Happy Passover and happy Easter, Frocktalk readers. This week, in lieu of a review, I’d like to take some time to talk about the state of our economy as it relates to the film industry. It has been painfully slow here in Hollywood for the past ten months. In fact, this is the worst I have seen it in the eighteen years I’ve been working in this business. Let’s take a look at what the recession means to the entertainment industry – what has caused it, what the possible outcomes are, and what protracted unemployment or under-employment means to all of us who work in this business.
First: The Problem.
Film production is down sharply today from a year ago. It depends on whom you ask, but it varies from about 14% to 50%. There are no truly reliable sources for this information, as there isn’t a central body that organizes the information. FilmLA tracks productions in Los Angeles, by permits pulled. But there aren’t similar entities for Shreveport, Albuquerque, Detroit, and the other out-of-state film hubs.
To give you an example of the disparity, the Daily Variety (one of our entertainment industry publication legends) has 77 films listed as “in production” as of Friday, April 10th. Variety also lists 101 films in pre-production, but these listings tend to be dodgy, and/or not real – one such picture is titled Phone Sex Grandma, if you get my drift. It’s hard to know what the real numbers are. A movie that is listed as being in pre-production in the Daily Variety doesn’t mean it is actually going to go forward, ever.
The film-listing site Production Alert has a total of 56 film titles that are currently in prep AND/OR in production. Film-listing site West Coast Production News has 60 features (including Hallmark Hall of Fame, MOWs) in prep AND/OR in production. These numbers seems to me to be more credible, as they are projects that I know are shooting (because my friends are on them) or that my agents are actively tracking.
FilmLA is an entity that coordinates permits for shooting in Los Angeles. According to their records, feature film production fell 15% in 2008, compared to 2007. The decline was especially steep in the last half of the year (July – December), down a full 47% in the fourth quarter. There were 7,043 feature production days in Los Angeles last year, the fewest since Film LA started keeping records, in 1993. Additionally, last year’s total production days (7,043) was off by 50% from our best year, 1996, at 13,980 days. Take a look at this chart, to see a comparison from years past.
So if we are to assume that there are really only 60 films in prep and pre-production (which I believe to be accurate), that means that there are precisely 60 costume design positions open. There are over 700 active members of Costume Designers Guild. Do the math. That’s over 90% unemployment.
There are three things that are causing this situation in our industry, three events that, when mixed together, have created the perfect storm.
1) The WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike of November 2007 – February 2008. This strike killed television, as you may recall. Writers lined up alongside the walls of Sunset-Gower and other studios, demanding fair compensation for things like internet and emerging media content. After much negotiation, and much browbeating, the strike ended, and writers seemed to be content with their agreement. MORE INFO ON THE WGA STRIKE
2) The threatened SAG (Screen Actors Guild) strike, which began on June 30, 2008, and continues today. SAG has not declared a strike, but the idea that they could, or would, has paralyzed our industry. Part of the problem – SAG has granted production waivers (meaning that they would not strike a particular production – if they hold a waiver – while they would strike everything else) to smaller, independent film companies who are not signatory to the AMPTP, the producers’ union. THIS IS A GREAT ARTICLE about what some of the major sticking points are in the contract negotiations. Bottom line – studios are gun-shy to put films into production, when SAG can strike at any time and shut them down.
It has been a long, arduous process, this SAG situation. They had a contract negotiator, Doug Allen, who was hired by the guild, and paid $500,000 per year, who (with the assistance of SAG’s president and a section of SAG membership) ground negotiations to a halt, and caused the stalemate that still exists today. A new negotiator is in place, but the political landscape has not changed much, and it is now like trying to get gum out of a child’s hair – you try ice, you try peanut butter, you try olive oil, but eventually, some hair has to be cut. SAG has not made anything like a cut at this point. They’re still in the peanut butter phase.
