Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, 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.

1 comment:

Devik said...

Well spoken and all truth !
I say this from my perspective as a 32 year member of Local 728.