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)

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Death March with Cocktails

Let The Games Begin

Posting on a Monday (especially after putting up a quick post Saturday along with the usual Sunday bleat) is pretty much against my religion, but extraordinary times call for extraordinary efforts. As I mentioned in Saturday's post, the honorable Mr. Tim Goodman (TV critic for the SF Chronicle) has left his cool northern sanctuary for the brutal heat and choking smog of what our local television news morons call "The Southland." He's here to join his fellow sharp-tongued scribes for the summer Television Critics Association press tour, wherein all networks large and small shall parade their wares in public for the first time -- in effect, standing naked to the world -- before an audience that on a really good day might be charitably described as "skeptical."

On a bad day... well, we've all seen those bloody chum-fueled feeding frenzies on Discovery Channel during "Shark Week."

Just like those of us who toil in the bowels of the Industry, TV critics have been lied to, cheated, shortchanged, disrespected, and fed great steaming vats of foul smelling disappointment by the networks over the years. Unlike we who suckle on the gradually withering teats of the Hollywood Cash Cow, however, these critics get paid to speak out -- often with murderous intent -- at their grinning network tormentors. Indeed, it's their job to speak truth to power in the service of the viewing audience, who really are the ultimate victims of network perfidy and incompetence.

In a way, all of us who watch TV are critics -- we vote with our remotes and TIVOs, rewarding shows that tickle our imagination by staying tuned, while spurning whatever we as individuals consider to be inferior programming. But this thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgment is a very long way from the job of a television critic, who must occasionally explain that a show we hate actually has a few redeeming virtues, while pointing out that the shows we totally love sometimes have feet dusted with clay. More importantly, a good critic will tell us exactly why a particular show does or doesn't work, and it's this analytical dissection I find particularly fascinating.

Tim Goodman was born for this kind of thing, and reading his columns and blog on the "Death March With Cocktails" over the next two weeks will be highly entertaining and edifying for anyone interested in the absurd business of television.

Take a look for yourself at his first column on the day before all hell breaks loose.

And let the games begin...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Welcome to New Detroit...

Last week, “D” wrote a terrific post for his blog “Dolllygrippery” exploring the long term effects of runaway production on all of us who depend upon the film/television industry for our livelihoods. Although it was great to read such a thoughtful, balanced, and well-written dissection of this thorny problem, I couldn’t help cringing a little inside, because I’d been working on a remarkably similar (if considerably less thorough) post on the same subject.

Seeing no point in proceeding, I consigned my post to a “Department of Redundancy Department” file where never-to-be-seen posts spend all eternity, then sent a “congratulations for beating me to the punch” e-mail to “D,” including a rough draft of the post for his amusement. His reply was simple: “Please post yours... I think this is too important not to post it.”

Well, I think “D’s” post is a lot more important than mine in that regard, but I’m happy to serve as his blog-wingman in echoing our shared feelings on runaway production...

During my semi wild-and-crazy eighteen months working behind the counter of a deli in Santa Cruz during the mid-70’s (oh, to be young again...), I met an intoxicating young woman who just happened to be living with a guy, but – with a come-hither smile – she assured me that he wasn’t her actual boyfriend anymore. No, that was all over, and since she’d be moving out soon anyway, we shouldn’t let such a niggling detail get in the way.

So we didn’t, plunging head-first into one of those lust-addled whirlwinds of the sort occasionally depicted in movies that never end well. Suffused with the glow of young rapture, I related this to one of my co-workers at the deli one day. She – slightly older and infinitely wiser -- looked up from the sandwich she was making, leveled a meaningful stare over the top of her glasses, and uttered words I can hear to this day:

“If she did it to him, she’ll do it to you.”

"Maybe," I replied, with the brain-dead grin of a self-absorbed 20-something fool heading for a fall.

She was right, of course, a lesson I learned the hard way over the following months. Eventually I packed up and headed for LA in a state of emotional exhaustion from the ensuing roller coaster ride, joining so many refugees who came here to start a new life by fleeing the ashes of the old. That young woman wasn’t the only reason I came to LA, but she helped provide the essential motivation-via-desperation I needed to take a chance and tilt at the windmills of Hollywood.

Most of us have similar stories in our past, experiences that taught us the many profound lessons life has to offer. In my case, I got off easy – there were no guns, knives, or physical injuries involved, no cops called at 3:00 a.m., nor any messy divorce, alimony, or kids to complicate matters. She went her way (leaving a string of similarly confused/ besotted males in her wake) and eventually got married, had kids, and live happily ever after.


I left a broken heart in Santa Cruz and headed for Hollywood.


I was cosseted deep in the world of television commercials when I first heard the phrase “runaway production.” At the time, those words held little meaning for me. So what if more and more TV movies were being filmed in Toronto? I was safe and secure in my cozy little nest of commercials, working as much (and often more) than I wanted. TV movies were a pain in the ass – four frantic weeks of non-stop 12 to 16 hour days – and having been burned out on that sort of non-life doing low-budget features, held no appeal for me.

