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 26, 2021

The Devil's Bargain

                                                    Same as it ever was

It's been 24 years since camera assistant Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel and was killed while driving home from a nineteen hour work day, after which a lot of jaw-flapping ensued about the need to work shorter hours on set -- and although a few productions began offering hotel rooms to crew members after excessively long days, that was the extent of it. Despite a campaign by the late, great Haskell Wexler to institute a "12 On/12 Off" policy on set, nothing at all has been done to curtail abusive work hours. Film crews on features and episodics continue to get hammered with a long slog of 70-plus hour weeks capped off with the universally-reviled "Fraterday." This is ridiculous, especially now that medical science has quantified the obvious: that working excessively long hours is very bad for your health.  

Despite growing discontent among the rank and file (including cinematographers), a few people in our industry resist the push to work shorter hours. Some parrot the chest-thumping response of "You want regular hours, work in a bank," while the more thoughtful point out that the cost of living these days is such that they really need all that overtime just to get by. The hourly rates are decent for those employed on full-scale union jobs, but the film and television industry is a freelance, feast-or-famine world where all jobs on set are temporary. Every movie or television show comes to an end, at which point you're out of work until the next job comes along.**  Employment insecurity is a fact of life in the film industry, where we rarely know what is -- or isn't -- coming next, so it's no surprise that people want to make what they can while they can.

But this raises the question: at what cost? Should working in the film and television industry be like toiling underground digging coal, where miners have to accept the Devil's Bargain of becoming terminally ill with Black Lung disease before reaching retirement age simply to put food on the table and a roof over the heads for their families?

Working on set will never be a nine-to-five job, and truth be told, this is part of the attraction. There's a sense of mission that comes from being part of a crew making a movie or television show -- a "we'll get this done no matter what" ethos that sets it apart from punching a time clock in a factory or driving a keyboard under the fluorescent glow of a cube farm. I wasn't suited for -- nor did I ever want -- a normal job in the civilian world, and although this sounds remarkably idiotic now, I took a certain pride in working the 16, 18, and 20+ hour days that were common during my early career in the world of low budget, non-union features and music videos. It was all part of "paying my dues" to earn a place in the industry.  Still, it's one thing to make the best of a tough situation -- to do what you've gotta do -- and something very different to feel a perverse pride in enduring such ordeals. Looking back, I can see this was probably a form of the Stockholm syndrome, a coping mechanism that allowed me to feel good about being trapped in such difficult situations.  

Like the man said: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

Escaping from the anything-goes, pedal-to-the-metal arena of low budget productions into the safe harbor of union work was supposed to fix all that -- and for a while, it did. Unfortunately, our union contracts have only gotten worse when IATSE and the AMPTP met every three years to hammer out a renewal. Those contracts once protected the rank and file from being worked excessive hours, with the first eight hours at straight time, the next four at time-and-a-half, and anything over twelve hours paid double-time. We'd receive a 15% "night premium" on top of union scale when taking a night call on a studio lot, and working weekends paid double. If you were on a show that worked past midnight on Friday (having already gone twelve hours), you then went into "double-double," or four times the normal hourly scale.  

These provisions weren't in the contract to fatten the paychecks of crew members, but as a financial sledgehammer to dissuade producers from working their crews abusively long hours -- and if for some reason a shoot really had to go long, the producers would have to pay dearly for the privilege. It wasn't a perfect system, but it worked a lot better than what we have now. I can't pinpoint exactly where the erosion in these protections began, but the real break in the dam seemed to come back when the IA signed a contract with HBO allowing the then-fledgling company to pay their crews 20% under union scale, then go into double-time after 14 working hours rather than 12. The rationale was that this new network needed help competing with the Big Three broadcast powerhouses, and cutting them some slack would allow HBO to hire union crews rather than non-union workers to support our health and pension plans. All this would have been fine if the negotiations included a "sunset clause" to limit the duration of the deal, so that once HBO got on its feet -- say, after ten years -- the cable-rate provision would expire, and they'd have to pay crews full union scale.  But there was no such clause, which is why many cable networks still exploit their contractual right to pay crews 20% under scale, and work them 14 hours before the producers hit the wall of double-time.

If you think it's fun to work 14 hour days, 5 days a week, for a 20% cut in pay, try it sometime.