So what’s the big fuss – what does SAG want that they can’t get? Well, it boils down to a few major things, the biggest of which will sound familiar: internet and emerging media content. Right now, SAG members do not get paid residuals (meaning a small percentage of profits) from anything that is aired on the internet. If you watch an episode of 24 on the internet, those actors do not get residuals, because the studio considers these internet-aired episodes as “promotional content”, and actors do not get paid for promotional content.
Residuals are important to actors because, unlike the rest of us, their careers usually have short, sharp shelf lives. I can work every day of my life until I’m seventy-five (and at this rate, I might have to), because my work is about costumes. If my work was about my face (like it is for actors), my career would probably be over by now (haha!) and I would need those residuals to live, to survive, while I try to figure out my next move. Residuals are not usually big amounts (unless you’re the star of the project, in which case, they can be thousands of dollars at a time), but if you are an aging, out-of-work actor, these residuals are your livelihood. It appears that the AMPTP is looking to get rid of these residuals, and to be fair, I can understand their point of view, as well.
You will hear people in this climate say things like, “I don’t have to pay my plumber every time I flush my toilet,” which is a lovely analogy, isn’t it? Or, “You don’t expect me to pay a residual to the architect when I buy a 50-year-old house, do you?” Is it appropriate to liken an actor in a film to the architect of a house, or to the plumber of a toilet? Actors are more than technicians – it’s their face, their likeness, in every frame. But at the same time, when is work-for-hire just that? When I work on a film as a costume designer, I do not receive residuals, even if my costumes become a big hit and are turned into Halloween costumes for kids. I receive nothing additional. Is that fair? Well, if it’s not, I can certainly negotiate for it in my next film contract – on an individual basis. Now, my UNION receives residuals for my work, but those residuals are supposedly put into our health and welfare system, for us to use down the road. I do not get a check in the mail. But then again, I can keep working as long as I physically can do the work. It is not my face, my likeness.
So, I can see both sides of this issue – I understand what SAG wants, and I understand why the producers are not necessarily keen to agree to it. However, to drag negotiations out for as long as they have, and to make all of us who would otherwise be working, be sidelined? That is irresponsible.
3) Especially in an economic downturn of this magnitude!! Kind of beyond the point now to mention that the third mitigating factor is that our economy is in the crapper. We filmmakers have no say over what happens to the economy in general, but we are directly impacted by it. We know that the stock market is down 37 – 43% from last year at this time. Everyone is feeling it. So, to have the one-two punch of WGA strike, SAG strike, and then the upper-cut of the economic crash? It is killing all of us, slowly but surely.
Third: The Impact
In Los Angeles, we are currently experiencing somewhere in the neighborhood of 12% unemployment. A big chunk of this is from the film industry, as it is a significant employment sector in our city. My film-business colleagues are losing their health benefits (due to not working enough union-sanctioned days in a qualifying period), and sadly, losing their homes. Washington talks about executive pay overhaul – people in executive positions at corporations who get annual bonuses, paid time off in the course of their employment – we (in production) don’t have these luxuries at all. We make what we make, and if we don’t save, we are royally screwed. Granted, we choose to work in production, but the luxuries and mollycoddling benefits associated with executive corporate culture leave a bad taste in one’s mouth in these economic times. Especially when you consider that many film corporations have these kinds of benefit packages attached to their executives, and that those corporations are a part of the AMPTP that is battling SAG, the strike that will never happen but will never end… Now is the season of our discontent, film industry!
But let’s face it, the writing is on the wall – stocks are down in the 40% range from last year, there are fewer freshmen admitted to our state colleges and universities this year (because of budget cuts that preclude additional hiring to accommodate them), innumerable homes in foreclosure, layoffs at previously unsinkable companies like Lionsgate, Weinstein Company, NBC/Universal, Warner Bros., Disney, falling (careening) real estate prices, and even falling rents. Example: the average one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles rented for $1,397 a month at the end of last year, down 4% from a year prior. When was the last time THAT happened?!! There are for sale and for rent signs up and down every street in town. Pictured here, luxury condos at a $100,000 discount. Times are tough, people. Times are tough.