Besides, I wasn’t in the IA at the time, which meant I couldn’t have worked on TV movies anyway. So what the fuck – let Canada have ‘em.

But as so often happens in life, what started as a trickle eventually turned into a flood powerful enough to wash my comfortable life as a commercial gaffer into the great concrete ditch of the LA River and right on out to sea. For a while, every type of film work I knew how to do was flowing north, thanks to generous subsidies provided by the Canadian government. Commercials, features, television episodics – everything was going to Canada.

I wasn’t at all happy about this at the time, but held no grudge against my Canadian peers. Only a fool would turn down such a bonanza, and in their place, I’d have done the same thing. I was (and remain) pissed at my own myopic local and state governments for allowing this to happen without putting up the slightest hint of a fight. Given that so many of us now pay much less in taxes than we used to (thanks to a severely reduced income), you’d think our elected officials might be concerned.

You’d be wrong – instead, they’d rather balance the state budget by cutting funds for education, slashing services for the poor and handicapped, and closing public parks.

The rest of the US wasn’t so stupid, though, and the last I heard, there are something like forty-three states offering significant tax rebates/subsidies to film and television productions willing to pick up and move. California recently enacted a small program to help stem this ebb tide, but the barn door has been open so long that many of our industry horses may be gone for good – and given the economic whirlpool into which the once-Golden State is caught, even this minimal funding might not last.

When I wrote about the flight of “Ugly Betty” from LA back to New York last year, one east coast reader countered that New York was forced to jack up state subsidies in competition with Connecticut and Rhode Island, which had been siphoning off film work from NY. Besides, the pilot for “Ugly Betty” was filmed in New York, so it was only right that the show return to its home turf.

I can’t argue with his logic. To lure an industry from one place to another, you’ve got to make it worth their while -- and unless you’ve got the clout to make a Tony Soprano/Godfather offer-they-can’t-refuse, that means ponying up some serious cash. Whatever works, as the saying goes.

But what should be equally obvious to every Industry worker in all forty-three of these states (and Canada) is that we’re engaging in a race to the bottom, a race that will leave no winners in the long run – instead, we’ll all be the losers. At one point, Hollywood was fat and content enjoying the lion’s share of the Industry, but with production hemorrhaging far beyond California’s borders, those days are probably gone for good. In the zero-sum game of modern life, Hollywood’s loss is those other states' gain, but as New York found out, everybody can play this game – and with everyone frantically low-balling everybody else, the long-run results will benefit only the producers. This is already happening as more and more of us who do the heavy lifting are forced to take below-scale “sidebar-deal” jobs paying 20% less for longer working hours. If this trend continues (and increasing pressure from cable networks is pushing things that direction), the time will come when most of us are looking up at scale.*

“Union scale” was created as a minimum wage to protect union workers, an hourly guarantee forming the basic foundation of each film worker’s personal economy. When working a union job, you got scale or better. Not anymore. The recent proliferation of sidebar deals has so thoroughly Balkanized “union scale” that the term has all but lost its meaning. Although this was done to increase the quantity of union work and thus extend benefits to many more workers, it also had the effect of dividing the very unity every union needs to stay strong and healthy. Nowadays, what we all used to consider “union scale” has become increasingly scarce -- a bonus of sorts --while the growing numbers of us working at cable rates are simply getting boned.

Over the reach of time, what goes around really does come around. While there’s enough film work to keep crews in several states and major metropolitan areas employed, I’m not sure there’s enough to create robust, thriving film communities in forty-three states, and that means we’ll be at each other’s economic throats for the foreseeable future. Just as happened to the auto workers in Detroit and elsewhere, none of us will be able to sleep soundly trusting that our livelihoods are secure.

Because if they can do it to Hollywood – and they did -- they can do it to you.

* The worst of these sidebar deals are truly horrendous, paying roughly half of regular scale...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

It's Goodman Time...

This summer’s Television Critics Press Tour kicks off next week here in LA, and will be covered in all its Tinsel Town glory by Tim Goodman, ace TV critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. In those innocent, carefree days before blogging hit the interweb in a big way, Tim would write a series of wonderfully entertaining columns during all three weeks of the TCPT experience. Indeed, it was these "Death March with Cocktails" columns that first turned me on to Tim's writing several years ago. Things changed when technology allowed him to start live blogging from the various Industry forums, but the entertainment quotient remains high -- and from his most recent pre-TCPT post, he promises to keep writing those columns as well as posting. Although he can sling snark with the best of them, Tim Goodman is very serious about television – he loves the good stuff and loathes the bad, has a keenly observant and analytical mind, and isn’t the least bit shy about hitting those who run our silly business with some very blunt questions.

And for that, the TCPT offers the mother of all target-rich environments.

If you’ve got a little spare time during the next three weeks, and any interest at all in what’s going on in the world of TV, tune in early and often.

