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, November 29, 2009

Good Jobs, Bad Jobs

Sometimes you just have to draw the line.

The Good Life on a network show: two crew members of an extremely popular police drama take a quick break from the set...

One of A.J.’s recent posts over at The Hills are Burning dealt with the subject of bad jobs, offering a useful primer on the proper procedure for reading the chicken’s entrails to deduce just how bad an upcoming job might be. A comment left by an anonymous gaffer struck a resonant chord.

“I got the heebe-jeebies reading that latest post. As soon as I started turning down those types of jobs my life got better.”

The Anonymous Gaffer hit the nail on the head. On our climb up the shit-stained ladder of Hollywood suck-cess, we all come to certain crucial turning points after which everything changes -- hopefully for the better. A few years into my own halting ascent, I’d finally learned enough to establish myself as a reliable cog in the non-union, low-budget machine, toiling on cheap-ass features, cheap-ass commercials, and any other cheap-ass production that would have me. The then-standard rate for such labor was a hundred bucks a day, generally on a “flat” – meaning no overtime pay no matter how long the day went.*

I was happy just to be working. Having left my former highly-underpaid life as a P.A. far behind, I'd managed to carve out a niche in the low-budget film community that provided me enough income to make a a living, albeit a bare-bones existence. All was well and good for a while, but as with every warm fire, the rosy glow of accomplishment – any accomplishment, really – only lasts so long before it starts to cool. As time passed, the novelty of being able to calculate my weekly paycheck using the fingers and thumb of one hand began to wear thin. Bit by bit, calls for better jobs trickled in, jobs that paid more money – and sometimes offered the Holy Grail of overtime – for those long, hard days and nights. In time, the prospect of continuing to accept the crappy, cheap-ass jobs that had been my bread and butter came to represent a depressing drag on my Hollywood life. It was increasingly clear that I'd never get anywhere, career-wise, sticking to that level of work.

Something had to give, but I was afraid of violating the cardinal rule of Industry life: never turn down work. The struggle to reach a point where the phone would actually ring with job offers had left a lot of interior scar tissue. It doesn’t take much to anger the Gods of Hollywood, who seemingly have the power to send you spiraling right back down into the pit from whence you crawled. The fear that your phone will stop ringing never really goes away.

Still, the time finally came for me to shit or get off the pot, so when a call came one day with another cheap-ass hundred-dollar-flat job, I summoned the courage to say “no.” There was a long scary silence from the other end of the phone – the quiet whisper of a bridge going up in flames. After I hung up, I knew that for better or worse, I’d crossed a Rubicon of sorts: either things would gradually get better, or rapidly get a lot worse. The next day – when I could have been earning that hundred dollars – it dawned on me that I might have a huge mistake. Looking up, the sky was thick with smog. I couldn’t tell if dark clouds were building overhead, thunder ready to roll, with a bolt of lightning prepared to flash down from the sky and strike my nascent career dead in its tracks.

Apparently not. Instead, the work calls that did continue to come were for better jobs – and the more I did, the more the phone rang. As it turned out, getting paid more to do easier work (with decent equipment, more help, and much better craft service) made me a lot happier. My work life got better in every way.

The situation stabilized once I made it to the union world. At the time, union work paid scale or slightly above, depending on the budget and nature of the production. A lot has changed since then, mostly for the worse. Runaway production – offshore and to other states – combined with the ongoing siege of the digital revolution, has eroded the economic base of the Industry and Hollywood's below-the-line community. It's no longer a given that wages will continue to rise, or that our once-fat benefits package will survive the years ahead.

That's the way it is in today’s Bah-Humbug Hollywood of Ebenezer “Disney” Scrooge, where the clarion cry “do it cheaper” reverberates through sound stages and location shoots from call time 'til wrap. Thanks to the Balkanization of our contract structure, working union jobs for wages well-under scale (and longer hours) has become increasingly common below decks, where the justly-reviled “cable rate” is routinely shoved down our throats on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

We swallow hard and take it. The way things are these days, nobody I know can afford the luxury of turning down such a job in the increasingly faint hopes that a full-scale job might materialize from the ether. When the choice comes down to a scrawny bird in the hand vs two that might be somewhere in the bush, you take what you can get.

There’s still a big difference between those jobs and the good ones, though. The last sit-com I had was a cheap-ass cable-rate special, but I was seriously bummed when it unexpectedly got the axe. A job’s a job, even at a 20% pay cut -- and at least we were getting our union benefit and pension hours. After we wrapped the stage and walked away, I landed three days on a much bigger-budget sit-com for a major network, being produced and directed by an Industry legend. Walking on stage, it felt like I’d left the bilge of a ratty tramp steamer for a first class cabin on a luxury cruise ship. The craft service room alone was four times the size of ours on the cable show, not including the huge (and sumptuous) spread crafty set up outside her room every afternoon. Everything about that show was so much more lush and relaxed than our frantic little cable job.

