby-dolled honeys in one of those pay-for-play pleasure palaces that make Nevada a destination location for adventurous tourists from all over the world. “Whatever you wish, sir,” cooed the imaginary donut-voice in my head. “Glazed, chocolate-dipped, chocolate-dipped with nuts, jelly-filled, cream-filled, powdered sugar, candy-sprinkled, or plain?”

That indeed was the question: which of these high-fructose, trans-fat laden, artery-clogging heart attack bombs did I desire?

“Desire” was too strong a word, really. These were just donuts, after all, not scantily-clad young women eager to fulfill my every primal craving in return for a wallet-full of cash (or credit, so I’m told). I wasn’t even hungry, having inhaled a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns from the breakfast spread barely an hour before -- but the sad truth is, actual hunger has nothing to do with it. The availability of seemingly limitless quantities of free food on set is the only real perk* the crew gets to enjoy while working on a sit-com pilot, and this cornucopia of comestibles is available only during the two or three blocking, pre-shoot, and shoot days near the end of the process. In the first week of a pilot, there’s usually no craft service at all – nothing but a five gallon bottle of water to slake our thirst. Crafty sets up shop in the second week to feed the actors, writers, producers, director, and AD’s during rehearsals. At that point, grip and electric don’t come in until late afternoon – and our first order of business is to orbit past the steam tables at craft service to scope out the leftovers. Sometimes that food is very good indeed, but it can be a hit-or-miss proposition. The day you come in really hungry and counting on those leftovers will invariably be the day the above-the-liners hoovered up everything in sight, leaving nothing but stainless steel trays half-full of tepid water.

Until we get to the all-you-can-eat block-and-shoot days, the only safe strategy is to come to work “having had.”

As this blog continually strives to convey, making a movie or television show is often an exceedingly tedious endeavor, larded with endless fiddle-fucking around by one department or another. The cameras won’t roll until everything is exactly right, which means if your department isn’t causing the delay – in which case you are extremely busy – then you’re stuck waiting for the metaphorical paint to dry. This held true on the pilot I just finished: while camera, grips, props, set dressing, sound, hair, makeup, or production frantically scrambled in response to yet another foot-stamping hissy-fit on the part of our petulant little tyrant of a director (who we dubbed “Klaus,” due to his startling resemblance to the late Klaus Kinski), the rest of us had to remain alert and ready to hit the throttle hard the moment the AD started barking. In the meantime, many people found reasons to stare into the blue glow of their cell phones, but given the close proximity to large quantities of food, the temptation to wander over and graze at craft service -- hungry or not -- was usually overwhelming.

In the end, we stuff our faces more out of sheer boredom than anything else, which is one reason so many veteran Hollywood work-bots look a lot more like Rush Limbaugh than Michael Phelps.

We had a lot of extras -- otherwise known as “background” – on this block-and-shoot day, along with a couple of dozen “laughers,” people paid to sit in the stands and laugh at the presumably humorous lines in the script. The writers already do this, of course, chuckling in unison and right on cue at lines they’ve read, heard, and re-written dozens of times already. This is not genuine laughter, but rather a reflexive nervous reaction typical of many herd animals. With only eight to ten writers on a cramped set, it’s not long before the actors recognize the writer’s particular laughter – and since we’re shooting this multi-camera pilot without the usual live studio audience or warm-up comedian, the “laughers” were hired to help out at the rate of $75/day. They earned every penny, too, cracking up with great enthusiasm at all the punchlines, every time -- even the really lame jokes, which were abundant in this particular pilot.

Multi-camera sit-coms** are meant to be shot in front of a live studio audience, which makes doing a sit-com pilot without that audience a very strange experience. Absent the countdown to showtime, and the arrival of all those people in the seats, it’s easy to lose track of the time. A sound stage is a windowless, climate-controlled environment where the concepts of “day” and “night” have no meaning except as lighting cues when we move from one set to another. It might be high noon or 3:00 a.m. outside those big stage doors, but the only way to gauge the passage of time inside is by the arrival of the next meal -- and there are lots of meals during the block-and-shoot days, during which the crew is practically force-fed like those hapless geese from which the infamous pate de fois gras is extracted. Although there’s always something to whine about in an Industry that both caters to and depends upon so many massive (and massively insecure) egos, the one thing we can rarely complain about is any lack of food on a shooting set. When working on a crappy production, the offerings might be more akin to prison food than anything you’d actually want to eat, but at least it’s free – and if you’re lucky enough to be on a hit show, the food can be very good indeed. Even when the scheduled meals aren’t particularly great, there’s always the Horn of Plenty at craft service.

