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, June 2, 2024

June

 


With the passing of Roger Corman, yet another Hollywood icon has entered the transfer portal and moved into the Great Beyond. I'm not sure it's possible to overstate the impact Corman had on Hollywood in particular and the film industry in general: in cultural and cinematic terms, the man punched far above his weight.  Variety summed up his career rather nicely, as did The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian, each in their own way.  NPR's "Fresh Air" reran an old but fascinating interview with Corman that included comments from Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Jonathan Demme.

I wrote about him a few months ago after seeing the wonderful documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, so -- having said it then as well as I can --  here's a reprint from that November post:

Roger Corman is one of the few living legends still alive in Hollywood. As one of the original -- and certainly the most prolific -- independent filmmakers to thrive in the shadow of the studio system, Corman's ultra-low-budget productions served as an incubator for young talent unlike any before or since. The list of major directors, actors, and countless below-the-line workers who graduated from the Corman school into mainstream Hollywood is impressive. The notable names on the poster of the 2011 documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel are just a few of those who got their start working for Corman as he made films for American International Pictures, then started his own production company and studio with New World Pictures. 

If I'd had any brains when I landed in LA back in the summer of 1977, I'd have knocked on Corman's door, but I was utterly clueless at the time. Instead, I got my start with the now-defunct Crown International Pictures, one of the lesser low-budget production and distribution companies that were around back then.  A few years later, fate finally brought me to Corman's New World Pictures studio -- the old Hammond Lumber Yard -- in Venice, California to toil on a space epic with the working title "Planet of Horrors."  By the time it was released, the title had morphed to Galaxy of Terror, for better or worse.



My tenure there was a brief but interesting two weeks, during which we ran power throughout the stage and spaceship sets to ready them for filming, but the low wages -- I was making $600/week on a flat rate -- did not make me happy, so when a ten-day job paying $250/day came in over the phone, I decided to exit the low-budget feature world and walked away without looking back.  The gaffer replaced me with another warm-body/juicer, but forgot to inform the office that I was gone, which is how another $600 check arrived in the mail two weeks later ... which brought my total income on that project to $1800 for two weeks -- still not great, but a bit closer to market rate at the time. All things considered, I suppose Corman and New World Pictures treated me reasonably well, however inadvertently.  

Only once did the man come on stage to settle some issue, and did so with the Voice of God. Roger Corman was as impressive in person as is his legend in the film industry. He was a unique presence in our business who certainly deserved the Honorary Oscar awarded him by the Academy in 2009. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is a highly entertaining documentary available on Amazon Prime for just a couple of bucks: a fittingly low-budget price for the low-budget King.

I urge you to watch that documentary, a touching, fun, and fittingly informative remembrance of the man.

RIP, Roger -- and thanks!

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If anyone has picked up the torch of Roger Corman, it's Don Coscarelli, who wrote and directed Phantasm,  The Beastmaster, and Bubba Ho-Tep, among many other films.  True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking (published in 2018) is Coscarelli's account of getting started as an independent filmmaker on shoestring budgets and how he learned the hard way that strings always come with the deal when spending other people's money.  Not many 19 year old indie filmmakers have ever able to drop in on Sid Sheinberg in the Black Tower of Universal whenever they felt like it, but Don Coscarelli is one. He rode the bucking bronco of Hollywood hope, creativity, and disappointment for his entire career -- and it's not clear that his career is quite over.  

I'm not a horror movie buff, and although I'd doubtless have loved Coscarelli's movies in my teens, that was a long time ago.  Still, I've had a world of respect for the man over the last 40 years for one reason: when the Phantasm finally turned a profit, he came through on his promise to pay his crew. The expense of making a feature film -- renting cameras, grip, lighting, and sound gear, buying and processing film, and all the post-production costs -- meant that Coscarelli couldn't afford to pay his crew, so he asked them to work on a  "deferred" basis, meaning they'd get paid if -- and only if -- Phantasm turned a profit. This was common back then, and one way that young people trying to break into the film business could get real-world experience working on set. It was understood that since most indie films never turned a profit -- and even if they did, there was no guarantee the director or producer would hold up their end of the deal -- working deferred meant working for free. As crazy as that might sound, it was one of the only ways to overcome the Catch-22 reality of Hollywood, where newbies couldn't get a job without experience, but couldn't get experience without a job. My first PA job wasn't even deferred: I worked for free, period ... but that job led directly to everything else that happened in my career.  

