After 17 years working either as an actress or production coordinator, Deborah White says the industry she loved can no longer sustain her financially, so she has bought a log house in Taos, N.M., and plans to begin life anew there.
Joe Straw and Anton Holden, an out-of-work production accountant and a sound editor, decided that if they can't find jobs in the movies anymore, they will just make their own movies. Casting fate to the winds, they have charged their credit cards to the hilt and produced a feature-length suspense-thriller.
Cassandra Barrere, a highly regarded script supervisor who had grown accustomed to more job offers than she could handle, now thinks twice before turning anything down. " 'Get it while it's here' is the mentality right now," she said.
Welcome to the Great Hollywood Shakeout.
The multibillion-dollar entertainment industry, which like much of corporate America partied wildly during the free-spending, debt-accumulating 1980s, is in the throes of an economic hangover.
It was a year ago that Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, issued his now-famous corporate memo, which predicted that the recession would be "quite devastating to our industry" and warned that costs must be curbed. Although criticized at the time, many now say that Katzenberg was right on target.
Since then, salaries have plummeted, jobs have disappeared and the entire entertainment industry is submerged in gloom. Will it ever be the same, many ask--a question that once seemed confined only to the Rust Belt.
"I believe it's now like the steelworkers and auto workers being cut back," said one producer. "They will never be replaced in the same numbers."
He recalled how 75 people recently applied for a TV production job. Most of the applicants were overqualified and said they were willing to take drastic cuts in pay.
Mention the words Hollywood and recession and immediately the jokes begin to fly: What do you mean, they traded in their Rolls for a Jaguar?
It is an industry famous for being overpaid and overspoiled. After all, how can you feel sorry when Arnold Schwarzenegger is given a $14-million jet for starring in "Terminator 2" and the tented premiere party for "Hook"--replete with pirate-ship sets and wandering buccaneers--cost $600,000?
But Hollywood is not just glamour and glitz. In California, the film and video industry directly employed 91,800 people in 1990--down from 118,000 workers in 1987. That figure does not include tens of thousands of independent contractors.
"We have seen an erosion of employment (in Hollywood)," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County.
"I think these numbers don't indicate quite the level of distress because there are a lot of independent contractors who are struggling," Kyser said. "For example, on a major film you will hire a sound man and a camera man. They don't work for the studios.
"There was the view that Hollywood was recession-proof, that when times got tough, people would still go to the movies, but ticket prices have gone up," Kyser added. "People still go the movies, but they have gone to the corner and rented them."
Beset by rising costs and a stagnant box office, studios have instituted wide-ranging cost-reduction programs, some of them bordering on the humorous. At Columbia Pictures, for instance, there are no more flower arrangements in the lobby or free crackers in the office pantry, while at Carolco, it was reported that a directive went out for employees to quit using on cereal milk and cream provided for coffee.
But there are more ominous signs. The work itself seems to be vanishing.
Dale Olson, who runs an entertainment-oriented public relations firm in Beverly Hills, said that he lost five independent film companies as clients last year because of the recession.
"At Cannes last year, I was looking around at all my friends and no one was coming into their offices (to buy)," Olson said.
"I would say that 1990 and 1991 were the worst years for the independents ever," said Menahem Golan, chairman of 21st Century Films.
To save money, Golan recently filmed two American gangster pictures--"Mad Dog Coll" and "Hit the Dutchman"--on the streets of Moscow rather than pay higher prices to film in the United States.
"The dollar is still strong in Russia," Golan said. "If I did a $3- or $4-million picture there, it would be like a $30- to $40-million picture here. When you pay extras $60 to $100 a day here, you pay only $1 (a day) or even less in Russia."
Other companies have decided to do their filming in Canada or "right-to-work" states.
Linda Buzzell, a Santa Monica psychotherapist who teaches a course on job-search strategies at the American Film Institute, said the recession has touched so many in the industry that she is putting together an entertainment industry career support group.