It all starts with a hot breakfast buffet -- scrambled eggs (or egg whites for those on diets), hash browns, bacon, sausage, pancakes and/or waffles, and hot oatmeal. Three hours later, platters of small sandwiches appear: turkey, tuna fish, salami and cheese, or sometimes roast beef. Three hours after that (six hours after call), we break for a catered lunch. Something else will appear three hours after lunch -- hot dogs, pigs-in-a-blanket, and/or soup – and three hours later, another hot meal of pasta and salad or chicken (usually from Pollo Loco or KooKooRoo) arrives. This "second meal" is usually a “walking meal” rather than a sit-down affair, which means that the work goes on (and we still get paid while we eat), whether or not we actually stand while eating. This is more like in-flight refueling than a real meal -- I can’t count the times I’ve been halfway through a “walking meal” that I had to put down so I could sprint to the top of a 12 foot ladder and adjust a lamp for the gaffer or DP. The food has usually gone cold by the time the task is completed to the boss’s satisfaction, but unless production actually breaks us for a sit-down (read: unpaid) meal, the work always comes first.

Beyond the craft service table -- available to everyone on set -- is a craft service room where the better snacks, bottled water, and decent coffee/ tea is kept. On a typical sit-com episode with only a handful of extras, the craft service room is usually open to all – but on a tight budget pilot or an episode featuring an unusually large contingent of background, the room is often reserved for principle cast, production, and crew only. It’s understandable – with all that time on their hands, forty extras could strip the craft service larder bare like a swarm of locusts in half an hour. With only so much money in the budget (and producers loathe to cough up more), Crafty must be as fiercely vigilant as a mother hen guarding her clutch of eggs.

That’s why the signs “No Background in room” and “No Laughers in room” were taped to the craft service room doors on this last pilot. Although the economics of such exclusionary policies are sound, this kind of thing always bothers me. The background and laughers are among the lowest paid people on set, and they know it. Heaping insult upon injury, they are then further demeaned as Untouchables not welcome at our table – they do their work just like the rest of us, but aren't allowed a bottle of water or peanut butter cookie from the inner sanctum of that craft service room.

Restricting the good stuff to the crew is typical on larger shoots such as episodics and feature films, where it’s not uncommon to see a “Crew Only” sign above the crew craft service table, while the extras are relegated to their own table loaded with cheaper stuff. If this feels all wrong, it's certainly nothing new: human societies employ class systems of one sort or another the world over. Whether you live in England, India, China, or Hollywood, those with a higher social status or greater perceived economic value enjoy better treatment and higher quality material goods. The class divisions are stark on a sound stage, where the warming tables in network green rooms are loaded with delicacies for the above-the-line crowd -- tasty treats the crew is never allowed to touch. Life is cruel here among the humans on Planet Earth, where the one thing you can count on is that shit always rolls downhill -- and the closer you are to the bottom, the deeper it gets.

The confusion, logistics, and sheer momentum of a large production tend to overwhelm any pangs of guilt or envy at being on the wrong side of such separate-but-unequal treatment -- which is to say that although the crew is well aware of it, we pretty much ignore the whole thing. Every now and then, though, some of that awareness manages to seep through the chaos. The best example I ever saw came on a big Dr. Pepper commercial I did back in the early 90’s, a job that employed hundreds of extras for three weeks, and finished up with an all-nighter at a drive-in movie theater in Orange County. For all three weeks, those “Crew Only” signs had kept the extras at bay, restricted to their own decidedly cheesy craft service table. As we broke for lunch at midnight on that final work "day", everybody – cast, crew, and extras – had to file past the prop truck to get to the caterer. Prop departments seem to attract people with a good (read: bent) sense of humor, and this particular prop crew had a well-deserved reputation for quietly outrageous behavior -- and once again, these guys came through: dangling in the breeze from the back of the prop truck, in full view of everyone passing by, was a fully inflated blow-up plastic “love doll,” her mouth and legs open wide to accept all comers.

And there, taped to her flesh-colored torso, was a white sign that read “Crew Only.”

*Other than the paycheck, of course. Contrary to what many civilians seem to think, being around actors on the job – even famous ones -- isn’t what most who toil in the Industry consider to be a “perk.” Unless, of course, these actors happen to be exceptionally charming, friendly, down-to-earth, and intoxicatingly gorgeous females. Yes, I’m talking to you, Nancy Travis...

** There is no other type of sit-com, period. Single-camera comedies, no matter the subject matter, are not considered “sit-coms” by anyone who does the heavy lifting below-the-line. For reasons that elude me, TV critics and others who watch the industry from afar continue to confuse these two separate and distinct genres of television comedy.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Another Hiatus Week

The view from inside...

It’s been a while since this blog took a hiatus week, and being in the midst of another back-to-back slam-dance of TV pilots, now’s the time. Work has been hot and heavy these past three months – which almost makes up for having no work whatsoever during the previous three months – but all this getting up at 4:30 in the morning is grinding me down. Rising with the sun is one thing, but being ejected from a warm bed well before the crack of dawn -- at what feels like the darkest midnight of one’s soul – is something else altogether. There are more posts in the works for future Sundays, but none are ready yet, and I don’t have time or energy to finish them right now.

