Reality format sets in

Lensers and editors given a jolt, but 'suits' stay in slump

The national economy may be in the doldrums but in Los Angeles, at least by showbiz standards, things haven’t been this good for at least three years.

Entertainment industry jobs are expected to climb by 5.7% in 2003 to 128,000, though that’s still below the high of 146,000 in 1999. Beneath the surface, there’s lots of turbulence. The slew of TV reality shows has put a premium on editors and cameramen, while slicing demand for actors and writers.

It’s been bleaker for Hollywood’s middle managers where numbers have been slashed. And there’s fear of more to come. Behemoths like AOL Time Warner and Vivendi Universal, which laid off thousands when they were created through megamergers, now want to spin off assets to reduce huge debt loads. And that could produce more job cuts.

“In my 30 years of recruiting, I have never seen as many talented entertainment executives on the street,” declares headhunter Gary Kaplan, president of Gary Kaplan & Associates. But he believes that in a few years the labor market “could go bonkers again.” Why? “The huge pent-up demand in many organizations where people are physically and emotionally stressed out at having had to work with far fewer support troops for over two years now.”

Some executives have given up waiting, and started reconfiguring their career paths.

“This gives them a chance to move to a new industry or into another part of the entertainment business,” notes Joseph Arnetta, head of jobs Web site

Fear of flying post 9/11 and reluctance to travel abroad is crimping runaway production, helping local shoots rebound.

“It’s as busy as it has ever been,” declares Kathleen A. Milnes of the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., the government org in charge of promoting production in the L.A. area.

In January and February alone, there were more than 200 productions “on the street,” shooting hourlong and half-hour single-camera pilots for consideration for the 2003-04 network and cable skeds.

“The peaks are higher and the lows aren’t as low as they were a couple of years ago,” says Norman Glasser, business rep for IATSE Local 728, the set-lighting technicians union. Up to 85% of its 2,100-strong membership has been at work this year. “It’s been very busy.”

In the below-the-line job market, from the art directors guild to those representing script supervisors, grips and costumers, guild reps are reporting a more solid employment picture.

Even the animation guild, which has seen its membership buffeted by the 2-D retrenchment of the major studios (especially Disney), and the loss of jobs to cheaper overseas shops, is reporting a rebound. But demand is hottest for digi-animators, with the requisite computer and artistic skills.

And few of those jobs have to be in Hollywood per se. “We need our lead designers to be here and our lead animators,” notes Larry Kasanoff, CEO of Threshold Ent., which has done the “Mortal Kombat” films. “But aside from those jobs, we have people working for us all over the world.”

There’s a boom on the non-union side of the business too. No more so than in the so-called reality TV genre, which has turned out to be a virtual full-employment act for cameramen and editors.

While a scripted half-hour can have up to five cameramen for tape days, a reality show like ABC’s “The Bachelor” franchise may use up to 10. And a new NBC offering, “The Next Action Star” (where men and women compete to be the next Vin Diesel or Jennifer Garner), will be hiring up to 14 full-time editors as it gears up for a summer or fall air date.

“There’s a shortage of editors,” says Chris Brewster, post producer for “Action Star.” But you have to be more than just adept at using Final Cut Pro. “We look for editors who have strong story-telling experience and the ability to design f/x transitions and edit audio through to a final mix.” Almost all the staffing on reality TV (much to the chagrin of IATSE) is non-union.

“This genre has been my bread and butter for the last few years,” says camerawoman Kary D’Alessandro. She worked on the most recent iteration of “The Bachelor” and is now working on NBC’s “Looking for Love.”

Reality producers quickly found out that female contestants were much more comfortable with women camera operators and sound techs when the material got intimate.

“When I started doing this it was rare to see a woman camera operator. Now I see them everywhere.” Also a non-union gig, shooters can make up to $500 per day.

Boom or not, however, it’s still a challenge getting even an entry level gig. “It really is who you know and who can vouch for you,” says Dimitri Lacey, a former production assistant who recently moved up the ladder to become assistant production coordinator at HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Both out of necessity and because it’s become a Hollywood rite of passage, many start at the bottom. Case in point: Randy Huggins, a writer’s assistant on “The Shield” for the past 18 months. “Many people in this business start more or less as (the equivalent) of day laborers,” says Huggins, a former teacher for Detroit public schools.

After driving to L.A. four years ago, Huggins got his first gig as a production assistant on commercials.

Huggins, like Lacey, is a grad of Streetlights Production Assistants, which trains low-income candidates for p.a. jobs. The program provided Huggins and Lacey with their first referrals.

A boon below the line, reality shows have been a career bane for many actors, writers and directors. There are some 40 actor-free reality shows on the air or in the pipeline.

“Reality TV continues to have a negative impact,” says Ilyanne Morden-Kichaven, national director of communications for SAG. Last year’s mid-year employment SAG report showed a sharp year-to-year fall in jobs — down 9.3% in 2001 from 2000, from 53,134 to 48,167.

Though 2002 figures won’t be available until July, SAG officials say anecdotal evidence points to more shrinkage.

But someone’s always hitting the jackpot. Soren Fulton, a 12-year-old, was recently cast as a lead in “Thunderbirds,” based on the 1960’s cult British TV show. “I feel like I’m one of the luckiest kids on the planet,” says Fulton.

Breakthroughs like that keep replenishing Hollywood’s always ample talent pool.

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