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, January 9, 2011

The Road Ahead

Where Are We Going?

One full week into the New Year, the smoldering wreckage of 2010 grows ever-smaller in our collective rear-view mirrors, and while a certain sour pleasure can be had in ruminating on the past, that’s over and done. Looking back was for last week -- with a new year and a new decade stretching out before us, it’s time to look ahead.

In general, I try not to spend too much time staring into the gray mists of the future. I have no special insight as to what will transpire, and besides, it’s just too damned depressing. Every time I take a good hard look at what’s really going on around the world these days - endless waves of ruthlessly bloody violence (mostly in the name of politics and religion, although the ongoing slaughter gets a big assist from that other opiate of the masses, the illegal drug trade), and our once-pristine and bountiful natural world crumbling under the withering industrial assault of several billion utterly oblivious human beings – I want to curl up into a furry ball and hibernate for a couple of thousand years or so. As I see it, we the people of earth are spiraling into some grim variety -- take your pick -- of post-modern apocalyptic horror-show.

To quote a popular movie from a few years back, “I see dead people...”

But we're all dead in the long run anyway, so what the hell. Besides, given that change is the only true constant in human affairs (other than the seven deadly sins, of course), it’s always possible things won’t turn out quite so bad. Alchemy may be thoroughly discredited as scientific endeavor, but we've seen lead morph into gold in the past, and it could happen again. Once upon a Cold War time, an accidental or intentional “nuclear exchange” between the Soviet Union and America seemed inevitable - the end of the world as we knew it really was just a matter of time - but although we came disturbingly close to nuclear Armageddon more than once, the new man-made Big Bang never did materialize.

Not yet, anyway, and having been so very wrong before, I'm fully prepared (and hopeful, actually) to be wrong again on this one.

When I lower my sights from the Scary Big Picture to the more manageable arena of our own film and television industry, though, the picture is hardly less daunting, and in some ways even more confusing. The only obvious truth is that the old ways of doing business are being bound, gagged, and frog-marched onto the proverbial dust bin of history. When it comes to movies and television, they really don’t make ‘em like they used to, nor will they ever do so again. For better or worse, the wheel has turned, and we’re now embarked on a new course.

Which leaves the question hanging over that big white Hollywood sign like a thick shroud of smog: exactly where are we headed?

Kim Masters put together an interesting show on the subject this week for KCRW’s “The Business”, discussing the many challenges facing the world of film and television in the year(s) ahead. I won't attempt to paraphrase the show here, but those thirty minutes are definitely worth the time for anyone concerned about the direction of our Industry. Another interesting bit came at the end of a short segment (four minutes) on NPR last week during which Kim talked about this years crop of Oscar hopefuls. Personally, I don’t give a shit about the annual dog-and-pony show that is the Oscars (or any awards show, really), but while discussing the prospects of “The Fighter,” Kim let on that Paramount – now strutting around town thumping its chest over the Oscar potential of “their” movie -- in fact put no money at all (that’s right, zero dollars...) into the pre-production, production, post-production, or marketing of the film. If I heard right, the studio played no role whatsoever in producing “The Fighter.” Only after every last ounce of the creative heavy lifting had already been done would Paramount deign to release the film under their name. Kim reports the executive in charge of production at Paramount as saying that he wished he could work this way all the time, never having to roll the studio dice (or their money) by taking a chance on backing a project from the ground up.*

This raises two questions:

1) How can such a useless tool actually look in the mirror and call himself a producer? If his idea of a successful day at the office involves doing nothing more than waiting for another cinematic plum to drop into his lap so he can then apply the Paramount label and send the film out to theaters, then he’s nothing more than a glorified clerk with a corner office – an overpaid barnacle on the corporate hull – utterly unworthy of the title “producer.”

2) Is Paramount still a movie studio, or simply a gaudy false-front for a blind-and-dumb corporate Goliath that has no feeling for (or understanding of) what it takes to bring true creativity to the big screen?

All this is driven by an extreme aversion to any sort of risk-taking on the part of corporate-owned studios, and the continuing pressure to cut production costs down to the bone. In trying to hammer a round peg into the square hole, these corporations are destroying everything that once made Hollywood a cauldron of creativity. Can an industry willing only to green-light expensive sequels, remakes of older films, movies based on comic books (or worse, on old-and-moldy TV shows) -- projects sweetened by back-end ancillary deals with toy companies and fast food chains -- still be called the movie business?

Not to me. Mainstream corporate Hollywood today looks a more like an assembly line than anything resembling a creative enterprise.

With the corporate studios unwilling to make any interesting movies these days, that leaves the independents - but even indy films with established talent attached are having a hard time getting funded, and those that do are forced to make each dollar stretch as far as it possibly can.

I'm way out of the indy loop now, but back in the late 80's, did three low-budget non-union location features with minor stars of the day -- the "indy" films of the time. As the set lighting best boy, I was paid $200 per day working six-day weeks, the then-going rate for such projects. Just to provide some perspective, that works out to around $375/day, or $2250/week in current dollars.

I have no idea what the going rates are for juicers and grips on indy films nowadays, but seriously doubt it's that much.**

So if American movie studios are too afraid to make real movies anymore, and indy producers are having a terrible time raising money to make films, and those who work on the crews are being ground into the dirt of lower pay and reduced benifits, then what’s the current state of our movie industry?