Something happened to me yesterday that kind of illustrates the point. I was in the parking lot of my local Ralph’s supermarket. It was really crowded, and there was a line of cars, heavy traffic, to get out of the parking lot. This is a parking lot that requires a validated ticket, and the person who was at the front of the line was having trouble with their ticket. Cars were honking, and it was dumb, in general. So the line started to move ahead of me, and I noticed a car ahead of me that had been trying to back out but was trapped by all of us waiting in line. Instead of rolling forward (and blocking them in yet again) I stayed put, and let them back out, getting in front of me in line. A lady driving a BMW, parked behind where I was, started honking, yelling and freaking out at me for not moving. Not moving my car was preventing HER from getting out, and evidently, she believed that she was the priority, not whomever I was letting out before her. She was infuriated that I was being courteous, and in so doing, thwarting her attempts to be the most important. It is this sense of entitlement that is fueling all kinds of rage here in Los Angeles. Our frustration, at the economy, at the unfairness of layoffs, unemployment, at life in general, is reaching a boiling point.
One of my friends’ husbands was involved in a traffic incident last week, which led to an enraged driver getting out of his vehicle and pummeling my friend’s husband’s car. We are losing our perspective here, and it is not healthy. These bad times are an opportunity for all of us to reexamine what is truly important, and to reassess how we all fit in to the grand scheme of things. We cannot control a lot of what is happening around us, or even to us, but we can certainly adjust our attitude and try to gain perspective so that we don’t implode completely.
Perhaps the most crushing thing of all is the thing that we can never control – the caprice of the industry in general, irrespective of a strike or economic slowdown. You may have worked on a big movie, a foolproof, A-list, knock-it-out-of-the-park, Oscar-contending film. However, if that film is buried, to some extent your progress is buried with it. Movies carry dreams of all who make them on their wings. If the movie fails, the dreams fail. It’s a very unfortunate, but constant truth that success in the film business has as much to do with luck as anything else. You can work on great big films your entire career, but if none of them see the light of day, it is as if you haven’t worked on anything at all. Movies are successful first because they are well known and well publicized, and second, because they are good. In that order.
I cite, as an example, the movie called Envy. You probably haven’t heard of it, but here’s the cast: Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Amy Poehler, Rachel Weisz, and Christopher Walken. Barry Levinson directed it, and Gloria Gresham designed the costumes. Top shelf, for sure. Their production budget: $40M (and I think the film was made in 2002-3). Box office receipts: they didn’t even make back one-third of their production expenditure, and the box office data is from 2004. This is a good example of a hugely anticipated film with super A-list cast that was buried. I am not even going to comment on whether this was a good film or bad film, but it slid into the abyss, and people who would have benefitted from its success (namely smaller actors with supporting roles) lost out. Unfortunately, we see this all the time. Killshot, Down in the Valley, The Brothers Bloom, Proof, all of these are good examples of films that should have been slam dunks, but were never seen.
This caprice has a flip side, too: big, huge successes of really small, marginal films. I cite Napoleon Dynamite as an example. With an estimated $400,000 budget, it made over $44M in the US alone, and that’s even before you calculate all the “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts sold – all of that licensing generates income. The actors in that film all got a tremendous boost from the publicity, and their careers have benefitted. It works both ways.
But the icing on the cake is the new reality series by FOX: Someone’s Gotta Go (Fox/Endemol) – it’s a reality series about getting laid off. It’s a contest show; employees of the company determine who gets laid off. It’s the anti-Apprentice. Because, of course, nothing is more entertaining that watching someone lose their livelihood, their income, their home, etc. Hollywood is eating itself.
Fourth: How To Survive The Downturn.
Okay, let’s say you’ve been out of work for a while, or are surviving on dribs and drabs of work here and there. How can you weather this storm? Here are some tips from my own experience that may help.