When you turn a brilliant writer with no fear and a taste for fine alcohol loose for three weeks in what amounts to an Industry orgy of self-promotion, the result is always worth watching.

This is gonna be good...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Directors: Part One

A fish rots from the head

Note: here in Hollywood where they are made, the term “sit-com” refers to a half-hour, four-camera comedy that comes with an irritating-but-unavoidable laugh track. Since these shows are filmed in front of a live audience, there’s no cheap way to remove the audience reaction from the sound track, so producers simply “sweeten” it a bit and go with the flow. Despite the inevitable thematic/comedic similarities, half-hour comedies shot single-camera style are not considered sit-coms -- not by those of us who do the heavy lifting required to make them.

The show I've been working on was finally blessed with a really good director. That might not sound like a big deal in the formulaic world of sit-coms (a writer/producer’s medium where the director’s main task is to serve as the on-set traffic cop), but for any production, having a skilled and steady hand on the tiller makes a huge difference. When that director also brings a generous sense of humor to the set, and is smart enough to treat everyone on the crew with respect, good things are going to happen, so it was no surprise that we enjoyed our best week yet. It helped that this episode featured a crisp, funny script allowing our cast to relax and fully inhabit their roles -- and in that secure comfort zone, they felt free enough to indulge in some extremely funny ad-libs during rehearsals. The best jokes on set never make it to the live show (or past the network censors), but the entire crew was cracking up during our long blocking and pre-shoot day. Always a good sign, that.

It’s so much easier to get through the day when everybody’s smiling.

As one among a handful of truly gifted directors working in sit-coms, this man is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Although the vast majority of directors have achieved some level of competence over the years, their skill sets don’t always measure up to the task. Some bring a friendly, low-key approach that at least makes them pleasant to work with, while others are tense, uptight jerks who turn the entire week into an ordeal for all concerned. At the bottom of the pot are a few truly hopeless fools who neither understand the nature of the medium nor how to deal with other people in an effective manner – lost in their own little haunted house of mirrors, their deep-rooted problems rapidly metastasize to fill the sound stage. I’ve had the misfortune to work with several like that, including two Little Napoleons who suffered from Short Person’s Aggressive Derangement Disorder. These unbearably self-important little toads seemed to think they really were curing cancer on set, demanding that the entire stage remain as quiet as a tomb, hounding the AD’s to patrol the perimeter and enforce absolute silence. Woe be to the hapless extras or stand-ins who dared laugh out loud way across the stage and behind the sets at the craft service table.

How can the Great Man possibly focus his Giant Brain on the brilliant work at hand while lesser beings scream in quiet whispers a hundred feet away?

Being a Silence Nazi doesn’t necessarily make for a bad director – the legendary Jim Burrows runs a ruthlessly quiet set, but his solid gold track record has earned him that right. It's his vastly less-talented brethren -- directors in name only who really don’t know what they’re doing, but attempt to hide their incompetence and insecurities behind an aggressive, I’m-the-boss-here front -- that piss the crew off. They're not fooling anybody, least of all those who do the heavy lifting, which might explain why it's generally these jerks who treat us like servants.

To the uninitiated, this may sound like a distinction without a difference -- but on set, being there to serve is not the same thing as being a servant...

Do I sound a little bitter here? Maybe so, but after a while you grow weary of busting your ass doing everything the hard way because some well-dressed clown who comes to work with an immaculate manicure and a hundred dollar haircut (a guy raking in well over twenty thousand dollars to direct a single one-week episode) doesn’t know how to do his job. After working on thousands of sets with countless directors over the years, it’s not hard to spot who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t. Incompetence sticks out like a turd in a punch bowl on a working set, and unfortunately, sit-coms seem to be plagued with more than their share of lousy directors. In the big money/high stress arenas of feature films, episodics, and national television commercials, truly incompetent directors tend to get weeded out*, but sit-coms offer something of a safe harbor where a few supremely untalented directors can be handsomely rewarded for their incompetence.

It’s an enduring mystery to me how sit-com producers choose who will direct their shows. Some directors are signed for an entire season, and if the show turns into a hit, that director ends up doing every episode of a long and lucrative run. Other shows rotate between several directors over the course of a season, while some seem to pick names out of a hat. In such a chatty town as Hollywood, you’d think word would get around fast enough that those few truly lame sit-com directors would have to find another line of work, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Two such buffoons come to mind (their names changed to protect the guilty, of course -- I do have to work in this town again), who for very different reasons were so clueless that neither could be trusted to direct traffic without causing a Sig Alert.

Nevertheless, when I last saw them, both were getting more than enough work to keep their mortgages and DGA dues fully paid up.