With my brain running on fumes, and no relief in sight, I’m hitting the “pause” button for a while. I really don’t know when the next post will go up, but sometimes you just have to hunker down until the storm passes. Not that I’m complaining, mind you – rebuilding my seriously depleted bank account (however slowly) is a good thing, and I feel very fortunate to be working given how bad things are for so many people these days. But there are only so many hours in a weekend, and too much to get done before that goddamned alarm goes off at 4:30 tomorrow morning.

For the time being, that’s all, folks – because now it’s time to stagger off to the All Homeless All the Time Laundromat and wash a mountain of dirty clothes...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Radford Horse

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

, by William Shakespeare

Hollywood has a reputation as a festering pit of institutionalized immorality, a red light district of sorts where screen stars are free to indulge in whatever forms of excess lights their fire, releases their tension, or temporarily sates the gnawing hunger of their own personal demons. A high-octane cocktail of sex, drugs and booze is the traditional form of escape, but so long as these after-hours romps don’t include cannibalism, serial killings, or child molestation, they’re generally considered the perks of stardom. For some celebu-stars, hints of randy off-screen behavior can act as a dash of Habanero chile sauce to spice up the stew of an otherwise bland career, adding a frisson of dark intrigue to be lapped up by media hounds and fans alike. Those who are skilled at this dance can hone the jagged edge of their bad-boy/bad-girl reputations while having lots of crazy-fun at the same time -- but like that fiery Habanero concoction, a little goes a long way. There’s always someone who can’t handle the heat of the spotlight or learn when to ease off the throttle -- for them, it’s pedal to the metal all the way -- and these are the lost souls who eventually spiral out of control. As the tide of negative publicity rises, their public-relations damage control systems start to crumble, and eventually their “brand” suffers serious damage. Once the public becomes disgusted and turns on them -- thus undermining their ability to earn vast profits for their corporate overlords -- it’s all over but the whimpering. A very few (Robert Downy Jr. comes to mind) manage to summon the discipline to pull out of this death spiral, but by the time most of these falling stars come to their senses, it’s too late to salvage a career. From Fatty Arbuckle on up to Lindsay Lohan, Hollywood luminaries have paid the price for cavorting far beyond the boundaries that constrain the rest of us mere mortals, learning the hard way (which for them is the only way) that such boundaries are there for a reason.

That said, there’s a quieter but bizarrely prudish side to the Industry that if rare, is no less outlandish, and occasionally careens deep into the outback of Absurdistan. A few years ago, this jawdropper hit the papers when a writer’s assistant working on “Friends” sued her employers for sexual harassment due to the rough language she had to endure as part of her job. Apparently the young woman didn’t understand what the job of a writer’s assistant entailed, or the nature of working in the writer’s room on such a show, and decided to sue after she was fired. I'm not comfortable lining up against a lowly assistant battling a gang of incredibly wealthy writer/producers, but it seemed to me that this young woman wasn’t just barking up the wrong tree, she was in the wrong forest altogether. There was nothing good about the way this affair ended, with a young woman horrendously disillusioned after losing her job, and –- surprise -- a few highly paid lawyers getting even richer.

Then there’s the matter of the Radford Horse.

A few years ago, a life-sized sculpture of a horse was installed outside the parking structure on the CBS lot in Studio City. Known throughout the Industry as “Radford” (the main gate being on Radford Avenue), this was once the home of Mack Sennett and his Keystone Cops, and eventually morphed into Republic Pictures, where dozens of Westerns were filmed starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and John Wayne, among others. Later, some of television’s legendary Westerns were made on this lot, including “Gunsmoke,” “Rawhide,” and “Bonanza.” Given this history, it seemed fitting to put the sculpture of a big horse, rearing back on its hind legs, right out there where everybody could see it on their way to and from the day’s work. In a town where tradition and history are too often ignored, the Radford Horse represented a small step in the right direction.

The sculptor chose a stallion as the model, going to great lengths to create a very lifelike form – nothing rudely explicit, but realistic enough that anyone other than Stevie Wonder would recognize it as a male of the species. The statue was installed with its back to the parking facility, facing the rest of the studio. I liked it well enough – not that a statue would make my work days pass any quicker, nor lighten the cable I had to wrangle, but at least it added a touch of class to an otherwise utilitarian parking structure. After a little while, the horse became part of the scenery.

I came to work one Monday morning a few weeks later and saw something odd: the horse had turned around over the weekend, and now faced the parking structure rather than the studio, as though peering into the elevators carrying people to and from their cars. This was definitely strange, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. Then a few weeks later -- again, after a weekend -- the horse had turned about-face to resume its former position facing the studio.

Consumed by the long hours of work, I didn’t pay much attention to the horse and its mysterious movements. Then one day I happened to be walking past the parking structure with someone who’s been at the studio for a long time, and I mentioned the curiously flip-flopping horse. The person (who shall remain anonymous) stopped and raised one eyebrow.

“Take a good look at it,” the anonymous person said.

I did, but shook my head.

“What am I supposed to be looking for?”

“A little something that’s missing," came the reply. “Actually, a not-so-little something.”

Ah. There it was... or to be more accurate, wasn’t.

