Saturday, January 30, 2010

Isolation On Set.

Cell phones are awesome. They fit perfectly in your pocket, you can carry them wherever you go, they're great in case of an emergency and you can instantly Google the answer to something the next time you're caught in an "I wonder...." type of conversation.

But when are they not so great? When you're on set.

And I don't mean because they'll go off during a take (ironically, it's usually the AD or Sound Guy's phone that does that) but because it kind of sucks when you're the only one on a crew without a Smartphone. While your co-workers are checking their e-mail and updating their Facebook status, you're left out with nothing to do and no one to socialize with. It's like lunch time in the cafeteria all over again.

There's also nothing that makes you question the state of your generation more than looking up and seeing all your peers, with their faces illuminated by the ghostly blue glow of a tiny screen, eagerly typing away with their thumbs, oblivious to the fact that they're sitting just inches away from another person. Why have a real conversation with an actual human being when you can have one in 160 characters or less? Why should you get to know the people you work with when you can play a game of solitaire in the palm of your hand? Suddenly you find yourself surrounded by people, but essentially alone, which is a shitty feeling.

Same with iPods. Everyone loves music. It's a passion for some. I get it. But to have it playing in your ear the whole time you're at work? That, I don't get. Not only do you end up missing calls over the walkie with music blasting in your ear, but sometimes the sound bleeds into your own mic and suddenly the whole crew has to listen to Coldplay while you tell them your 20.

I'm not saying that I haven't been guilty of sending the occasional text from my phone while at work, but I usually save it for when I'm by myself babysitting a light, or during a take when you can't talk anyway. And I understand the need to be on the phone for professional reasons, like booking your next job, calling rental companies, looking up manuals and the like, but in my opinion, there's also such a thing as overdoing it.

Call me old fashioned, but sometimes I yearn for the days when cell phones weren't so prevalent. I miss the days when time between takes was filled with conversations with your fellow crew members. When you got to know more about your colleagues than if they're Blackberry or iPhone people.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It's Time For The Money Talk (Part II)

My post about money a couple of weeks ago brought up many good comments from readers of this blog as well as a few questions. Desterado writes:

"Considering that the work is not always guaranteed, there are dry spells and such how do you do things such as...

Pay for health insurance? Do you have some sort of special group rate you get because your profession is listed as in the Film Industry?

Save for retirement? This is possible, but unfortunately there's no "company" to match your 401k, right?


I guess what I want to know is what do you film guys/gals plan on doing when you're 50 or 60 or older? Are you actually filing income taxes on all of your earnings? Do you plan on living on social security or are you trying to setup some sort of retirement?

This is the stuff that bothered me and was part of the reason I stopped trying.

I wanna know!"
To tell you the truth, Desterado, I wanna know too!

So when I first started in this biz, I asked a lot of questions, and while I'm in no way an expert, voice of reason, and/or reliable source of information on the topic, this is what I've come up with in my unofficial research: There's no one real plan.

Health insurance? Some of us have it, some of us don't. Most of us who have it pay for it ourselves, but I've run into a few kids just starting out who are still under their parents' employers health insurance (at least for a little bit longer) due to some technical finagling. I once worked with a juicer who went on and on about how great an HSA is... unless you got sick or injured a lot. While I never went that route, the guy had some pretty convincing points. And despite being a freelance worker, I've heard of one or two companies who will offer you free health insurance after you stick with them for a certain amount of shows (rare, but it happens).

As for retirement, sometimes, it doesn't really matter if you have an employer who matches your 401(k) if you're not going to contribute to it. As Michael Taylor puts it in his response to Desterado, "Being young and immortal, I didn't care." And that's not an industry specific response either. I've met many people my age (and older) in whatever industry you can imagine and most of them don't have a retirement plan. Even those who have employers who will match their contributions have an empty account. Truth is, most of us are too busy trying to make rent or planning trips to Vegas or getting our careers off the ground to be bothered with something that's 50 years down the road.

As for me? I have health insurance which I buy on my own. And while I don't have a 401(k), I have an IRA which I'll occasionally (though never as often as I should) add to when times are good. I also put money into a savings account when I have it for the times when I don't. All this is made possible because I was lucky/smart enough to build a large stash of cash before I moved out here, giving me somewhat of a head start on the "financial stability" side of things. Granted, no amount of piggy banks could have prepared me for the dry spell of the past couple years, but at least my head's still above water for now.

I learned a long time ago that in this industry, you either make a little money or you make a lot. There's no in between. So until we start landing those big-number jobs, how we live depends on our individual priorities. Some of us are happy still living the "college life" with four roommates in a two bedroom apartment, spending money on video games, DVDs and plane tickets whenever they have the cash. And some of us worry about the future and pinch pennies in order to build up our saving accounts.

