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, October 6, 2013

The Hollywood Circus

Same shovel, different elephant...

It’s one of the oldest jokes in the entertainment industrial complex:  A man takes a job in the circus following the elephants around with a shovel to clean up the mess whenever one of the massive pachyderms takes a dump. When asked how he can tolerate such unpleasant, demeaning work -- and why he doesn't find a better job -- the man's reply is one that resonates with many veterans of the film and television industry.

“What, and quit show business?”

There’s more truth in that joke than the uninitiated will ever know.  Whatever our reasons for coming here, most of us who made the many sacrifices required to carve out a career in the film and television industry have a hard time imagining doing anything else.  Maybe it really does seep into the blood or – after enough time has slipped through our fingers – perhaps remaining here has simply become the path of least resistance.  Probably a bit of both.  I've lost all objectivity by now, and really can't say with any degree of certainty.

So we go from job to job, show to show, doing the same basic work in new surroundings and often with a new group of people.  

One thing I’ve learned over the years is there’s only one good way to leave a show, and that's with everybody else at the season’s end.  After a wrap party to provide a modicum of closure, and maybe the traditional cast/ producer’s gift of a hoodie emblazoned with the show's name as a memento, the crew then wraps the stage clean – and a week or so later, all traces of the sets and lighting equipment are gone, leaving an empty, cavernous sound stage ready for the next production to move in.  Seeing a show all the way through to the bitter end offers a real sense of completion, of closing of the door and moving on.  It's always bittersweet, but such is the nature of the beast.

The worst way to leave a show is to get fired.  Although I’ve yet to be booted off a television show, I've been fired a couple of times during my career, and it wasn't fun. No matter the circumstances, getting shit-canned feels like the most profound sort of failure.  It hurts a lot, and for me, the financial and emotional recovery from both experiences took a long time.

Somewhere in the ugly netherworld between those two extremes is leaving a show in mid-season, before all the episodes have been shot, before the crew has said its collective goodbyes, and with all the laboriously constructed show machinery still going strong. The rest in the schedule will be shot (barring the catastrophe of cancellation), but you won't be a part of it anymore.  Denied the satisfaction of completing the job, you're left with a sense of having betrayed the group dynamic -- the emotional bonds -- at the core of every good crew.  In an industry with so much uncertainty and so many ragged edges, leaving early just feels wrong.

I hate it.

Still, there are no guarantees in a free-lance life built on a foundation of sand that dissolves under the assault of each incoming wave, where you do what you must to survive – and right now, I need to stay on the merry-go-round of work for as long as possible.  Once I step off (or get thrown...), there will be no going back.  Yes, I could day-play here and there for a while, but logging sufficient hours to hang on to the health plan is all but impossible for a day-player nowadays – you really have to be on the core crew of a show to pull that off -- and at my age, it's extremely unlikely that a new Best Boy would take me on as a regular with his/her crew.  Not when there are so many younger, stronger juicers out there eager and ready to take the job.

As I enter the final thousand-day slide towards retirement, there’s no room for error.  Much like a shark, I must keep moving forward or else sink into the dark abyss of permanent unemployment,  and that means taking advantage of every opportunity to go from one show to the next whenever possible.  Spurred by the cable networks, television is now produced on a year-‘round basis rather than the old July-through-March schedule pioneered by broadcast television, and given the shorter seasons favored by many cable outfits, it’s possible to work two or three different shows over the course of a year.  This worked out well for me last year, when just as the Disney show wrapped after cranking out twenty-six episodes, my little back-from-the-dead (and much better paying) sit-com returned with a slate of sixteen episodes, taking me straight from pulling lamps and cable down on one stage to putting lamps and cable up at another studio across town.  This was an exhausting transition that gave me no time to recover -- I hadn't even completed one intensely physical ordeal before being thrown into the chaos of another -- but it kept the paychecks coming in and the hours piling up.  In these rocky economic times, that’s a good thing.