In other words, it paid off.

Once I started getting jobs that paid, if barely, the notion of doing a deferred gig with no realistic hope of ever seeing a payday -- especially a venture as exhausting as a feature film -- was out of the question, so you can understand my incredulity when word rippled through the non-union community in Hollywood that Don Coscarelli made good and paid his Phantasm crew.  One of those guys, who I'd worked with on my second feature, reportedly received a check for seven thousand dollars, which was a lot of money back then.  Phantasm was the proverbial exception that proves the rule, and Don Coscarelli proved to be a man of his word.

Coscarelli's book is a breezy, entertaining, and informative account of his filmmaking journey, the people he met along the way -- including a young Quentin Tarrantino, who'd just graduated from the PA ranks and had written a script called "Reservoir Dogs" -- and includes much of what he's learned over the years. One theme runs through the narrative: despite the many disappointments, difficulties, and obstacles that came his way, he never lost the sense of excitement and joy in figuring out how to get a spectacular shot without a big budget and truckloads of expensive film gear.  Don Coscarelli learned these lessons the hard way, which he distills in a three-page chapter titled "Don Coscarelli's Five-Minute Film School." His book is an inspirational resource for any newbie who really wants to make movies, but more to the point, it's a fun read that will resonate with anyone who's ever made a film of any length. 

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 My knowledge of life above-the-line is minimal at best, and the world beyond that -- of agents -- remains a blank.  I'm not sure that anybody who isn't an agent really knows what goes on in their world, but there's one Hollywood agent who publishes occasional missives from this realm of mystery on a substack forum called Agent on the Loose.  As you can see in a recent post titled Transactional Awareness -- which asks the question "What do tires and agents have in common?" -- he's a smart, perceptive writer who's been around long enough to know what he's talking about.  His posts are equal measures informative and entertaining: in other words, worth a look.

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NPR's Fresh Air recently re-ran an interview with George Miller from a few years back in which he discusses the making of his then-new film Fury Road and how his career long ago morphed from that of emergency room doctor to film director.  The program includes a review of Miller's new film Furiosa by Justin Chang, who recently fled the flailing LA Times to ship out with The New Yorker Magazine. It's a good program that was certainly worth my time, and might be worth yours.

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My favorite writer who's still at the LA Times is Mary McNamara, who's been there forever covering a wide variety of subjects.  This recent piece focuses on the problems of Hollywood's feature film industry, which seems to boil down to one main thing: a myopic focus on pumping out an assembly line stream of mega-budget tentpole franchise "products" that exhibit all the creative √©lan of a brain-dead zombie eating its own entrails. There's nothing wrong with a little mindless cinematic entertainment every now and then, but a steady diet of the stuff is like living on cotton candy: it will not end well. Mary's columns are always worth reading, and this one nails it.

From all I hear and read, things are bad in Hollywood these days. The promised ramp-up of post-strike production has yet to materialize while negotiations between the IATSE and producers continue.  As another recent LA Times piece noted, some below-the-liners -- many with more than a decade of experience -- haven't worked in over a year, and are getting desperate. I don't know if this is all part of the AMPTP strategy to starve out and discourage on-set workers, as they tried (and failed) with SAG and the WGA, or if something else is at work here.  It certainly doesn't help Hollywood that California's tax incentive program enacted to keep production from migrating to other states has now fallen way behind. Here's a quote from the LA Times piece:

"California offers $330 million annually in film tax credits, but other states looking to build up their status as production hubs, like New York and Georgia, provide more attractive incentives and programs with higher or unlimited funding.  New York's cap is $700 million and Georgia currently does not have a limit." 

What's good for New York and Georgia is bad for Hollywood. With the once-Golden State now staring down the barrel of a serious budgetary crisis that has many popular social programs on the chopping block, I doubt any politicians will be willing to shove more money at Hollywood -- not in an election year -- which means things will probably get worse before they get better.

I hate to end on such a downer, so this -- The Five Stages of anActor's Life -- might cheer you up.  Hey, it made me AND John Wayne laugh, so there's that.

Enjoy the coming summer, kiddos -- it promises to be the relative calm before the shit-storm in November.