"What I have been seeing the last six months is a rapid escalation of pain," Buzzell said. "People are really beginning to hurt pretty badly.
"What they are telling me is that the numbers of people who are being laid off . . . is rising so that when they are applying for a job, they are competing against extremely well-qualified people who previously just wouldn't have been in the job market. This industry is beginning to squeeze its middle layers out."
Even jobs on the periphery of Hollywood are being affected. Said Bob Russell, owner of a "honey wagon" company that supplies stars with mobile dressing rooms:
"A lot of people don't realize how many people are affected by the motion picture business. . . . It's a trickle-down thing. Not everyone is Kevin Costner or Julia Roberts. There's a lot of people involved in making these things."
Here are some of their stories.
First the city changed, then the industry changed and now Deborah White has changed.
In June, the veteran television actress will pull up roots and move to a three-bedroom, two-bath log house on an acre of land in Taos, N.M., that she bought for $78,000.
"I'm very scared," she said. "I'm a single woman moving into a house on a dirt road. It's very extreme to me, but I'm willing to risk it to get back to some sort of basic values."
As an actress in Hollywood, she pulled down as much as $2,000 a day in commercials and appeared in "St. Elsewhere," "Baby Boom" and numerous pilots.
She had come from New York City in 1974 and said she immediately fell in love with the "quality of life" she found in Los Angeles.
She was divorced, bought a home in Sherman Oaks, then sold it, "but waited a little too long to re-buy." She later rented an apartment on 6th Street near the Beverly Center, living comfortably on $60,000 to $80,000 a year.
By 1988, White said she experienced the inevitable--acting jobs for which she competed began going to younger women while more people were vying for roles in commercials.
"The older I got, I knew this would happen," she said. "I knew I would work less, but I didn't know it would disappear completely. My agents would tell me there is nothing I was qualified for from week to week to week. There was never a job for a 35-year-old woman.
"I was continuing to make commercials. I always made a lot of money in commercials. But my income then dropped drastically. It used to be that when they cast for commercials, 80 people tops would show up and they would call back 10. Now they see 500 people in three or four different cities and they call back 200."
To survive, White learned a new trade behind the cameras as a production coordinator--a job that entails such nuts and bolts as hiring crews and getting permits--while keeping her feelers out for acting jobs.
Then the recession hit.
"The work just went away," she said.
Last March, after completing work on an industrial film, she went looking for work but found no offers.
"I read the trades every day. I called everyone I knew, people in positions of power. I faxed more resumes from ads in the back of the trades than any person should be possessed to do, but I couldn't get them to respond to me. If they did respond to me, I was overqualified.
She had been on unemployment periodically over the years but never had she used up two 26-week claim periods. She continued going out on auditions, occasionally getting jobs. "But actors don't get much unless they are stars," White said.
Her credit-card bills began to mount. "It was not because I was throwing money away," she said. "I would pay $100 a month but with the interest rates they would keep going up.
"In September, I was really feeling my bleakest," she said. "I had basically given up looking for work. I said, 'This is crazy.' I went to visit friends in New Mexico and I said, 'This is great. I'll find something else to do with my life.' "
Since then, White has returned to New York and worked as a talent pool coordinator "baby-sitting the stars" on a TV special for $80 a day. She also took a job as a production assistant for a third of her normal pay, and recently landed a small acting role on "Law and Order."
In Taos, White said, the mortgage, insurance and taxes on her new home will be about $500 a month. She plans to one day open a clothing store there, while occasionally commuting to L.A. for acting jobs.
"I'm one of those people who never had the driving force to be a big star. I just wanted to be part of the process. I just wanted to work."
The 'Honey-Wagon' Operator
There are florists to the stars, caterers to the stars and even dry cleaners to the stars.
Chloe Enterprises has prospered in Hollywood with a lower-profile niche: It supplies the stars with their "honey wagons"--the mobile dressing room-bathrooms used on location.
But these days, even Chloe and its staff are feeling the sting of Hollywood's spending squeeze.
