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, December 3, 2023



Christmas came early with the end of the SAG strike, but the ancient wisdom once again held true: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled."  The film industry's below-the-line workers -- who do the heavy lifting on and off set to move a script from computer screen to silver screen -- were getting trampled even before WGA picket lines went up on May 2. The powers that be knew damned well a strike was coming and had long since ramped down production, which is why so many below-the-liners have been out of work for eight to ten months now, and some even longer.  Unemployment benefits run out after twenty-six weekly checks have been delivered -- and $450/week doesn't go very far in LA anyway -- so many of those people have been in desperate shape for a very long time.

Having burned through their savings, plundered retirement accounts, sold what they could, re-mortgaged homes, taken temp jobs, and borrowed from whoever was able to help, most of those hard-working crew people are now in a deep financial hole. It's great that long-dormant movie and television productions are finally gearing up to shoot, but it won't happen overnight, which means much of Hollywood is facing a lean and hungry Christmas.  

Things will be different in the New Year, when the film and television industry should be going at it hammer and tongs.  Debts will be repaid and bank accounts gradually replenished as the months pass, and life will be better for a while, but another dark cloud looms on the horizon: the IA contract with the AMPTP expires next summer on July 31st. Those in the rank and file were not happy with the last contract negotiated in 2021, when the IA came closer than I'd ever seen to calling a general strike. After decades of watching more hard-earned benefits vanish with each new contract, the membership was fed up ... but not quite enough, because they ratified the 2021 contract.  Still, the consensus at the time was that the 2024 contract would have to be much better or a strike will almost certainly be called to make sure that -- as The Who memorably sang back in the days of my youth -- "We don't get fooled again.

But then Covid shut things down for a while, and as production gradually resumed, it was with mandatory safety protocols -- daily testing, mask requirements, social distancing, strict and often fickle Covid Safety monitors, and an onerous A-Zone/B-Zone/C-Zone sector on every set -- which made a tough job all that much harder and pretty much took all the fun out of this business. Much of the workforce hadn't fully recovered when the WGA and SAG went on strike, which slammed the door for 114 days during which no sector of the industry suffered more than the below-the-line community, who supported the strike despite not having a dog in the fight. So when it's our turn for a new and better contract in July, will the battered, bruised, and still-recovering IA membership really be willing to call another industry strike -- and if so, will the WGA and SAG support us?

I don't know, nor does anyone else. To quote another old saying: "Time will tell."

It seems a bit early to declare who the real winners and losers were in this strike, but that didn't stop The Hollywood Reporter from sharing a few thoughts on the matter.  Whether they're correct in that assessment remains to be seen, but I hope they're right about at least one thing: the Lizard Queen losing influence -- and hopefully her job -- leading the AMPTP.  I didn't like her when she first got the job, and nothing since then has softened my view. 


A while back -- quite a while, actually -- a post appeared here called Art vs. Commerce discussing the age-old struggle between those in Hollywood who are driven to reap profits and those whose interest is in creating cinematic art.  When the two drives miraculously come together, the result can be a classic film ... but that doesn't happen often enough.

My own cinematic coming of age in the 70s was sparked by a new style of filmmaking that focused on compelling dramas with something to say, many of which did well at the box office. A young generation of writers and directors turned Hollywood upside down and created a new mini-Golden Age, but the good times couldn't last. Once George Lucas and Steven Spielberg demonstrated the massive profit potential of slick, well-crafted, undeniably entertaining movies like Star Wars and Jaws, that brief flowering of artistic expression in Hollywood was doomed. 

Nowadays Hollywood's bread-and-butter is a depressingly juvenile string of CGI-laden tentpole superhero franchise spectaculars, because it's all about the money.  The industry always has been, really, but there was a time when producers and studio heads were so befuddled by the changing tastes of a younger generation that they had to roll the dice on new writers, directors, and actors. The resulting cinematic renaissance fired my young imagination enough to lure me to Hollywood, but I have to wonder: if I was twenty years old now, would the current crop of superhero comic-book movies  drive me to enter the film industry?  I doubt it. I'd probably be more interested in the video game industry, which -- much to my surprise -- turns out to be bigger in monetary terms than the film and music industries combined.**

Look, if you love all the superhero/Marvel stuff, great: I'm not judging anybody else's taste, so more power to you. All I'm saying is that we're not gonna see another The Last Detail  -- let alone a classic like Chinatown -- emerge from Hollywood anytime soon, and I think that's a shame.

For those of you who might be weary of me shoving various books down your throat, here's a change of pace: Boxed Out is an excellent piece by Michael Schulman that appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of The New Yorker, analyzing why the most recent Golden Age of Television -- the early streaming years -- didn't and couldn't last. Another New Yorker piece by Schulman is a profile of Ridley Scott titled Napoleon Complex, which appeared in the Nov. 13 issue. I hope those links work for you, although they may lie behind a paywall. In that case, both of these articles are worth seeking out, either from friends who subscribe to The New Yorker or at your local library.

On the general theme of art vs. commerce, here's a fascinating interview/conversation with David Byrne  that will be of interest to any fans of The Talking Heads.  Byrne is not your typical pop/rock/whatever star, and is thus always worth a listen.

And speaking of music, in what passes for tradition at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, here's the annual presentation of the inimitable Robert Earl Keen's classic Christmas song. 

And since I have no way of knowing if the "embed video" function still works at blogger, here's a direct link just in case: Christmas With the Family.

The world is a mess these days, here and abroad, but I hope you all find a way to have a wonderful Christmas season.  

* Okay, so it wasn't exactly VJ Day, but amid the tsunami of grim news in 2023, settling the strike qualifies as very good news indeed - and for anybody who doesn't see the connection, here you go:

** This is a total hypothetical, of course, since the last video game I played was "Pong" back in the early 70s.


Debra Rowe said...

Really enjoy reading your prose, Michael! It's unfortunately so true about the trampled grass, and all the collateral fallout. I’ve been following through your links when I can - December always seems to fly by so fast, with the Christmas holiday approaching. Loved the line “Flowers grow from shit the world over” from the Art vs. Commerce post. It’s comforting, actually. Anyway, best wishes for a happy Christmas from an unusually warm and green Ontario!

Michael Taylor said...

Thanks, Deb - and all the best to you in the holiday season!