Below the Line and Under the Gun
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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.
After a year of working without a contract, the Screen Actors' Guild finally signed a deal with producers last week. Even so, SAG is a union deeply divided. But this isn't a commentary about Hollywood labor strife but the strife currently being felt by Hollywood laborers. I know, it's tough out there for working people everywhere, but if you're below the line in movie or television production, it's downright cataclysmic.
In Hollywood, " below the line" generally refers to anyone but producers, stars, writers and directors. The term refers to what was once an actual line on a ledger between fixed costs that were set before production began – like a writer's fee – and less predictable costs incurred during the production process…like paying the crew.
Once upon a time, working below the line was like a regular job. People went to the studio every day and came home to their wife and 2.5 kids at night. But the end of the studio system in the late ‘60's was also the beginning of the end of the stable Hollywood middle class. Cameramen, the hair and make-up department, costume designers, grips and the rest all were turned into freelancers. And that freelance existence has just gotten tougher and tougher. These days, crew people sometimes work shoots that are six days a week of 14 hour days for weeks at a time. And when they're not working, they're working hard to find their next gig and wondering if more work will ever come.
And then, even those crazy jobs started to dry up. The writers' strike of 2007-2008 shut down the town for more than three months. And although the producers long stand-off with the Screen Actors' Guild didn't produce a strike, a significant amount of production did not happen because there was fear of some kind of work stoppage.
Then there are those fiendish tax incentives, which pull production to other states where by law you must use local manpower. So to add insult to injury, Hollywood is training largely unskilled out of town production people and adding them to the labor rolls.
And then, just when the below the line crew was already under the gun, along came the global economic downturn. The conglomerates which own the studios and networks are suffering investment in Hollywood has slowed, credit – which is so important to production – has become harder to come by…it goes on and on. According to FilmLA, local feature film production was down 56% in the first quarter of 2009 from last year. Commercial production was down 34%; and TV production is down considerably from past years, too.
So a lot of people are struggling. Everybody is frantically looking for work. It's not unusual to get a call from someone you used to work for asking if you are hiring. The biggest names in the business are competing for jobs they'd never even consider before. And if you can find a job, a lot of the time you'll get paid union minimum and nothing more.
Of course, if you're a set electrician, you could try to ply your trade in the real world. The catch-22 is that if you don't work enough union-hours, you could lose your pension or health benefits. And a lot of this work is schlepping lights and cable and its tough physical labor… that health insurance is vital.
My modest proposal: stars talk a lot about how they couldn't do it without their crew and now it's time for Mr. and Mrs. Celebrity to put their funds where their flattery is. Remember, you get residuals that carry you through the tough times; the crew doesn't.
Now I know that even then biggest names in Hollywood are having to take pay cuts. But even if you're making a paltry $5 million a picture or $250,000 an episode, you need to make a big donation to the Motion Picture & Television Fund and write " below the line hard times fund" on the check memo.
I promise your hair and make-up will look fabulous, you'll be lit better then ever and the camera will always get your good side.
I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's commentary or subscribe to the podcast at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.