Monday, November 24, 2008

Thoughts on the strike vote #1

There's a line I've heard for the past three days now,

"In these tough economics times, why would SAG even think about striking?"

Before I even answer that, it needs to be reiterated repeatedly, a strike authorization does not necessarily mean there will be a strike! It is a bargaining chip. It is the sole threat that labor unions bring to the bargaining table, and unions don't go for such a vote willy-nilly.

Now, let me put my Ph.D hat on and remind you that during the depths of the Great Depression, one-third of workers in the U.S. were out of work, 5,000 banks had crashed, and over 32,000 businesses had closed.

And in Detroit, over 200,000 auto workers had lost their jobs, sending the city's unemployment rate near 50%.

I guess those with jobs should have felt lucky to be employed at all, even with harsh working conditions, no overtime protection, and six-day work weeks.

After all, they were in "worse economic times" that we are in now.

So, what did they do? They spend a few years battling the Big Three to form the United Auto Workers, improved their working conditions, and helped to create a stable middle class.

In short, those union activists were looking down the road at future conditions, not just a paycheck in their hands that day.

And that's what this possible labor action is about - the future of online media and the ability of working actors to get paid fairly, only - and if - the producers make money.

For those backgrounders who claim, "Yeah, but it doesn't affect me, or the background contract," let me assure you, there is a doomsday scenario for background actors if the authorization vote is denied. I'll be posting about that in the near future.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Is a SAG strike coming?

OK, I've been away for a long time, working on set and trying to make a living - as everyone else in this town - in the wake of the 100-day WGA strike. Now, it looks like SAG peeps like myself could possibly face a strike. In the wee hours of yesterday, federally-mediated talks between the AMPTP and SAG broke down, and a strike authorization vote will be sent to the SAG general membership.

I've come out of long-term hiatus to make a series of postings about the issues, specifically how a vote for or against a possible strike authorization will affect background actors. I've been talking to lots of fellow BGers on set, and found lots of confusing opinions, and blatantly wrong and/or misinformed ones.

Keep in touch, and I'll be posting again soon.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Going, Going, Gone...

I've been nagged by the very few readers of this blog as to the complete lack of postings over the past many months.

Well, I've got more than enough reasons.

One: I'm just not a compulsive blogger and don't feel the urge to update all the time. Even when online, I just don't spend much time surfing around.

Two: I have no Internet access in my building, and have to drive several blocks to get a signal.

Three: Prior to the writer's strike, I was working often and regularly in that last spurt of employment before the ax fell on everyone in the industry.

Four: While this was going on, I also had a hefty writing assignment for an out-of-state university that took up a lot of free time.

But finally, and foremost, I spent the last 7+ months watching my stepmother die of ovarian cancer and dealing with that anguish with my immediate family. My father is elderly and needs a lot of support, so what free time I do have to myself, I try to keep for myself and not the blog.

So, I've decided that my heart really isn't in this blog, and therefore am giving forewarning to you all that I shall probably shut it down in the next few weeks.

My thanks again to those you who have taken the time to read it over the past few years.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

I'm back

Well, it's only been almost two months since posting, so yes, I'm a really, really bad blogger, but then I had a lousy hiatus.

There are two shut-down periods in the business: mid-December to mid-January, and a slowdown in May, with business picking up in June and into July. May is always a write-off (most television series wrap-up their shooting schedules by the first week of the month), but June is usually a bit better.

This year I had a really slow hiatus, so I was commandered by the local parental unit into doing lots of fixing projects around his house. That, plus searching for a few bookings, seemed to take up my time, and somehow I forgot all about posting.

Since I'm back on set again, I'll try to be better about the posts.

One good bit of news - I'm a regular on one of those police/fed series again this year, but this season I learned that they moved their stage. What was a good hour-and-a-half commute last year is now a mere fifteen minutes down the road! Told that to the 2nd2nd our first day back. His reply? "I guess we know whose going to get all the rush calls this season."

At least it's work.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Fit to be uniformed

Last Friday night I worked a relatively low-budget feature centering on gang warfare in LosAngeles. But, I wasn't a gang-banger: I was a cop. And after you get cast as a cop after, say, a dozen times or so, you get used to all the paraphernalia: ill-fitting (meaning tight) uniforms, utility belts that leave bruises on your hips, and long waits at the prop truck to get fitted out, or de-proped.

On gigs with larger budgets, the wardrobe rack is usually chock-full of different sized uniforms in case someone can't work their way into their slacks. But on this shoot, it was "one uniform" per cop, and our sizes had been provided to wardrobe by the casting director.