I’d love to draw the line again and take only those good jobs, but the union world is a very different now -- a lot harder than it was — and at this late stage of my own career, I’m not exactly in high demand anymore. No longer being close to the low-budget, non-union world, I don't know how things are down there these days. Whether the grips, juicers, and camera people can still draw that line to improve their working lives is unclear. Shit has a way of rolling downhill, though, so I assume the same tectonic pressures rattling the doors and windows of the union world are doing the same among the non-union ranks.

I hope not. Having been there, I know how tough it is on the dark side of that shiny gold coin. It’s hard enough getting started and making progress in the low-budget world without having the deck stacked so impossibly high against you. And so as Autumn slides into Winter, and the calendar turns to the Christmas holidays, I wish the best of luck to all of us working below-the-line, union and non-union alike.

We're gonna need it.

*A hundred dollars per day back then is worth considerably more in inflation-adjusted dollars today than current union scale for a baseline 8 hour work day, excluding the non-paycheck remuneration of health and pension benefits. This isn’t a straight-up comparison, though, since there was no such thing as an 8 hour day in the low-budget, non-union world at the time. 12+ hour days (on a flat) were standard back then, with no benefits whatsoever. Lousy craft service, too.


This is likely my last regular Sunday post for a little while. I start a pilot tomorrow that will kick my ass up and down the block for the next three weeks, after which I'll plunge (with the rest of you) into the twinkling Black Hole of Christmas. I doubt there will be time or energy to come up with decent posts. Should inspiration strike -- and time permit -- I'll put something up, but don't hold your breath. If all goes well, I'll be back sometime after the New Year.

Thanks to you all for tuning in, and for your thoughtful comments in 2009.

See you on the other side.


Niall said...

I may have my union card but I find myself still head deep in the non-union world, not being that established and all. I'm in a state of flux. I hear all the bad news coming down at the union meetings and even worse the lack of work coming in at the non union level. It scare me to my core. I'm being replaced on the non union level and not recognized at the union level.

I'll take a hundred a day for several days over having nothing at all right now, hell I take non paid stuff if it's got a big enough package to work with. It keeps me out of the house.

Hopefully SAG, DGA, and WGA will keep their collective heads out of their butts. Times are tough we don't need that lot making harder.

Michael Taylor said...

Niall --

Transitions are always tough -- and never tougher than now, during a tsunami of economic distress that hit while the Industry as a whole was already reeling. It's all too easy to drop off the radar when you're no longer one thing, but not quite another. That's all the more difficult when you live and work in an area that isn't blessed with a surplus of production.

We do what we have to do. I've taken a few cable-rate rigging jobs lately (8 hour calls) that in effect (inflation-adjusted dollars) paid less than that hundred bucks a day I was making 30 years ago.

Still, a hundred dollars now represents less than forty back then. That alone tells you how much rougher things are these days.

I share your hope that the guilds will avoid rushing headlong into the Armageddon Scenario of 2011.

And I hope you get some decent work soon...

Anonymous said...

See you on the other side.

A.J. said...

Anonymous Gaffer's comment hit home for me too. There comes a time when you just have to say "no" to the shitty jobs and hope for the best.

Here's hoping your pilot is one of the better ones...

nahiyan said...

Caught your blog posts a bit late, but thanks for a years worth of great reading.
Hopefully the pilot has gone/is going well. See when 2010 rolls around (that decade sure went quickly)

Peggy Archer said...

Glad you've got a pilot! Happy New Year.

As a good friend of mine pointed out, a 2% raise every year in our contract when inflation's running at almost 10% equals an 8% annual pay cut.

The industry's not what it once was, that's for sure, but it's still better than non-union flat rate cluster fucks.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ, Nahiyan, Peggy -- thanks for the good wishes. The pilot (which did indeed kick my ass) is finally over. A job's a job and I was glad to have it, but there were some new wrinkles in this one, and you can bet I'll do my usual low-intensity whining about the experience in a future post.

Peg -- glad to hear you got things squared away with the health plan. It's always nice to end a bad year with some good news.

Have a great Christmas, everybody, and Happy New Year.

Scripty said...

I hear ya! I so want to be able to say no to any low budget, or crappy director situation...but given the economy and the lack of big productions I like everyone else will take something over nothing!

A happy holiday to you!


Ed (sloweddi) Beecher said...

Have you ever listened to the late Utah Phillips' storys of the unions? Very inspiering.

Happy holidays and have a great new year... with lots of Union work

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!