“An actress working on one of the shows objected to the realistic appearance of the statue,” the anonymous person explained, “so the studio accommodated her wishes.”

This once-proud stallion hadn’t just been gelded, he’d been subjected to the Full Monty nightmare of every man in the world – all the parts that made him a male had been surgically removed.

At first I wondered what modern-day actress would even have such clout, then my head began to spin pondering how any adult could be so royally fucked-up as to take serious offense at a statue of an animal, particularly a beast that played such a big role in the history of our collective Industry. In a business where the terms “horse cock” and “bull prick”* have echoed across sets for the past eighty years, it seemed inconceivable that here on a studio lot, some prim and proper bluenose could get her knickers in a knot over a goddamned statue.

But there it is, and the mind boggles.

“Who was it?” I asked, realizing as the words left my mouth that no good could come from such knowledge. I’m not in the dirt-dishing business, but more importantly, if I did know and let the name slip – particularly in print -- the result could be me standing at a freeway off-ramp holding a cardboard sign begging for money. Loose lips can still sink ships in this town. Sometimes it really is better not to know.

Besides, when I asked around, nobody – and I mean nobody – would admit to knowing the name.

Still, every time I walk by that horse, I can't help wondering who the actress was. Then I think about the conversations that must have taken place while the sculptor (or whoever did the quiet weekend surgery) was removing the offending naughty bits.

I wonder how those guys explained to their kids just why they had to work on the weekend?

* “Horse cock” is the thick, unwieldy cable juicers have been struggling with every since the advent of artificial lighting for movies. A “bull prick” is a three foot long metal spike that is typically driven into the ground with a sledgehammer, then used to secure ropes holding a tent, big silk or griflon, or anything else the wind threatens to blow away.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Wednesday Photo

Yep, this here's one truck with real balls...

Consider this the first of the Wednesday Photos -- not that there will be a photo every Wednesday (or even most Wednesdays), but when I come across an image that seems somehow emblematic of life below-the-line, the Industry in general, or offers a hint of what it's like to live and work here in LA, I'll post the photo. As luck would have it, I followed this macho-truck over Laurel Canyon on the way home from work yesterday, and -- for better or worse -- happened to have my camera handy.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Winds of Change: an Outside Perspective

“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

King James Bible

Back in the mid 80’s, when the Detroit auto industry was still reeling from the multiple disasters of the 70’s – the Arab oil embargoes, an endless war of attrition with the UAW, and a decade lost to building some truly crappy automobiles -- an old college friend pointed out the similarities he saw between Detroit and Hollywood. At the time, he had an inside view of the Industry as young executive working under the then-rising star of Jonathan Dolgen, during the David Putnam era at Columbia Pictures.*

“What’s happening to Detroit could happen here,” he told me over drinks one night. “The same factors are at work in Hollywood. It might take a while, but big changes are coming down the road.”

Not being a corporate insider, I didn’t see things that way. Having come up through the ranks of low budget features, I was doing just fine working on television commercials here in LA and on location all over the country, and saw no particular reason why the gravy train should come to an end. Then again, I didn’t have an MBA from UCLA, as he did – instead, my graduate degree came in the form of an intensive hands-on field study in 4/0 cable, carbon arc lamps and HMI’s, courtesy of the Joe Frasier School of Higher Education’s Hollywood campus.

Some twenty years later, it’s beginning to look like he was right after all. Not that such prescience did him much good, mind you: a year after that evening of drinks and talk, he got hosed out of Columbia along with the rest of his executives cadre in the corporate purge after David Putnam was fired. Disgusted by the fickle nature of Hollywood -- where his reward for putting in 60 hour weeks driving a desk turned out to be a pink slip and the sound of a door slamming behind him -- he left LA to work in the golf industry. Last I heard, he'd honed his game down to a very respectable handicap, and had no regrets at turning his back on Tinsel Town.

At the time, I was doing reasonably well, making better than $50K/year working less than three days a week. If the work was hard and intense, it was also one very sweet deal, which I foolishly assumed I somehow deserved after slaving away in the low budget, non-union world. What I didn’t understand then was the power of serendipity, or that there really is no substitute for being in the right place at the right time. It’s better to be lucky than good, as the saying goes, and finding myself riding such a nice wave, I figured I’d keep on riding indefinitely towards the warm sunny beach of the future.

I figured wrong. It was fun while it lasted, but with the stark clarity of twenty-twenty hindsight, I saw that I’d been the beneficiary of some very favorable circumstances during a period of relative stability and prosperity in Hollywood – the calm that so often precedes a shit-storm of change. Eventually, those blustery winds of change blew the doors and windows right off their hinges, and I had to scramble hard and fast to find another path forward.

That’s one reason you see a pair of ragged gloves at the top of this blog rather than a light meter: change can be a bruising experience.

