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 15, 2009

The Lizard Queen Speaks


"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss..."

The Who, from “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

ABC’s new sci-fi drama “V” opens with the sudden appearance of alien spaceships floating in the sky over all the major cities of our fair planet. A frightened humanity is soon confronted by a vision of preternaturally beautiful humanoid aliens who smile, bat their eyelashes, and speak in soothing tones. They’ve just stopped by to load up on provisions for a while, then they’ll be moving along. No reason to be alarmed – “Peace, always.” But as anyone who saw the original miniseries back in 1983 knows, beneath those lovely humanoid exteriors are cold-blooded reptilian killers whose arrival bodes ill for all Mankind.

This theme kept echoing through my brain while reading the LA Times interview last week with Carol Lombardini, new president and chief negotiator of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers*. When questioned about past and future negotiations with film industry labor representatives, she was careful to make nice, speak softly, and – with one glaring exception -- strike an eminently reasonable tone. Lombardini professed to be a “good listener,” adding that that she favors “getting out in front of negotiations” and “having regular communication with the guilds and unions so that we can share perceptions.”

So far, so good: getting all the interested parties talking to each other well before the current contract expires could be our best hope of avoiding the Mother of All Strikes in 2011. This line of thinking is encouraging, and a marked change from the my-way-or-the-highway stance of her mentor and predecessor, former AMPTP ramrod Nick Counter. I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, and since Mr. Counter only recently shuffled off this mortal coil, let’s just say I'd be surprised if he’s not already hard at work in the Great Beyond. Anyone who toiled so long and tirelessly against the guilds and unions in service of the Producers Alliance is supremely well qualified for a high ranking position on the Devil’s staff in Hell.

On the surface, Ms. Lombardini seems an affable middle-aged woman with a genial smile, which comes as a welcome relief from her hard-line former boss. Remember, though, the AMPTP remains as ruthlessly focused on the bottom-line as any cold-hearted banker, Wall Street crook, or Mafia Don. They’d never allow anyone lacking the requisite spine of steel and iron fist to step into Nick Counter’s blood-stained boots.

This interview wasn't an in-depth grilling of Ms. Lombardini, but merely her initial presentation to the public -- an opportunity to lob softball nostrums about “increased dialogue” and a guarded optimism that “people will... find a way to get this done.” Asked about the potential Doomsday Scenario of a combined SAG/WGA/DGA strike when the current contracts run out, she replied “I hope not. Everybody endured some battle scars from the last round.”

Uh, no shit, Carol – especially those of us who work below-the-line, and had nothing whatsoever to do with causing that strike, yet ended up as road-kill smeared on the shiny, ArmorAll-polished tires of the Escalades and Mercedes driven by the respective combatants in the last strike.

Not that I’m bitter, or anything.

It was only towards the end that this interview took a darker turn, as Ms. Lombardini’s genial mask slipped just enough to allow a glimpse below the smiling surface. When the new face of the AMPTP was asked whether she intended to ask for “rollbacks from talent” she replied: “I don’t necessarily mean wages will be cut, but maybe there are more efficient ways to produce. We have to look at whether on crews, for instance, we can assign work to a smaller group of people.”

Excuse me? The question was about wage reductions for above-the-line “talent”, but her reply was a bullet aimed directly at below-the-line crew. Carol Lombardini’s idea of cutting a deal to save the industry from a crippling strike apparently involves slashing the crew size so that those of us who do the heavy lifting in Hollywood will get the crap beaten out of us even more than we do now.

It’s not enough that the producers have already forced so many of us into a 20% pay cut while working longer hours on the odious cable rate, or that come August of 2011, hanging on to our health care will be infinitely more difficult for all but those lucky souls who have steady feature work or crew on long-running hit television shows – now it seems the bastards want to cut down on the actual numbers of people on the crews, thus putting even more of us out of work and into the gutter.

This is the kind of delusional, penny-wise-and-pound-foolish “thinking” that drives the rank and file crazy. In a job where time is money, a proper size crew is essential to getting the work done in a safe and efficient manner. Modern film-making is not some cookie-cutter, assembly-line process, but a labor-intensive business doing specialized custom work that requires truckloads of heavy, bulky, complicated equipment. If the crew size is reduced, fewer trained hands on set means everything will take longer to happen, the shooting days will lengthen, and more people will get hurt. This will have the perverse effect of driving the producer’s expenses up, not down.

