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 2, 2011

A Year in the Life

“Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head...”

The Beatles

It's New Year’s Eve as I sit here at the keyboard - yeah, I'm a real party animal, all right - at the end of another year, this one closing the books on our first decade of this brand new millennium. All in all, it has not been an auspicious start to the next thousand years: our country mired in two wars, grinding through an ugly and seemingly endless recession while split by an apparently unbridgeable political divide that has both sides screaming at each other across the widening chasm. I don't know about you, but I can't see much light at the end of any of those tunnels.

These may not be the worst of times, but they sure as hell aren’t the best.

I have no profound insights on the Big Questions out there - that, as they say, is well above my pay grade.* All I can offer is my own brief chronicle of the year as I take down the 2010 work calendar and put up a new one for 2011: a year in the free-lance life. This has become something of a ritual for me every January, leafing back through the months to see just how, when, and where I worked during the past year. Free-lancing (and in the TV/film biz, the vast majority of us are free-lancers) is nothing like having a normal job in the real world. For us, January marks the beginning of another twelve month quest to answer the one overridingly important question in our professional lives: will we manage to work enough during the next twelve months to pay all the bills by December 31?

In other words, will I still have a viable career by the year's end, or will the approach of the Christmas holidays be accompanied by an ominous tolling of the bell? That's the kind of thing you just don't know 'til you know - and by then it's too late.

Last January was very slow, but not a total loss, with three decent days of work near the end of the month on a crew wrapping a newly-canceled show. February, however, came up blank – four weeks of nothing. Three days work in the first two months of the year is dismal unless you're pulling in $2500/day - which, needless to say, is around ten times what I make. The only real question in my mind at the time was whether 2010 would nose dive into a complete flaming disaster, or if some semblance of a decent year might yet be salvaged from the wreckage of those first sixty days.

A reprieve came in March, when the phone rang with what turned into ten days wrapping a big feature out at Sony** – all at full union scale, something I'm no longer accustomed to in these days of the ubiquitous cheap-ass cable-rate. As usual, there was a lesson to be learned from that job: it really is important to be nice to the people you meet on the way up. Way back in the last century, when I worked as a best boy, then a gaffer, I threw some work (a feature and a year or so worth of commercials) to a young juicer from Texas. I wasn't doing him any huge favors -– the kid was smart, strong, had a wicked sense of humor, and worked like a mule. People like that always make the boss look good, which meant he was exactly the kind of guy every BB or department head wants on his crew. It was clear from the start he was destined for greater things, and when opportunity knocked, he joined a crew that went on the road for several years doing a series of major motion pictures – a few Oscar winners among them. Many years later, that kid from Texas is now a big-time rigging gaffer who does movies the entire world flocks see. When he called to say hey-hello-long-time-no-see, and heard my tale of unemployed woe, he immediately offered me a slot on his wrap crew.

It's nice to know that even during these increasingly lean and mean times, there are still a few people around who remember how they came up through the ranks, and are happy to extend a hand long after the tables have turned. This guy came through for me at a time when things were really starting to look ugly.

Still, 2010 teetered on the razor’s edge. I caught a few odd days here and there, then did a pilot in April that had all the earmarks of a series show. It was good, family-friendly, and funny – and the entire crew (including production) had a very positive feeling about our prospects. As we wrapped, strong rumors from reliable sources echoed through the set about which stage we’d be moving to when the show got picked up. Even better, it would be a broadcast network show, paying full union scale.

Perhaps those rumors were the kiss of death, because the pick-up we all expected never came. I later heard that the show was solidly in the running all the way down to the bitter end, only to lose out when a flip-of-the-coin decision went to another pilot.

So it goes in Hollywood, where you give it your best, win or lose, then lick your wounds and prepare to fight another day.

May came as a huge disappointment – no work at all. Dead calm seas, no wind in the sails, drifting toward nowhere. By the second week of June, my total for the year came to thirty-one days of work, or an average of five days per month. At that rate, I was looking at a sixty day year, by far my worst since I first came to Hollywood in the late 70's.

I could hear that apocryphal bell tolling in the distance...

But when my phone finally did ring again, the news was good: a pilot we'd done the previous Fall (a pilot that did not impress me at the time) got picked up for ten episodes. It was a cable show paying cable-rate, but after staring into the abyss, this felt like manna from heaven. There’s nothing like a long stretch of unemployment to re-boot one’s sense of perspective – and when push comes to shove, it turns out most of us really will work for food.

You know the rest (and if you don't, just scroll down a page or two) – those ten episodes turned into fourteen, then morphed into a total of thirty. A really bad year pulled out of its death spiral and climbed back towards the light. Even though working for cable-rate is a break-even process, offering no chance to “get ahead” (what a quaint notion that has become these days), breaking even beats the hell out of going under.

So that’s my year in a nutshell – a dismal start that ended up pretty well, all things considered. I’ve had much better years in the past, but I’ve also had a few that were a whole lot worse. At this point it seems I still have a career, and am not quite ready for the They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? oblivion that will eventually knock on my door some bright, hopelessly sunny day here in LA.

Someday, but not just yet.

I could say this was a typical year, but only in the sense that there really are no "typical" years - each is different in its own way, offering a unique set of challenges and opportunities. That last year turned out okay has little bearing on what will happen this year, of course, but unless some unforeseen catastrophe intervenes, 2011 will get off to a much better start than 2010. If nothing else, the show should keep me working until mid-April, but hanging in the air like a fart amid the church pews is the question of what comes after that. Still, there’s no use fretting about it now - what happens, happens, and I’ll just have to drive off that bridge when I get there. For the moment I feel fortunate to have been blessed with the kindnesses of friends and strangers alike that - along with a kiss or two from Lady Luck - allowed me to survive yet another year on the front lines of free-lance Hollywood.

At this point, that's something I no longer take for granted.

I hope you had a good year, and that we can all look forward to better times in the year to come.

Happy New Year.

* Actually, since bloggers pretty much work for free, just about everything is above my pay grade...

** At $160 million, this was a big one staring names you've all heard of, in theaters right now.


Penny said...

I must say I completely understand the calendar ritual, Mike.

Every year I buy a new "day book", hoping to fill it with call times for work, but I also take a couple of hours to transfer all of my friend's and family's birthdays into the next volume. (Some people have passed on, but I always seem to include them anyway.)

Cheers to the past, and onward to the future! :)


Nathan said...

Yeah, 2010 could have used a little upgrade. Here's to a much better 2011.