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 26, 2012

Whither Hollywood?

            The truth can always be found up high in the catwalks...

A reader who goes by the popular moniker “Anonymous” left a comment on a recent post:

"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?"

If it seems a bit odd for a high school student to have already set his/her sights on a career working below-the-line, who am I to question anybody’s dreams? In high school, I wanted to race cars professionally in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the European Grand Prix circuit -- not exactly a realistic dream for a kid who grew up milking goats, and even less practical than heading to Hollywood on a wing and a prayer.*

 Besides, Anonymous is asking a very big question here: can the film and television industry survive and/or continue to thrive in this country -- and if so, is seeking a career working below-the-line still a viable path to a decent life?

The glib answer is "yes and no" -- although the Industry will certainly survive, the downward economic pressures on those who toil below-the-line will only get worse in the foreseeable future.  That said, the only honest answer is "I don't know."  With the Industry in the midst of an ongoing Digital Revolution and unforeseen developments in technology doubtless on the way, I can only guess what the landcape will look like once the digital dust settles... which means you shouldn't go to the bank with any of what follows, but consider these opinions to be just that -- my best guess.

First off, I know nothing about set construction other than that I really appreciate those crews who build sets strong enough for me to climb and walk on, which my job occasionally requires.  As for locations, Anonymous would be smart to click on over to Polybloggimous and ask Nathan what it takes to work in that field these days. He's been at it for a long time, so pay attention to what he says.

In terms of putting creativity up on screen, the future looks very bright.  Ever smaller, less-intrusive, and more light-sensitive cameras, the ability to edit on home computers, and evolving modes of digital distribution should make the actual process of making a film and getting it seen easier than ever.  An economic model allowing these uber-indie filmmakers to earn real money for their cinematic efforts has yet to fully emerge, but it will in time.  None of this means making a film will ever be easy -- you’ll still have to write a tight, shootable script, find the right actors, assemble a crew, nail down locations, then finance and shoot the damned thing before heading into post – but the technical hurdles that once held so many projects back are now largely gone. And athough the corporate-owned studios will continue to churn out big, stupid summer blockbusters every year (God only knows what they’ll do when they run out of comic books to translate into film...), the really interesting stuff will continue to come from lower down the Industry food chain, where people are still willing to take chances and try new approaches.

In that regard, young writer/directors like Benh Zeitlin might be a template for the future – doing more with less. Not yet having seen his “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” I don't know if he's this generations Orson Welles, but the kid deserves enormous credit for his unflagging ambition and ability to get that film made under the most challenging of circumstances. If it turns out he’s made a great, ground-breaking film, then maybe he really is this generation’s cinematic genius, the latest enfant terrible of American film.

 A career writing, producing, and/or directing is not location-dependent – once you’ve got a name, you can work anywhere. For those who succeed in those above-the-line endeavors, it doesn’t matter that productions are migrating from Hollywood to elsewhere, which is why the creative types will continue to do just fine whatever happens. When I complained about so many productions heading north to a director friend a few years ago, he just shrugged his shoulders.

“I love to shoot in in Toronto,” he replied. "It's a great city."

Well sure – filming across the border was his opportunity to get away from the wife and kids while directing a movie. How nice for him... but what about the LA crews that didn't get that work?

For those who do the heavy lifting below-the-line, the future doesn’t look so good. The last IA contract (ratified a few weeks ago) marked a real setback for the rank-and-file in Hollywood, with more trouble coming down the road in future negotiations. Although the producers didn't succeed in completely gutting our health plan, and current retirees won’t feel the sharp blade at their necks just yet, we took big hits on every level. Next time it’ll be worse. That’s how the pendulum is swinging these days, with labor taking it on the chin amidst an ever-widening political divide that pits those atop the economic food chain against those who do the actual work.

It's bad and getting worse, and I don’t expect to see these flinty attitudes and hard-line stances moderating anytime soon.

Thirty years ago, a young person could enter this Industry with nothing more than a high school education, a  strong back, and a good attitude -- that's all it took to make a decent middle-class living. With a little luck and lots of hard work, the more ambitious juicers and grips could climb the ladder and do very well after a decade or so. Although still possible, this is much more of a struggle these days -- and twenty years from now it will probably be harder still. The rise of cable TV (and cable-rate) has caused inflation-adjusted wages here in Hollywood to sink back to levels paid twenty years ago, and there's no relief in sight. With a few exceptions, feature production has fled Los Angeles for states offering fat subsidies, and now the bread-and-butter foundation of the Industry – television – is slipping away from its ancestral home, lured by those same tax-payer subsidized inducements.