Partly to save money, Hollywood producers are doing less shooting on location. The networks are replacing dramas--which sometimes use big casts and remote locales--with sitcoms performed on a sound stage. They also are airing more "reality-based" programs such as "America's Most Wanted" that employ relatively small crews.
All told, it means less call for honey wagons--and less work for the mechanics, drivers and office workers that Chloe uses.
"This is the worst I've seen the business," said 43-year-old Greg Russell, Chloe's vice president and the No. 2 person in the family firm.
The studios "use fewer people," chimed in Bob Russell, Greg's father and Chloe's owner. "Not just us," he said, but also caterers and others providing location services. The studios "don't use them, so they can save a lot of money--and pay the stars more," Russell added, with a sardonic laugh.
At Chloe, only about half of the 40 to 45 "honey-wagon" drivers are working, leaving many "behind on their home payments and really hurting," Greg Russell said.
He says some of his top drivers, who in good years can earn around $80,000, are trying to pick up temporary jobs in construction and building maintenance to make ends meet.
The Russells themselves are scrambling to keep the business on track. They laid off the parts manager and Greg is now doing the job himself.
Bob Russell, lean and vigorous at age 75, has come out of semi-retirement to focus on the business' finances and keep its costs under control.
Meanwhile, negotiating with the studios has gotten tougher. Once there was little haggling over price, but now the studios want "any kind of concession we can make," Greg Russell said.
He added that there also is rising demand for non-union drivers who get no benefits and lower pay than their union counterparts.
Things once looked much brighter. Bob Russell broke into the industry in 1944 after his discharge from the Navy, working as a gofer on the production of two Tarzan movies.
He soon worked his way up into a transportation coordinator's job. Then, in 1958, he launched Chloe.
"I saw the need because more and more companies were going on location," he said. "Realism was coming to the fore."
Business was especially good years ago when TV "was full of Westerns," Bob Russell said. "That was the heyday of location work."
In 1984, the company moved to its current home, a two-acre spread in North Hollywood. Over the years, it also expanded into Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn.
But these days, there are no thoughts of further expansion--the Russells are working hard to hold things together. Business is off more than 20% from the volume of two years ago, the Russells say.
Perhaps even worse, there is the frustration of not being able to find work for drivers who have served the company for years. "There's a whole bunch who are idle, and there's nothing we can do about it," Bob Russell said, shaking his head. "They check in with us most every day, and most every day, we have to say 'sorry.' "
Janet Dourif thought she had it made three years ago when she sold her first screenplay to actor Michael Douglas' Stonebridge Entertainment.
"It was called 'The Stranger Within,' " she said. "It was a psychological thriller with a sexual obsession in it in which the lead character--a woman--was redeemed."
Dourif and her former writing partner, Ed Munter, were then hired to rework the script.
"That was it," Dourif said. "I thought, no problem, (the script) was charmed."
But the film has not been made, and development money for other projects is very difficult to find.
To make ends meet, Dourif now works part-time as marketing director for a North Hollywood law firm, meeting potential clients and trying to bring in new business. When not at the firm, she spends substantial time each week in story meetings with producers, studio executives and with her current writing partner, Alana Stewart.
"I sold my first script to Michael Douglas, but here I am," she said. "I realized I no longer could survive in (the movie) industry being an artist e . It has been such a struggle because of the (recessionary) times.
"I've been around this business too much to think I had it made, but I didn't think I would go backward."
What her experience has taught her, Dourif said, is that the nationwide economic downturn has created a new set of rules in Hollywood.
"If you do not have a produced movie credit these days, you don't count," she said.
Dourif, who is divorced from actor Brad Dourif (an Academy Award nominee for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), said her roots in Hollywood go back 20 years.
"I became a screenwriter by typing people's scripts and answering honestly, when asked, what did I think," she said. "I then became one of those independent script consultants called 'script doctors.' "
Dourif, 41, of West Hollywood, said it finally occurred to her that instead of improving other people's scripts, she should create them herself.