Those rude winds are rattling the windows again, this time bringing a digital revolution hell-bent on destroying the basic business models upon which our Industry has long depended. The old ways are crumbling all around us, and although some (like newspapers) are imploding faster than others, no part of the media industry is immune. Our newly-ratified IA contract offers a preview of coming attractions, with tightened rules that will shove many dues-paying union workers over the edge into the abyss of no health coverage. And that’s just the beginning -- in the coming years, I expect things will get much worse for all of us who do the heavy lifting in Hollywood. Union scale -- the floor level of wages and benefits we all take for granted -- will continue to be undermined as more and more low-wage “sidebar” deals are cut to keep productions working under union auspices. To understand where the producers really want to go, take a look at the “New Media” provisions of our new contract, which offer little beyond hours towards the health plan. There's no set wage scale beyond state and federal minimums, complete job interchangeability (so much for those "safety" programs we all had to take), no turnaround, no meal penalties, no nothing. Nearly all the gains in Industry worker protection won during past years are suddenly gone under the New Media deal. For those who do the hard physical work essential to taking any script from the printed page to the large or small screen, the future isn't looking good. It feels as though a tipping point has been passed, and we're now on our way back to the laissez faire, let-em-eat-cake working conditions of the Gilded Age.

The older generation of workers close to retirement will probably make it on through Hollywood's alimentary canal before things get really bad, and the young 20-somethings just starting out will have plenty of time to adapt, but those with established careers and twenty or thirty years to go had better brace themselves for some very rough sledding. The watering hole of work is likely to continue shrinking in the years ahead, as the competition and pressure increases from all sides. For most of us, life in Hollywood will only get harder from here on in.

This isn't to suggest that there's no future in the Industry -- movies and television will be with us forever, requiring the production of vast quantities of programming right up until the day we finally pollute and/or bomb ourselves back to a new Stone Age -- but big changes in the process are coming fast. Where those TV shows and movies will be made (and under what conditions) remains to be seen, but you can bet that production will continue to follow the money. Most television and film produced in the US once came out of Hollywood, but more and more work now goes to Canada and the many other states currently offering fat tax subsidies to attract film productions. Whether you see this as a good or bad thing depends on where you happen to live and work -- there's no right or wrong here, just winners and losers -- but like it or not, that's the way things are. I don't see much hope that this outward tide of jobs will be stemmed anytime soon, which means the downward pressure on wages and working conditions will only increase.

Still, as the old order crumbles, another will arise – a Phoenix taking wing from the ashes – with a new generation of young people positioned to make the most of the evolving Industry. It is they who will be in the right place at the right time to catch this new wave into the future, and at some point, they’ll look back at the way we work now and shake their heads, just as we did at those grainy black and white photos of the Industry before sound came along. But to reach those good times in the future digital Hollywood, the Industry will have to run a brutal gauntlet of economic sledgehammers, and being on the receiving end of all that mayhem isn’t going to be pleasant. The rate of attrition will be high, and a lot of us won’t be around when it's over to see how things turned out. Personally, I hope to be reading all about it back on my home planet while collecting social security, rather than scrounging through dumpsters amid the vast tent cities along the concrete banks of the LA River. But I'm not quite as nimble as I used to be, and a decade can be an eternity during such revolutionary times. There's no guarantee I'll manage to keep tap-dancing around those whirling blades of change long enough to make a graceful exit on my own terms.

So what, you might wonder, brings on such grimly apocalyptic brooding? I’ve been reading the tea leaves for a while now -- we all have, to one degree or another – but the catalyst for today's musings was the following article that recently appeared in the Washington Post. I’m sure you’ll find something to quibble with in the details (personally, I don’t see too many of us working below-the-line as having enjoyed “outsized compensation”), but overall, the argument has that tolling-of-the-bell ring of a decidedly inconvenient truth.

Read it for yourselves – and if you think he’s got it all wrong, tell me why.


*For more on Columbia Pictures, click here.

In Hollywood, Reshaping a Business Model That Emerged With the Talkies

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, March 27, 2009

You can't think about Southern California without thinking about the entertainment industry. It's not just the $30 billion it pumps into the region, or the nearly quarter-million jobs it creates. It's also that it's an apt metaphor for the economy here.

Like many industries here, it started with the weather, which for the movie studios meant all those reliably warm and sunny days to film movies and then television outdoors. And like many of the region's other major industries, it retains a good deal of its entrepreneurial culture, years after the studios created by Jack Warner and Louis Mayer were bought up by giant corporations headquartered on the East Coast or abroad.

But what entertainment also shares with other sectors is a history of almost unbroken success. Things have been so good for so long, and the companies have been so successful in fending off competitive threats, that it has grown incredibly fat and happy. From superstar actors, their agents and business managers to gaffers and on-set caterers, the money people make is vastly out of proportion to what similarly skilled people make in most other industries. And, even allowing for the process of trial and error inherent in any creative process, its ways of doing business remain stubbornly inefficient.

Now, however, there is a sense that it may all be coming to an end, that the threat this time is real and that the old business models can't survive. With the rise of legal and illegal downloading, the Internet has already decimated the music business, and it is just beginning to overturn the economic foundations of the movies, television and electronic gaming as well. Financing is drying up, once-sacred expenses are being cut, whole layers of management eliminated and work shifted elsewhere.

