“The entertainment business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
Hunter S. Thompson
A good friend of mine said to me years ago, “There are only three jobs worth having in the entertainment industry; producer, director or star”. We can safely assume that he is one of the above. I bought into what he said and somewhat agreed. I was a young, ambitious set dresser and had visions of rising through the ranks to be a production designer and a producer one day.
Optimism: The Fuel and Folly of Youth.
Like most of my IATSE brothers and sisters I’ve only managed to produce offspring and debt. We do however work hard, refine our crafts and mentor our brothers and sisters to perpetuate the various skills this industry requires.
“A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an Army”
We are that army.
I started in this industry in 1986 on non-union productions working very hard and enjoying it. I was a non-union set dresser/driver. The theory was the swing gang (set dressers) teams of two would trade off driving the 5ton set dressing truck to give each other a break. In reality what would usually happen was quite different. The decorators would hire the two most dependable guys they knew.
When the shows started they drove the truck made the pickups, dressed the sets. As the show progressed they’d add another truck, hire any knucklehead and split up the two original guys to drive the truck and “train” the new guy. If the new guy was smart, dependable and aware enough to drive they’d add another truck and another knucklehead until the law of averages caught up to them. In the non union world there were only so many craftspersons with the necessary skills, awareness and fortitude to do what we do. After all more experienced people generally work on higher quality projects and most non-union productions weren’t exactly blockbusters.
As a young, ambitious artist I enjoyed the raw enthusiasm of my fellow workers, the bright optimism and the comraderie of these young groups of people starting out in the business. The union workers I saw seemed snobby, smug and superior and seemed to look at me with equal parts disdain and pity.
I was loading a truck at the dock at Warner Bothers Property. The decorator had saddled me with the producers neighbors 35 year old never left the nest son. Yeah…THAT GUY! We’ll call him “Birdy”. I was 23 at the time and pretty much no other way to describe myself but an absolute ass kicking badass. The dock wasn’t very busy and a crew of dressers and drivers watched me as I backed up the truck, dropped the gate, started unloading the truck and doing the return paperwork as Birdy meandered around looking at all the shiny things on the walls. We had a small emergency pickup so I hustled it to the dock completed the paperwork and began to load the truck. I needed to give Birdy a task to keep him busy while I got the job done so I told him to pad and tie down a grandfather clock at the end of the truck.
As I was closing the truck and Birdy was headed to the shotgun seat (he’d asked me if I wanted him to drive but I wasn’t going to take the chance of him wiping out stage six) I saw the the ropes were loose on the clock and the pads were falling off. I shook my head and started to fix it. The union crew was watching all this in complete entertainment and couldn’t take it anymore. A guy walked up to me and said, “Don’t worry kid. When you get into the union you won’t be working with guys like that”. I nodded my head but I was really too pissed off to appreciate his gesture.
Welcome to the big leagues
About three years later I got into IATSE Local 44 and the working environments did indeed improve but to me was a bit more sterile and businesslike. I missed the spontaneity and simplicity of the non-union world but not those tiny paychecks. Three years prior I left a job at the LAUSD TV station (KLCS) to take my first non-union movie of the week job. At KLCS I was making about $800/month and doing another video duplication job. Although I went from making $800/month to $500/week I realized that I was essentially “giving” those productions about $1800/week by being “a man and a half” and saving the productions the cost of a driver. I realized that I was truly being exploited but I had to “pay my dues”.
Taking care of little brother
When the tiered contracts came into being many in our unions thought it would weaken our union. I felt compassion for the less experienced workers and was happy to have more brothers and sisters to strengthen our union. I was glad that a young kid as I was at the beginning of my career wouldn’t be exploited as I was and would have the backing of IATSE to protect him. Now, even the “little guy” on the “little production” would have a voice and protection and benefits and an avenue to the “big leagues”.
As an aspiring film maker and rebel the thought of the “little guy” film maker getting access to top notch technicians was appealing and encouraging. This new wage scale allowed lower budget films to benefit from a wider talent pool and also allowed IATSE members to work on projects that would other wise either not get made or shot in Canada. We all know that some of the most compelling and entertaining stories don’t get told because of budget and studio constraints. Independent films have often launched careers of directors and previously unknown actors. “Sex, lies and videotape”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Friday” and “She’s Gotta Have it” all launched careers of previously unknowns. It seemed like big brother was trying to help out little brother.
