Production Manager: ‘I Used to Wander Through Musso & Frank’s to Get Work. Not Today’

As the film business keeps migrating away from L.A. and its unions, a veteran unit production manager laments a freelance workforce that's profoundly lacking in job security

For many of Hollywood’s below-the-line pros, the price of success is the life of a nomad.

“I haven’t slept in my own bed making a motion picture since 2000,” said a steadily working unit production manager in his fifties, who has managed the production crews of top-level studio features and low-budget indies over a four-decade career.

That was an $18 million indie. If your project isn’t paired with Marvel comics, and you’re not working in the $200 million area, the picture isn’t made in Los Angeles — and even many of those are not made in Los Angeles. They just made 'Green Lantern' in New Orleans."

The veteran unit production manager — whose  sensitive work on a guild committee prohibits him from being identified in this article — no longer has kids in the house, but he happens to be fond of his wife, and Factor’s Deli on Pico, and having ready access to the seacoast. But to keep paying the bills, he won’t be getting that much quality time with those favorite things.

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Sure, he could dive into the more prosperous world of television and commercial shoots locally. But his first love is film, and he can’t stomach the compromise:  “I did a lot of TV in my career, and I did a lot of commercials," he told TheWrap. "But there is no soul in selling a product, and there’s no soul in laugh tracks.

"When you love something that has magic to it, you want it to have meaning behind it.”

This comes, mind you, from someone whose trade has made him a supremely practical man. In a film production world made up of independent contractors — sound men, stunt men, grips, gaffers, drivers and movie stars among them — no one is poised more delicately between labor and management than a unit production manager, or UPM.

Along with a lot of planning and crisis management, UPM’s do the hiring and firing. Their contact list is stuffed with every sort of skilled worker in the industry. 

Sadly, those lists, unless they have a sideline in TV or commercials production, are seeing less and less use.

While he doesn't want his name on the site, the UPM doesn’t hold back his opinions on the problems now facing the industry.

“From my perspective,” he says over breakfast at his favorite deli, “The effect of the down economy on the actual production of motion pictures is very different than the effect on other corporations and businesses. Everybody’s freelance. Almost everybody below the line on most crews is hired on a daily or a weekly. Nothing is longer than that.  

"Union contracts are structured so that people are hired on a daily basis so that you have the ability to fire them anytime you want to during the day before 4 o’clock in the afternoon. That gives them enough to time to get another job the next day. That’s how contracts are written.

"And that’s why their rates are a few bucks more than those people who work for corporations."

As now what happens frequently — most conspicuously as producer Jerry Bruckheimer went shopping for a state with the most generous givebacks so he could remount “The Lone Ranger”  – part of our UPM's job is finding the best deal.

Much as it goes against his grain, that’s not going to be in California:

Various states that have put together programs to lure production money from motion pictures to union production centers, and the state governments have invested in their labor force the same way Canada did," he told TheWrap. "The entire nation of Canada would not have an entertainment industry without its government; it wouldn’t exist.

“Virtually no motion pictures, other than tentpoles and the like, are made in California anymore. As a result, a tremendous amount of the labor force has left California for the states that have the tax incentives.

He says his favorite special effects guy has moved his entire operation to Shreveport and New Orleans. "He moved himself and his whole family. You would be amazed at how many technicians have left this area because they’re not TV guys.”

That, he says, has led to the emergence of an increasingly adept labor pool in other locales.

Louisiana, for example, has local unions with hundreds of members, he says. “Right now in Shreveport there are five pictures prepping or already shooting. In New Orleans, there are eight pictures prepping and shooting. New Mexico is a huge center, Atlanta is a huge center, North Carolina is a huge center. That’s where the incentives are — you’re dealing with 25, 30, 35 percent back on the dollar — and that’s why you go there.”

At the same time, union restrictions keep his long-trusted Los Angeles crew pros from joining him in another state to work there at reduced rates.

“I’ve got a relationship with a sound mixer, who’s saying, I’m dying to work. I will come to Louisiana, and I will work for you at any rate that you want, but he can’t. If you are tied to a West Coast local you cannot go to another place and be hired as a local. Your contract will follow you, and that contract reads that you must be on a distant location rate and you must get hotel and per diem, and you must work at the minimum rates provided for in your local contract.

The fairly cushy deals that organizations like the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees made in the big production centers on either coast are now an impediment to getting work, he says. “There are any number of complexities involving the IA locals, but basically it comes down to higher costs for skilled crew on either coast.”

“Ultimately,” he concludes, “what are available are short gigs. We are freelance, and how you manage your own life and your own future is your own savvy. It’s about how good a member of the circus are you — and this goes down to the crewmember. Because this is a town. That’s about who you know — on the streets, from networking, the internet.

"When I was out of work as a kid, and I needed another commercial, I’d wander through Musso & Frank’s Grill at lunchtime and pick up a job.

"Not today."