The long-term picture for Hollywood appears bleak if serious action isn't taken to stem the outgoing flow of production. There will always be some form of production going on here, but it now seems possible that the thriving, bustling Hollywood I've known throughout most of my career will shrink until a thin shadow of what it once was. California’s paltry, Johnny-come-lately tax incentive program has helped a little, but is nowhere nearly large enough to stop the flood of runaway production.  With the state's economy in such a mess, there's not much chance this program will be expanded enough to do some real good.  The big incentive-states will scale back their subsidies someday, but not before the physical and human infrastructure – the stages, equipment, and trained personnel required to produce quality film and television – are in place, creating a comfortable working situation for producers as an alternative to Hollywood. When you consider how much work has migrated off shore over the years (features shot in Eastern Europe and New Zealand), and the potential of production eventually shifting to China in the eternal quest for lower labor costs, it's clear that LA will wind up with a much smaller piece of the Industry  pie -- and that will mean a lot fewer jobs for below-the-line workers who live and work there.

 As I see it, life is only going to get tougher for grips, juicers, set dressers, props, camera assistants/operators, sound departments and production personnel here in Hollywood. Any young person with the desire to enter and succeed in these fields should seriously consider going to where the work is happening and the business expanding – and from where I sit, LA is no longer that place.**

Then again, Anonymous says he doesn't plan to work in Hollywood, but would rather work in the San Francisco Bay Area or move to one of those incentive-offering states to get started. That's doable, and as Exhibit A, I offer the career of Steve Cardellini, inventor of the Cardellini Clamp and a highly skilled, very knowledgeable Key Grip who has worked his entire career in the Bay Area. The last time I talked to Steve, he was proud of having never worked a single day in LA over that time, during which he made a very good living for himself and his family.***

Through good times and bad, a small but vital film community has always managed to prosper in the Bay Area, and I see no reason why that should change. If he wants a career close to home, Anonymous can make it happen -- but if not, opportunity is alive and well in the incentive states, so he can always head on down to New Orleans, feast on gumbo,  mudbugs, and oyster Poor Boys, then get to work building a career.  It won’t be easy, but getting started in this business has never been easy, in Hollywood or anywhere else.

The ability to react and adapt to shifting real-world conditions is the key to survival in any field or endeavor, and that's as true in the film business as anywhere else.  In uncertain times, flexibility will be required to survive, let alone thrive.

I’ll offer one last word of caution. Whenever this subject comes up on set – what to tell a young person who asks about getting into juicing or gripping – the response from gray-haired veterans is unanimous: don’t do it. Find some other career, because the way things are trending, life below-the-line is only going to get harder and less sustainable in the future. The good times are gone, with leaner times here and more on the way.

Remember, these are old-timers talking, and although I now qualify as part of that demographic, I do not labor under the illusion that my own opinions are the gospel.  Nobody knows what the future will bring.  Not too long ago, automobile manufacturing in Michigan was doomed -- the popular consensus had Detroit going belly-up, kaput, finished -- but after suffering through some very difficult times, GM, Chrysler, and Ford are still making cars in the Motor City.  Corporate survival came at a steep human cost, however, with many thousands of former auto workers now out of a job, and a similar transformation may be under way in Hollywood.  If that's how it shakes out, getting started and succeeding here among the rank-and-file will be harder than ever.

My advice to Anonymous (and any other young people pondering an Industry future) is to take your time and look deep inside to decide if this business really is your dream – and if the answer is yes, then go for it. When you really want something, there's always a way... but you'll have to want it bad.

Good luck.  All of us -- veterans and newbies alike -- are gonna need it.

* Needless to say, none of these teen-aged fever dreams came true.

**  Unless you're blessed with solid family connections in the biz -- in that case, you'll have a serious head start on all the other newbies and an existing network of contacts to keep you working.

*** Then again, Steve is one very smart guy.  Not every grip or juicer is blessed with his intellectual firepower or mechanical acumen. 


JB Bruno said...

If there were one piece of advice I would give to anyone below-the-line, it would be: diversify. Beyond those established already, and creatives (Dirs, DPs, Prod. Design, etc) those who are doing well are throwing themselves into multiple departments in ways that was not the norm when I started. More and more G/E are hiring swings, and if you also do camera, so much the better. If art department, get strong carp. skills, but also be able to handle props, paint, etc. If you do M/U, also know hair. Budgets I prepare for indies are getting smaller and smaller, and as the technology drives the rentals down, it, unfortunately, takes crew size, not to mention rates, down with it.