With Stewart, who previously sold a screenplay with Carole Bayer Sager to producer Joel Silver, Dourif thought selling scripts to studios would come easier. Then reality set in.
"We have no less than nine different ideas for projects, some based on existing material, some original," she added. "We have five projects that are working toward a deal right now. Each one of those deals, we have had to open our phone books but (it's difficult) to get someone to actually pay you unless you are in that top strata."
As her finances began to "go down the tubes," Dourif said she went to friends and got a part-time job as marketing director for their law firm.
"They love my work and they are supportive of my other career," she said. "I have no set schedule. They trust me to do what I'm supposed to do for them.
"When I first got the (marketing) job, I did nothing but basically interview the partners in the law firm and read through their files. I didn't understand what they did. It's very complex."
Meanwhile, she and Stewart--a mother of three from Los Angeles--continue to trek from studio to studio pitching their ideas and have finally found a home for one with producer Suzanne DePasse ("Lonesome Dove").
But Dourif said the studios have expressed a real reluctance to put into development ideas that are not overtly commercial.
She recalled going with Stewart to several studios to pitch an idea called "Modern Women" and even getting the attention of producer Leonard Goldberg.
"He heard our pitch and immediately wanted to produce it," Dourif said. "Leonard, who just came off 'Sleeping With the Enemy,' is a very major producer in this town."
But despite the support of creative executives, two studio heads passed on the idea because they said it was not "high concept" and was too "character driven," Dourif recalled.
Dourif said the message was clear. "Because of the economic state of affairs, Hollywood studios are less and less willing to put money into the development of movies they are not convinced will be a commercial hit."
Dourif said that now when she walks into studio meetings she has an entirely different sense about herself.
"What this whole period has taught me is that I am someone who has always believed in my dreams," she said. "I now temper my dreams with reality."
Filmmakers on Credit
It is now a part of Hollywood lore: A little-known actor named Robert Townsend used cash advances on his credit cards to help finance a film in which he both starred and directed. The 1987 comedy, "Hollywood Shuffle," became a hit--and Townsend became famous.
Fast-forward to 1992.
The scene is Running Lion Entertainment, a fledgling movie production company located in a cramped bungalow off Cole Avenue in Hollywood. The door is open wide and the staff is sitting on the step. Coffee is brewing inside and if you take cream, well, there is a carton of chocolate milk near the box of doughnuts. Everywhere one looks, there are film cans.
Meet owners Joe Straw and Anton Holden. They are out of work and on unemployment.
Straw, 36, hasn't had a job since March, when he left MGM-Pathe as a production accountant to direct a film that never got off the ground. Holden, 50, was terminated last November from his job at a local sound lab.
Straw and Holden send out resumes and make the obligatory follow-up calls and always get the same response: "We'll let you know."
But in Hollywood, where dreams bloom even during economic hard times, the two men have decided that if they can't find jobs in the movie business, they will invent them: They have made a film.
How they did it is simple: They charged it on their credit cards.
The result is a feature called "The Intruder," a suspense-thriller about a woman alone in a house at night who kills an unarmed burglar.
"We want to thank American Express," said Straw, as he and his partner dug through their wallets and displayed more than a dozen credit cards that they say helped them finance their film.
"These credit cards have been taken out to where no man has gone before, believe me," Holden quipped.
What they haven't bought, they have borrowed from friends.
"Virtually everybody (connected to the film) is out of work," said Holden. "People are working on absolute minimum, like half-pay or deferrals, deferrals, deferrals. The lab is a deferral. The editing equipment was loaned to me by some friends of mine.
"I've been unemployed since Nov. 13 with no notice--Bang! You're out," said Holden, who came to Hollywood as a writer in 1976. "There have been a couple of recessions since then but nothing like this."
Holden said that as a free-lance sound editor, he would periodically go through bad times. Around August, when his checking account got down to "four figures," he said he would make calls "a little more intensely" and work would pick up. But not this time--there was virtually no work last summer at his sound lab.