In every contract negotiation since that HBO deal, we've lost more of the protections that discourage producers from abusing their crews, and now union scale has been thoroughly Balkanized with half a dozen different rates, each less than the basic union scale that was once the lowest we could be paid. The producers arrived at each of those negotiations armed with a phalanx of well-paid lawyers, while our side had guys who -- figuratively speaking -- left their tool belts at the door before sitting down at the table. I wasn't in any of those rooms, and won't criticize our IA representatives, but it's clear that they didn't have the training, skills, or leverage to go toe-to-toe with the AMPTP lawyers, and the results were predictable. Concession after concession has been rammed down our throats over the last twenty-plus years, with each contract progressively worse than the last.

According to my local, the following are at issue in the current contract negotiations:

A living wage as well as annual increases, reasonable rest and meal periods, sustainable health and pension benefits, improved working conditions, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

"Reasonable rest" means preventing productions -- particularly episodic television -- from working their crews into the ground, because a twelve-hour work day is long enough.  It also means allowing rest and meal breaks for the crew during each work day, which -- given the cumulative load of fatigue over each week of long days -- is a very real safety issue.

The following, which has been making the rounds of social media lately, sums up the situation.***

Friends and family across the country:  there's a very real possibility that Hollywood unions (represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) will go on strike, which would halt almost all film and television production across the entire United States. This would be a historic move, but one that's necessary.
Many of you are probably annoyed that you’ve cut the cable cord, only to find that you're now paying the same amount for a multitude of streaming services. Those of us who do the hard work required to make those shows are considerably more than annoyed that these streaming entities -- which are owned and run by some of the richest corporations on the planet -- are still pretending that streaming is an unproven business model they have yet to profit from.  
In a word, that's bullshit.
They want to pay us less to work on streaming shows than for shows that air on regular TV. They want to work us longer hours and have shorter weekends. They want to contribute less to our pension and health plans for streaming movies than they do for films that have a traditional theatrical release. They don’t even want to let us break for lunch during a 12+ hour work day. On top of all that, AppleTV+ is asking for a discount on our rates because they currently have fewer subscribers than the others, even though their huge hit "Ted Lasso" just won a truckload of Emmys.
The situation has reached a breaking point. The studios have now decided to end the negotiations, so our leadership is calling for a strike authorization vote in the hope that our show of strength and solidarity will force the producers to offer a fair contract and avoid a strike ... but if not, we'll have to strike for what we need.
I hope that you’ll stand with us in this fight.

The Devil drives a hard bargain, so it's no surprise that the AMPTP dug in its heels on several key provisions. I don't know all the specifics, but apparently they want to make it much harder to qualify for a pension, eliminate the existing structure of breaks (including meal periods)  in favor of "more flexibility," cut our annual (and minimal...) pay raise in half, and refuse to even consider the matter of working crews deep into Saturday mornings. The latter is a serious quality of life issue, because a work week that begins at 7:00 Monday morning and doesn't end until 5:00 A.M. Saturday renders the term "weekend" all but meaningless. 

With the talks stalemated, the IA has called for a strike authorization vote -- the first essential step towards an industry-wide strike. The next move is ours, and it's crucial for the rank and file to respond with an overwhelming "yes" vote to put the producers on notice that this time we mean business. As IATSE president Matt Loeb put it: "It's time to command their attention," and if AMPTP refuses to respond with a reasonable compromise, we'll have two choices: roll over and take another beating, or stand up and strike.

If push comes to shove, my vote is to strike.

This is easy for me to say -- being retired, I no longer wait for my phone to ring with the next job -- but if we've learned anything by now, it's that the producers only respond to pressure. It's been many decades since below-the-line unions exerted any real heat on the AMPTP -- to my knowledge, there's never been a widespread strike by the IA in Hollywood -- and the producers have made it clear that they won't be reasonable unless and until we force the issue. 

When I started working in Hollywood back in '77, many of the veteran crews I worked with were from a generation that came of age amid the privation and misery of the Depression Era, then went through the hell of World War Two. Having witnessed the worst life could dish out, they were happy just to have a decent job -- but that was a different era in every way. The cost of living was cheaper in real terms, and strong union rules protected the rank and file from being worked to death. A bitter cliché I heard many times on set goes: "If you're going to fuck us, at least give us a kiss," but the AMPTP won't even blow us an Oscar-style Hollywood air kiss, so maybe it's time to revive the battle cry of Howard Beale in the Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky classic Network:

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" 

With so many still recovering from the Covid shutdown, this isn't a great time to go on strike, but if we roll over and take another contract beat-down, any concessions forced on us now will form the new baseline for even more drastic cuts when the contract expires in three years. We're now in something of a modern Gilded Age where the old and new media corporations are making money hand over fist while grinding the workforce they depend on into the dirt. This is as shortsighted as it is cruel, but rather than meet us halfway to agree on a fair contract, they're trying to divide, conquer, and break the unions. Sometime it seems they won't be happy until we've been relegated to First World slave labor toiling for minimum wage and minimal benefits.  