Michael Taylor said...

JB --

Sounds like good advice. It's been decades since I worked low-budget (the ancient term for "indy") films, so I'm way out of that loop. In that non-union world, having a broad array of skills can really pay off.

In the union world of Hollywood, you can't really cross over between grip and electric without holding dual cards, and that means two fat initiation fees and double the quarterly dues. Some people do that, but it doesn't make much sense to me. On the other hand, I'm told props and set dressing (and maybe special effects) all fall under the aegis of Local 44 here in LA -- so the multi-skill crossover approach makes a lot of sense in the art dept.

Austin (anonymous) said...

Thank you Mr. Taylor for the thoughtful response.

Its funny, I can't exactly put a finger on it, but for several reasons (one reason being that I could avoid spending my whole life in front of a computer), I have always been fascinated by working in the movies. (Although I'm sure one day working on a set would dispel these fantasies) Anyways, I've always been sure that I wanted to work in film production in some capacity.

But lately I have been considering thats not the best idea. There are most definitely much more viable and safer options for careers. Another thing i'm concerned about is that I'm in the wrong place and wrong time. There is little production any more in the Golden State and I'm worried that by the time I'm out in the world, many incentive states will have realized what a waste their programs are and will have capped them, leaving their local studio mechanic's rosters full of people hungry for work, no room for me, and also that in the future, as you stated, its only going to be tougher to survive and make a living.

Also, in regards to the IATSE union, one thing that would make me not so inclined to go to hollywood is that the crafts are separated by different locals, versus studio mechanic locals that represent most every craft. I have also had the privilege of talking to a few IATSE Local 16 members who have recommended their apprenticeship program, which is mostly theatre but would still be helpful.

But in times of such uncertainty, as I sit here at 11 o'clock thinking about focusing on finishing my math homework, wondering whats it all about and if its really worth it, I have also thought that due to the fact that our planet is surly destined for political, economical and environmental catastrophes in the not-so-distant future, what the hell. I'm going to go for it. Because I'm not so sure I'd be good at anything else.

Thanks again for the response. Whether I ultimately change my mind or not, I'll still read your writing.

Michael Taylor said...

Austin --

The aim of this blog is not to discourage young people interested in Industry careers, but simply to provide an unvarnished view of the biz from below decks, where the heavy lifting is done. Given our culture's obsessive fascination with all aspects of celebrity (and resulting over-coverage in the media), I like to provide a little balance in the form of a reality check.

I know people who have gone through Local 16's apprenticeship program, and although it does seem to center on duties at the Opera House, many of those people went on to do very well in the local film industry. That's a good way to go, and will provide a much more well-rounded experience than joining one of the many craft-specific Hollywood unions. If you can get into Local 16's program by the time you're 20, you'll be way ahead of the game.

Besides, the Bay Area is a much more pleasant place to live. LA isn't all bad -- I've had some good times here -- but it can be brutal at times.

It's not so much that there's very little production in California -- there's a lot going on -- but that there's considerably less than we used to have. In essence, the jungle watering hole has shrunk while the animal population has not -- so there are lots of experienced people chasing after fewer jobs. That makes it a lot harder for a newbie lacking connections to break in.

Your analysis of the future in those incentive states may be spot-on as well -- and as some states start to fold their programs, the workers there will have to migrate to those locales that still have incentives -- again raising the bar for new people lacking experience.

You're right, though; the world as we've known it seems doomed to go over a cliff in the not-too-distant future. Thus far we seem incapable of finding a workable balance between our consumer-culture expectations and the reality of the world's long-term sustainable environmental needs. As the climate changes and the environment suffers, so will the economy -- and that's when politics begins tilting toward the crazies and extremists among us. Things get weird in a hurry. Exhibit A: that political circus down in Tampa the past few days...

Working below-the-line teaches many real-world skills that are useful beyond the Industry -- climbing, rigging, the basics of electricity. I'll put my money on grips and juicers in an emergency situation over the pale keyboard droids from a cube farm.

Bottom line -- if this is really what you want to do, then do it. You'll have to roll with the punches like everybody else, but will also acquire crossover skills that can pay off no matter what happens down the road.

Good luck.