One (call him “Bernard”) is an ex-actor whose professional background may indeed enable him to reach deep into the thespian psyche to extract the finest performance from his cast -- but the man can’t block a scene to save his life. Not that blocking** is a simple affair, but it’s one of the basic tasks a director is so well paid to perform. Besides, a sit-com is supposed to be a comedy, not some soul-baring crucible like “On the Waterfront” or "Streetcar Named Desire." A director coming in to baby-sit one or two episodes of ongoing show will find his cast well-steeped in their characters – they don’t really need an outsider’s “guidance” to find their way through the A plot, B plot, and the tag.

This doesn't mean ex-actors can’t be good directors. I recently worked with one well known ex-thespian who has earned his way onto the "A" list of sit-com directors. It’s not what a director used to do that counts, but what he/she can do now, and that includes blocking a scene in a relatively efficient manner. On most sit-coms, blocking day shouldn’t take more than ten hours. It can go long if there are extensive pre-shoots, but a truly gifted director can do it much faster. I’ve watched Jim Burrows block a full episode before lunch. Perhaps it's unfair to judge mere mortals by such Olympian standards, but “Bernard” was slow to the point of absurdity – his plodding, owlishly pedantic approach drove the entire crew up the wall every week. He was so clueless that I almost felt sorry for him, but it’s hard to feel sorry for a guy stumbling towards such an absurdly fat paycheck at the end of the week.

The next season brought a new show of twelve episodes we had high hopes would be picked up for the “back nine” (including the pilot, adding up to a full 22 episode network season), then become the long running hit we all want to land. The crew was heartened to learn that our producers had the good sense not to hire "Bernard" again -- but after trying different directors out over the first few episodes, they hired “Mr. Herman” (not his real name) to bring the bacon home.

Big mistake.

I got a close look at him on his first blocking day, when all four camera and their crews (which back then included four camera operators, four first assistant/focus-pullers, two second assistant/loaders, and four dolly grips) showed up, along with the full compliment of grips, juicers, set-dressers, prop people, hair/makeup, script supervisor, camera coordinator, and production personnel.

I noticed a few eyebrows rise among the older sit-com veterans when "Mr. Herman" walked on set to greet the assembled crew. As the day went on, I pressed some of them for specifics, but they just shrugged and mumbled something non-committal. Things seemed to go well enough at first – we ground out the work all morning, broke for lunch, then continued working into late afternoon. “Mr. Herman” wasn’t particularly deft at blocking, but by leaning heavily on the camera coordinator, got the job done. His real problem turned out to be actually shooting the scenes -- particularly “pre-shoots” filmed prior to the live show that are then edited and shown to the studio audience on television monitors on shoot night. Pre-shoots are usually done for any scenes requiring location filming, stunts, special effects, “poor man’s process,” or any other time-consuming procedure. After blocking half the show, we paused to shoot a simple scene with two actors involving less than two minutes of dialog. We blocked and rehearsed, then rolled all four cameras. The first take was pretty good -- not perfect, but close. The actors nailed it on take two: as far as the cast and crew were concerned, this was the one.

“Mr. Herman" didn’t see it that way.

“Let’s go again,” he said.

I noticed the two executive producers exchange a Meaningful Glance. They knew damned well we had it in the can, and both possessed the power to overrule their director – but apparently they didn’t want to intervene and pull rank on his first day of real work.

So we did it again. And again, and again, and again... until some forty-five minutes later, the poor actors were gasping like dying fish from their desperate efforts to breathe some life back into a scene "Mr. Herman" had steamrolled flatter than a stale tortilla. There was nothing worth saving in that final take – it was limp, dead television road kill -- but naturally, that’s the one "Mr. Herman" loved. He all but slapped high-fives with the dazed actors, who by now were totally confused.

That’s when it hit me just how fucked we really were. This clown had been signed to direct every episode for the remainder of the season, which meant we’d be working around his idiocy for the next three months. Although there were lots other directors available (some really good ones, too) our producers somehow got suckered into hiring a guy whose only real skill was knowing how to look, talk, and act like a director. The only thing he couldn't do was direct.


The show went belly-up by Christmas. With no back nine or Season Two in the offing, the crew scattered to the four winds looking for another job. The silver lining in this otherwise dank, dark cloud was that at least we wouldn’t have to work with "Mr. Herman" again.

I’m not suggesting directing a sit-com is easy – nothing’s easy in this business -- but compared to the grinding ordeal of episodics or features, guiding a sit-com is a relaxing walk through a lovely park on a crisp spring day. From what I’ve seen, directing sit-coms is certainly the easiest well-paid job in Hollywood. With even minimal blocking skills (backed up by an experienced camera coordinator to help orchestrate the four-camera choreography), and a good DP making sure the set is properly lit, all a director really has to do is follow the script as the rewrites trickle in through the week. So long as he pays attention and makes an occasional suggestion as to framing a shot or the timing of a punch line, everyone will think he’s doing a fine job. Should a situation arise requiring a serious decision, the show’s creator/executive producer is always nearby to make the call. A gifted director can do much more, of course -- and the show will be all the better for it -- but given the nature of sit-coms (22 minutes of endless laugh-tracks on the very small screen), the viewing audience at home is unlikely to notice a huge difference between a superbly directed sit-com and one that’s done by the numbers.