Fuck that.

There's no denying that an industry-wide strike would be ugly and painful, but what's our alternative? The AMPTP is so accustomed to kicking us to the curb on their way to the bank that they really don't believe the rank and file has the stomach to withstand a prolonged strike. If they ignore next weekend's strike authorization vote and refuse to compromise, we'll have to draw the line and show them that like the fictional Howard Beale, we really aren't going to take it anymore. 

Because if not now, when? 


* To bastardize a once popular C&W song, "Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be film students."

** The studios are staffed by full time employees, but the union rank and file who work on set to make movies and television are essentially temp workers.

*** Somewhat massaged, of course, since the editor in me simply couldn't resist.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Day the Earth Stood Still


You hardly need another reminder that last Saturday was the 20th anniversary of a the day the earth stood still. It's a day we all wish had never happened ... but it did, and here we are two decades later, in a world still suffering the aftermath of 9/11. In the run-up to the anniversary, every form of print, audio, and visual media reviewed the events and ramifications of that day, from the intensely personal to the international. It'll take a lot more than twenty years for those wounds to heal, and in some ways, they never will. As individuals and a country, we can get around this immense tragedy -- for the survivors, life does go on -- but we don't ever really get over it. The sense of loss and pain is always there, but 9/11 goes even deeper than that, bending and shaping our country and the international community in ways we might never fully grasp. It united us like no time since since Pearl Harbor, but twenty years later Americans are at other's throats, with some some grimly muttering about a second Civil War.  

How the fuck did it come to this?

Lots of reasons, I suspect, but I'm not one of those giant-brained Ivy League media analysts who earn a living telling us the why and how, so don't look for explanations to an ex-juicer who got paid to lift heavy objects for a living. Besides, my role here isn't to discuss domestic or global politics -- that's way over my pay grade -- but life below decks in the film and television industry, which is one of the few subjects I know something about. Still, the media made an effort to shine light on the events and ramifications of that day, and some of those are worth your time.

PBS ran an excellent two hour Frontline documentary dissecting the political, geopolitical, and cultural aftershocks of 9/11, a sobering film dissecting our collective reaction to 9/11, and how that  led to rivers of blood throughout the Middle East, and exacerbated a divide in our country that now feels like the Grand Canyon. It's not fun to watch, but you'll learn something. 

Another worthy film is 9/11, a documentary made by two French brothers who set out to document the life of a young NYFD recruit who was still in his probationary period. As they were filming that day, the first plane hit and the fire company responded -- and at that point their film took a very different direction. This is modern cinéma vérité at its best, recording the horror as it unfolded that day -- but be warned: watching it is a shattering experience.  It's very real and very rough, but nothing else I've seen will take you into the experience of that day quite like this film. For those of us who watched the events of 9/11 unfold on television from afar, it's useful to understand what it was really like for the first responders and their families, who paid -- and continue to pay -- such a brutal price.

I waited almost fifteen years to watch Flight 93, a docudrama by Paul Greenglass about the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, who were the first to fight back against the terrorists of 9/11, and in so doing, made the ultimate sacrifice to save our country from more death and destruction.** The stories of first responders that day represent the noble tragedy of professionals dying while trying to do an impossible job -- true heroes by any definition -- but I don't know a word to adequately describe the actions of the passengers on Flight 93, who took just ten minutes to make a decision that would send them and the terrorists on that plane into eternity in the woods near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I'd heard that Flight 93 was an excellent film, but just wasn't ready to watch until recently, when it finally rose to the top of my Netflix queue earlier this year.*  It's very well done, with no "Hollywood" bullshit, portraying real people going about an ordinary day that suddenly turns upside-down, at which point they must confront -- and make -- the most important decision of their lives.  We know what happens, but still the tension is palpable. It's a gritty story wonderfully told, but again, it delivers a powerful and  emotional gut-punch, so be ready.   

It hurts to revisit that day, but that's not a good excuse. From my perspective, we owe it to those who died twenty years ago -- and to their families -- to remember and honor their sacrifice. 

It's the least we can do.

* Yes, I still watch DVDs -- so sue me.  I stream too, but old habits (and old people) die hard...

