Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Back In The Good Ol' Days..."

Despite having a lot of fun on crews made up of my own peers, I often feel more comfortable on jobs where I'm the youngest member of my department. Maybe because I feel safer when working with high voltage power around people who are more experienced and have been in the business longer. Or maybe I just like the maturity that comes with a well seasoned crew.* Or maybe we just get along better for no apparent reason. Regardless, it's sometimes refreshing to roll with a crew that's been around long enough that time has weeded out the slackers and inflated egos, unlike the sets I often find myself on, riddled with know-it-all fresh film school grads.

But with these more mature colleagues, there's usually at least one guy who feels it's their duty to tell you to get out while you can. "You're too pretty to be doing this." "Get out while your back's still in tact." "You're still young enough to change departments." Etc, etc. And no matter what their reasoning for you to run as far away from Hollywood as you can, their impassioned speech always ends the same way: "This business isn't what it used to be."

No matter where I am or what I'm working on, if there's a guy on set who's old enough to be my father, they'll always say the same things: That things were better back then; Production was more generous with their money; The town was flooded with work all the time; You could easily make a good living. But now? Things suck; We work longer hours for less money; Every year they cut away at the perks and benefits; It's harder to find work; Productions are moving out of state; Things were better back then.

The wording may be different. The examples may be more specific. But the story stays the same. The industry is changing, and it appears to be changing for the worse.

The last time I heard such a speech about how this business has been declining over the course of their career, it was from a Camera Assistant in the back of a pass van on the way to set one morning. A worn and weathered Grip overheard the conversation and piped up, agreeing with the salt and pepper haired AC. "Producers used to fly us first class out to location and put us up in nice hotels, but now they won't even hire you if it's out of state." "I used to be able to survive only working about six months out of the year, but now I need to be constantly working..." "Things were better back then."

These two guys now had these wistful looks on their faces as they reminisced about the past. Days that were long gone and never to return. Back when they were younger, carefree, and rolling in good times and good work for good pay.

And when they were done looking back at how things have changed over the years, I couldn't help but ask a simple question: "When you were about my age and starting out in this business, did the old timers give you speeches about how much better it was when they first started?"

The kind AC paused for a moment before looking at me with a slight grin on his face. "Yeah, they did." The Grip in the front seat chuckled in agreement.

And I think that's when they knew that no matter what they said, I wasn't going to head their warnings of an industry going down hill. They sure has hell didn't listen when they were given the same speeches a decade or two ago, and they had no reason to believe that I would either. Despite how good it was back then, I don't think I have it all that bad now. Sure, I may have a shitty gig every now and then, but for the most part, I get paid decently enough, the food's usually pretty good, I get to go to some interesting locations from time to time and I get to snack on crafty all day. As far as jobs go, I'd say I have a pretty good one.

But they know as well as I do that it won't be long before I'm giving the same speech to some new kid in the back of a pass van. "We used to go to some pretty bitchin' places to shoot, but now it's all green screen in a studio." "We used to get three square meals a day on set, plus mini-meals from Craft service. Now all they have are bags of potato chips to snack on and lunch is a walk-away." "It used to be that the Best Boy could bring on whoever they wanted. Now, they've got all these rules about who you can and can't hire." "Kid, things were better back then..."

*Generally speaking, of course. It's no secret that I've run into my share of clueless douchebags.


D said...

I've been hearing that same speech since I was the youngest on the crew (not that long ago). I used to get demoralized by it but I realized that its as old as the film industry itself. I find myself saying it now. Truth is, the industry has changed. But it always has. Everything is a cycle. Now the difference is that instead of Canada, they are going to shreveport. believe me, its not that much different than it was twenty years ago. You have to specialize and you have to be excellent or some giabone will take your place at a lower price.

Michael Taylor said...

I heard it too, many times when I was younger, and have made my own version of that speech more than once in the past few years.

It's true -- things really were a lot better back then, particularly in terms of money. Twenty years ago I could work a hundred days a year and make more than $60K -- which would be close to a $100K in today's funny money. Now I have to work at least a hundred and fifty days per year to make the equivalent of $30K back then.

But that's just me. Everybody's career arc is different, and mine went the way it did due to circumstance and my own decisions. Besides, it's all relative. When I was starting out, making a quality independent feature was extremely difficult. Film stock, camera rentals, and all the other necessary equiment was very expensive. Now you can shoot a feature with a digital still camera and edit it on your laptop at home. A lot more people can now make movies than ever before.

Change and the passage of time giveth and taketh away. It doesn't matter how much better things were (or weren't) back in the day because that was then and this is now. For the most part, I try not to yield to the temptation to give that speech to my younger co-workers. Their careers will be forged in this new era, not the past that I came up in -- so there's no reason to beat them over the head with it. It's better for everyone if I just shut the fuck up.

D is dead right -- the important thing is to acquire and constantly update specialized skills to stay ahead of the downward curve. Become a good dolly grip, dimmer op, gaffer or DP. Stay sharp and on top of new developments in your field. Become irreplaceable. The guy (or girl) who just carries cable or sandbags for a living will increasingly be at the mercy of the larger forces of change at work in Hollywood and beyond.

A.J. said...

D - I agree. Finding a niche in this ever changing industry is absolutely critical to keeping yourself employed.

Michael - I find it interesting how things were different back in the day, yet the same. You're right: we're in a digital era now, with things being much different than they were five years ago, let alone ten or fifteen. But at it's core, many things remain the same, such as needing to stay current in order to survive and telling the new kid how much better things used to be. :)

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