Then little brother got greedy, manipulative and just plain rude
The tiered wage structure opened a few doors and the producers saw a vulnerability. Through some creative accounting and contract deferments they were able to hide the true costs of some of the “tiered” productions. An “A”list actor deferring payment until the release of the film is taking a minimal risk. When a film is released with an Actor of top market value, curiosity dollars alone can easily put a film halfway into the black. The rule of thumb for independent films is about a three to one ratio. Essentially box office returns triple the production budget equals the break even point. There are of course variances and no one can predict what the public will like with pinpoint accuracy. Film making is a gamble at best. Some films will hit. Some films will take a loss. When we lower our wages to work on these lower budget projects we are also taking the loss wether the film is a hit or not.
In February 2015 I worked on the first two weeks of prep for a Tear One Project. The set was dressed, I was laid off and went on my merry way. Seven months later the film was in the theatres and kicking ass at the Box Office. “The Gift” was thriller with a great script, great production design and great production value. What is production value? An experienced and uber talented set decorator working on a tier one movie.
At a union meeting I proposed a system whereby a hit tier one film would retroactively pay its IATSE members full feature rate. I of course was met with resistance and skepticism. I was told I’m talking about profit sharing. I’m not. I’m not seeking payments in perpetuity. I was told, “Don’t take those jobs”. I’m not concerned about just myself. I’m in a UNION and I don’t want to see my UNION brothers and sisters exploited either. I was told, “It will never happen”. I didn’t have time to rip the face off of the person saying that myopic bullshit statement to me. People who either are unaffected by policy or immune from injustice easily say, “It’ll never happen” or “that’s the way things are”. “Women will never vote”, “man cannot fly”, “The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will never win a Super Bowl”…
Tier One Features with A and B list actors are a big fat lie and EVERYONE knows it!
To be clear; Give me a fucking break! With foreign and ancillary markets the tier one film is a cash cow. The producers crying about taking losses is crap. The modern day IATSE member is not some clueless, hammer carrying, Bozo in overalls and you insult our intellect by suggesting that a $5M feature with an A or B list actor is in any real danger of not making a profit. To me there is no such thing as a tier one feature with A or B list actors.
There may be many solutions but grabbing my ankles is not one I’m willing to accept. If we have to ban A and B list actors from working on tier one projects or modify the contract to provide for a retro active wage increase or even a lower tier with profit in perpetuity or limiting production companies to three tier one films per year something must be done to close the loophole that companies like Blumhouse routinely exploit.
This is a fraudulent application of the low budget agreement.
This is the voice of every IATSE member. We all know that it’s not fair or in good faith that the spirit of the tier one deal is continuously violated. Hiding the cost of the labor wether it’s the labor of acting or writing from the true cost of a production sounds like fraud to me. These “back end” deals with the actors and writers do just that. They are getting it ON the back end. We are getting it IN!
All IATSE locals: It’s time to open the dialogue
I’m open for discussion but I’m not going to ignore the humongous elephant in the room. We are getting fucked! Blumhouse and others are laughing at us. This country used to respect labor and hard work. Now there is a quiet disdain for the people who are suckers enough to do physical work and provide for families and pay taxes. Wether you are a film school grad or a Harvard business alumni you won’t accomplish anything without hard working men and women to execute.
I call on ALL my IATSE brothers and sisters to share this post and open the dialogue. This is our voice. We are remiss in our responsibilities if we don’t take this to union leadership. If union leadership doesn’t reflect the voice of it’s members, it’s time for new leadership.
It’s OUR UNION. It’s OUR responsibility to protect it and each other.
What I propose, as a starting point, is simple.
When a tiered project quadruples it’s production budget in domestic box office, it pays its crew retroactively the difference between the negotiated tiered contract and the full feature rate. On a $5M that is roughly a $1.6M check. The DGA has this in their deal, we can do it also.
LET’S GET TO WORK AND GET THIS DONE!
I hope that you enjoyed this. However the point is to emphasize the need for action, brothers and sisters. Don’t Just read the story and enjoy. Take action. Spread this message to your other brothers and sisters. We won’t get what we don’t work for fight for.
Bruce Bellamy IASTSE Local 44 firstname.lastname@example.org.