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, June 3, 2012

A Voice of Sanity

From the Belly of the Beast

                    Gavin Polone lays his cards on the table

A gaffer friend posted an interesting link on Facebook a while back, about the time Peggy Archer included the same link in one of her recent posts. Ordinarily I'd leave it at that -- I'd rather not dig up soil that's been freshly tilled by another Industry blogger – but this issue is too important to leave alone, so I'll join the chorus directing your attention to the words of veteran producer Gavin Polone, who laid down his thoughts as to why so many productions abuse their crews with absurdly long working hours these days.

Polone has been all the way around the Hollywood block, having served as a manager, agent and producer, and thus knows firsthand the realities of working above-the-line. I did some rigging and a little first-unit work on “Tell Me You Love Me,” a one-season-and-out flop he produced for HBO a few years back.  Although I never met the man, I subsequently tuned in for a couple of brief, lively, and informative sit-downs he did with KCRW’s “The Business,” where he came across as a hard-driving but singularly individualistic man -- and as one of his assistants revealed to the world a while back, not without his strangely eccentric and power-hungry side. Still, he's no apologist for a Hollywood production system that has gone totally out of whack. Polone is neither a fool nor a working-class hero – he won't bite the hand that keeps him so well fed – but at least he’s willing to tell it like it is.  In an industry that exists amid a thick atmospheric soup of triple-distilled, 200 proof bullshit twenty-four hours a day, such candor is as rare as it is refreshing.

Most industry veterans (myself included) feel that working abusively long days on set is in equal measures counterproductive and stupid. I didn't mind working so long when I was younger -- those fourteen-and-more hour days meant fatter paychecks, and I was anxious to prove myself back in those days -- but it's a very different story now.   At this point, any work day over twelve hours is just too god-damned long. Although the occasional fourteen-to-sixteen hour day is unavoidable -- sometimes an actor or location has a limited window of availability, which forces everyone to suck it up and push harder – such long days should be a rare exception rather than the rule.

Like every other Hollywood lifer, I’ve put in more than a few 24 hour-plus days on set, and although there were always reasons why this happened, there was rarely a valid excuse. As anybody who has toiled such long hours knows, every worker’s efficiency fades considerably after a certain point, and it only gets worse as the hours mount up. I know too well how heavy my feet and brain become past the fourteenth hour, when I'm making more money but delivering a lot less productivity. One of Gavin Polone’s frequent employers is HBO, the cable network primarily responsible for the much-abused sweetheart deal with the IATSE allowing cable shows to push their shooting crews fifteen hours every day – that’s fourteen worked hours plus a one hour lunch -- before the fiscal hammer of double-time finally drops. One typical Monday on “Tell Me You Love Me,” we started at 6:00 a.m. on a dark, icy street in Van Nuys, then made three full company moves for a total of four separate locations before wrapping at 10:00 p.m. As a day-player, I was done for the week, but the rest of the crew worked a similar schedule the next four days deep into Fraterday – and they did it for the 20% under-scale curse of cable rate.

According to Polone the producer, such abusive daily scheduling is out of his hands.  In today's Hollywood, apparently even the line producer can't "pull the plug" on a long day, but must adhere to a schedule imposed from above by desk-jockeys who neither know nor care about those who do the heavy-lifting essential to every production.  Given the corporate takeover of the film and television business over the past few years, he's probably right about that.  Still, the Industry would do well to listen when a veteran producer admits in print that many productions could ease the daily grind and provide a much more humane working environment simply by adding a day per episode to the shooting schedule -- a change that would send the crew home after twelve hours rather than beating them up for a full fourteen or more -- without costing the production much (if anything) at all. Otherwise, there will inevitably be more unnecessary deaths, more lawsuits, and more trouble for the Industry as a whole.

As he put it in the conclusion to his blog post:

“Productivity lessens later in the day and the costs are significantly more after twelve hours. At hour sixteen, you’re paying people double, and sometimes more, and probably getting 75 percent effectiveness. There are many complex issues involved with managing the process of filmmaking, and there are usually two reasonable sides to those arguments. But when it comes to excessive hours on film sets, I don’t really see the side that advocates for unrestricted work time. It is time to change this: Twelve hours of work and a twelve-hour turnaround should be mandated and instituted immediately on all film and television productions, period.”

I couldn't agree more, and for that last sentence alone, Polone has my full support. If you're in the biz, you really ought to read his complete post.  As you'll learn when you do -- and if you listen to those two KCRW podcasts -- he's an interesting, thoughtful guy who's a long way from your garden-variety producer.*  Whatever his faults – and being a flawed sinner myself, I certainly won’t cast the first stone -- he’s on the right side of this issue.

I just wish more producers would see the light as Polone so clearly has, because until that happens, episodic television crews will continue to be tied to the whipping post of abusive hours.

And that sucks.

* You can listen to the podcasts here and here.


JB Bruno said...

A little more above-the-line perspective from someone who works mostly on non-union shoots, but where a lot of my crew folk are union. I always set up OT, turnaround, meal penalties etc into the deal memos, and one reason, besides wanting to be able to attract better crew, is that I want to make it impose financial penalties on producer/directors who just don't get it. In the long run, I'm not only protecting the crew but doing them a favor, even if they don't see it that way at the time.

Jesse M. said...

Not to be a jerk or take sides, but I frankly love long days. Just keep the coffee and red bull flowing, I say. See, for a PA, OT is where the *real* money is made.

Based on a 150/12 PA day rate, after taxes, gas, and bridge tolls, I'm only making 100 a day. I *need* to work a 15-16 hour day for the pay to make this damn job worth the effort.

Or maybe I'm just proving what they say - that society's worse off are most likely to defend the system that keeps them there...



Michael Taylor said...


Clearly you are one of the good ones who view the crew as actual human beings rather than dispensable, disposable, expendable work-bots. Glad to hear there are some of you left up there above-the-line...


When you're young, broke, and still trying to get your "sea legs" in the business, long days are just fine. My first paid PA job -- working six nights a week, from late afternoon 'til well after dawn -- paid me $25/day on a flat, or roughly $90/day in current dollars. I loved every miserably memorable moment, even though there was no such thing as overtime for PAs back then.

Call me in thirty years and I guarantee you'll feel very differently about those 15 and 16 hour days. But that will be then, and this is now -- so enjoy them while you can.

C.B. said...

There is an interesting documentary out there by Wexler: "Who needs sleep?" Have you seen it?

Michael Taylor said...

CB --

I've heard much about the film, but haven't yet had a chance to see "Who Needs Sleep?" Like the rest of us in the biz, though, I've certainly lived it. One of these days I'll put it on the Netflix queue...