Mar 9, 2014
This Isn’t ‘Entourage’: Hollywood’s Talented, Ambitious and Broke
Posted on Oct 3, 2010
By Howie Stier
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in Howie Stier’s Lost Generation series. The first can be found here. We will soon collect Howie’s work in a Dig for your pleasure and convenience.
Only upon seeing the freight train, a stretch of container cars miles long—actually taking in the sight of those container cars each emblazoned with Chinese characters and Chinese factory names and meandering across the Nevada desert like a monstrous parasitic tape worm, did the enormity of America’s dependency on imported goods strike home. Sometimes we’ve got to go out and see things firsthand to confirm for ourselves what is known widely as fact. What is now not widely known is that just like all the Wal-Mart and 99 Cent Store-bound brand-name disposable crap in those containers was manufactured by underpaid Chinese labor, and unpaid prisoners, a lot of U.S. entertainment—which, alongside weapons of mass destruction, remains one of our nation’s top exports—is produced by underpaid and, increasingly, totally unpaid talent.
“There’s plenty of coolie labor around town,” Raymond Chandler’s pulp fiction detective Philip Marlowe quipped in negotiating a day rate in the Hollywood of the 1930s. That rings just as true in Hollywood today. A pall has been cast over the creative capital of the planet as the recession has blurred the distinction between emerging artist and mid-career artist, both willing to work on projects for little or no pay, scrambling for dwindling gigs with a carrot called “exposure” dangled before them, hoping their efforts will lead to a big payoff. But these days, when it does come around, the big payoff ain’t that big and the glam jobs have lost their glam. So Hollywood will churn out another season of “The Biggest Loser” and a slew of other reality shows and a ready supply of Americans eager to debase themselves for fame, and, like the desperate marathon dancers of Horace McCoy’s Hollywood Depression novel “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” they will get that exposure, and little else. Meanwhile, creative professionals in comedy, animation and the pop music biz find their dues-paying period now extended indefinitely and they remain earnest and joyless. Here are the voices of a few willing to talk about it.
* * *
“I figured a way to make money,” the clear but anxious voice message began. This coming on a day when headlines blare “the recession is over” and we’re of a mind that perhaps we have no reason to further pursue this line of storytelling. “I can’t explain, you’ve got to come over and see,” the message continued, and since our a posteriori knowledge diverges from the headlines—and we’re fortunately still getting paid to go out and see things—we step to it.
In the living room of the modest Hollywood apartment, a queen-size bed sits neatly made. “Well, what do you think? I’ve rented out my bedroom,” says Buddy Hickerson, smiling broadly and seemingly satisfied at this development, but his tone betrays despair, and bitterness that things have come to this. He evokes the actor Jack Lemmon in one of his comic-anguish roles, but badly needing a haircut and wearing a T-shirt that might not survive another washing. Hickerson is a cartoonist and, short of “The Simpson’s” creator Matt Groening, as established as they come. Once the staff artist with The Denver Post, his name is on the spines of three books, and his syndicated daily cartoon strip “The Quigmans” at one point ran in 75 daily newspapers nationwide. When papers began trimming budgets, Hickerson transitioned into animation and quickly made it to the winner’s circle after walking into a dot-com convention at the Roosevelt Hotel in 2000, portfolio in hand, and walking out with a quarter-million-dollar contract to produce a Web series of his character Swamp Baby. “I got my head stuck in the Hollywood honey pot,” he says of the deal, which led him to invest in equipment and software. He completed all of two episodes before the producers backed out. “At the time they were screaming for content and they were paying. That ended.” An NBC show he worked on was canceled before airing, but he got in half a year’s work before joining the ranks of the self-unemployed—those uncounted millions who never figure in the unemployment stats—and got used to feast or famine. Only the past few years haven’t churned out many feasts for Hickerson.
No one is paying for the curiously named webisodes any longer, Hickerson explains, as artists striving for that exposure are posting shows gratis. “My big hope is to sell a TV show, that’s where the money is.” But demand is uncertain. The Cartoon Network is switching to cheaper live action shows—no more cartoons, he hears. “Ideally I’ll land a job as a character designer with an animation company.” Those companies, however, want workers skilled in a litany of computer programs which freshly minted art school graduates are highly proficient at, and those recent grads will work for nothing to build a portfolio.
“They used to ship off the design drawings to Korea to be animated. Now, using Flash [an animation program], they hire someone here to do the work of six Koreans. “You have to be a techie—these people are machines. I’m an artist. ... I feel sorry for those bastards,” he says of the young cartoonists he’s competing with for work. Cartoon syndicates now solicit drawings from artists without pay to post on their websites. Should a particular cartoon attract interest, they will do some promotion. “The upside is you’re in the on-deck circle, plying your trade.” Hickerson quickly edits himself. “What am I saying? It’s pathetic. There’s nothing good about it.”
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