Electronic Arts, the largest producer of electronic games, employs 400 software engineers, animators, producers and other technicians at its way cool campus south of the city in Playa del Rey, where hits like "Medal of Honor," "Lord of the Rings" and "Command and Conquer" were developed. In response to several years of stagnant sales and the shift from selling packaged software toward online distribution, EA has been cutting costs and changing the way it works. It recently announced it would eliminate 11 percent of its workforce, develop fewer new games and outsource parts of the development process overseas.

According to Nick Earl, a senior vice president, the retrenchment in the gaming industry comes after years in which growth in costs and employment outpaced growth in revenue. With growing collaboration between gaming and the movie and animation studios, Earl is confident Southern California will continue to be an important center for the industry.

Things are looking considerably more precarious for the television business, where there's been a dizzying drop in network and station advertising revenue, driven as much by the DVR as the souring economy. Syndication revenue has shriveled, and networks have been forced to move away from prime-time drama and comedy series in favor of reality series and talk shows that employ many fewer actors, directors, screenwriters and technicians. The industry's hopes are now focused on networks like HBO, AMC and Showtime, whose subscribers are still willing to pay for quality programming. But many of those networks' biggest hits have been produced elsewhere.
Conventional wisdom has it that the movie business does just fine when the economy tanks, as Americans take emotional refuge at the neighborhood theater.

"My memory of the Depression is that the pool man came only once a week," recalls Frank Mankiewicz, the Washington politico and public relations executive and son of Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the screenplay for "Citizen Kane." Indeed, movie attendance this year is up after two years of decline.

The mood in Hollywood, however, is decidedly anxious. DVD sales, which for years have driven industry profits, have recently fallen by almost half as consumers turn to cable or the Internet to get movies they want, when they want them, for less than what it costs to buy the movie in a store. And piracy is cutting deeply into sales in fast-growing markets overseas.

At the same time, the Wall Street investment houses and hedge funds that have lavished cheap financing on the industry for the past decade are now in retreat. Some have closed their L.A. offices and are reportedly peddling their ownership interests in upcoming movies at discounts of 30 to 70 percent. Viacom gave up in its effort to raise $450 million from outside investors for its slate of movies, and credit ratings have been reduced on debt used to finance past pictures. Even famed director Steven Spielberg is reportedly having trouble raising the $700 million that his DreamWorks Studios needs for its next round of movies.

No surprise, then, that the number of movies produced is expected to decline again this year, or that many of those will be made outside of Southern California as producers respond to incentives from dozens of states and localities offering tax rebates equal to as much as 40 percent of production costs. To lure back what it considers "runaway" production, a strapped state legislature was forced this year to enact a modest tax break of its own.

Meanwhile, studios are under intense pressure to cut costs from corporate parents that over the years have been foiled in their efforts to rein in the industry's extravagant ways and earn a decent rate of return on their oversized investments. Movie openings have been canceled, weekend jets grounded and marketing budgets slashed, and even top stars are being told they won't be paid in full until the studios recoup production costs. Nearly every studio has announced layoffs, and a number are closing down subsidiaries and selling off facilities.

"There's no question the system needs to be shaken up," said Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, once himself a studio executive, who said the industry is going through "a reality check."

The day of my visit at Warner Brothers was a bittersweet one for the famed Burbank facility, the last day of shooting for the decade-running TV series "ER." Although more television programming is produced at Warner Brothers than any other studio, it is still way off what it once was, and it's been nearly two years since the last full-length motion picture was shot there. Given those volumes, says Gary Credle, who recently stepped down as the chief operating officer of the facility, it's getting increasingly difficult to justify the cost of maintaining a full-service studio on 110 prime acres in the heart of Southern California.

"Certainly if this didn't exist, we couldn't afford to build it today," said Credle as we walked through the studio's back lots and manicured gardens. "The models for this business are being challenged every day in every imaginable way, and nobody knows where it ends up. . . . What you see here is going away, and it's not obvious what is going to replace it."

The world will always need entertainment, and Southern California is the odds-on favorite to produce it. It has the history, the people, the infrastructure and the creative energy. But as Detroit automakers and New York's financiers have learned, these natural advantages can disappear when an arrogant and insular industry comes to view its dominance as inevitable and its outsized compensation as an entitlement.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bob Marley, of USC

Good luck, Bob. You're gonna need it...

As our economy plunges ever deeper into the dank swamp of hard times, it seems clear that things are destined to get worse before they get better. The only relevant questions at the moment are how much worse, and how long all this will go on before we turn back towards the light?

I have no idea, and it doesn’t look like anybody else does, either. The country has lost 600,000+ jobs per month for the last three months – close to 2 million jobs thus far – but here in Hollywood, at least, the arrival of pilot season has temporarily rescued some of us from the rolls of the unemployed. This brief frenzy of activity won’t last long, though, so everybody lucky enough to land a pilot is putting his/her head down and plugging away like a good little work-bot, concentrating on the here-and-now in the hope that the future will take care of itself.

