Saturday, February 6, 2010

Quarter Life Crisis?

"If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time."
- Chinese Proverb

In the comments of one of my previous posts, D (of Dollygrippery) said of our industry, "It can be a little intimidating sometimes, especially starting out, but if you stay at it long enough to earn a good rep and work your way up the ladder it's just like any business." This is true. While there may be one or two guys out there who slip through the cracks of hard labor (whether it be from luck, nepotism, or both), it's no secret that one must "pay their dues" in this town. But even D admits that, "If you reach your 30's and still are slaving away with no retirement plan, living with two other guys, and no insurance, it's time to rethink either your choices or your plan of attack. Something is wrong somewhere." This is also true.

Very few below-the-liners want to live the union free life (though some do, but that's an entirely different topic all together). Generally speaking, if you're still toiling away on piece-of-shit indie productions by the time you're thirty, it's pretty safe to say that you're not a homeowner, your retirement fund is on the lean side, and/or if you have kids, you're struggling to put them through college. So if that isn't where you had hoped to be at this stage in your life, would you know when to call it quits?

I agree with D when he says that, "Your twenties, though, are a time for that stuff." If there was ever a time to live without a savings account or ample health insurance, it's when you're young and carefree. But as I slowly (but surely) creep towards the end of my twenties, I have to wonder: If it ever comes down to it, will I know when to walk away?

A large part of me will automatically answer back that I will never walk away. That it's a "Hollywood or Bust!" kind of scenario. I would hate to be one of those people who gave up on their dreams. But on the rational side of things, I'd also hate to be the person who has to move back in with her parents at the age of thirty because she never settled down and got a "real" job.

I know some of you will inevitably provide me with words of encouragement like, "Hang in there kiddo! You'll make it someday," but as kind and thoughtful as those words are, it's time to face the facts. Things have not been good for our finicky industry in the past couple of years. Various strikes, threats of strikes, new media and a bad economy has thrown this business for a loop. Jobs have been few and far between and I have yet to find one grip or juicer who hasn't been feeling the pinch. There's no telling how long it'll be before the next big opportunity comes my way; the one that makes the past few years of eating ramen and earning a barely livable wage worth it.

Sure, a lot can happen this year. Production can magically pick up again, putting everyone back to work. Paychecks and benefits for all! But if one thing's certain in this world, it's uncertainty. Nobody can predict the future.

So when does one say "enough is enough" and calls it quits? At what age do you dust your hands off and walk away? How long should you toil in the trenches before you say, "okay, I gave it my best shot. Now it's time to look for something else and move on?"

All too often, this town of ours is like being caught in an abusive relationship. After a good pummeling, whether it be from a rough few days at work or a dry spell that's gone on for too long, it knows just the right thing to say to lure you right back into its arms. It'll throw a good day or two your way; just enough to fool us into thinking that things will change. That life from here on out will be better. So you stay, but before you know it, the cycle starts all over again.

When shit like this happens, you can't help but ask yourself if you're "paying your dues" or if the Industry Gods are just fucking with you.

In the case of blog reader Desterdo, these kinds of things bothered him a little too much and he left the biz. Michael Taylor commended him for having the strength to do so, saying, "It sounds like you took a good look at the Industry, and made the right decision to leave before getting in too deep." On the other hand, D felt like the guy "lost his nerve a little too early." Two very different opinions from two guys that I respect (and who respect each other as well). As someone with an internal pessimist constantly battling my internal optimist, these kinds of conflicting views make my head go all swirly inside.

At any rate, this low-paying, cup-o-noodles eating, still-in-my-twenties college-esque lifestyle is fine for now (and at times, I gotta admit, it's kinda fun). But unless either my luck or the tide of this industry changes (or maybe a little of both), there will eventually come a point when I'll have to stop and decide if it's time for me to pack up my bags and leave this town. I guess the question that remains now is whether or not I'll realize it when it gets here, or if it'll be too late...


Michael Taylor said...

Wonderfully thoughtful post. I don't really think "D" and I disagree, but are simply looking at different parts of the same elephant. Desterado may well have "lost his nerve" in bailing on a film career, but I take that as a sign he probably wasn't cut out for it in the first place. I don't mean this as any sort of criticism -- not everyone has what it takes to be a doctor, lawyer, cop, fireman, accountant, or astronaut, so there's no reason to assume anybody and everybody would make a good grip, juicer, camera operator, producer, or director. You really have to want it bad to make in this Industry. That's always been true (albeit for different reasons in the past), but the obstacles to generating a successful career today -- in an Industry undergoing so many fundamental, wrenching changes -- are formidable. I don't see things getting any easier in the future, either. Even for those well connected by family, the film industry isn't an easy Plan B or "fallback" career option anymore. There's just too much competition.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if there's anything else you can do in life that will make you happy, do it.

Niall said...

Its never too late to change your life. life is like a river you can point your self in the direction you want but the current will put you where you may. It's matter of making enough effort to force you path. But yeah sometimes you have to get out because the sacrifice and the road is to long and hard.

