Happy Labor Day, Frocktalkers. On this day of the celebration of labor, I thought it only fitting to post something today about our industry’s lack of it. With nationwide unemployment hovering at about 10% this week (and it’s higher in LA, 12%, believe me), I do have some good news, a ray of light in the mineshaft: I got a job.
Costume designers, in general, are proud people. Not many designers would like to admit that they’re out of work, or dangerously low on their bank of union hours, about to lose their health insurance, or that they are running out of money and can’t make their mortgage payments. These are painful things to admit, and in a business as fiercely competitive as ours, to admit to these shortcomings is tantamount to career suicide. No one wants to lose face or appear weak.
The truth is, there are many, many people (costume designers especially) whose financial lives are in critical condition at the moment. No one wants to admit it publicly, but we are in crisis mode.
According to the Kyser Center for Economic Research, film production is down 43% since last year. This is a number that has held steady since I first wrote about the economic meltdown back in April. Granted, most studios and production companies were scrambling to get films in the can before the SAG faux-strike that never happened (last year), so the number of films being produced at that time was somewhat inflated. The jobs dwindled down to near-nothing as of July/August of 2008. Then the stock market hit the skids. The money dried up for independents, and investors were running scared. Opportunities evaporated. Film deals went up in smoke. The clock started ticking for all of us. How long could we survive the slump?
I have had tremendous good fortune to book a new film. I am grateful for the work, and I am stoked to be back in the saddle. However, I will be honest with you: I hadn’t designed a feature film in a year, and I am one of those people who “works all the time”. And by that, I mean that I have been lucky enough to work on films back-to-back-to-back for the last five years, with no more than two weeks off in between projects. This past year has been cold water in the face – a bracing, brisk reminder to never take anything for granted.
Don’t get me wrong, I did, in fact, work a fair amount this past year – I did promos and commercials and some spec projects – but I did not book a feature film. That is unusual only inasmuch as I am so accustomed to working on films, providing me with relatively long-term employment. Films, however, have been in short supply over the past year. If it was bad for me, someone who “works all the time”, what must it have been like, and continue to be like, for those who perhaps don’t “work all the time”?
I started in this business in 1991, during the George H. W. Bush recession. Things here were slow, but it didn’t really impact me much, as I was just getting started. No matter what the economic climate was, the process of establishing myself in the industry was going to be rough, and I was mentally prepared for it. Looking back on that time, I still was able to get work at an art gallery, and then later through a temp agency. I was prepared for the struggle to get started, prepared for the long haul in what might have been (and kind of was) an arduous journey. I was young and not afraid to suffer a bit to achieve what I set out to do. The recession was a blip on the radar, and Hollywood went through it relatively unscathed. This is, after all, a so-called “recession-proof” industry.
Or so we thought.
Were any of us really prepared for the 2008 George W. Bush recession? Did any of us really ever expect our stocks to drop 40%, our homes to lose 35% of their value, or corporate layoffs to become signposts on the road to our country’s economic (near-) ruin? This recession blindsided America. But Hollywood?
We have some others to thank for the exacerbation of our situation here in the film industry. In a general sense, I am a supporter of unions. Unions provide us with a safe working environment, and they endeavor to ensure that we workers are not abused, providing us with healthcare and pension. However, the WGA strike and the SAG faux-strike put the nail in our collective coffin here. Yes, there were things that needed to be negotiated. Yes, there were issues that needed to be worked out. But below-the-line Hollywood took it squarely on the chin, and we have not recovered.
The impact of this recession + strike situation has meant bankruptcy, foreclosure, COBRA, temping, begging and borrowing for many people here. No one wants to talk about it; it’s painful. But we need to talk about it. It’s reassuring to know that we are not alone in this struggle. It is helpful and comforting to know that there are others going through the same trials and tribulations we face daily. We need to get over ourselves and support one another.
I decided to write this article today to lend that kind of support to those of you who might be in the same boat, and to give a little bit of encouragement, if it’s possible, in the news that work is out there. If, after a year of no films, jobs are slowly trickling back, that is encouraging. I’d like to think that we are on the road to a slow but steady recovery. I take this new job as a sign of a shift in our economic trajectory.
I started Frocktalk in the middle of the recession/strike as a way to connect with people who might be interested in the art of costume design, but also as a way to keep myself occupied in the midst of a very slow job market. Frocktalk has been an incredibly rewarding pursuit, and I want to thank every one of you for your support. Frocktalk has readers in all corners of the globe, and your emails and comments have been a soothing balm on the most frustrating of days. So, thank you. Frocktalk may just be one of the best things ever to be born from the recession, and I look forward to providing you with more insight into our world.
That being said, between this new job and the UCLA class, things are going to get outrageously busy here. I will continue to post on a weekly basis, but I can’t guarantee that I will do the lengthy, 12-page reviews to which you have become accustomed … which might be a good thing, both for you and for me. I have decided NOT to talk about the new job in specificity, to protect the production company and everyone involved. It would not be ethical for me to discuss the project in this forum. Ditto, the UCLA class. I will, however, put together practical articles from the set, and probably do things like show you what a costume trailer actually looks like, what life on the set entails, and all of that. I just can’t get into specifics. I look forward to sharing the costume world with you.
My costume supervisor and I have taken great care to hire people on this new film who need this work and will bust their buns with a smile on their faces to get it done. There are so many capable, talented people out there who need work. I wish I could hire every one of you/them, but I can’t. Hopefully, work will return here, and we will be back to the good old days of scrambling to find costumers for day checks. Good times.
Have a great week, and I hope that you enjoyed this Labor Day. It’s really food for thought, celebrating labor in a time when jobs are in such short supply. Let’s all hope for continued proliferation of work, better jobs, more of them, and soon.