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, September 21, 2014

Week Two

One Down, Twenty-One to Go
                                      Trouble in the reflector box?

The start of a new season is like rain coming after a long drought.  Time off is great -- I work to live, not the other way around -- but after more than four months of a steadily shrinking bank account, the new season arrives just in time to recharge the fiscal aquifer.  Another month or two of nothing and my bucket would have hit dry rock at the bottom of that well.
Beyond that, the new season offers a fresh start, and is a time of optimism and hope... but it’s not all sweetness and light.  In addition to several new faces among the crew, we suffered a net loss of two writers thanks to budget cuts -- two new writers came in while four of last season’s staff departed. I liked our writers last season, and will miss those four friendly faces on the blocking and shoot days.  

But worse -- much worse -- is that this leaner and considerably meaner budget will force us to shoehorn twenty-two episodes into just seventeen weeks of work.  
The normal, time-tested practice in the multi-camera world is to shoot one episode per five-day week.  We’ve cranked out eighty-some episodes of this show over the past few years, and only once did we have to shoot more than one episode in a single five-day week.  But the network is playing budgetary hardball with the production company this season, and the compressed schedule will cost each crew member five weeks of work -- and the five weekly paychecks that go with them -- by the time we're done.  Which, of course, is the whole idea.
Such is life in the New World Order of cable, where the mantra is always “work harder and longer for less money.”
This being the fourth official season, the grip and electric crews finally ascended to full union scale, but when stacked up against the loss of five weekly paychecks, that one-dollar-per-hour raise is a decidedly Phyrric victory.  A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that the network will beat each one of us out of roughly eight thousand dollars during Season Four, while saving something in the neighborhood of three to four million dollars for their corporate overlords.   
Budgets don't usually shrink for a successful show -- just the opposite -- so it seems odd that after funding eighty episodes over three extended seasons (and presumably making money in the process), the network would suddenly slash the budget for the final twenty-two.  Beyond the usual forces of corporate greed and the virulent, get-it-for-less fever that has gripped the television industry for the past decade, there's only one obvious rationale for the network to do this -- and it's the same reason dogs lick their balls: because they can. Knowing damned well that our producers  are desperate to cross the hundred-episode finish line to the easy-money Eden of syndication, the network followed the lead of Tony Soprano in using that leverage to put the screws to the production company. 
“You want those syndication big-bucks?  Then you’re gonna do it our way or you ain’t doin’ it at all.”

What I don't know is how this affects the writers, actors, and the rest of the above-the-liners.  I presume they're paid per episode, and thus won't suffer financially from any of this.  But the rest of us -- those who make the least money while doing the heavy lifting on set five days a week -- will suffer close to a 25% loss of income over the course of the season.
Hollywood, same as it ever was -- and why am I not surprised?

Our first block-and-shoot day began with the entire crew gathered in the sound stage grandstands to endure the tiresome and mandatory ritual of the sexual harassment lecture.  Even though we sat through the very same lecture less than a year ago (and the season before that, and the season before that) -- a litany of workplace “do’s” and “don’ts” we all could probably recite in our sleep by now -- here we were sitting through yet another one.  

As we took our seats, each of us was handed a printout titled "Policy Prohibiting Unlawful Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation" laying out the rules prohibiting "unlawful harassment in any form, including verbal, physical, and visual harassment" in very clear terms… except for that term "unlawful harassment."  

The qualifier "unlawful" makes me wonder what the corporation considers "lawful" harassment?  Slashing the season's budget, maybe?    
I don't question the need for basic education on these matters. Hollywood certainly didn’t invent sexual harassment, but the term “casting couch” came into common use here, and nobody can seriously argue that the put-out-or-get-out ethos of the Really Bad Old Days didn't have to go. A film and television industry once dominated by white males has evolved into a cross-section of modern society, men and women of every race and gender preference working side by side -- and that's a good thing, even it if means we all have to be more careful what we say and when we say it.

Still, the pendulum has swung so far nowadays that one poorly-chosen word or phrase uttered within hearing range of the wrong person can put you on the losing end of a lawsuit, complete with financial damages.  It might  even cost you your job.  
Given the litigious nature of our society, the workplace has become a legal minefield, which is why we wind up on the receiving end of the exact same sexual harassment lecture every season, no matter how many times we’ve already heard it. It's the Corporate Way or the highway in modern Hollywood, and the prime directive in Corporateville has always been  "though shalt cover thy ass at all times" -- which means that pinup in the reflector box at the top of this page could conceivably bring serious grief to somebody one of these days.  All it takes is one sensitive soul to be "offended," and the legal circus is on.*
Most of us only had to sit through the first hour of the sexual harassment lecture, but every department head was required to endure an additional hour -- and a quiz on the material -- while the rest of us grazed at craft service. Then it was on to the real work, and with a first episode laced with special effects and elaborate costume changes, we had a very busy day.

It's clear that this season won't be perfect, but what is in this world?  Taking the good with the bad is all part of the deal in Hollywood, where most of us consider ourselves lucky to have a job at this point. Yes, the good old days are gone and the bad new days are here -- but for young people just getting started, these are the good old days.  In thirty years, they'll be squinting back through the sepia-tinted haze and telling wide-eyed newbies how great things used to be before the business went to hell in a hand-basket.
Some things never change.
The best we can reasonably hope for in any job is that the good outweighs the bad -- and if that happens, we're ahead of the game. Anything more is gravy.  
So my hope is that Season Four offers more good times than bad, and I choose to remain cautiously optimistic in spite of the penny-pinching, cheap-ass network. This season will be what we make of it, and I don't intend to sink into the dank swamp of bitterness.  
One down and twenty-one to go -- all in sixteen weeks...

* The photo above was sent by someone working in a rental house in another -- and presumably less litigious -- state, who prefered to remain anonymous.  But you know who you are, and thanks...


k4kafka said...

And as Sonny & Cher so aptly sang..."And the beat goes on..."

Michael Taylor said...

Kafka --

Ain't THAT the truth...