You have too ask your self am I enjoying where I am and what I'm doing. If the answer is no then get out and never look back, or make changes to improve your standig. You have to love AND enjoy what your doing. Never compromise, never regret.

anton said...

This post resonated with me because it sums up 2009 for me. In 2007 I left the comfortability of the corporate hustle to move to NY and give the freelance griptrician lifestyle a shot. In many ways, it was a 'fountain of youth' because being a guy approaching his 30s, I would end up working with production folks much younger - the ones fresh out of film school. I paid some dues and got lucky to have met and worked with some REALLY great DPs, ACS, Key Grips and Gaffers, many of whom I am still friends with today.

At the end of 2008, I came to LA because my girlfriend took a post-doctorate research position at UCLA. She could've chosen any other place, but since I've heard they make movies out here, I thought it might be a nice transition with the previous set experience I've acquired. Sadly, I think I arrived at the wrong time - the winter plus threatened SAG strike meant no work for the new guy. I had to revert back to the corporate hustle. I was still underpaid (my hourly rate probably works out to just under $175/day) but at least I was underpaid steadily.

A year has passed and I've pretty much come to what D mentioned. I just turned 32 and I know that I'll be competing for low-paying non-union jobs with guys 10 years younger. And while I am confident I've got the interpersonal skills, work ethic, energy and health to create and sustain some great business relationships, time isn't on my side. I do want to convert my girlfriend into a wife someday. And with a wife comes a home and responsibility.

And like Michael Taylor says, it's about making smart decisions. I'm happy to have the skills to excel in another career. I will always have the passion to make films - whether they be my own small projects or lighting my friends' projects. I've come to the conclusion that you should do what you love, but it doesn't have to be as a career.

Some people would probably say I've sold out or that I've given up. But when priorities shift, the freelance non-union lifestyle just isn't the best decision...especially when you have options.

Enjoying the discussion on this blog. Thanks for posting.

D said...

As Michael said, we don't really disagree. Michael tends to be a little more cynical than I, but he's earned it. I was once where you are- twentysomething, single,non-union, still enamored to be on a movie set. But I had a plan. In Grip/Electric terms, I'm pretty successful. But I still spend long hours getting paid much less than I'm worth away from my family. If I could say anything it's-Have a plan. Because the work never stops. 100 million dollar movies aren't any different than 100,000 dollar movies. The work is just as hard, only the benefits are better. Have a plan. You don't want to get caught at 35 with no credit, no insurance, and still waking and baking looking forward to an 18 hour day. The problem is, that you get stuck in this business and aren't qualified for anything that doesn't pay 8 bucks an hour for manual labor in the real world. Have a plan.

A.J. said...

Michael - I didn't mean that you and D necessarily disagree. Just that you two have different views. And it's true that you have to want it bad to make it in this biz, but unfortunately, it's still a bit of a craps shoot. :/

Niall - I'm all for enjoying what you're doing, but sometimes what you're doing isn't enough to support yourself financially. I guess that's the question I'm posing: what happens if/when I hit that point?

Anton - I'm glad to hear that you can relate to my post. It's always nice to know that I'm not the only one wondering about this stuff. I'm sorry that things didn't work out for you in terms of "making it" in the Industry, but I'm pleased to see that you found a happy compromise.

Also, I got a kick out of you wanting to "convert" your girlfriend into a wife. :)

D - I couldn't agree more. It seems like the trick to surviving is to have a plan and keep moving forward. I guess the problems arise when those plans don't work out...

Unknown said...

Abusive boyfriend=true. I work in New York doing fashion and events and it's been a rough couple years. But right now I'm in Fashion Week with hour and overtime out of my ears. Next month? Who knows. Feh.

A.J. said...

Thea - Yeah, when it's good, it's oh so good. But when it's bad...

The Grip Works said...

Hi AJ,
Very thought provoking post.
Both D and Michael have their points and their perspectives, distilled from years in the business.
I have only an idea of the ground realities below the line in America, but I'm sure its pretty similar the world over. It is never easy. Long hours away from home, brutal work in very difficult locations.
However, the very things that make our jobs hard are also the ones that make them attractive.

I am not a 9 to 5 kind of guy. Never was.
I could never work with the same boss and peers for ever.
I like the change that comes with every new project.
Most of my work is outdoors.
I have long periods of time off between projects, which allows me time for my family.

All of these come with the price of an insecure work guarantee, but thats the trade off.

As D says. Having a plan is key.

I dont know that you will ever have a clear sign telling you that its time to call it quits.

There was an assistant grip about 15 years ago who kept calling me for work over a period of 4 years. He was the worst assistant I ever had on set. But he was persistent. One time I sat him down and as politely as possible explained that I did not think he would ever make a good grip. Maybe he should try something else. He looked shattered.
Then he said that maybe he would.
He did.
Today, he is one of the busiest DP's in India. I did a feature with him last year, and he reminded me of the incident, in the nicest way possible..

So the plan maybe something you never even thought of yet.

Look around ... there is plenty that you probably did not notice.

Sanjay Sami

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