1) Cut the crap – Kiehls, Alterna, Starbucks.
Your face will survive if you switch from Kiehl’s to Oil of Olay, believe me. You will save a lot of money by making the switch, at least temporarily. You do not need to spend $45/oz for sunscreen. Trust me on this one. Also, you don’t really need all the lattes and frappuccinos. Make your own coffee, buy cheaper brands, and get over yourself. Pantene will clean your hair just as well as Alterna.
2) Save money while you are working.
If you haven’t figured this out yet, you need to be spanked. When you work in the freelance world, you need to save money and live well below your means. Some banks even offer savings programs to their customers – free checking if you sign up for auto-deduct into a savings account ($25/mo) that you can later withdraw without penalty. Look into it. Getting into the habit of saving will be a source of comfort and happiness in years to come.
3) Comparison shop: grocery, use coupons
This is a really good one. Okay, we all know about coupons – some of them are great and come in handy, and some are totally useless because you don’t need five boxes of fruit rollups. Ralph’s offers personalized coupons to its rewards members, based on your purchase history. If you haven’t signed up with your local grocery store, you are missing out on savings. At least for the basics.
The second part of this is, do some comparison-shopping. For your benefit (and mine, as well), I did some shopping at some of my local markets yesterday (4-11-09). I went to my local Trader Joes, to my local Ralph’s and to my local mom and pop grocery store. Most neighborhoods in LA have these little teeny markets that most people ignore. Oh, but doing so would be a great mistake! Here is what I found:
You can save a lot of money by shopping at the local store, and you are helping to better stimulate your local economy in so doing. Who would you rather support: a corporation, or your neighbors? Think about it!
4) Cook and entertain at home
It’s cheaper, usually, to cook at home and eat in, especially if you are going to have cocktails, wine or beer. Let’s not lose the art of conversation – invite your friends over to dinner, cook up a feast, and chat the night away. Or you could even host a game night – I know, it’s just not as easy as Facebook, but having real friends never is. Make the effort to spend time with your peeps – being social is another great way to survive this kind of a recession.
5) Cheap eats
If you just can’t cook, or you have to go out for some reason, look into some cheap eats. If you Google “Cheap Eats” and your zipcode, you are likely to find a whole slew of restaurants in your ‘hood that you can consider. And some of them are likely to be quite good! I just Googled “Cheap Eats” in 90210 and came up with some really good ones, including Philippes, Pinnochio’s, Noodle Planet, Zankou Chicken – c’mon, this is making me hongray! Great food doesn’t have to be expensive.
6) Negotiate, and renegotiate
If you are having trouble with your bills, call the company and see if you can renegotiate. I mean, if your internet service provider is offering an introductory rate that is lower than what you’re paying – call them and ask for it! Same goes for your cable service, phone, etc. You’d be surprised how flexible some of these companies can be when they want your business.
7) Lower your expectations
This is the one that hurts a little bit – you may have to lower your rate, lower your quote on your next job. There is not a lot of work out there, and if you’re getting paid $8,000/week to production design a movie, you might be insulted that the only offers coming through are $2,000/week. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you can cut your rate to that degree, but lowering your expectations will help it not hurt so bad.
8) Sew your clothes/thrift-vintage, sample sales
If you are still reading this column, and if you regularly read this site, you might know how to sew. If you do, now is the time to empty out your fabric closet and start whipping up some new duds for spring. Seriously. It’s like free clothing, just waiting to take shape. Having a creative outlet and a creative purpose during these times of unemployment is crucial!!
The alternatives: check out your local thrift/vintage stores. Jet Rag on La Brea is one of the best cheap vintage stores in town, in my opinion. They have wickedly cool stuff for not a lot of money. You can still be stylish, even if you’re broke.
Then there is always the last Friday of the month, when the New Mart opens up downtown and hordes of aspiring fashionistas descend to scrape up the latest styles at bargain-basement prices. If you are a clothing size 0 – 12, you can probably find some great deals downtown. This includes men’s clothing – Robert Graham and others have showrooms with great sales, too! Check it out.
