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)

Saturday, July 3, 2010


“Cable shows will save money no matter how much it costs.”


Every television show must live or die within the confines of a budget. Broadcast network episodics typically run anywhere from two to four million dollars per episode, while multi-camera sit-coms can cost a million-and-a-half for each show. Although the big networks have always had more money to throw around than cable, they too have their budgetary limits. The third season of Samantha Who? -- a modestly successful if rather expensive show -- was canceled last year when the producers couldn't meet the network's demand to cut costs by a cool half million dollars per episode.

A hit show is usually allowed more budgetary leeway, of course, while a true monster can not only push the envelope, but expand it beyond all recognition. “Seinfeld” paid its namesake star a million dollars per week down the stretch run of that legendary show, while the other three co-stars (so I’m told) each got something like $650K/week. That would put the weekly budget at close to three million dollars in cast salaries alone. Add in the rest of the weekly sit-com infrastructure, and each 22 minute “Seinfeld” in that final season was as expensive as any hourly episodic. But the expense was worth it. I read an article recently reporting that world-wide, “Seinfeld” has thus far brought in $2.5 billion, which suggests that once upon a time – hard though it is to believe today – the programming gurus at NBC actually knew what they were doing.

Still, “Seinfeld” remains the exception that proves the rule.* The vast majority of multi-camera sit-coms are considerably cheaper to make than any other prime-time scripted show. When one of them catches the wave of public attention, the profits can be huge -- and that's why the traditional laugh-track sit-com may fade away from time to time, but will never die.

Cable works with a much smaller pool of money than the broadcast networks. It’s all a matter of eyeballs and wallets on the receiving end of the Cathode Ray Gun -- even a middling broadcast network show has traditionally drawn a larger viewing audience than the biggest cable hits. Here too the ground is shifting, as the tectonic forces unleashed by the ongoing digital revolution continue to undermine the long-standing economic model upon which the Television Industry was built. As cable gains strength in the market, a tough business is only getting tougher.

To quote an Oscar-winning song of a few years back, “It’s hard out there for a pimp.”

Cable episodics are a double-edged sword that cuts in favor of the viewers, producing terrific shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad,” along with many other solid shows. I haven’t seen any broadcast episodic that comes even close to the quality of those five cable standouts (the latter two still in production), which just goes to show that money can’t buy everything. But for the crews who do the heavy lifting required to make those shows, that exceedingly well-honed cable blade cuts the other way in the form of very long work days at a big reduction in pay from the standard union scale paid by on a broadcast network show.

The situation is similar (if not quite so dire) in the world of multi-camera cable shows, where the low-budget contract applies to shows budgeted at under $900K/week. The show I’m currently on pays the same crappy hourly rate as a cable episodic, but with only two longish days per typical episode – the blocking/pre-shoot day followed by the shoot in front of a live studio audience – we don’t have to endure the brutal daily beat-downs inflicted on cable episodic crews all week long. Accordingly, we make a lot less money, but at this point of my own Hollywooden career, I’m willing to accept a smaller paycheck to avoid a bloody flogging week in and week out.

That said, we’ve been taking our licks on this one.  With a principle actor re-cast from the pilot, we’ve been re-shooting those scenes including the new actor, doing one or two per week in addition to filming each scheduled episode. Thus far, that has translated into three shooting days every week, taking away one of our usual lighting days and thus jamming us up with minimal turn-arounds and the inevitable compounded fatigue such a work-late, get-up-early routine inevitably engenders. It’s nothing like the grind of working an episodic, but I’m still one whipped puppy by the weekend. We get a welcome extra day of rest on this holiday weekend, but even that comes at a price -- next week will cram five days of work into four days to complete the episode, with the crew losing a day's pay in the process.

Such a deal...

But that’s how it is in the wonderful world of cable, which appears to be the rising tide of the future of Hollywood. This is tough on everyone, especially the poor best boys (grip and electric), who get ridden hard and put away wet all week long by a production staff that comes to work each morning wearing freshly-sharpened spurs. They’re nice people, but their job is to reduce expenditures to the bare minimum, thus keeping each week’s episode below that crucial $900K budgetary threshold. This translates into the crew getting nickel-and-dimed in ways that often slow us down on set – and in the long run, that ends up costing the company more.

