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.


Niall said...

We can all be guilty of doing what you just talked about. You get all that money and you haven't bought a new DVD in donkeys age or your computer is getting a little too old, or that new Xbox game is calling your name. Money burns a hole in your pocket. Plus it does feel good to buy something other than food, shelter, and utilities once and while.

Michael Taylor said...

The film industry has always been a boom-and-bust economy. During good times, there's lots of work, but every fat period eventually leads to a lean stretch. This is true on every level, wherever movies are made. A select group of insiders might be able to work most of the time, but by definition, that leaves the rest of us out.

We all learn this, sooner or later -- some people just take a little longer to figure it out. Knowing when to splurge on a good time (or toys) and when to hold back is a crucial survival skill for the free lance film worker.

I suppose Kenny Rogers said it best: "Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and when to run..."

Suburban Guy said...

Back in the stone age days of production (the early 90's) I noticed there were two types of production people. Those who saved and planned ahead and those who wanted to maintain that image of living in "Hollywood". I tried the latter at first and found myself quickly in very bad shape. I buckled down, saved and got above water.

People want to live the life but rarely have the income to support it.

That's the trick, knowing what life you can live and knowing what life you want to work toward. You can either be broke and mooching off your friends or living stable and doing the slow grind.

The first flashes, the second sustains.

Trust me, the slow grind might not be the most exciting, but it does pay off in many many ways.

D said...

Bettr advice has never been given to those in the "trnches" as Michael Taylor would say. ALWAYS put money aside. I always kept two accounts and put every other check, or every 3rd check in the second account and dont' touch it. If you have easy access to it, you'll spend it.

Unknown said...

I have a question, and it's a serious question and I don't mean to come off like a jerk, because I actually wonder this from time to time....here goes.

I had a very brief stint of working on some productions, mostly a few small films. I met people who had been doing it for years, some had college degrees some didn't. Some seemed to be living well others didn't.

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 that's the reason I gave up. I met these people who were late 20s early 30s who barely had any sort of career or real, steady source of income. They were living in horrible places, paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes they wouldn't even get a check. Or as you've mentioned numerous times (which would piss me off to the extreme) that sometimes production companies don't cut checks for weeks!

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!

P.S. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that those things are impossible to do, but I never got the impression or first-hand knowledge from anyone that was the case is all.

Michael Taylor said...

Desterado --

This is AJ's blog, and I don't mean to cut in -- but my simple answer to your question is this: sooner or later, a free-lance film worker has to join the IA. Once that hurdle is past, and you get enough work to qualify (600 hours in a year, currently), you get on the health plan. Every union day worked pays into a retirement plan -- a crappy plan compared to most, but better than nothing. I'm not sure of the exact details, but a retiree gets the full ride after he/she puts in something like 30 years and 60,000 hours. The "full ride" isn't much -- less than three grand a month + the health plan -- but it's better than living in a cardboard condo under a freeway overpass.

My first five years in the biz were strictly non-union, which meant no health insurance, no dental, no vision care, and nothing going towards retirement. Being young and immortal, I didn't care -- but that changes with time.

Trouble is, joining the IA is increasingly expensive -- the initiation is something like five grand for my union (728) -- a scary amount of money for anybody these days, especially with the proliferation of sub-scale "cable rate" jobs.

I've heard of a "free lancer's union" aimed at graphic artists and musicians who would otherwise have no access to a group plan. If I was a 20-something free-lance griptrician, I'd definitely look into that until the opportunity to join the union appeared.

For the most part, joining the union comes once you've decided -- for better or worse -- that a given craft will be your career path. More than a few young people work as grips and juicers on their way up the ladder -- it's work they can get while aiming at their eventual goal of becoming a successful writer, producer, or director. For them, joining the IA represents a distraction from their ultimate goal and too much of a commitment in terms of time and money -- they've got bigger plans. Some of them will make it, but those who don't face a rough road. As was noted over in the Anonymous Production Assistant's blog -- you don't want to be a 40 year old PA -- and by the same token, you really don't want to be a 50 year old non-union grip or juicer.

It sounds like you took a good look at the Industry, and made the right decision to leave before getting in too deep. I don't advise anybody to go into this business below-the-line -- it's hard now, and will only get harder in the future. If there's anything else you can do in life that will make you happy, by all means do it.

But if not, welcome to the jungle -- and good luck.

A.J. said...

Niall - Agreed. It's hard not to spoil yourself when you've got a paycheck sitting in the bank. I guess the hard part is finding the right balance between being responsible and the occasional indulgence.

Michael - Unfortunately, I think I have trouble with the "when to run" part... :)

Suburban Guy - It's always better to be the tortoise than the hare. ;)

D - That's an excellent idea. I could've sworn that was a lesson back in Econ 101 in high school, but I guess no one was there that day...

Desterado - Those are all very good questions and the answers deserve a whole separate post, which I will hopefully find the time to do soon. In the meantime, I hope Michael Taylor's response provides you with some answers.

And as always, if anyone else has any insights or advice, you're more than welcome to comment.

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