Not everyone is sharing the wealth. Features remain moribund, caught in the economic whirlpool like every other money-intensive business. Between the lingering uncertainty over the SAG situation* and the credit crunch, it’s been hard to get a movie off the ground lately, leaving Television, the true opiate of the people, as the only leg of the Industry still barely chugging along -- and given all the changes muddying the waters of TV, there’s no telling how long this little engine can stay on the rails.

People cope in different ways. Last weekend, I noticed the poster at the top of this page, which -- due to my crappy camera and harsh lighting conditions -- is pretty much illegible. But here's the text, scanned for your edification.

(Phone number deleted for reasons that may or may not be obvious)

So I guess Bob Marley is alive after all, and apparently attending USC, one of the most expensive private universities on the West Coast – only now he “looks like Michael Jackson.” Given the surgically-enhanced and utterly unearthly countenance of The Gloved One, I’m not sure why anybody other than one of those Las Vegas celebrity impersonators would brag about this, but I'm sure Bob Marley (of USC) has his reasons.

Then again, if I’d been dead for 28 years, I’d need a little money and help too -- and I'd probably look a lot like Michael Jackson.

But hey, let’s be charitable and give him the benefit of the doubt. Bob Marley (of USC) isn’t asking for much – he just wants to meet some capital-P People so they can give him money and help him with... Things. If you don’t ask, you won’t get, so they say -- and this is certainly true in Hollywood -- so I have to admire Bob Marley (of USC) for his chutzpah. He plastered these posters on streets all around the CBS facility on Fairfax and Third (where the Craig Ferguson show is taped, along with “Dance with the Stars” and “American Idol”) in the apparent hopes that some bucks-up Industry mover-and-shaker might take a shine to a guy with the name of a long-dead reggae star and the face of Michael Jackson -- and if the latter really is true, then this poor guy deserves our sympathy, if nothing else.

So I salute you, Bob Marley (of USC), and wish you the best of luck.

*It looks like this logjam might be finally breaking.

For the Bob Marley who didn't go to USC, click here.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Winds of Change: Pilot Season

The Labors of Sisyphus

It’s April now, with the rugby-scrum frenzy of pilot season in full swing – and for those of us who have chosen sit-coms as our preferred mode of employment, this is the best pilot season in the past five years. At long last, there are significant numbers of sit-com pilots filming or in pre-production. Whether all this will prove a good thing for the viewing audience as well remains to be seen, since as usual, the vast majority of pilots will go no further than this one roll-of-the-dice show – but these days, it’s all about the here and now. The future can wait.

For a while there, the rampaging beast of Reality Television pretty much drove sit-coms into the weeds, and although “reality” is here to stay, it’s no longer an all-conquering presence on the airwaves. As it turned out, the public has a limited appetite for watching ordinary people eat worms, lie down in a Plexiglas coffin with several thousand cockroaches, or trade spouses for a month. Once the novelty wore off, Reality Television retreated to what it does best – the bloated bread-and-circuses idiocy of crap like “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

I’ll never understand the popularity of these shows, but the older I get, the less I understand about modern life in general.*

Pilots come as a mixed blessing, though. Work is work, and most sit-com pilots provide nearly three weeks of steady work for the grip and set lighting crews -- but it's heavy lifting every day, pushing the big rock up the steep hill all the way to the summit. There isn't much chance to catch your breath until the show is in the can, and once the final shot is done, we start taking all those hundreds of lamps and tons of cable right back down again. If you're lucky enough to land a second pilot, the whole process starts all over again, putting your shoulder to another big rock at the bottom of yet another steep and rocky hill.

The way things are these days, only a fool would complain about having work – any work – but being halfway through one pilot with another dead ahead, I can look you right in the metaphorical eyes when I tell you pilots are a bitch. Such is the price of investment, though, since mighty oaks from tiny acorns sometimes grow – and every big, long-running hit sit-com started out as a lowly pilot.

Still, things have changed a lot in the Television Industry over the past fifty years, and the changes keep coming. The Industry will always be a work in progress, constantly evolving to meet the ever-shifting realities of the time. In talking with a few old-timers (real old-timers, not fifty-something geezers-to-be like me), I was surprised to learn that back in the day, television series filmed a lot more episodes every year than is the current practice. Although there has never been a divinely-mandated number of episodes in any given television season, every era seems to find its own “sweet spot.” “Gunsmoke” (1955 – 1975), filmed 39 episodes for each of its first five seasons before gradually slimming down to 24 over the final five years. “Bonanza” (1959 – 1973) averaged 34 episodes/year for nine seasons, then gradually eased off the throttle. Contrast this to “CSI” (2000 -- ?), which has been clocking in at 23 to 24 episodes per season thus far, or “Law and Order” (1990 – 2009), which was comfortable shooting 22 episodes/season for the first several years, then ramped up to 24 as it became a major money-making machine.