** Not to be confused with another film called Flight 93, directed by Peter Markle, which I haven't seen and can't comment on.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

On the Air

                                              Image courtesy of Yingnan Lu

Back when I was still working in Hollywood, several people urged me to turn this blog into a podcast ... but that's not gonna happen. It'll be a book at some point, and that's enough for me. Writing these posts is hard enough, so the considerable effort of recording (and how many takes would that require?), then editing, finding/adding the appropriate music -- among all the other time-consuming details that go into creating and promoting a podcast worth listening to -- is beyond my level of interest or energy at this point. Forty years in Hollywood took a lot out of me, and there's only so much gas left in this tank -- not enough to jump-start another level of creative endeavor. I love a good podcast as much as the rest of you, but I'm happy to be a consumer rather than a creator, and am content to leave the audio medium in the hands of those who do it well. 

This brings me to Robert "Skid" Skidmore, an ex-AD who began producing a podcast called Below the Line back in September of 2018.  Now its eighth season, Below the Line brings together a wide variety of industry pros, from DPs to ADs and everyone in between, discussing their jobs on set and life  in the Industry Machine. In the early stages of his podcast, Skid began each episode with a line like these: 

"A gaffer, a property master and an assistant director walk into a bar..."

"A stunt jockey, a set medic and a production assistant walk into a bar..."

"A wardrobe supervisor, a camera operator and an assistant director walk into a bar..."

Such a clever approach was enough to intrigue me, and my curiosity was rewarded by a listening experience as entertaining as it is informative. I know something about being a grip, and a lot more about being a juicer, best boy, and gaffer on set, but not so much about the the rest of the crews I worked with for all those years, so hearing the perspective of a prop man, editor,  sound mixer, or AD is interesting. 

Still, I hadn't heard of Skid's Below the Line podcast until an e-mail arrived from JR Helton -- and if that name rings a bell (ahem: it should...), you might recall a post that appeared here a few years back about his book by the same name. I met JR through a mutual friend who used to work on my crew when I was a best boy, then gaffer, and who introduced me to Helton's terrific book.*  Skid approached JR to participate in a podcast, and JR invited me to join in -- so a few weeks ago the three of us got together on Zoom to record the session, with Skid serving as host/moderator, JR taking the lead, and me adding an occasional observation. This wasn't my first experience with podcasting: The Anonymous Production Assistant recruited me for a twenty minute Crew Call episode back in 2014, and although the first season of Crew Call is no longer available, TAPA was gracious enough to re-activate the audio for my episode, so if you want to listen, follow that link.**

Skid went through the DGA Trainee program (which is a real bitch, btw***), then worked as an assistant director for several years before migrating out of the industry to another line of work. But once Hollywood gets into your blood, it's hard to get it out, which, I suspect, is why he started his Below the Line podcast.

There are lots of good industry podcasts out there, and Skid's is a welcome addition to that distinguished lineup, but none of them have a logo as good -- and dare I say it, iconic -- as Below the Line. Every industry veteran has had struggled to the top of his/her own personal Mt. Suribachi on the job (sometimes on a daily basis), be it during the long siege of a feature film or the war-without-bullets grind of episodic television, so this image resonates with me. If you'd like to hear Skid, JR Helton, and me discuss some of our experiences in the biz while having a few laughs, here you go.

That's it for this month.  Covid doesn't seem to be done with us yet, so remember: stay safe out there.

* If you haven't read Helton's book Below the Line, get off your ass and do so.  JR has published several other books as well, all of which are a good read, but Below the Line is still essential reading for anybody in the film and television industry. Check out his website at JR

** If for some reason that link doesn't work, this one should.  

*** Once accepted to the DGA program, a trainee is sent on show after show for fifty days at a stretch until he or she has accumulated 400 working days. Then -- and only then -- can they join the guild after writing a fat check to the DGA. Candidates are on a very short leash during their training period, with no idea when or where they'll be sent next.  When times are slow, they might not get another assignment for months on end, but they just have to sit tight and wait for that call to come. In the meantime, a trainee can take non-industry work to make a living, but must be ready to drop everything (including whatever job they've taken to pay the rent) on very short notice to go on the next DGA assignment.  It can take years to accumulate those 400 days and earn a guild card, at which point they're at the bottom of the list, taking whatever miserable, long-hours 2nd/2nd AD gig they can find. Personally, I don't understand how anybody could actually want to be an assistant director -- no way could I do that job -- but I'm glad they do, because a good AD is worth his/her weight in gold. We really couldn't make movies or television without them.