"For June, July and August there was nothing in place until (the TV show) 'Rescue 911' came out," he said. "Then a movie called 'Love Crimes' came in there. We went through layoffs and layoffs, finally doing partial layoffs where you would work three days and then have two days off in order to save money. There is nothing out there right now."
Straw said that when he left MGM-Pathe in March, he never dreamed he would have trouble finding employment in the industry again.
"I always thought it was easy to find work as a production accountant," he said. "I had eight years of entertainment experience behind me."
The two men said they kept bumping into each other around town and finally decided to make the leap of faith. They put out a call for actors and got back 2,000 photographs and resumes. From that, they whittled it down to 200 and finally to eight who appear in the movie. The actress-model who stars in the film is McCall Dunahee.
The crew of 20 consisted mainly of young people who wanted experience. The movie was shot late last year at a friend's house in Monecito.
Holden and Straw say they hope to get the attention of foreign buyers when they show up later this month at the American Film Market in Santa Monica. They plan to attract attention by standing in the hotel lobby and handing out empty shotgun shells painted with the words "The Intruder."
The Grip and the Script Supervisor
In their many years as craft workers on motion pictures and TV commercials, Michel and Cassandra Barrere have had little trouble finding new jobs when one of their projects ends.
"We're lucky to have a clientele that keeps us working. By the same token, we've been doing this for 20 years," said Cassandra Barrere, 42, a script supervisor who together with her husband earned well over $100,000 last year.
Yet even established behind-the-scenes production veterans such as the Barreres are now feeling some insecurity because of the belt-tightening in Hollywood and the related spending crunch in the advertising business.
In good times, Cassandra turned down jobs nearly every week--sometimes to be home with the couple's two teen-age daughters and, on other occasions, simply because she had more work than she could handle.
But these days, Cassandra is rejecting fewer jobs and accepting work on shorter notice. "We're taking the work when it comes, because you don't know if it'll still be (there) in a couple of months," she said.
Cassandra, president of the union local representing script supervisors, said she and her husband know of too many cases of craft workers who are out of work. "You realize that your situation is as precarious as theirs, and there but for the grace of God go I," she said.
The Barreres are thankful for the good life that their jobs have brought them--they own a spacious home in Laurel Canyon and send their daughters to private schools--but they concede that their income has fallen somewhat lately. After seeing their combined earnings rise every year for the past 10 years, the Barreres say their income slipped about 10% last year.
As a script supervisor, Cassandra brings order to the disorderly job of shooting a movie or commercial. She times the scenes and keeps track of the details of what is filmed. If an actor wears a green sweater at the beginning of a scene, she makes sure he has the same one on later.
In his job as a key grip, Michel, 48, supervises the workers who set up and operate camera dollies and cranes. The grips also are responsible for the safety of performers and others working underneath the heavy equipment on a set.
The downturn that the Barreres have so far largely escaped has put an estimated 20% to 30% of Hollywood's craft specialists out of work, up from 5% to 10% a year ago, according to a spokesman for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes.
Michel, who works almost exclusively on TV commercials these days, says advertisers are taking several steps to cut production spending--and jobs. Instead of frequently shooting new commercials, advertisers are keeping their old commercials on the air for longer spells. And when they make commercials, they often do it by re-editing previously filmed footage instead of starting anew. Even when they shoot new commercials, they often use smaller crews.
Michel, a one-time actor, would like to return to motion picture work someday. Among other reasons, he likes the "carnival atmosphere" and feeling of family that exist in a movie production.
But given the worries raised by the recession in Hollywood and the advertising industry, he says he would be very selective about any movie job he accepts. "I still have hopes and aspirations of that Hollywood dream, but this end of the business (TV commercial production) has been good to us," he said.
Michel says that when the experienced hands he has long worked with start complaining, "I tell them if they could find another job that's legal where they can make as much money, go for it."
But, he conceded, "the new guys coming in today, they have a problem."