The crew will notice, though. The crew sees everything.

So who am I to complain? Just a lowly juicer near the bottom of the food chain -- a guy who lifts heavy objects for a living and has earned fistfuls of overtime thanks to hack directors fumbling their way deep into the red zone. I don’t pretend to know much about directing, but for twenty-thousand dollars plus per show, you’d think sit-com producers would at least be able to buy some minimal level of competence.

Much of the time, you’d be wrong.

* Love him or hate him – and I’ve yet to meet anybody who actually likes the guy -- even Michael Bay manages to make movies that earn truckloads of money for the producers and studios that hire him. As with the vast bulk of network television, his movies are a long way from cinematic art, but Hollywood has never been about the art – here, it’s always about the money...

** For anyone unfamiliar with the term, “blocking” refers to the physical process of working out exactly how and where the actors and camera will move during the course of a scene – and on a sit-com, how all four cameras are to cover the action. On any scripted project (feature film, episodic television, sit-com, soap opera, or commercial), standard procedure is to block, light, rehearse, then shoot the scene. Sit-coms differ slightly in that three days of rehearsals precede the blocking, but it’s not until blocking day that that the process gets serious. Blocking forms the foundation upon which the structure of each scene is built. If a director doesn't block a scene right, the result won’t flow or work nearly as well as it should – and left unchecked by the producers, this will turn a good script into an instantly forgettable mess every time. Ken Levine – one of those very good directors – offers his insights on the process here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wednesday Photo

These posters (featuring the likeness of a Great White Shark) started popping up around town a few months ago. Lacking any labels or other identifiers, they seem to be some kind of art project rather than yet another attempt on the part of viral advertisers to penetrate our consciousness and loot our wallets. This one, at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Laurel Canyon, has since been defaced by "urban advertising," but at least two others higher up Laurel Canyon remain intact.

I have no idea who put these posters up, but they're very cool indeed.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hard Times in Hollywood: Then, Now, and Always

Even Astro Burger isn't hiring these days...

“You can do it if you really want, but you must try,
try and try, try and try,
‘til you succeed at last...”

“You Can Get It,” by Jimmy Cliff

One of the eternal truths in life is that for a young person without connections, breaking in to the film/television industry is hard -- always has been, always will be. It doesn’t matter how earnest your intentions are, how smart you might be, or that you carried a 4.0 GPA all the way through your many bong-aided years of higher education. These noble virtues doubtless fill your mom’s heart with teary pride, but the hard truth remains that nobody in Hollywood gives a shit. What’s worse (from you and your mom’s point of view), not a single soul in the film industry with any real power is the least bit interested in what they can do for you, but rather what you can do for them -- and for a newbie fresh out of school (even one of those fancy-schmancy, very expensive, don’t-you-realize-I’m-an-auteur? film schools), that is precious damned little.

You might well possess boundless potential, but with no track record or professional experience, that adds up to zero credibility. At this point, all you can offer a prospective employer/production is hustle, a good attitude, and the willingness to learn – and any freshly-minted grads who don’t possess these essential attributes won’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell at succeeding in Hollywood. In that case, rather than come to LA and get in the way of everybody else, do yourself a huge favor and find another line of work.

For the rest of you, don’t despair. Down the road a year or three or five (after you’ve been kicked around enough to learn the Industry basics), your keen intelligence, quick wit, and protean creativity will doubtless prove a valuable asset to anyone smart enough to hire you. At some point your future will be limited only by your own imagination, ambition, ability to overcome whatever obstacles are in your way, and that most crucial of intangibles, luck. But until that happy day, your problem is getting from where you are now – which is nowhere -- to being able to grasp the lowest rung on the Hollywood ladder of success in the form of your first paying Industry job. In the meantime, you’re just barking at the wind. Lacking gold-plated contacts, nobody will open the Industry gates and invite you inside, but the dirty little secret of Hollywood is that there are countless hidden doors around the back, and all you have to find is one. They’re not easy to locate or tease open, but a smart, motivated young person can always find a way.

In a recent post, the Anonymous Production Assistant laid out this harsh reality for a couple of newbies seeking advice on jump-starting their own Hollywooden careers. To his credit, Anonymous didn’t mince words or offer false hope. Without connections, this is a tough industry to crack, and if you lose hope at the unfairness of it all, there’s always someone right on your heels ready to seize the opportunities you failed to see. It’s a cruel Darwinian process, but you can endure and prevail if you’re prepared to exert a maximum effort until you finally do break through.

You really have to want it. That’s how the system works for outsiders – it’s all on you.