This year, the timing didn’t work out.  With the Disney show halfway through their schedule, my little Lazarus sit-com returned for twenty more episodes, forcing me to choose between the two.  It’s a no-brainer in economic terms – eleven remaining episodes at cable-rate vs. twenty at nearly full scale will mean an extra three thousand dollars in paychecks over the next four months, followed by nine or ten more weeks of better-paying work after the Disney show wraps. Besides, I started the Lazarus show doing the pilot sixty-some episodes ago, and with a network commitment to hit the hundred episode mark (thus achieving the fiscal Valhalla of syndication for the producers), we’re looking at a total of 40 more episodes over the next year or so.  Nobody knows what will happen with the Disney show, now well into its third season.  Most Disney sit-coms hit their sell-by date and melt into the ether after three seasons as the young stars get old enough to rebel from the squeaky-clean straitjacket of Mousewitz and follow the post-Disney trail blazed by Lindsay Lohan, Demi Lovato, and Miley Cyrus in re-inventing themselves as young adults.

Besides, the rate of pay for the crew usually rises after three seasons, and there’s nothing the Disney Corporation hates more than paying people what they’re actually worth.*

Still, leaving a show early rubs me the wrong way no matter how compelling the logic.  I was raised with the idea that when you take on a job, you see it through come hell or high water, but those old-fashioned ideals don't always work in this Brave New World of ours.  I'll do it for all the obvious reasons (the rest of the Disney crew would consider me a fool if I didn't -- and they'd be right),  but I won’t like it.  While I miss out on the rich vein of on-set humor that crew generated on a daily basis – they’re a smart, very funny bunch -- another juicer will fill my shoes, and after a day or two, my absence won't even be noticed.  Individual footprints are erased quickly in the dry desert sands of Hollywood, where the winds of change always blow and the show grinds on no matter what.  

And so I move on to the next job, hanging lamps and running power on another stage, at another studio, with another cast and crew.  They're good people, and it's a fun show.  In a couple of weeks, it'll feel like I've never been anywhere else.  

Same shovel, different elephant.

* Not always, apparently, but from what I hear, even Disney has to pay full union scale at Season Four...


JB Bruno said...

Love all of your posts, but this one moved me. It would amaze people outside this business how choosing the obvious - more money and a better situation - is not as obvious as it seems. The "intangibles" - as they call them in sports - effect us in ways we wish they didn't.

Devon Ellington said...

Very well said.

We're not just in this because we love what we do -- we're earning a living.

I managed to avoid Disney on Broadway, and their separate contract, and stay on the League shows.

Still couldn't swing insurance most of the time, even with 90 hour weeks.

Anonymous said...

A few years back, I was the key grip on a no-budget feature. My best was one of my favorite of the up and coming young grips in town (and he was recommended by production, so beat that). A TV series started shooting (and I live in a medium sized Pacific Northwest city where a series is a BIG DEAL), and we started losing crew to it. The producers got pissed off and started claiming they'd hurt people's careers if they jumped ship. So of course my best got an offer. He wanted to take, me and the gaffer told him to take it, and yet he worried about jumping ship and what production might do.

So I fired him.

He didn't like that, so at wrap, I handed him a beer and an apple box. I then explained that I'm old and am not going to be getting even these jobs much longer, even though I'm still pretty good at my job, and he's starting out and needs to keep moving up. And if production tried anything, he could always say he didn't jump ship, he was fired.

He's now the key grip on a popular cable series, and deserves even that modicum of success.

Me, I'm toiling in the fields of freelance theater and can't land a film job to save my life.

Michael Taylor said...

JB --

The "intangibles" -- I like that. And you're right, these decisions are seldom as easy in real life as they appear on paper.

Thanks for tuning in...

Devon --

Thanks, but if 90 hour weeks aren't enough to nail down the insurance, how do they expect anyone to get coverage? Oh, right -- they don't...

I had no idea Disney had their own theatrical contracts -- doubtless low-budget deals designed to screw the workers as much as possible. Same as it ever was.

Anonymous --

That's a great story about a rough situation. How and when to leave a job is rarely an easy, cut-and-dried call. Lots of factors come into play, especially in a smaller market where work is harder to come by. It sounds like you applied some tough-love to do the young man a real favor. I hope he came to appreciate that in the end.

Thanks for tuning in...

amy said...

The only job I walked out on was a short a few months back. The directer told me he didn't know what my job was (Script supervisor) and told me to go into the art department instead. The producer apologized to me for the young directors ignorance and begged me to stay- but I couldn't help but walk out on that one. No regrets there.