Production slump taking its toll on workers

Propmaker Barry Bernson is working his first job in seven months. Emmy-winning art director Jeffrey Goldstein stopped struggling to find showbiz work and redirected his career into architecture. Makeup artist Art Anthony isn’t working at all.

The three men have a combined 67 years’ experience in the film and TV industry, but it counts for little when productions are fleeing, studios are slashing slates and budgets are being reined in like never before.

“I have people calling me who never call me, looking for work,” said Dave Lujan, a lighting technician who just wrapped “The Haunting” for DreamWorks but, uncharacteristically, has nothing else lined up. “Everybody’s out of work is what I’m hearing. They’re calling around town and there’s nothing.”

At the heart of the problem is a widespread scaling-back in feature production — primarily by big studios such as Disney and Warner Bros. — as execs zip up their wallets in response to soaring production and marketing costs, and shrinking margins. The majors also are reducing expenditures on development, producer deals, studio staffing and overhead.

Naming their price

And yet, at the high end of the scale, a select few above-the-line names are flourishing. Young one-hit actors are moving into the $6 million-per-pic range, while major stars command salaries more than triple that amount. Sony has set up a series of pricey deals for name scripters, and, in TV, stars and writer-producers are landing multimillion-dollar deals.

With so much big spending at a time of supposed belt-tightening, something’s got to give. The result is havoc in the lower echelons of the film industry, where the “glamour” of a Hollywood job is of little consolation to someone faced with a mortgage, car payments and grocery bills.

Seasoned below-the-line workers suddenly find themselves scrambling to find jobs in a retrenchment made all the more searing because it comes on the heels of the mid-’90s boom.

“It’s like a dagger to the heart of Hollywood,” said cameraman J.J. McGee, a 25-year veteran of the industry.

Last year, 519 features were shot on location in Los Angeles, compared with 548 in 1997, according to the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., a local government body that tracks off-lot production.

In terms of total location days, the EIDC reported that feature filming in the area dropped from 13,980 days in ’96 to 11,542 last year, a fall of 17% in two years. The numbers do not include shooting in soundstages, which are benefiting from what is clearly a corresponding rise in TV production.

Regardless, TV and feature lensing in Hollywood is being affected by an obvious boost in production elsewhere, primarily in countries like Canada, Australia and several European nations, all of which offer generous tax incentives to producers.

While “runaway” production is often the scapegoat for Hollywood’s headaches, it’s worth noting that feature film starts in Canada alone went up 111% between 1993 and ’98 (from 28 to 59), according to the California Film Commission.

A UCLA study said that there was “virtually no growth” last year in entertainment industry employment, which the school’s economists estimated at 178,000 workers. And a lot of those workers are worried.

‘Future is bleak’

“Hollywood professes to be the entertainment capital of the world, but we don’t have a grip on that anymore,” makeup artist Anthony said. “We’re letting other governments choose our future for us, and the future is bleak.”

Anthony and others like him are fighting the widespread but mistaken perception that the billions of dollars Hollywood brings in every year are somehow shared equally and abundantly with all who toil here.

“There are very few of us in the industry who lead a charmed life,” he said. “Most of us are hard-working technical folk who make the movies happen. You’ve got a big group of people whose government no longer supports them. It’s time to take care of our jobs here — we give enough to the world.”

For Anthony, the downturn in the industry’s fortunes is doubly frustrating.

“I moved from Chicago three years ago to the mega-capital of the industry,” Anthony said. “I came to L.A. to work, not to sit and wait for work. But I’m not working, and I’m pissed off. I’m having trouble putting a roof over my family’s heads.”

The situation in Hollywood is exacting a heavy toll on some people who, until just months ago, had no reason to be concerned about evaporating work opportunities.

Bernson, a 49-year-old special effects propmaker, was evicted from his apartment in the San Fernando Valley last fall after his money ran out. He had not worked since wrapping “Anything But Here,” a Fox production, around Labor Day. His problems were compounded, he said, by a messy divorce. He filed for bankruptcy just before Thanksgiving.

The Actors’ Fund donated $883 for Bernson’s October rent, but that was the last money the landlord got. By February, the propmaker was sleeping in the reclining front seat of his Mercury Villager van.

“I almost took my life — as a matter of fact, I tried,” said Bernson, a diabetic.

Finally, in mid-April, Bernson was hired to build sets for “Monkeybone,” another Fox picture, and was able to move out of his van and into a $40-a-night motel in the Valley.

“I’m surviving,” said Bernson, who broke both legs and injured his back in an accident on the set of “Airplane!” two decades ago. “I hope to keep working for a while, but the industry isn’t great right now.”

While Bernson’s case may be extreme, it’s hard to argue with his conclusion. It’s even harder to grasp the plight of below-the-line workers when the U.S. economy is doing so well, and when California has banished all traces of recession to the fringes of the Mojave Desert.

A league of their own

And yet the movie and TV industries always have marched to their own tunes, booming when times were tough elsewhere — a heartening salve during economic slumps — and, now, retrenching while Wall Street and the rest of corporate America sing hallelujahs.

“It’s been getting thinner and thinner, and harder to find projects,” said Goldstein, a former president of the Society of Motion Picture & Television Art Directors, who won an Emmy for the pilot of “Law & Order.” His last job was on “Cracker” in February 1998.

When he came to L.A. in 1973, with a degree in architecture, the only job he could find was as a draftsman at Universal; he stayed two years and then rose through the production design ranks at Columbia Pictures, Spelling Television, CBS, Steven Bochco Prods. and David E. Kelley Prods.

Occasionally, Goldstein revived his affinity for architecture, as when he designed Bochco’s office building on the Fox lot in 1988, during the writers’ strike.

That talent saved him from the vagaries of showbiz, landing him last year at the Santa Monica firm of Donald Alec Barnay, where he is one of three staff architects. “I’m one of the lucky people who had my architectural skills to fall back on,” he said.

William Jackson, a propmaker and carpenter who’s been in the industry since 1989, lost his house in L.A. last year when he made considerably less money than the year before. He couldn’t make the payments. Now, he’s living in Lancaster, where the living is cheaper, and earning his keep by house painting and driving a truck.

“Folks have known this was coming for a while,” Jackson said of the downturn. “But I’m not considering going up to Canada, like some other people.”

While few people say so outright, there is considerable resentment against the Canadian government and its tax credits to producers, and even more indignation that federal and state officials in the U.S. have not enacted similar measures of their own.

The rancor against our northern neighbor goes deeper.

“Canada has reached saturation point,” said John Hockridge, a first assistant director who worked on “Red Corner” and “Wayne’s World.”

“They haven’t got any more people who can really do the job up there. Same in Australia. My point is that L.A. has always been the leader in film technology, and the studios are taking technologically advanced scripts to places that don’t have that level of expertise.”

Hockridge himself is feeling the pinch. His last job was on “Mod Squad” last summer.

Inevitably, studio heads, producers and other “suits” are targets for some of the resentment floating around.

“The producers are making more and more every year, and they’re cutting it out of the small guy,” said Don Monson, a propmaker for 23 years.

Other showbiz workers are trying to find other lines of business in order to survive.

As a key grip with 18 years of experience, Chris Centrella found in the last few years that it paid to buy his own equipment and rent it to studios and producers. Often, if someone wants to hire him, his equipment is part of the package.

“There’s been a huge cost recession on crews in the last 18 months,” said Centrella. “It’s extremely slow. It’s a very quirky time.”

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