This is an important one, because exercise releases endorphins, which is nature’s ecstasy. You can exercise in nature, for free at some great local spots: The Santa Monica Stairs (4th St. at Adelaide Dr), Runyon Canyon in Hollywood (Fuller Ave., North of Franklin) and at Brand Park in Glendale (1601 W. Mountain St., 91201). It’s free, and getting in shape makes you feel better about yourself! Ego boost!
10) Sell your stuff on ebay, yard sales
Get rid of the accumulated detritus of years of filmmaking. Clean it out, let it go, and enjoy a clutter-free environment. Yard sales are really making a comeback on Craig’s list, which reports a massive jump in listings. If you are inclined, listing items on eBay is a way to make substantially more money for those same items, it’s just the hassle of shipping the items and dealing with sometimes crazy people on eBay… but you can make a LOT more money selling on eBay than selling at yard sales.
11) Rent movies, CDs from library
This is a really good one. All of the video stores in my neighborhood closed (thanks, Netflix!) so the closest “video store” to me now is the public library. I am fortunate to live in a place with a library as bountifully stocked as they get – there are first-run DVD releases, classic movies, foreign films – and it is ALL FREE. Ditto for the CDs. You can rent a lot of great stuff from the library; it is all free, and you are wasting your money if you pay for it elsewhere!!
12) Transportation: no fat cars, public transport to eliminate parking fees
Curb your SUV. Seriously. If you are wasting your money leasing a Range Rover, Mercedes, BMW, or God forbid, a Hummer, you also need to be spanked! Don’t you get it?! You get gouged everywhere you go – repairs, maintenance, insurance, everything! The manufacturers even give you the big lie about how the car needs 92 octane to run properly! SOURCE Your car is a money pit! Get rid of it, and buy something that gets more than 10 MPG.
Furthermore, in LA, if you go anywhere, you have to pay for parking. Look into taking the bus, or metro train. Here is a GREAT website that will help you plan your trip: http://www.metro.net/index.asp Taking the bus is actually a big relief, especially during rush hour. I was riding the bus just last week, and looking at all of these people in all of their cars, I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to deal with it. And hey, it’s $1.25 per ride. That’s cheaper than even metered parking.
13) Start a garden – grow your own food
If you have a backyard, this is a no-brainer. If you don’t have a backyard, you can still grow tomatoes in a pot. And this will save you money! Right now is the time to plant, so let’s get on it, people! Fresh tomatoes, fresh herbs – you can save money and have organically grown, fresh, ripe food. It makes a lot of sense. Furthermore, free compost is available through Griffith Park Compost Facility – start your garden on the cheap, and reap the benefits later this summer!
14) Trade goods and services
Just go to Craig’s List and type in “trade” – you can get anything, almost anything, for trade: clothing, motorcycles, cars, iPods, remodeling services, you name it. If you have skills (alterations, upholstery, for example) you can propose trading with your friends for THEIR skills (haircutting, babysitting, house-cleaning, etc). It’s a nice way to get what you want without spending money.
15) Volunteer with the less-fortunate
This might be the most important of all… because this is really “don’t wallow in your own sorrow” advice. If you think you have it bad, there is ALWAYS someone out there who has it worse. The best way to improve your mindset is to help someone else who really needs it, whose situation is way worse than your own. There are plenty of ways to volunteer in LA, and here is a great website to match you up with something you might enjoy: http://www.volunteerlosangeles.com/
So, I hope this article has been able to shed some light on the problems we face in our industry. It’s kind of a situation for us right now. 60 films in prep or production, and 700+ Costume Design Guild members. That kind of sums it up. There are a lot of talented people who need work right now, and we will all pray, send out resumes, whatever we have to do to keep afloat.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts about this situation – and hopefully I will have an update for you soon as to some kind of improvement in our situation. Until then, have a great week.