It certainly wasn’t easy when I rode into Hollywood from Santa Cruz in the late 70’s. After floundering around for a good four months (during which I blew through most of my savings just getting by), I managed to stumble into my first job as a production assistant -- unpaid, of course – working on a shoestring-budget feature. That first job was the key, though, after which one thing eventually led to another all the way up until today, thirty-plus years later. There have been as many bad years as good ones since then, but although I seem destined to play out the string on my so-called career in a humble capacity as a juicer, I had a few moments in the sun. More importantly, I learned who I am along the way, and what I need from the Industry to be relatively happy. Figuring that out isn’t always easy, but the sooner you do, the better off you’ll be.

If the Hollywood circus was a tough nut to crack back then, it’s a lot harder now. From what I read and hear, the competition for entry-level jobs these days is fierce. Although the imagination of my generation was sparked by an explosion of interesting movies in the late 60’s and early 70’s (“Chinatown,” “The French Connection,” and “The Wild Bunch,” among others), a Hollywood career wasn’t seen as a viable option for every kid who grew up playing with mom and dad’s video camera. For one thing, there were no home video cameras back then – home movies were shot on Super 8 film, and if you’ve ever tried editing Super 8 (at 72 tiny frames per foot), then you know what a painful labor of love that is. As laughable as it sounds, I became interested in film at a time when going to Hollywood was generally viewed as “selling out.” The indy scene, such as it was, consisted of obscure “art films” by Andy Warhol, Scott Bartlett, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Connor, and the tediously strange work of Michael Snow. The Kuchar brothers were making some interesting (if bizarre) films out in New Jersey, along with many others making their own very personal films out on the fringe -- but there was no central core of cutting-edge independent film. The Maysles Brothers documentaries, French New Wave and the angry young men of England caught our attention (Peter Watkins did some stunning work in The War Game, Battle of Culloden, and Privilege), but it would be years before Sundance really got going, and “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” came along to change everything. The closest thing to an American indy hit I can recall was “Easy Rider,” made with the help of a few young Hollywood insiders with the vision, guts, and clout to see the project through. By the time I got to Hollywood, a handful of low budget producer/directors like Roger Corman and Greydon Clark had perfected the art of turning a profit by grinding out cheap exploitation movies. There was nothing particularly hip or artistic about working on such highly forgettable crap -- the work was hard, the days (and nights) very long, and the money was terrible -- but these films provided a valuable training ground for an entire generation of above and below-the-line Industry people.

I’d fully intended to try my luck with Roger Corman, but other opportunities arose, and by the time I ended up doing a Corman picture -- "Planet of Horrors," was the working title (later changed to something equally lame), filmed at Corman’s bubble-gum-and-bailing-wire studio at the old Hammond Lumber Yard out in Venice -- it was too little and much too late. I’d long since graduated from the ranks of production assistants to working as a grip-trician, and was no longer interested in the pitiful flat weekly rates Corman paid his film technicians.

For me, this was a dead-end. Others on the crew took a more charitable view, and it paid off. At one point, the gaffer had me take a few lights back to the “Black Hole” – Corman’s crude special effects shop – for the young Jim Cameron, who was then serving his pre-directorial apprenticeship learning the tricks of the trade. He wasn’t the only one who went on to bigger and better things -- two of my fellow juicers on that crew eventually carved out successful careers in features, one as a gaffer, the other as a D.P. – but I’d had a belly-full of the low budget feature world by then. After two memorable (read: miserable) weeks, my phone rang with an offer to work a ten day commercial for $250/day, and I walked away from “Planet of Horrors” without a backward glance.

Adios, Roger Corman, and the horse you rode in on -- I was off to the lucrative world of commercials, where I happily stayed for the next fifteen years.

I don’t know where the Cormans of today are making their movies. Many low budget features are filmed in other countries these days (particularly Canada and Eastern Europe), while many that do film in the US are lured from Hollywood to the thirty other states that offer generous tax subsidies to film productions. Even in the late 80’s (when I made a brief return to low budget features), non-union productions would fly an entire crew from Hollywood out to locations all across the country. I don’t think that happens much anymore -- with capable film crews living and working across the nation, producers only have to bring in the key personnel, who then hire and oversee a local crew. This makes it harder than ever to break into below-the-line Hollywood, especially during the current and apparently endless economic troubles. With so much production going on elsewhere, I woudn’t advise young people interested in any of the crafts to follow the sun west towards the Hollywood sign. The best place to learn the basic skills of any film craft is on a working set, and it doesn’t matter if that happens in Yazoo City, Mississippi or Studio City, California. Most young people seeking a career working below-the-line would be better off looking closer to home.

Those who aim to work above-the-line (which probably includes most of those asking The Anonymous Production Assistant for advice) face an even more daunting challenge. Unless you’ve written an absolutely brilliant and stunningly original script (and harder still, manage to get it into the right hands), making progress above-the-line is a very nebulous process. If you knock on enough doors, you’ll eventually land a PA job, but moving up the career path as a writer, director, or producer is another story. The competition for even entry level jobs can be intense, and as the laws of economics dictate, when supply exceeds demand, the per-unit price plummets – which is why so many PA’s end up working for free, job after job. That’s awfully tough when so many young industry wannabes emerge from the cocoon of college saddled with a heavy debt load from student loans.

