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, April 24, 2011

The Meat Grinder

War Without Bullets

We've all been there, minus the lovely blond...

(Note: I'd planned to foist another pilot season re-run on you today, but that plan -- like so many in life -- was hijacked by the subsequent flow of events. If you're interested in those posts, click here, then scroll down to "The Making of a Pilot.")

If you haven't read this post over at Dollygrippery, you really should. In his detailed description of one typically brutal work week on a cable episodic, "D" turns over the rock to let the world see just how mercilessly demanding this kind of work really is. Although he's describing his job as a dolly grip, he may as well be speaking for the rest of the departments on that show. Grips, juicers, set dressing, props, craft service, hair and makeup, transpo -- they're all getting hammered.

Near the end of his post is a particularly poignant and revealing passage:

“I have unfortunately reached the point where I have a hard time showing interest and I'm starting to let little things go. I don't like working that way.”

There are very few truly easy gigs in this business -- working below-the-line is pretty much hard and harder -- but as far as I'm concerned, episodic television is the worst. There's a reason I refer to episodics as "war without bullets." Many (if not most) of those one-hour dramas chew their crews up and spit them out over the course of a few seasons. Given the money that can be earned working such horrendous hours, people hang on as long as they can, but a high rate of attrition and turnover among those who do the heavy lifting is not at all unusual.

When you sign on for an episodic, you're walking into a meat grinder.

Some are worse than others, of course. I'm told the crew of "Medium" worked very reasonable hours, which can be attributed to at least two factors -- it was a broadcast network show paying full union scale (meaning the producers had to pay double-time -- which they absolutely hate to do -- after 12 hours), and the show had a really good DP who knows how to light with a minimum of equipment and effort. Unlike too many DPs I've worked for, this guy doesn't grind his crew into the dirt trying to re-invent the wheel each and every day.*

But as you'll read in D's post, a hard episodic can be unbelievably tough. According to a piece the LA Times ran a couple of years ago, the crew on NCIS -- a full-scale, broadcast network show -- was working 17 to 18 hour days before a shakeup above-the-line restored some sanity to the production, bringing work days down to the normal zone of 12 to 14 hours/day.**

Heinous hours are much more common on cable shows, where the contract originally negotiated to give HBO a break back when that network was still young and struggling still allows cable shows to work their crews 14 hours before double-time kicks in. With lunch and drive time, that means 16 to 18 hour days are typical. Word through the grapevine has it that the HBO vampire drama "True Blood" pushes their crew extremely hard all season long.

Working such a relentless pace week in and week out is brutal. Yes, the crew can make good money working those long hours (except on cable shows, where the bad news starts with a 20% pay cut, then continues on through those fourteen hour days), but at what cost? Is the larger paycheck at the end of the week worth being turned into a work-bot zombie with glazed eyes and a thousand-yard stare?

Although I got my IA card too late in life to fully experience the grinding tedium of episodics as a member of the core crew, I've done my share of day-playing on one-hour dramas, and did several extremely demanding two-to-three week stints of pickups for "The L Word," during which multiple-location 16 hour days were the norm. Before finally getting my union card, I slaved on many low budget location features, enduring two to three months of six-day work weeks on each one -- weeks that often exceeded a hundred working hours.

That was rough, but still not as bad as crewing a truly tough episodic. There's always light at the end of the tunnel on a movie -- most are over and done in three or four months -- but a broadcast network episodic can run 22 episodes, which works out to nearly nine solid months of more-or-less ceaseless toil.

The worst of it comes when you hit the burnout phase ("Burnout" being the very apt title of D's recent post), so worn down by the merciless process of cranking out each day's coverage that you slowly lapse into doing only what's absolutely necessary to get the job done. When the grinding pace is such that a solid, experienced pro like "D" can no longer fully meet his own high standards -- and he starts letting the little things go -- then something is very wrong indeed. We've all been there to one degree or another, but in the suffocating fog of the moment it's hard to realize just how vulnerable and dangerous that zone of terminal mind/body fatigue can be.

So my heart goes out to "D" and the rest of his besieged crew running the long grueling gauntlet of episodic television. At this point of my life and career, I couldn't do that kind of work even if I wanted to -- a couple of weeks on that schedule would put me in the hospital.

If I was King of the World, episodics would adopt the multi-camera tactic of shooting three weeks (roughly two episodes) before taking a week off to give the cast and crew a chance to recover, then I'd revoke the 14 hour provision of the cable contract so that producers would think twice before allowing undisciplined, self-indulgent young directors to push their crews past a 12 hour work day. Yes, the season would stretch out a little longer and cost the production companies a bit more -- and each crew member would bring home less money each month -- but by not flogging those crews to within an inch of their lives, working episodics would become less of a meat grinder and more a sustainable way to make a living.

Not that the corporate overlords who now run our Industry (and increasingly, our country) give a flying fuck about that, mind you -- but it's something to think about.

* Full disclosure: the DP of "Medium" and I worked together for more than fifteen years doing features, music videos and commercials before our working world was turned upside-down by the stampede of runaway production from LA to Canada in the late 90's. At that point, our paths diverged in the world of television, where he went into episodics and I chose sit-coms.

** I tried to find a link to that article, but it proved elusive...


hazel motes said...

i am a veteran of a show that sounds very much like dollygrippery's show. it sounds like it hasn't changed much. 7am monday call. not uncommon to shoot 15hrs. Sat 7am wrap. whatever happened to decency?

Michael Taylor said...

Hazel --

Your powers of deduction are on target -- D's show is indeed the same one you worked on. As for decency, that went out the window when the cable contract was signed, sealed, and delivered absent a sunset clause...

D said...

Thaks for the shout out Michael. I think this is my last year of tv (I hope). I'm definitely not 25 anymore.** Just as an aside, my show actually has a 12 hour overtime deal but believe me, at 15 hours you don't really give a shit.

12pt said...

All I'm trying to do right now is actually GET on set. 15 hours seems awesome to someone green with an open schedule and bills to pay. :)

Good post as always.

...and people wonder why the film industry is unionized...

Michael Taylor said...

D --

I hear you, and have been there -- after a certain point it's just blood money. That's one problem with working such a popular show -- on a money-maker like that, the hammer of double-time no longer provides sufficient deterrent to keep the producers from pushing the crew to the limit.

One way or the other, episodics always seem to find a way to kill us...

12 pt --

I hear that, too. Having once been on the outside looking in and desperate to break through, I remember how it felt -- and it sucked. Things finally worked out for me, and although these are very different times, it'll happen for you. You just have to keep trying hard -- and harder -- and sooner or later a door will open. Just be ready to make the most of the opportunity when it does.

Breaking in is never easy, but it can be done. Good luck...

12pt said...

Thanks brotha,

Good luck to you too!