For those of you who are in the latter category but don't necessarily know where to start, websites like Bankrate, TheSimpleDollar, GetRichSlowly and (just to name a few) often have tips on things like insurance, savings, retirement funds, debt management, etc. None of those sites are specific to this industry, but they can be very helpful nonetheless. And if you went to college, check out your school's alumni association. I know mine offers discounts on things like car insurance and my friend's school even hooked her up with a retirement account. There's also the Freelancer's Union (which Mr. Taylor also mentioned) of which I'm a member of. While I definitely haven't been taking advantage of all they have to offer, they do offer plans on various types of insurance as well as a 401(k). Membership also gets you discounts at select places like Staples and Barnes and Noble and administrators are constantly trying to improve the life of freelancers (like advocating for fairer tax and unpaid wage laws). While the organization may not be for everyone, it's probably worth checking out.

So, sorry Desterado. I know it doesn't sound like the concrete answer you're looking for, but it's the best that I could come up with. There's no one real secret path that we're all following. There's no guidebook for this part of Hollywood. Rather, the truth is that we're making it up as we go along. Some of us have been lucky. Some of us have not. Some of us don't think about tomorrow, while some of us lose sleep over it. One thing is for sure though: we all want to be here. Whatever our end goal is in this Industry, to us, it's worth the sleepless nights, low bank accounts and unknown future. If none of that is for you, then you were smart to get out when you did.

Since I'm primarily in the non-union world, this post is geared more towards those "in the trenches" with me. Many of these concerns are figured out if/when you join the IA (aka: the Union) and more info on that can be found in Michael Taylor's response since I'm not even going to pretend I know any of the details about it. And as always, if anyone wants to chime in about any of this, comments are welcome.

Friday, January 22, 2010

It's All About Perspective.

It's now nearing the end of the first month of the new year, and despite previous rumors and well wishes, 2010 is starting off to be like a repeat of 2009... and 2008. Despite a pretty prosperous December for many in this business (well, as busy as it can be in December anyway), most of my cohorts and I have spent the past few weeks twiddling our thumbs again, waiting for that phone to ring.

That's not to say that there hasn't been anyhing going on. I've gotten a couple days of work thrown my way so far. A music video here, a day on a short there, but nothing steady or solid. I had a few prospective jobs in the pipeline, but they seem to have been sucked into the Bermuda Triangle of lost shows; they somehow disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.

While I know that it's still early in the year, I'm worried that it'll follow the same path as the years previous. So far, I've managed to keep my head above water, but I'm not quite sure how long I can keep it up at this rate.

No matter how hard you try, it's pretty easy for pessimistic thoughts to seep into your head when you're unemployed. Suddenly, you find yourself sitting at home, wondering how much rent you have left in the bank and the next thing you know, you're scanning the room, thinking about what you can sell if it really came down to it. It's pretty depressing.

I was having one of those moments today. They sky was a dreary gray to match my somber mood as I pondered my fate in this industry. But before I could sink too far in my own melancholy state, I turned my attention to the news that I had on in the background. California has been slammed by storm after storm this past week, resulting in floods, mudslides and even a couple of tornadoes. People were evacuated, homes were lost, lives destroyed.

And Haiti. Holy shit. Decimated buildings, people sleeping in the street and an ever climbing death toll in the hundreds of thousands...

I can't stand to watch this anymore, so I turn off the TV. Just a couple miles north of me, people are fleeing their homes. To the south of me, a friend of mine is getting drenched, working in the rain for pocket change. Meanwhile, I'm sitting in my warm apartment with a mug of hot cocoa in my hand, listening to the pitter patter of rain falling on my window.

I guess as things go, I could always be worse off...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It's Kind Of Funny (In A Sad Way) When...

... after a hard rain, you put a sand bag on a stand and notice a stream of water trickling out of it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Copy, Credit, Meals.

Anyone who's had to work their way from the ground up in this business will cringe upon hearing these three words: Copy, Credit, Meals.

It's what every production offers when they can't pay you. "We don't have any money, but you'll get copy, credit and meals." Or any variation of that. "There's no pay, but you'll get a DVD copy, IMDb credit, and some kick ass meals!"

When you're first starting out, it sounds like a pretty decent deal. After all, you're more in it for a chance to learn and get your foot in the door than for the paycheck. And who doesn't like a free meal?

Until you realize that the "kick ass meal" is a three inch piece of a Subway sandwich and a bag of chips, or even worse, a slice of pizza. Which usually isn't too big a deal the first time you encounter this, but after a few shows in a row? You get nauseous just thinking about it.

But no worries! At least you'll get a copy of the project! That way, you can show your family and friends that four years of film school wasn't a waste. Only, you never do get a copy and your repeated e-mails to the producers go unanswered. Or if/when they do get back to you, they say the project never got finished, they're still working on it (two years later...) or they'll say, "Oh yeah! No problem! Tell me your address and I'll mail it right over!" and then you never hear from them again.