Still, that didn't matter too much. I got stuck in the back of the line, and by the time was given my costume, someone else had come running back from the changing truck whining about his pants not fitting properly. (Actually, cop pants always fit very tight, so if you're even close to an inch off your measurements on file, it ain't gonna happen.) Consequently, they had given my size away to him.

So wardrobe said, "I have one pair which is a few inches too tight for you, and one which is a few inches too wide." Guess which one I could actually fit in? It was all I could do to keep the damn things from falling down all night, after I had clipped on a fully-loaded utility belt with a few stays. On top of that, they had a shirt with a neck size a half-inch smaller than mine, so I had a ill-fitting tight shirt, plus a pair of draggy cop pants.

How did they hide this uniform faux pas? They opted to make me wear a jacket.

So if you've ever wondered why some of those cops running around on screen look a bit "less than professional," as wardrobe.

Next time I'll answer the question I get asked repeatedly, "What do you do in holding for all those hours?"

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tales from a strange business

A couple weeks ago I was on set and chatting with a fellow backgrounder about the business. He stated that when friends ask him, "What is it that you do? Exactly?" he has difficulty answering, because many times the nature of the job changes from day to day, and set to set.

This is just what happened to a friend last week. He worked an eight-hour gig and was wrapped. He drove home only to realize that he had left his hat back at the shoot location (it was a Western-themed production). So, after changing he drove back and luckily found his hat.

But then an AD saw him and asked if he could "stay on" for a bit. he thought they might need more BG bodies in the scene. Even though my friend wasn't dressed for the part, he agreed, and was rushed to wardrobe to be refitted and hustled back to holding, where he waited, on the clock, for an additional five hours of overtime, including the time he had spent driving back home.

And he was never used.

Recently I was photo-picked for a featured bit and booked for an interview. Usually these involve the director looking at two or three BG'ers and then making a Caesar-like thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision about who would look best in the shot.

And so I thought that would be par for this interview.

That is, until I showed up and a script was thrust into my hands with some throw-away lines and I was given a few minutes to compose myself for a cold-read audition on camera.

Nice. Basically, it was really more of an audition (i.e., SAG Theatrical Contrac) versus an interview (i.e., SAG Background Contract).

Haven't heard back from them yet, but I appreciate the experience.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Mysterious Upgrade

I think some medieval scribes wrote more often on vellum with ink than I do online, of course, the fact that I write while doing laundry doesn't help any. Screaming kids and arguing parents don't make the process any easier.

Anyway, pilot season is basically over, but hiatus won't be that long this year. Last Tuesday the LA Times reported that production is up in Los Angeles in anticipation of a possible writers strike by the WGA before the end of October. As a result, shows which usually began production in July are doing so in May, when backgrounders like me are looking to features (i.e., films) to put food on the table.

One of the questions I often get asked is, "Have you got any lines yet?" Yeah, but not on anything that pays SAG dayplayer scale. However, "upgrades" happen all the time on set, and under the rules of the contract all union BG have the right to audition for the spot before it can go to a non-SAG actor. And I've worked with lots of people who have three, four, sometimes six or more upgrades.

And when it happens, it's quick and unexpected.

Case in point, last week I worked a TV series as a lawyer in a courtroom. The lead character has won his case in front of the judge, and is unsure about whether to leave as the next case is called. Another BG "lawyer" was directed to wait impatiently behind him, hurrying him along as best she could.

After a take the director approached and said to the other lawyer, "Ask him to please move along." Aha! If you say just one word, it is an instant upgrade from the Background to Theatrical SAG contract. So, naturally, the 1st AD runs over and emphatically interjects, "She's just pantomiming, yes?" (Read: I don't want to get chewed out by the UPM for an on set upgrade which would put us over budget.) Director: "Uh, yeah, I guess so."

So close. But even with an upgrade, the types of lines you are likely to get aren't the best to show off your talent. Typical upgrade lines are:

"Mister Jones on Line two."


"Table for two, please."

"Fourth floor."

"Excuse me, but your backpack is ticking."

Remember that last one? It's from "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." And it was an on-set upgrade, the guy was hired that days as a regular union BG.

But, my personal favorite isn't really an upgrade, it was a throw-away line from a dayplayer that wasn't dropped into the trash icon in Avid in postproduction:

"Agent Tulley, get in here!" (From this season's "24")

It's always nice to play yourself on TV.