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, May 2, 2010

Christmas? Already?

And a Merry Frickin' Christmas in April to you too...

Didn't we just have Christmas four months ago? Aren't we supposed to have the rest of Spring, Summer, and Fall to enjoy before once again wading into the orgy of personal guilt and compensatory commercial excess our society collectively celebrates as "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year??"

Isn’t it way too early to cue up the Johnny Mathis???

Indeed, but the Gods of Television move in mysterious ways, which is how I recently found myself on a sit-com stage that a hard-working art department had spent hours dressing for Christmas. Each set -- and there were many -- was jammed with fully decked-out Christmas trees and plastic snow on the windows, along with tinsel and strings of Xmas lights everywhere. It was the Christmas episode, to state the obvious. I can't tell you what show, of course -- as the non-disclosure agreements I had to sign (and those lame "No BRATS" posters plastered all around the sound stage) will attest, I cannot name, identify, or otherwise describe this particular show at peril of having corporate legal thugs kick down my door and drag me off to blogger's prison. Thus my sqishy vagueness here, because even though this job paid the odious cable rate, 2010 remains a year of begging rather than choosing. A job’s a job, and if the best boy needs an extra hand down the line, I’d like to remain on the short list so I can return for more punishment.

Such is the lot of a free-lance juicer in these troubled times.

Oh, and remember what I said about how the no-doubletime-'til-14-hours provision under cable-rate doesn't really hurt sit-com crews since multi-camera shows almost never shoot that long? Wrong again. We went all 14 of those hours, right up 'til the magic moment when the producers would have had to start paying us fifty-six blood-money dollars per hour for our trouble, whereupon the schedule (and the fact that we hadn’t come close to "making our day") suddenly didn't matter anymore. That’s all folks -- turn out the lights and go home.

They didn’t have to tell me twice. I pulled that damned walkie-talkie out of my ear, dropped my tool belt, and was gone, baby, gone...

Given the lead-time required in television, doing Christmas shows in July or August is normal, but April? That’s a new one on me. Making this long day all the more trying was a young guest star I’d barely heard of, who -- it seems -- is huge among the tweener set. There were two bodyguards standing by during every scene to make sure all those screeching little fans in our live studio audience didn’t jump the rail in a human tsunami of over-amped tween hormones. And oh did they screech... Remember those old black and white tapes of The Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, playing in front of an audience jammed with screaming young girls?* Trust me, the combined shrieking of several hundred tweens is a lot louder in person. I gained a world of sympathy for Mr. Ed (may he rest in peace), and in the end, resorted to using an earplug in my non-walkie-talkie ear to salvage both my hearing and my sanity.

But like I said, work is work, and this year we take what we can get.

* I saw this legendary performance at the time it was first televised in glorious black and white, not decades later on tape. Yes, it was a long time ago...


Anonymous said...

so cable rate is only $28/hr? how the hell does anyone live on that as a freelancer? don't taxes make that almost impossible?

how much does the average union juicer (working on a mix of network & cable shows) make per year?

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

On the show mentioned in this post, $28 was the day-player rate -- the core crew gets $26/hr. Either way, you're only grossing eleven to twelve hundred/week (depending on overtime), with a take-home between seven and eight hundred as per your deductions. Since most sit-coms work a three weeks on, one week off schedule, that means taking home maybe $2500/month, which might work fine in Costa Rica, but doesn't go far in LA.

Things get worse with the low budget feature contract, where a three tier structure of steadily descending hourly wages dip into absurdity. I've misplaced my current union rate card, but as I recall, the super low budget rate is something like $17/hr. And as discussed in another recent post, the New Media Rate is beyond absurd -- there is no rate. It's minimum wage or whatever you can negotiate on your own with the producers.

Welcome to the Brave New Media World.

I have no idea what the average IA juicer makes, nor am I sure there is any such thing. The free-lance world is all over the map. Some guys have contacts with Reality TV and game shows allowing them to work beyond the usual sit-coms and episodics. Others work lots of commercials as well as TV, and then there are the feature crews. On a big feature, those guys can pull in over 2K/week for months on end.

All I can tell you is my own experience -- working a mix of network and cable shows with occasional outside gigs (TV promos and/or a rare commercial), I usually average something under 45K/yr before taxes. It's just barely enough to keep from going under. Thus far, 2010 is looking like a much worse than average year for me. So it goes on the free lance roller coaster.

In general, younger guys do a lot better, since I'm at an age where I can't take the really heavy rigging calls. One day is fine, but five days a week slinging 4/0 for ten to twelve hrs/day would probably land me in the hospital.

It still beats driving a desk, but for how much longer, I really don't know...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering my questions. They were totally nosy and I appreciate that you were cool enough to answer them anyway.

Here's hoping for a better 2nd half of the year for all of us...

Art DepartMENTAL said...

I just did a Christmas gig too... but I love doing Christmas any time of year because I love nothing more than to dress Christmas trees. I'll take Christmas any day over another boring apartment. I did a Christmas gig in February once. That one I found ridiculous. That was just too early. Mind you none of these were for network or cable television.