A prime example came early on before the grips and juicers arrived to start hanging pipe and lamps. Production decided they could save three hundred dollars a week by having the studio remove a row of green beds (a type of hanging scaffolding) that weren’t needed by the sound crew for this particular show. When asked, the key grip said he didn’t need them either – but nobody bothered to ask the set lighting best boy or crew, all of whom had worked on this stage before. Given that the stage lacks the traditional “up high” structure of catwalks and perms, that row of green beds provided crucial access to the cable troughs used to distribute the power all over the stage. Once they were were removed (along with the ladders to reach them), we had no way of getting up there anymore. Another ladder then had to be installed that will cost the producers sixty dollars/week over the duration of the show. The three hundred dollar/week savings on the green beds is now down to two hundred and forty/week, but since that ladder doesn't offer anything like the access the row of green beds had, we had to bring in an extra juicer during the first week and beyond just to help the dimmer operator run all his cable feeds out to the sets. At this point, production might have just broken even on the deal, but the show still has another eight weeks to run. My guess is the final tally without those green beds will far exceed the three hundred bucks a week they “saved.”

This is what happens when you don’t know enough to ask the right people the proper questions.

Would I rather be working a broadcast network sit-com at full union scale with all the equipment we need to get the job done right? You bet, but given the circumstances, I can’t really complain. Our UPM has been fair within the constraints of his budget, and thus far, is treating us as well as he can. These days, that may be the best we can hope for.

At least I’m working, and in that, I'm lucky. A lot of people in Hollywood aren’t.

* Over the final year of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Ray Romano reportedly was paid $1.4 million per week. I have no idea what his co-stars made, but that was certainly another very expensive sit-com.


Niall said...

This whole cable rate thing will need to change one day. Granted it will take time as all change does but unions will get tired ,via the membership, of the crap hours, the crap pay, and the crap treatment.

It really comes to as well that work is scarce and everyone knows it. So we, being the crew, have no leverage against production to force a contract renegotiation. We get to play the wait game.

But as time stretches one so does the great struggle of the proletariat masses versus their party over lords.

Michael Taylor said...

Niall --

All things being equal, I'd agree with you on that -- over time, the membership will demand an end to the more abusive terms of the cable contract -- but all things are not equal. As of the last contract (which I voted against), the IA health plan is now a bargaining chip. I don't know if the northwest local is subject to our contract (my knowledge of union jurisdictions and rules is minimal), but starting next summer, an IA member in Southern California will have to log 400 hours per six month qualifying period to keep the health plan. Until then, we'll only need the 300 hours that has been standard for as long as I can remember.

In a year, it will get significantly harder to keep yourself and your family covered by the plan once you qualify. Only people who get on shows or the very best and busiest of day-players (able to work steadily) can be certain of logging enough hours on a regular basis.

The threat of losing health coverage will convince a lot more people to bend over and take the cable shafting just to ensure they get enough hours. Making the health plan harder to hang on to -- in effect, using fear as a weapon -- is one way the producers can prevent the membership from demanding significant pro-labor changes in the cable contract.

I can just see our illustrious IA leaders (through a pall of cigar smoke) smirking "You want to keep your health plan, don't you? Then shut the fuck up and work for cable..."

Why should they care -- they've all got $100K+/year office jobs that require nothing more strenuous than lifting a telephone. No 14 hour days working in the hot sun or all night in the cold rain for them.

Given the continuing erosion of the economic model that has -- until lately -- sustained a strong film/TV industry, I don't see things getting better for a long time, if ever. The truly fat times may well be gone for good. There will always be a film/TV industry, but (and I really hope I'm wrong here) it seems likely to be a much leaner and meaner place to work below the line in the future.

A.J. said...

Forget next summer. What you're describing is happening now. During the last round of strike-threatening negotiations, I've heard tales of top-notch feature crews slumming it for next to nothing on New Media stuff just to make it to 300 hours. And with work being as scarce as it is now, I know a lot of people are taking any job they can get, no matter the pay, just so they can keep their benefits.

It sounds like too good of a deal for the Producers. I still don't know how the IA could've agreed to 400 hours...

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

My fear is that cable rate will in effect become the "new scale" for most of us. Caught between the rock of runaway production (and the new 400 hours requirement), and the hard place of minimum wage New Media deals, we'll be forced to take what table scraps the producers are willing to toss us.

If cable keeps eating the broadcast networks creative lunch (which seems entirely likely), I can see the networks eventually demanding pay scale concessions below-the-line in future contract negotiations, to -- from their POV -- level the playing field.

I went to a big group meeting (Local 80, 728, and 44) to discuss the new contract provisions six months before the vote. The Business Agents of each local claimed the producers had started out demanding an increase in health plan qualifying hours from 300 to 600, and that "beating them down" to 400 was the best they could do.

They then blathered on about the usual 3% annual raise we'd still get -- but personally, I'd have gladly given up that small raise to keep the qualifying hours at 300, and thus allow more union members to stay covered.

The whole situation sucks.