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, July 31, 2011

The Off Season

Over the wire and gone...

Until relatively recently, the television season in Hollywood followed a familiar routine. The new fall season geared up in mid-July with the construction of sets on dozens of stages at all the major studios, followed by rigging and lighting those sets for grip and electric. Meanwhile, all the other departments – props, set dressing, wardrobe, hair/makeup, camera, sound, and the various aspects of production -- were preparing for what everyone hoped would be a long season ahead. Filming commenced early in August and continued until a week or two before Christmas, shooting the first twelve episodes. Following the holiday break, the surviving shows (those that hadn't been cancelled by Thanksgiving) churned out their remaining episodes into March, completing a full season's work. As those shows wrapped, pilot season was busy ramping up to a full-throttle frenzy through April. By mid-May that too was over and done, with television production shut down for the off-season hiatus -- eight-to-ten weeks during which very little was going on.

That was the pattern in the late 90's when I left the single-camera realm of low-budget features, commercials, and music videos for the world of television. In those not-so-long-ago-old-days, the television hiatus was a good time to pick up day-playing work on features, but with the outgoing tide of runaway production over the past fifteen years, features are no longer a reliable source of employment in Hollywood. If you want to work on movies, go to New Mexico, New Orleans, or Michigan -- features just aren't happening like they used to in this town.

The rise of cable over the last decade has altered the television equation. Following the advice of "Wee Willie" Keeler to “hit ‘em where they ain’t,” the fledgling cable networks took advantage of the annual hiatus – when the broadcast networks burned off re-runs or weak mid-summer replacement shows -- by starting their much shorter season (usually ten to thirteen episodes) in early spring to run those shows all summer.* Although I’ve often been critical of cable productions that take full advantage of the cut-rate contract to grind their crews into the dirt, they do provide work at a time when there’s not much else going on.

There’s still not quite enough cable work to turn the television season into a true (and oft-rumored) “year-round schedule,” but that’s fine by me -- I didn’t get into this business to strap my nose to the bloody grindstone 52 weeks a year. I value my off time for the opportunity to escape Hollywood and do something different away from the down-and-dirty labor on set. Work is good and work is fine, but I’m not one who wants to work all the fucking time. The spring-into-summer hiatus is perfect for taking care of real-life matters -- personal or family vacations, or dealing with any lingering dental or medical issues that would otherwise require missing work. Most grips and juicers (and a few set dressers I've known) have to endure shoulder, knee, and/or back surgeries during their careers, and scheduling such procedures for the hiatus allows time to recover before the season kicks back into gear.

Sometimes such issues are forced upon us, though, ready or not. Not so long ago I ran into an old friend who – after suffering through an expensive divorce – hit a dry spell bad enough to lose his health insurance. With only a few months of coverage left, he spent his entire summer in a painful trek from one specialist to the next in a desperate effort to complete all the various surgical/dental procedures he needed before the clock ran out.**

All things being equal, my own preference is to head back to the Home Planet during the off-season. Ten months in LA is more than enough each year, but such lengthy escapes have not been possible the past few years. The show I recently wrapped is a cable production that started in the early spring of 2010 and ran on through the summer, fall, and winter to the following spring. Unlike every other cable show I’ve done in the past, it blew right through the standard ten-to-thirteen episode cable schedule to shoot thirty in a single year. That kept me tied to the whipping post all during the usual off-season hiatus, but if the show gets picked up later this summer for a second season -- inshallah -- that should put us back on the “normal” schedule of broadcast network shows.

Go figure. Just when I understand how the system really works, the deck gets re-shuffled for a whole new deal. Still, the lack of permanence or predictability in the shape-shifting terrain of Hollywood is the true norm for the Industry, and something those of us who choose to work here must accept lest we end up walking into the cold blue Pacific towards China while speaking in tongues.

The annual spring/summer television hiatus offers a sweet taste of freedom during the best part of the year, so if my little cable show comes back -- and the producers decide to run the same schedule as the Big Boys -- you won't hear me complain. When next spring rolls around, I'll be going over the wire again with a big smile on my face.

* Not every cable show plays this game. Shows with a very young cast (ie: Wizards of Waverly Place) often shoot up to thirty episodes per season. Those kids grow up fast, so the network has to crank out as many episodes as possible before the cast outgrows their roles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, shows featuring one or more exceptionally old cast members (ie: Hot in Cleveland) adopt the same strategy for a similar, if darker reason...

** I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing over the next couple of years, given the new 400 hour qualifying requirement for the health plan taking effect in August.


jerryw said...

With new conservative governors in place in Michigan and New Mexico, their film related tax incentives are, eh, for lack of a less film business related term, "Gone With The Wind". Louisiana for some reason still has a strong tax break in place that continues to draw production, but let their Tea Party dim-bulbs continue on their path to financial ruin and perhaps that will go away as well, and then maybe it'll be time for productions to return to California.

Niall said...

It's happening already. From I'm seeing and hearing production is going back to California then up to Oregon then landing in Vancouver BC with their amazing incentive and studio's.

With new modern equipment changing how films,tv, and commercials are being made nothing is certain.

Too many issues still stand like producers taking away too much from the crew in the name of coming in under budget and profit. The unions becoming stagnate and useless. Slowly killing it's self due to bad leadership disconnected from the needs and realities of the crew on the ground doing the work.

Either way things are poised for a great change in the production world for better or worse.

Michael Taylor said...

Jerry --

I'd heard that the Michigan incentives were in trouble, but not about New Mexico. Still, "The Lone Ranger" (a monster show with nine months of production scheduled) will be heading out to New Mexico to begin filming in another month or two. That could have a lot to do with the location terrain, of course.

Niall --

The Industry is indeed undergoing a period of wrenching transition, and although the digital era may allow cinematic creativity to grow new wings, I don't see much hope that wages and working conditions for those of us who do the heavy lifting will improve. Quite the opposite.