It wasn’t like that in my day. The cost of a public college was relatively cheap, and few of my fellow graduates ended up owing more than a couple of thousand dollars in student loans. That seemed like a lot at the time, but when adjusted for inflation, represents somewhere around seven or eight thousand of today’s dollars. There weren’t any jobs back then either – unemployment was running over 7% nationally, and in Santa Cruz was closer to 30%. Inflation was on the rise as well, ramping up from 7% in 1977 to over 13.5% by the end of 1980, as the country staggered through the post-Vietnam economic quicksand of “stagflation.”

There were no personal computers, Internet, or cell phones when I was working my way up. Although that seems unimaginable now, life was a lot cheaper without having to buy a new computer every few years, upgrade the software, and pay the monthly tab for Internet access and a cell phone. Granted, we spent a lot on vinyl records – four to six bucks a pop at the time, which (adjusted for inflation) was more than most CDs cost nowadays. As I understand it, kids today don’t bother with CDs anyway, simply ripping their music from the Internet or buying cheap MP3downloads, but if the music is cheaper nowadays, everything else from rent to food was much less expensive back then. We could pay our share of the rent and phone bill, put gas in the car, eat three meals a day, drink/smoke ourselves into a stupefied oblivion on a nightly basis, and still have a very active social life while working a minimum wage job – and nobody had to move back home with our parents. I’m not sure that’s possible anywhere these days, and certainly not here in LA.

Along with a diploma, many of today’s college graduates are handed a bill for tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Carrying such a horrendous burden of debt, the newly-minted graduate with his/her eyes on Hollywood has to get out here, find a decent place to live (and good luck scoring an apartment for less than fifteen hundred dollars a month), and maintain a reliable car with insurance.** Those are just the basics. Everything else – utilities, computers, cell phones, health care, gas, food, and entertainment -- comes on top.

Given the expense of modern life, it’s a lot to ask these kids to start their Hollywooden careers working for free. Although my first PA job in Hollywood paid nothing to start, I moved into the editing department after a couple of weeks to sync up dailies (don’t ask -- this was way pre-digital) twelve hours a day for the sum of $50 a week. My next PA job paid $25/day, and it was on that film that I managed to hook up with the grip and electric crew, who taught me the basics and eventually began hiring me on small, low paying jobs. After a year or so, I was getting $100/day as a non-union grip-trician (on a flat, all-you-can-work rate, of course), and was on my way.***

Times are tough these days, maybe tougher than they were back when I got started. Although the added burdens on young people now make it harder than ever to get started in this industry, the demand for screened entertainment remains eternal. Hollywood will always strive to meet that demand no matter the economic conditions, whatever else is going on in the world. The film industry is constantly on the move, seeking new ways to take advantage of the changing situation. That means lots of “churn” here in Hollywood and elsewhere, which creates opportunity. The shifting tides of the market and increased competition for entry-level production jobs might obscure your path to success, but it’s still there.

You just have to find it.

To the young person contemplating a future in Hollywood, I can only say this: if you have a choice -- if there's any other path you can walk that might make you happy -- take it. Demand for budding investment bankers, stock brokers, or realtors might be slack these days, but if your aim is to carve out a meaningful career doing something that actually matters – say, trying to help make this increasingly troubled world a better place -- then stay away from Hollywood. This town is a seething pit of greed, vanity, endless insecurity, turbo-charged ambition, and triple-distilled, 200 proof mendacity. But if you still want to come, first sit down and ask yourself what it is you really want to do. Be brutally honest. Do you want to direct or produce? Do you want to act or write for a living? These are all noble, well-paid professions, and should you succeed, you’ll make everybody back home proud -- but if you’re just curious to see what all the fuss is about, save yourself the headaches and do something else. This is no place for anyone (especially with a crushing student loan hanging over his/her head) who isn’t fully committed to making it and willing to endure countless humiliating indignities every step of the way.

In the end, if your heart really is set on the Hollywood Adventure, then give it your best shot. The bottom line is in the words of that Jimmy Cliff song: you can do it if you really want.

Just don’t say you weren’t warned.

And good luck. You’re gonna need it.

* Example: in 1975, I split the rental on a small house with a fellow ex-student – a house with a big back yard just a few blocks from the beach. My half of the rent came to $65 a month.

** Car insurance wasn’t legally required when I first came to town, and thus remained an unaffordable luxury until I hit my mid-30’s.

*** Now I’m on my way back down, along with most of my Industry peers. For the last couple of decades, the IA has been getting shoved into a corner and mugged by the producers every three years when the contract came up for renewal. By the time I retire, I’ll probably be working for less (adjusted for inflation) than when I started as a non-union grip-trician.