I don't know, but it sure as hell doesn't sound good.


Another peek into the future-by-way-of-the-present came from David Bianculli's (TV critic for the show "Fresh Air") list of ten best/ten worst shows of 2010. That Bianculli – a man who gets paid to watch and talk about television – had to extend his ten best list to thirteen programs points to how much the medium has changed over the past decade. Give credit to HBO for breaking the creative ice in 1999 with “The Sopranos,” a landmark show that sparked a true creative renaissance on the small screen ever since – mostly (but not solely) on cable networks.

Bianculli’s list and the rationale behind his choices make for interesting listening, but what snagged my attention was his take on the uncertain future of television itself. He thinks the current generation of young viewers won't be watching much TV at home on the family LCD or plasma screen of the future, but rather on computers, Ipad-like devices, cell phones, and whatever new-technology delivery devices emerge down the road. Bianculli contends that the communal hearth our culture once enjoyed in the era of three networks and fixed programming schedules began to crack with the advent of the VCR, then was fractured beyond repair by the more advanced time-shifting technology capabilities of digital recorders like TIVO. With Internet streaming gaining popularity, change is coming at warp speed to the media universe with the anywhere/anytime viewing of mobile digital devices. More disturbing is his concern about what might happen to television when a generation accustomed to cherry-picking only the choicest parts of the media – music, movies, or television – finally comes of age and becomes the mainstream market. As Bianculli sees it, the networks have no choice but to join the rush and embrace the Internet simply to survive. Otherwise, they could lose an entire generation of viewers forever.

That sounds extreme, but he might be on to something -- and if so, can the economic infrastructure that until now has been producing all these shows continue to do so, or will television evolve into something very different? Is it possible that having finally reached a point where there are so many good shows available, television as we've known it is on the verge of collapsing into a yammering barrage of 24/7 talk shows, wall-to wall sports programming, and the reality-show producer’s wet-dream of “Dance with the Jersey Shore Stars?”

Will “The Situation” end up running for vice president on Sarah Palin’s Presidential ticket?

David Bianculli doesn’t have the answers and neither do I – but his year-end ten best list (thirteen best, actually) is a provocative and entertaining forty-five minutes of radio.

I don't think the many and various television networks will implode any time soon, leaving the airwaves to some mutant reality show/Utube blend of do-it-yer-self programming. People still want to see quality drama and comedy, and there's way too much money to be made filling that need, even if the means of doing so in the Internet age have yet to be fully exploited. They'll figure it out eventually, but in the meantime, my fear is that economic pressures of this ongoing revolution will further depress the wages and benefits for those of us who do the heavy lifting required to put these shows up on the screen. In the foreseeable future, actually making television is likely to get a whole lot less fun.

The upside -- and these Swords of Change usually do cut both ways -- might be new modes of story-telling, a "democratizing" of television that could allow creativity to blossom like never before. This might be a good thing for television in the long run, but over the next ten years, the coming changes are likely to hurt many of us who have worked for so long under the current system -- a system under assault. Looking ahead, I don't see life below decks getting better for a long time, if ever.

But like it or not, the big changes are coming. And so -- to paraphrase the signature quote from a really great old movie -- buckle your seat belts, folks, it's gonna be a bumpy flight...

* Hard to believe? I agree, but listen for yourself.

** Granted, I was working 100 hour+ weeks back then. Still, maybe some of you who work indy films these days can enlighten me on this...


Niall said...

Yeah the indie rate up in the northwest ranges from 250-100 a day. Typically it's 125, but that's been slipping for the last year or two and 100 has become the standard opening bid from production.

This year is a scary year for everyone. I know personally I might have to jump ship and find a new state to work in. The industry has stalled and its not guaranteed to recover, but I can't stay here too much longer.

The upside is I can transfer my card. Saves me the years of crawling up the indie ladder to that holy grail of work status, but doesn't negate the restart on my local connections.

But I digress, all we can look forward to is now and worry about tomorrow when it becomes today. Eventually the workers have to put their collective foot down and just say 'Enough'. Enough of the low ball rates, enough of the peace meal equipment lists, enough the unholy hours, and enough of the lack of respect production gives us. Really it's us who controls the future.

p.s. just got back from a union meeting today and I'm a little fired up.

Michael Taylor said...

Niall --

Thanks for the indy update. AJ reported a roughly similar pay spectrum for the non-union world here in LA. That juicers and grips are essentially making the same dollar amounts (not adjusted for inflation) on indy projects as I was getting nearly 25 years ago is a telling measure of how far we've slipped.

Trouble is, the erosion of the basic economic model that has long been the foundation of the industry makes it very hard for anybody to put their foot down. The last time I got full union scale was while wrapping that big feature at Sony last winter -- since then all my paychecks have been at the 20% under-scale cable rate.

Back during the WGA strike in 2008, this year looked like a giant storm cloud of labor unrest, with the possibility of a huge industry-wide strike that would shut everything down cold. The way things are, I don't hear anybody clamoring for that now.

With the digital revolution still underway, increased foreign competition for big features, and the fratricidal race-to-the-bottom between the 40+ states currently offering tax subsidies to attract productions, I see no sign of the unity it would take to force positive change for those of us who toil below-the-line.

Someday -- when things have gotten much worse and we all have less to lose -- the unity required to push for those changes may arise from our common misery, but I don't see it happening now or in the foreseeable future.