Each year, from the middle of May to the middle of August, Hollywood is witness to more empty days, depleted bank accounts, and unpaid bills than it would care to admit. Just before production of the new season of TV shows and sitcoms kicks in, the large segment of the LA population who depend on those very shows for their livelihood, having suffered and struggled through the three long months of unemployment and penury known in the industry as 'hiatus', have grown desperate.
Among the huge fraternity of extras, day players, grips, electricians, production assistants and others, a daily round of unreturned telephone calls is the norm as the new season looms and production schedules are being drawn up. Production offices and casting directors are deluged with a daily mailbag of headshots and resumes, letters which reach new heights in supplication and solicitation, as the rush to secure employment for the new season gets underway.
All along Sunset Boulevard, Melrose Avenue and Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, the coffee shops and cafes are full to bursting with out of work actors staring mournfully at cellphones which refuse to ring, sipping from lattes purchased three hours before, wondering why they ever left the comparative security of Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, or Europe for this.
Nothing ever prepared them for the torture of unemployment in the City of Angels. None of their acting coaches when they first arrived warned them about the impossibility of maintaining car payments and the exorbitant rent on a Westside apartment on the income of an out of work actor.
One, two, three years before they'd poured into this city of dreams with big plans and enough self confidence to last a lifetime. They were convinced that in double quick time their huge talent would be recognised and along with flawless looks catapult them to a beach-front home in Malibu, daily massages and a regular table at the best restaurants in town.
Now look at them.
What began as a dream and a vision of excellence, taking their art to new levels of sublime performance, has rapidly degenerated into a daily struggle to land a gig as an extra on some cheesy TV sitcom or game show.
Among the legion of non-union extras, the lowest of the low in the unofficial but nonetheless rigid Hollywood caste system, the conversations reverberate around the need for that union voucher which will take them one step closer to the pot of gold otherwise known as a SAG card. Three union vouchers, twenty two hundred bucks and, bingo, it's yours, a small piece of plastic which constitutes the first step on the long ladder to stardom.
People will do almost anything to get a SAG card. They will beg assistant directors and bug production assistants, losing all sense of dignity in the process.
So what exactly is a SAG card? What does it mean?
Well, it signifies that you are now a member of the Screen Actors Guild, enjoying all the status and glory that that entails.
It also means double your fee for working as an extra. Instead of the paltry fifty dollars for eight hours (minimum wage) that a lowdown and despicable non-union extra takes home, you, as an esteemed union extra, will now take home exactly double that amount. More importantly, it entitles you to audition for and win principal roles with, wait for it, lines.
Along at the offices of Central Casting in Burbank new hopefuls flock through the doors every day to sign up to work as non-union extras, taking the first step on a journey which for most is destined to end nowhere. Some will work a few times before deciding that the dream is not worth the subhuman treatment doled out by casting directors, producers, directors, second ADs, PAs, wardrobe ladies and craft service bullies. On set they will find themselves being shouted at, pushed around, insulted, derided, despised and abused. All for fifty or sixty bucks a day and a free lunch.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the creative spectrum, writers are clambering to land those juicy positions as staff writers on TV shows that will guarantee a year's supply of fat steaks and good wine. Never mind artistic integrity, or creativity, or craft. This is a business, and the name of the game in this business, in this town, is money.
And who can blame them? Artistic integrity doesn't cough up the rent, nor does it provide the material rewards necessary to win the respect of your Hollywood peers. After all, where would you be without those Armani suits, that Rolex watch, those hundred dollar bills needed to grease the doormen on your way in to the hottest bars and nightclubs?
As the business gears up for another hectic season of TV and movie production, producers are assembling their armies for battle in a ratings war that takes no prisoners, networks are sharpening their blades, preparing to cut anything which even so much as whiffs of below average ratings.
In Hollywood only a miniscule few of the thousands who arrive with the same dream are destined to 'make it' and be launched on that perilous journey otherwise known as celebrity. Others, the vast majority, will flounder, fail and resign themselves to yet another year of struggle.
And so it goes.
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