A similar shift happened in the sit-com world, starting with the Ground Zero Godmother of all sit-coms, “I Love Lucy” (1951 -- 1957), which averaged 32 episodes/season over the first four years. By the time “All in the Family” (1971--1979) rolled around, 24 episodes per season had become the de facto Industry standard. “Cheers” (1982 --1993), “Frazier” (1993 -- 2004), “Friends” (1994 -- 2004), “Seinfeld” (1989 – 1998), and “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996 – 2005) followed suit. Some of these shows would occasionally do 25 or 26 episodes in a given season, then drop back to 22, but the average was usually right around 24.

All of these shows began during the era of major network domination in episodics and sit-coms. The recent rise of cable has shifted the ground once again, with shows like HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” (along with AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”) favoring a 12 episode season. TBS and Lifetime are now dipping their toes into the sit-com pond following a similar pattern, shooting ten episodes over their Spring-into-Summer season while reserving the option to add two or three more as the season grinds on. Cable doesn’t attract the massive audience the networks enjoyed for so long, and doubtless this influences their decision-making process, but whatever the rationale, the overall trend is unmistakable: shorter television seasons.

Whether this works for the viewing public remains unclear. I get the feeling fans are disappointed to have their new favorite program – be it the polar opposites of “The Bill Engvall Show” or “Breaking Bad” – end after only three months of weekly broadcasts, but it's a lot easier to produce 12 quality episodes than a full 24. At a certain point, quality is bound to suffer during the month-after-month siege of a 24 episode season. In the case of one hour dramas, less probably does end up being more for the audience.

For those of us who make a living working these shows, however, a 10 to 12 episode season is a huge step backward, offering only four months of work including the the rig and wrap. During the recent good-old-days, a full 24 episode sit-com meant 8 months of work over the usual late-July-through-early-March television season. Picking up a pilot or two during March and April would bring that up to 9 ½ months of full employment, at which point many TV people were content to sit by the pool until the new season rolled around, while the rest of us picked up whatever work we could day-playing on movies or commercials until the season geared up again. Increasingly, though, this once-comfortable routine is vanishing into the smog along with the rest of the middle class, as the networks stumble around trying to find a new and viable economic model. Meanwhile, the more agile and less risk-averse cable outfits burrow ever-deeper into the foundation, eating the network’s creative lunch and making them look hopelessly stodgy in comparison. It’s this sort of thing, plus an appalling lack of imagination on the part of NBC’s leadership, that led the Peacock Network to trade five hours of dramatic programming every week for the nightly safe-and-sane jokes of Jay Leno. Following a "cheaper is always better" philosophy, Jeff Zucker has already managed to drive NBC into a ditch, and now this grinning, goggle-eyed little homunculus seems determined to turn the once-proud king of prime time into the talk radio of television.

If NBC had an honest bone in their corporate body, they'd re-brand the network “Who Cares? TV."

The overall trend here isn't good -- not that I'm eager to go back to a 39 episode season, mind you (that sounds entirely too much like a full time job, and I have no desire to bolt my nose to the grindstone 24/7) -- but a 10 episode season means we all have to scramble more than ever before. Increasingly, I'm reminded of another recession we suffered through back in the early 90’s, when I was working as a commercial gaffer. One of my main clients was an Austrian shooter/director who ran a non-union operation, which meant working for 12 hour rates rather than the then-standard 10 hour days. This represented a significant income cut, but then as now, times were tough and the outlook uncertain, so I took what I could get. On an all-day location scout for a beer commercial, we stopped at a Thai restaurant for lunch, where our director held forth on the stark new reality. He looked around the table, and in an accent that reminded me way too much of Colonel Klink, declared: “Zuh vey sings are, vee all must verk harder and faster for less money.”

This is not the sort of thing a guy about to work two weeks of ball-busting 12 hour+ days really wants to hear, but that’s the way it was, and is again today. Hollywood has always lived on the not-so-tender mercies of a boom-and-bust economy, and with hard times upon us once again, the Industry will do whatever it takes to survive. In turn, we who grease the wheels of The Machine with our own sweat will have to adapt to the evolving reality, or else we too will disappear. In the long run, such change is all for the greater good, since any industry that attempts to stand against the tide of time is doomed to sink beneath those cold waters. But in the short run, big changes inevitably create a considerable amount of friction -- and since friction begets heat, a lot of us are bound to get burned.

*IMHO, the only redeeming virtue of “American Idol” is Ken Levine’s wonderful post-show wrap ups, like this.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Breaking Bad

Please don't shoot...

If you’re hooked on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” – and you should be, since this is by far the best show on television right now – you’ll want to read San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman’s episode-by-episode deconstructions of the series as it unfolds. Goodman bills himself as a “failure analyst,” and is absolutely brilliant at dissecting exactly why a show does or doesn’t work. “Breaking Bad” is so good – and so deep – that it hurts, and Goodman’s decons are almost as good as watching the show itself. Check out his latest one here, where you can plumb the archives for more.

Seriously, folks, this is the good stuff.

And the first one's free...