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, November 27, 2011

A Time to Worry

The Network giveth and the Network taketh away...

Thanksgiving means many things to many people -- returning to the hearth for the traditional family feast, gathering with an impromptu family of fellow "orphans" marooned far from home, or simply hunkering down to dine alone, brood on the past, and pretend it doesn't matter.* But for those of us who toil in trenches of television, the last Thursday in November raises one crucial question: will my show get picked up?

“Yes” means maintaining a decent income for another three or four months, while a thumbs-down will send the entire crew back on the dole of unemployment just as the holidays drown us all under a tsunami of consumer spending. When your show doesn't get picked up, you’ll be scrimping on everything while day-playing for dollars until pilot season finally revs up next Spring.

I’ve been there more times than I care to recall, and it’s not fun.

There are lots of smiling faces around the studio lately, as show after brand-new show gets picked up for “the back nine,” giving those lucky crews a full slate of 22 episodes to keep them working well into March of 2012. Without clearing this hurdle, every new or returning show is doomed to the ashes-to-ashes fate that has sent so many to the funeral pyres of Hollywood over the past fifty years.

The bad news came to some good friends of mine just a few weeks ago – their show got the axe while in the midst of a Friday shoot day. The producers were waiting with grim faces as the crew filtered back from lunch, and after the meeting, they all had to go about the business of grinding out the seventh (and last) of what had been twelve scheduled episodes. I’m told the show-runner didn’t take it well – that he broke down and cried right there on set in front of everybody.

Ouch, babe.

That cancellation is a fact of life in the television biz doesn't make it any easier to take. When you sign on for twelve episodes, part of your brain starts putting every one of those future paychecks in the bank -- even though you know better, you start thinking of that money as yours -- so it’s a serious gut-punch when the rug is suddenly jerked from under your feet. It's also a severe test of the free-lance credo that having one door slammed in your face really does mean another one will open soon.

Sometimes that magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The thing is, once you’ve planted your flag in Hollywood, life on the bubble is part of the deal. If you need job security, go work for the tax man or an undertaker -- those people will never go hungry.

The news usually arrives by Thanksgiving. Thus far the back-nine pick-ups have far outnumbered cancellations at my home lot, but the show I'm working on remains stuck in the netherworld purgatory of who-the-fuck-knows? As the clock runs out on our scheduled fifteen episodes – eleven down, four to go – we’ve had no word one way or the other. Meanwhile, the smiles on set grow thinner and a little more brittle every week.

It’s better to live with the uncertainty and retain hope than have the axe fall, of course, but the not-knowing inevitably create a vacuum... and nature does abhor a vacuum. With Thanksgiving approaching, that vacuum was filled by rumors. The most hopeful of these has us closing down for six weeks at Xmas, then coming back in mid-February for a pick-up of nine or ten additional episodes – or as happened last year, another fifteen . That’s the rumor I like, but there’s a darker narrative floating around that says the network will wrap production as scheduled at Christmas and won’t bring the show back – if it comes back at all – for six months.

Six fucking months??? A lot can happen in half a year, none of it good. In a town fueled by the power of foreword momentum, six months is an eternity. If we shut down for that long before any of the new episodes have even aired, I have a hard time believing we'll ever come back. It’s possible, of course – hell, anything’s possible – but each passing month pushes the odds ever further from the pale winter sun of “slim” towards the dark yawning abyss of “none.”

Even if the show does return for another short season in June or July, the entire crew will need to find paying work in the meantime, and such post-holiday jobs will be scarce until pilot season rolls around in late February and March. All of this makes for a rather poignant “holiday” season approaching, complete with lumps of network coal in our fireplace stockings -- the grim prospect entering a New Year rendered in the bleak gray hues of unemployment.

“So it goes,” to steal the signature line of an infinitely better writer than I’ll ever be. If you make your bed in Hollywood, you really do have to sleep in it. But the wild-card kicker is that we never know what’s coming around the bend, nor is there any way to suss out which of these rumors will morph into tangible fact. Sometimes that slamming door actually does lead to something better.

“Time will tell,” mom used to say, and as usual, mom was right. But time is running out. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and the news – good or bad - will arrive soon.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

* Having done all of these over the past three decades, I can attest that each has its up and downsides -- but the best description of modern Thanksgiving I've ever read is right here. It's only 800 words, and well worth your time...


kdmask said...

Being a fan of the scripted daytime genre, I hear you. We got notice Wed before Thanksgiving 2 soaps weren't going online as planned. This after the one soap had wrapped taping, and planned on going cyber. Ergo, they couldn't change the ending. I realize it's a different ballgame for primetime but I still feel your pain and uncertainty.

Local16 said...

Two years ago, 2009, was a very rough year for us up here in San Francisco, but then NBC made the announcement that they would be shooting a big budget high profile show about paramedics in the city. The pilot was shot, picked up for 12 more episodes. Everyone in the area was very excited for our first show since Nash Bridges, a big boost to the economy, etc etc. Our 95% local crew was cautiously optimistic for the success of the show. But then the show premiered to subpar ratings and NBC pulled the plug because it was too expensive to film on location and not big enough incentives, blah blah blah. NBC did shoot 5more after the cancelation, because they canceled so many other shows they had to fill air time. But still, its true that network execs have the power to keep you working for 9 months a year, or send you into uncertainty and unemployment with the snap of a finger.

Michael Taylor said...

Kdmask --

In some ways it's all the same ballgame. This time of year can be tough no matter what end of the television industry you're in -- those who make the shows and those who watch them at home.

Local16 --

My roots are in the Bay Area, and I remember very well how "Trauma" was introduced with such hope for the film/television community in SF. The impatience of networks when it comes to nurturing new shows through their first season is just another example of the short-sighted myopia so prevalent in the executive suites. If a new show doesn't run ahead of the pack right out of the starting gates, they panic and pull the plug. You'd think NBC would have learned something from their experience with "Seinfeld" -- an early bomb that was nearly cancelled, then went on to become a monster hit and money-maker for the network. But no, "learning" doesn't seem to be in the limited vocabulary of the major networks.

Making a living working below-the-line is a lot like being a human character in Greek mythology, always subject to the whims of those oh-so-fickle Gods above...

Local16 said...

yes although it sure was sweet of 'em to send a show our way instead of going to Vancouver. They delivered the news right before Halloween. NBC said they would love to shoot another show here, but we're all still waiting to hear back from them.

Local16 said...

Also I really like your blog. And good luck on your show. Best wishes.

Michael Taylor said...

Local16 --

Thanks for the good vibes, and for tuning in.