How to Survive in Hollywood TV, Below the Line

Posted on 2011 September 16

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Hollywood looks great from the outside...

“All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.” — Jorge Luis Borges

“It’s not ‘show friends.’ It’s show business.” — Jerry Maguire

People often dream of a career in Hollywood television — of how glorious it must be, with its fame and money and work that looks like play. For people who actually earn a living on sound stages, the truth is vastly different. Most sets follow tight schedules under high pressure. A few people rise to the pinnacle of power and glory, but they’re constantly in rehearsals, their careers are always on the line, and they must plot and scheme within a culture where the stakes are enormous and the competition is stratospheric. On some sets, stars insist that the crew not look them in the eye. On others, producers engage in screaming fits. Workers can get fired on the spot for saying or doing the wrong thing. It’s not a place for the faint of heart. It’s certainly not the paradise most people imagine.

And, for those who toil in Hollywood TV, it’s not even very glamorous. Despite good pay, it can be a humiliating place. For starters, there’s a clear class distinction between the actors and writers and producers, known as “above the line” people, and the stage hands and clapper loaders and electricians and grips and others who do the hands-on work, known as the “below the line” group. That’s as close to saying “superior” and “inferior” as you can get.

Generally, actors hew to a cheerful, smiling protocol that pretends everyone is an equal, but in fact the stars are like princelets and duchesses, while everyone else walks on eggs around them. This can be confusing and dangerous for new hires until they get the hang of it. It’s a bit like working for the Borgias of sixteenth century Italy, except these royalty are making TV shows instead of poisoning each other. (Not that they don’t wish to do both.)

Hollywood is a place of work, and a lot of work gets done there, and people the world over enjoy and appreciate the results on their TV screens. For the seasoned veteran, a job on a sound stage can be a lot of fun. And the camaraderie can fool you into thinking the actors really like you. But they’re actors, remember? It’s an act. And when it doesn’t work, those smiling stars can turn on a dime and devastate you. Workers sometimes come home in tears, or demoralized, or angry. The worst thing is that many of these workers have been in the business for years, yet they still succumb to the illusion that the glad-handing from the actors really means something genuine.

For most of them it’s worth it, if only for the reflected glory of working on a TV show. But the price can be high. I’ve spoken to more than one, and I’ve heard the horror stories, and I’ve wanted to say something encouraging, but usually there’s nothing I can do.

Still, let’s pretend that some Hollywood acquaintance has just blown off steam with me, grousing about being dressed down in front of the producers for another crew member’s mistake that got blamed on him. My friend shakes his head and asks, “Why? Why does it have to be this way?”

And that’s my cue to whip out my Five Rules for Surviving Below the Line in Hollywood. Never one to shy away from giving advice — and deciding I’m an expert after having worked all of a handful of days on TV productions myself — I offer my friend the infinite wisdom of my own perspective:

“A Hollywood sound stage has vastly more than its share of trials and tribulations, insults and humiliations, politics and unfairnesses — especially for below-the-line workers. It’s enough to make a person bitter. It’s more than enough to throw you off your game.

“Of course, an outsider doesn’t know better than you how to do your job. But, on those days when things look darkest, an outsider can remind you of what you already know. So let’s review:

            1. Hollywood looks like Heaven but can feel like Hell.

            2. A sound stage is like a high school ruled by spoiled rich kids.

            3. The stars are absolutely focused on their careers. They’re NOT interested in you.

            4. They’re NOT your friends — they’re your bosses.

            5. The stars are NOT wise, just successful — but you still must nod and agree with them.

            6. DO focus on making the show great, but DON’T rock anybody’s boat.

“Remember these pointers and you’ll become known as one of the best in the biz.”

At this point, my beleaguered friend looks at me over his beer and bursts out laughing. “Oh, come on,” he says. “As if I really could avoid being humiliated! After all, if we could solve it, the above-the-line people would just think up some new way to put us down.”

He’s probably right. It’s a business that rewards dominant people. What else are they going to do, except … dominate people? And below-the-line workers make for great target practice.

A friend who works for lawyers once told me, “The reason executive assistants make much more money in law than in business is not because they have more advanced skills than other secretaries. It’s because they’re paid to put up with angry, difficult bosses.” Perhaps below-the-line TV crews get good pay for the same reason.

Anyway, welcome to the paradise that is Hollywood! It’s yours if you want it. But don’t try to foist it off on me.

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