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, August 19, 2012

Love and Money

The only constant is change...

The door to the world of multi-camera sit-coms opened for me in the late 90’s at Paramount Studios, where I did three shows over the course of as many years. One was called "Love and Money," starring David Ogden Stiers (of “Mash” fame), Swoozie Kurtz, Brian Doyle-Murray, and the lovely young Paget Brewster, among others.* That was a good show, and I’ve never understood why it didn’t stick for more than one abortive twelve episode run.

Then again, the list of things I don’t understand about this business gets longer every year. The more I know, the less anything makes sense.

I won’t bore you with a recitation of characters and plot points, but bring it up only because the title – “Love and Money” – represents the twin pillars upon which the film and television industry rests. It’s my experience that many people come to this business primarily because they love the power, reach, and thrilling impact of the cinematic story-telling medium. Most of us who moved to Hollywood to get into the Industry understood that watching a really good movie or television show at the right time and under the proper circumstances can be a life-altering experience.

But if man does not live by bread alone, neither can he (or she) make a lasting meal of love, which will only take you so far. Once the hard work of breaking-and-entering this industry has been accomplished, money inevitably begins to enter the equation, looming ever larger as the years grind on. Making a decent living with benefits has only gotten harder with the passage of time, which factors into the decision when seeking and/or accepting a given job.

Example: my current gig is a television comedy aimed at an audience of eight to twelve year olds.  We work five days a week, three weeks each month, and being a cable show, it pays the odious cable rate: roughly 20% below normal union scale. I hate working for that rate, but at this point need to accumulate as many union hours as possible coming down the career stretch to maintain health plan coverage and fatten what promises to be an anemic retirement pension under the best of circumstances. Still, it's a decent job given today’s rocky economy. The kid actors are really nice – they work very hard and aren’t yet afflicted with monster egos -- and our working conditions on stage are reasonable, but this is certainly not the kind of job I ever thought I’d be working when I came to Hollywood thirty-five years ago. Every now and then an episode will include two or three adult actors ... and that’s when I remember what a pleasure it is to work with grown-ups again.

Those days are almost enough to make me forget that we’re not getting full union scale, but if my phone rang tomorrow with a really cool non-union gig paying full scale over the same duration, I’d probably turn it down. Maybe I’d have jumped at such an offer ten years ago, but now must take the long view in nailing down the best possible post-retirement income and benefits package -- and that means racking up union hours.

So a long journey that was sparked by a love of movies, then gradually morphed into the daily quest for metaphoric fire, is now primarily aimed at preparing a soft landing for my post-Hollywood era. It seems I’m not really working for love OR money-in-hand these days, but simply to generate a more-or-less sustainable income stream down the road.**

Still, I really do enjoy the group dynamic of working on a good crew, no matter how insipid or silly the show might be. These days, who I work with is a lot more important than what I’m working on – and this show has been blessed with a really good crew.

The importance of this hit home when I walked back on stage after our one-week hiatus to the unwelcome news that the entire prop department is leaving this cheap-ass Disney production to work on a new show for Nickelodeon -- a cable network that (unlike Disney) does not take full advantage of every possible contractual loophole to low-ball the crew. The departing Prop Master told me her pay rate will rise by more than ten dollars per hour on the new show – and over the course of a fifty to sixty hour work week, that adds up. With three kids at home, she can use that money.

She’ll be taking her crew with her, of course, all heading for the Promised Land of full union scale -- good news for them, but bad news for the rest of us left behind. In addition to forming a supremely competent and efficient prop department, all three are complete babes – two beautiful blondes and a slinky brunette -- each with a great and generous sense of humor. Losing their welcome presence as we grind out the sit-com sausage until Christmas (especially during the long, tedious blocking and shoot days) will be a real blow to the rest of the crew.  And that pisses me off.

I don’t blame them for going -- with at least twelve episodes at full scale on their new show, they’ll each make gobs more money.  In essence, the low rates paid by Disney forced them out -- and given that we’ve all been toiling for the industry equivalent of minimum wage on this show, they’d be crazy not to leave.

Still, I hate to see them go.

The new prop department will be fine, I’m sure – pros are pros, and they’ll do their job – but you can’t perform an entire departmental transplant without altering the personal chemistry a crew develops over the course of several months. Having suffered and laughed together, we bonded, and despite the penurious wages, this show has been blessed with a terrific on-set vibe. Some of this will inevitably dissipate with the loss of our prop department, and that’s a shame.

But such is life in Hollywood, where the tidal ebb and flow of circumstance and opportunity guarantee that stagnation seldom sets it. “The show must go on,” says the oldest cliché in the books, and it will. Over the next few weeks the new prop crew will turn into people with names rather than unfamiliar faces as “they” become “us.” We all know how it feels to be the new guy jumping aboard an ongoing show, so the remaining crew has been extending a hand, one-by-one, to welcome the newbies.

Because there’s one thing those new propsters and the rest of us have in common: given the crappy pay rates, we’re sure as hell not doing it for the money...

* Paget -- a real sweetheart of an actress -- appeared in a string of comedies before finally landing a juicy role in the police episodic “Criminal Minds.”

** It’ll be a slim package at best, but the goal is to avoid having to live in a cardboard box under the Sixth Street Bridge along the concrete banks of the LA River...


Anonymous said...

These posts worry me. I am in high school and I have always dreamed of moving to some incentive state or staying here in the Bay Area and try and make a career in set construction, locations or grip and electric. Is the future really that grim for the industry? Should I start looking at better paying options instead of following my dream?

Peggy Archer said...

Yup. It's all about the 'soft landing' and maintaining insurance these days. I take jobs all the time that I'd have turned down even four years ago - Gaffer's a jerk? Sure. I'll work. In the desert in July? Sure, heat stroke is temporary. Low pay rate and short hours? Sure. I can just eat a lot of rice over the next few weeks.

Joe Cottonwood said...

Just wondering why it's better working with adult actors...

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

You've asked some very big questions that deserve thoughtful answers. I'll do my best to address them in a future post. Stay tuned.

Peggy --

I hear you. In essence, we're all standing by the metaphoric road holding cardboard signs that read "Will Work For Hours"...

Joe --

Child or young adult actors can be very good, but they typically have a very limited range. They can do "happy," they can do "sad," and they can do "poignant," but conveying more complex emotions is a skill that takes time and practice to learn. This isn't a criticism, but simply a measure of how long they've been at their craft. For most actors, it takes many years of hard, underpaid work to acquire the toolkit of skills required to land a role on a television show -- and the kids just haven't been at it that long.

With Disney making lots of shows starring kids, they're getting that chance, and some of them will no doubt be excellent actors one day. But for now, they're still kids.

To put it in construction terms (as you did so well in your novel "Clearheart"), watching an apprentice carpenter might be amusing for a while, but it won't teach you much about the craft of carpentry. To watch a highly skilled journeyman carpenter, however, is to observe a master at work -- and not only can you learn a lot, but there's an inherent pleasure that comes from observing such skill in action.

Given that actors are performers, having a ringside seat as the good ones do their thing can be a blast.

Watching the kid actors? Not so much...