For two blogs that might be useful to young Industry wannabes, click here and here.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hiatus Week Six

The show I’m currently working on is taking a one week hiatus, and so is Blood, Sweat, and Tedium. I'll be back next week to apply a magnifying glass to the underbelly of Industry life here in Hollywood. Meanwhile...

Those of us who enjoy strolling through the Industry blog-o-sphere have found the pickings rather slim of late, and for good reason: Peggy Archer (“Totally Unauthorized”) is still suffering the effects of some very painful foot surgery, Scripty (“Script Goddess”) seems to be buried under an avalanche of television commercial work when not trying to get her own mystery project off the ground, and D (“Dollygrippery”) has been tied to the ball and chain of a cable episodic for the past few months, leaving very little time for anything else. The Anonymous Production Assistant’s usual multi-post weeks resumed only recently after a fallow period thanks to his/her own full employment, and “Burbanked” -– not strictly an Industry blog, but an old favorite from way back -- remains in a sad state of suspended animation while Alan searches for a new job*.

Leetal "Final Girl") has apparently been working too hard to post much recently, which leaves Ken Levine and "Polybloggimous" as the only frequent posters left on my blogroll -- and although Nathan's tales of the East Coast film biz are excellent, they come on a very occasional basis. The situation's even worse when it comes to "Below the Line" and the "Abbey Singer Blues" -- which is a real pity, since those two blogs are terrific when they do manage to post.

Apparently most of us are working more than full time or not nearly enough, which is typical of Industry life. Although I’ve been busy on my show, it happens to be a multi-camera sit-com -- my work of choice, thanks to the relatively humane working hours in an industry that usually rewards those who serve it by sucking the blood from their veins until they drop.

Meanwhile, I’ve been keeping an eye on two interesting blogs from the "Film Industry Bloggers" website – a site I'm otherwise not overly fond of. A BST reader long ago suggested I sign up with the FIB, but I’ve never been much of a joiner -- growing up, I was the kind of kid who liked to play pick-up baseball, but had little use for the overly-intrusive organization of Little League. Playing ball with my friends on an empty field was fun. Having to put on official uniforms to play official games run by red-faced coaches under official rules imposed by official umpires in front of screaming parents wasn’t really my idea of a good time.

The whole scene was entirely too officious -- that wasn't "play," it was work.

I took a look at FIB early on, and wasn’t particularly impressed -- they had a key grip putting up some interesting posts, but the other bloggers didn’t really float my boat. The next time I stopped in, the grip was no longer listed on the blogroll. At that point, I decided that any site selling T shirts and hats hawking itself (ahem: uniforms) was kind of missing the point of an Industry blog in the first place.

But after making my usual blog rounds a few weeks ago and coming up dry, I tried again, and this time found two FIB offerings interesting enough to keep me coming back for more: The Standby Painter and The Hollywood Development Executive

A standby painter is a set painter who works with the first unit crew, usually alone, taking care of any last-minute touch ups on the set, be it location or stage. I’ve always been very impressed with the work of set painters in general –- theirs is an art as much as a craft -- with the standby painter a lonely but crucial part of the movie-making machine. The stories of this standby painter will resonate with Industry veterans (we’ve all been there...), while giving civilian readers or wannabes a feel for what the professional film making process is really like.

The Hollywood Development Executive offers a rare and fascinating peek into the mysterious world above-the-line. Since he (she?) is talking out of school, this exec must remain anonymous for obvious reasons. For all I know, the blog could be written by a 22 year old production assistant making it all up – but if so, that PA really should be a writer, because the advice he/she gives and the stories told have the ring of truth.

Both are very well-written blogs, which earns them a place on my blogroll. Take a look -- you might like what you find. Who knows, maybe you’ll love all the official Film Industry Bloggers – and if so, good for you and good for them.

Just so long as they don’t put on those uniforms...

You'll notice a new category here at BST beneath the blogroll over on the right side of the page, titled “Industry Resources.” The first two additions come from Rick Davis, a key grip I’ve known since my earliest days in commercials. Grip 411 offers a ton of useful information on grip equipment for any application, while Crew and Review is a new (and decidedly cheeky) print/on-line newsletter discussing the pros and cons of new equipment now being used on set. Crew and Review includes lots of photos showing you exactly how this stuff actually works. Check it out –- you might learn something -- and if nothing else, you’ll see photos of several grips I used to work with back in the day.

The only thing I can't figure out is how those guys all got so old since we last worked together...

*Hang tough, Alan. You'll find something soon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Another Wednesday Photo

If you think using one of these "Star Waggon" (that's right, folks - two "g's") port-o-potties will make you feel like a star, then you really need to try it sometime. They're a lot better than using the bushes, though. These were in the parking lot at the CBS facility on Beverly, home of such televised garbage as "Dance With the Stars" and "American Idol."

They do at least one decent show here -- "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" -- so I guess the place isn't a total waste of space, money, and human labor.

And given the events of last week, I guess Bob Marley of USC will have to find another way to earn his bong money...