Oh well... At least you'll get your precious IMDb credit, right? Wrong. You don't get IMDb credit on unfinished films. Or, if by some miracle the film made it all the way through editing, it never gets submitted to the site. And if it does, chances are good that they'll misspell your name and list you in the wrong department. The good thing about IMDb is that you can go in and make corrections if something is inaccurate. But after enduring all that crap from production, having to list your own name on a project is just icing on a shit taco: it doesn't make the whole thing any better.

I kid you not, I was once sweet talked into doing a freebie job for a friend of a friend who lured me on with promises of "copy, credit and fully catered meals" [emphasis his]. Apparently, "fully catered" to him meant Taco Bell for lunch (one taco per person. Seriously.) and no coffee at crafty. I had to hunt them down for a copy (nearly a year later) only to find out that the Key Grip credit I was promised was somehow spelled "P.A."

Saddly, this occurred during a point in my career when I should've known better and the film ended up doing pretty well in the festival circuit.

This isn't to say that everyone should steer clear of "copy, credit and meals" jobs. When I first came to this city, it was those kinds of jobs that got me started in this biz and eventually, whether it be from the connections I made or the things I learned, they led me to bigger and better things. I'll still hop on a project like that from time to time, but it'd be more as a favor to a friend (and not "friend of a friend") and/or there'd have to be something in it for me professionally (working with a piece of gear I haven't used before; a DP with a big name; etc).

As for the "copy, credit and meals" part? Count yourself lucky if you get one out of three.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

It's Time For The Money Talk...

I'm having lunch with a friend of mine. We've known each other since college and he's in the same line of work as I am. In the middle of our entrees, he excuses himself to take a call on his cell phone. While this is normally considered rude behavior, there is a special exception regarding inappropriate cell phone usage for those of us in The Industry. Since our lively hood depends on the next job, and the next job depends on how easily accessible we are, it's not uncommon for us to be taking calls no matter how inopportune the moment.

"Sorry about that," he says when he returns to the table. "I'm trying to see if Production will cut me a check today. I really need the money."

I nod, understanding his situation. He's usually hard up for cash and I've been there many times before myself. Then as the meal continues, I notice his plate compared to mine. While I had ordered something more reasonably priced, he had ordered one of the more expensive dishes on the menu. And as our conversation continued, he mentioned how he just bought plane tickets to Vegas. And concert tickets. And a new flat screen TV for his apartment. I also notice that he took that call on a new Blackberry.

Um... What?

I wish I could say this was the first time I've seen this happen, but unfortunately, it's not. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a colleague bitch about not having enough money and then five minutes later tell me about how they're upgrading the stereo system in their car. Or have their cable shut off from not paying their bill, yet they magically have the cash to buy a new guitar. They don't know if they're going to make rent this month, but they bought a new cell phone.

This is an industry of highs or lows, floods or droughts, feasts or famines. When it rains, it pours and the work is good. But as the seasons change, so will the flow of work. Suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a dry spell, unemployed for weeks on end. In order to survive, you need to learn how to save up during the good times for when things get bad.

This is why I don't understand how someone can complain about not having enough money when they're constantly spending. You don't need to order the most expensive thing on the menu, or have the best sound system or the best TV to survive in this business. All you need is a roof over your head, reliable transportation and a phone that can take calls.

I know that we work hard for our money. The long days and back-breaking hours aren't easy, so I understand the need to treat ourselves every once in a while and reward our hard work with some fun and indulgences. But with a stack of bills to pay and no work on the horizon, I have enough sense to treat myself to a pint of Ben and Jerry's instead of a trip to Vegas.

As the meal ends and we begin to say our good-byes, my friend's phone rings again. It's Production telling him he can come by right now and pick up his check.

"Yes!" he says, with a sigh of relief. "That means I can go drinking tonight with the boys. You wanna come?"

I smile and shake my head. I need to pay my electric bill.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Accumulation Of Gear.

On the very first day ever of working on a film set, you show up empty handed. You think to yourself "All I need to show up with is me. I'm just moving around lights and stuff." After the first few days of that, you look down at your hands which are now blistered, calloused and probably scraped and bleeding in at least two places. "Hmm... Maybe I should buy a pair of work gloves."

So the next job you get, you show up on time with a pair of work gloves. Awesome. But now you're starting to get a hang of the job and you're assigned tasks that are more complicated than moving things around. You end up borrowing a knife from co-workers a lot. No big deal though since there's always someone around that has one.

At the end of the show, your best boy or gaffer or DP comes up to you and thanks you for all your hard work. They give you a wrap gift: your very own utility blade. It's kind of cheap, but it works. And you cherish it because it means someone noticed the work you did and appreciated it. The next job you get, you show up with gloves and the blade in your pocket.