A couple of weeks ago I spent the better part of a week day-playing on a network sit-com that has yet to air. Perusing the crew list, I counted no less than ten producers: four “Executive producers,” four “Co-Executive” producers, and two “Consulting Producers.” Granted, this is television, where producers spring up like mushrooms** after a rain -- but seriously, what the hell are ten producers doing on a twenty-two minute sit-com? I can understand why a $200 million feature involving many far-flung locations and hundreds of CGI shots might need to spread the producing duties around, but a simple sit-com? The entire time I was there (working my ass off, BTW), most of those clowns just sat on their well-paid asses (in their own personal directors chairs, naturally) staring blankly at the quad-split monitors while the rest of us brought their show to life.

I don't mean to denigrate the job of a producer. Every show needs a good Executive Producer as the money-man/head of production, and a smart, savvy Line Producer to kick butt, take names, and make sure the machine keeps rolling forward. I suppose there might even be a reason for a “Co-Producer” to help pick up the slack – although what he/she would do that the UPM doesn't remains a mystery to me -- but anything more than that stinks of above-the-line featherbedding. So if Ms. Lombardini is really serious in her desire to lower production costs and thus help Hollywood and the AMPTP stay competitive in this dog-eat-digital-dog world, I suggest she start by cutting some of that very expensive above-the-line fat rather than saw the legs off the Industry by slashing crew size.

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that happy day.

So there you have it: under Carol Lombardini’s soothingly humanoid exterior beats the cold reptilian heart of a very different beast. The producers plan, it seems, is to mollify the “talent” with minimal cuts to their bloated paychecks while shoveling the serious shit downhill onto the backs of those who do the serious sweating in Hollywood.

Nice, huh?

At least we know where we stand now. The lizard queen has spoken.

* Otherwise known as the Evil Empire...

** Another form of fungus that also thrives on bullshit..


A.J. said...

That's bullshit. I can't understand how she can claim to be "labor's closest ally" and then turn around and reduce crew sizes.

I think she needs to spend a few days lugging around cable and setting lights for 14 hours before deciding what would make things more "efficient."

hazel motes said...

Good piece michael. Got my blood boiling. WTF was that shot across the bow?!?!?! (That Isherwood quote resonates as powerfully as the day he wrote it.) Yeah, it always gets me when the upm asks me to cut a guy, or acts as if our crew size was a personal affront, and there atop the call sheet reads more variations of producers than types of snakes in the world. (no offense to the snake species meant).

I'd like Ms L to qualify that statement of hers.

Niall(John) said...

This is going to end in two ways. a doomsday strike of the big three or a general strike of us below the line proletariat.

Either way everyone looses and nothing really gets accomplished. Who really cares if SAG, WGA, or DGA strike. Been there so many time I don't even care unless it goes past 60 days. But if IASTE let alone the other below the line unions and positions choose to strike based on the miss treatment and poor representation. It would bring Hollywood to it's knees. Making SAG and it's other cohorts look like teens at a Hana Montana concert.

But even then it would take a four to six month strike to make anyone take notice. In that event we lose. So no matter what course is taken we get screwed. But say fight and lose rather than lose and do nothing.

Sis Cesspool said...

What? You don't think every show needs eight producers?

Anonymous said...

Producers are springing up like Kudzu-esque MBAs do in business, and I think the two are closely related.

When the only tool you have is a hammer (business degree), then every problem is a nail (and requires a hammer). The obvious solution is always more hammers to get the nails in place.

Very few of the senior management at the studios (or in, say manufacturing) have actually hauled 4/0 or turned a Mitchell plate on a lathe. I agree with A.J.: Let the producers try and light sets (or hold a boom pole) for a couple days.

The senior studio management sees "Mini-Me" in all those producers running around, so they will stand behind the inefficiency of bloated stuff, while seeing those of us below the line as nothing more than an expense.

Alright. /rant.

We are all the choir here. Maybe we need to start pushing the EPK people to concentrate on how hard we work...Start to show the public what it takes.

Or we could have Survivor: Hollywood. Take a bunch of recent film school grads who snubbed their noses at the production classes in favor of being 'producers.' Make them work below the line. Last one standing gets to...actually be a producer.

BoskoLives said...

O.K., now I'm resorting to quoting myself, "They're called producers, but for the most part they couldn't produce a shadow on a sunny day" still describes most of the weasels in that lot. From my perspective (which is about all I've got these days), when there are more producers listed on the call sheet than there are G&E folks, I take it as a warning of the ankle grabbing that's to come. And when these shiny new MBE's learn about the cost and availability of hi-def video cameras, ones that they can buy it outright for about $4,500 with all the bells and whistles, or get some "up and coming" camera droid who got one for a graduation gift and needs to build a reel to bring along as part of their kit so there's no actual rental or paying for insurance to deal with, the end of earning an actual income working in film is in the air. Their line of thinking goes like this, if we don't have to pay for this, why do we have to pay for that? So, to all the newbies that plan to make a career in this business, a bit of advice: Take care not to piss off your family, you'll likely be needing their financial support in the years to come.