As the jobs keep rolling in, the budgets get bigger. Sooner or later, you find yourself on a job with walkie talkies. It's your first time using one of these, so you get assigned a "McDonalds" head set. You last two days with it before you throw it on the ground and buy yourself a pricey surveillance kit. You're just getting started in this business and the damn thing costs more than you're making, but it's worth it. Until you wear it for a few hours. The next day, you spring extra for the molded ear piece.

Shortly after, you get a job that's shooting at an odd location. Instead of the usual mish-mash of flags and lights on stands, things now have to be rigged and special equipment brought in. Things that require wrenches and screws and rachetting. None of which you have, so you borrow from your co-workers again. Luckily, the job ends around the same time you were planning on visiting the folks, so during your next visit, you "borrow" some of your dad's tools.

Now you're showing up to work with gloves, a knife, a surveillance kit, tools, etc. Do you buy a tool bag? No. You dig up the back pack you used in the 7th grade from the back of your closet. It works just fine.

But now you're running back and forth between set and where your bag is every time you need something. So when you get your next pay check, you spring for a work belt, a pouch, and while you're at it, a glove clip. You also "accidentally" walked off your last job with some left over gels, tape, and cube taps in your pocket. Now you feel like a real grip/electric.

Then comes winter where the days get shorter and the nights get longer. You find yourself working more and more in the dark. Holding a flash light in one hand while trying to wrap cable in the other just isn't cutting it anymore. So that year, you ask Santa for a head lamp.

The holidays come and go, and spring comes back. With it comes heavy rain and for the first time ever, you find yourself running around in thick mud and huge puddles, all while the sky gushes buckets of water on you. For 14 hours straight. That day, right after work, you race to the nearest sporting goods store while you're still soaked to the bone and buy yourself some rain gear. It costs more than your paycheck, but it's worth it.

Eventually, as time goes by, so does your gear. One by one, your tools start breaking or disappearing, your bag now has holes in it, and your headlamp was dropped one too many times. But by now, you're making enough money that you can justify the expense of getting a new wrench, a better light, and a proper tool bag. You look, act, and feel like a pro every day you show up for work.

After some time, a friend asks you to do them a favor and help them out on a project of theirs. The rate's kind of low, but it's a good friend, so you agree to it anyway. On that set, you notice a kid, fresh out of film school, running around, eager to help anyone with nothing more than a pair of gloves on his hands and a smile on his face. In a way, he reminds you of yourself, not too long ago. On the last day of the shoot, you say your good byes and thank him for all his hard work. But before you leave, you dig around your tool bag. At the very bottom is the knife you got all those shows ago. It's a little scratched and worn, but it's still as trusty as it ever was with familiar gleam to it. You hand it to the kid and explain to him how it's been your good luck charm.

As you walk away, you see him out of the corner of your eye, gingerly examining your parting gift. And with a nodding smile, he slides it into his pocket, ready for the next job.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Rumors: A Time Line.

Most of us working in Hollywood have been hit hard in the past couple of years. Production's been ridiculously slow and whenever that happens, the rumor mill starts buzzing.

When the WGA striked in 2007, not many people paid attention since it was during the winter months when it's usually pretty slow anyway. But when January came around and no one's phone was ringing, the rumor was that as soon as it was over, everyone would be back to work.

Two months later, the strike ended, but production barely got warmed up before it was halted again. Now the rumor was that SAG was about to strike, and thus, production slowed once again. Only, they never striked. Instead, the dispute dragged on... and on... and on...

At the end of 2008, the rumor now was that SAG was going to put it to a vote and come pass or fail, the result would push either side into some form of action, settling the dispute and getting everyone back to work by early next year.

Only due to some internal fighting and politics, the ballots weren't sent out until 2009. Below-The-Liners were getting antsy and insisted that both sides stop acting like spoiled children and agree on something. Once a contract's signed, productions will be spreading like wildfire, making up for lost time. Or rather, that was the rumor anyway.

In June of 2009, a new contract was signed. "Finally! Things can get back to normal!" But the rumor that our streets would be flooded with producers, banging on doors while looking for crew was false. "Give them time to get their ducks in a row. Pre-production takes a while. By the end of summer, everyone will be working," was the latest rumor.

Summer came and went, and my friends and I were still tapping our toes, waiting for that phone to ring. "Eh... The economy sucks right now. No one's investing in movies," was the new word on the street. Damn.

By that time, the holidays (aka: the dead months) were rolling around again, and the latest rumor was that things won't pick up until after the New Year.

So here it is folks, the New Year. Will we all finally get back to work? I guess only time will tell. But I hope that 2010 will be the lucky one for all of us who have been struggling these past few years. May this one be the rumor that's true.

Happy New Year...
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