Snowblind in LA

Don’t die, don’t die, please God don’t die!

I had no idea what would happen when a dumb ass twenty-something, working on one of his first music videos put regular gasoline in the diesel tank of a 4-ton truck carrying tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of set design and equipment.

I figured at some point in time, someone, or something, was going to get throttled.

Either the engine was going to suddenly give out because of my clumsy, incorrect, handle-grabbing idiocracy, or I would be the one slowly stifled at the hands of an overzealous, overcompensating douchebag producer, who in that moment, was performing the first and only act of justified violence in his angry little life.

As I was bounding up the 5 with about 15 miles to go until the drop off in Sun Valley, I pondered my past, present, and future. But mostly, I pleaded.

I had already pulled two 20-hour days back to back, which meant I was running on the exact amount of doctor recommended sleep for one night, yet here I was, on day three.

So, fuck me, right?

Instinct took over and having only ever refilled a regular gasoline-powered car, I grabbed the handle for that sweet, sweet 85 regular-unleaded, using the same amount of brainpower I use to brush my teeth.

10 more miles. Is it gonna blow up? Am I gonna die? Am I literally going to become one of those stories right now? Or Jesus forbid, worse yet, am I going to get fired? Like super embarrassingly fired.  Like, dude, you caused a $70,000 insurance claim fired.

Shouting at the heavens, I cursed the days lauding my perceived good fortune at getting to work with all my friends. “Oh my god you guys, we are so lucky; we basically get paid to just spend time with our best frie…” Blah blah now all those friends are gonna know how utterly stupid I am.

So, as one does, I made promises, prayed, and pulled out every negotiating tactic I could think of, trying to convince a higher power of all the good I would bring to the world, if I could just somehow get out of this. Please, I promise I’ll never retweet an article without actually reading it. Honest to God, no more making fun of people’s idiotic, I mean super cute and sweet, baby announcements. I swear I’ll never again use the phrases “Can we offline later”, “I only smoke when I drink”, “It must have sat in my DRAFTS folder”, “My phone’s been acting weird” or “I’ve been super busy but let’s for sure hang out soon.”

Okay, just one corner left… 100 yards…

And then, out of nowhere… BOOM – a crazed maniac in a minivan ran a red light and plowed right into the truck. 

Shockingly, nobody was seriously injured, but the truck was most certainly totaled; mangled and leaking everywhere. But right then, I gazed at the moonlit wreckage and realized the miracle of my total exoneration. I watched that petroleum-based evidence disappear into blackness; it dripped onto the pavement and mirrored the blood dripping from the fresh cut just above my left eyebrow. 

And then I thought, ‘holy shit, do I have to keep every promise of good behavior and redemption I just made?’ Because then this thing better just blow and take me with it.

In the entertainment business, that’s what we call a “cold open”.

Hopefully, it hooks the audience and draws them in, including hints of what is to come.  Cue the opening credits and we go back to the beginning.

Actually, I guess it wasn’t technically the beginning; I like to think of it more as a pre-beginning. A prologue, perhaps.  Either way, before we dive in, let’s stop in for a quick analysis break.

Quick Analysis Break: There are two things you should take away from the opening story. The first, is to relax; everyone has their truck story, which reminds us that nobody is perfect.  The second, is that you will get into a car accident if you move here, and it will be with a minivan or a gray Prius.

With that, allow me to introduce myself; my name is Nate. I was a Supervising and Creative Producer at a well-known comedy website and production company that played host to hundreds of celebrities looking to get into the viral video craze.

After a number of years, I left to found a Production Company of my own and focus on commercials, music videos, short films, and something called long-form narrative (shows similar in length to the ones on Quibi).

I grew up in the middle of nowhere outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico and although I’ve managed to live and work in LA for 10 years, by no stretch of the imagination do I consider myself to have “made it”.

So, it should make sense that I’m hesitant to be so public about my stories, as I’m just not sure how qualified I am to be any sort of authority. Despite qualifications, though, I have thoughts, opinions, advice (good and bad), as well as various anecdotes chronicling my time here over the years. And what I’ll try to do is provide some analysis as to what is meant to be taken from each.  

To that end, if you’re either a weary reader looking to know more about the entertainment industry or my mother who I will invariably send this to in a sad, desperate attempt to aid my decade long appeal that all the tuition money wasn’t a complete fucking waste, then WELCOME! Don’t worry, she’s already privy to most of the unsavories mentioned.

Look mom, I wrote a blog post! Also please send money.

Okay, let’s go… I got my “start” like anyone else in this industry… By essentially lying on my resume… for an unpaid gig… that I didn’t even get. I interviewed with a company designed to create animated television that makes money for themselves and the network. And before subscription-based services, they used to do this by hiring talented people who work long hours to make things that people like to spend their time watching. And in turn, this provides an opportunity for other people to sell stuff in between breaks in the story. And these people didn’t want to NOT pay me to do work for them.

They sat themselves down and had a nice ‘think.’

Is it “worth it” to let this guy come do things that help make us money which will ultimately cost us nothing? It’s nothing but beneficial to us to have someone come willingly do things for us, for free, that normally warrant an exchange of wages. And we’re not talking about responsibilities typically reserved for the Head of Thoracic surgery at Johns Hopkins here… we’re talking running lunch orders and restocking the pens.

So, if you ever find yourself in that position, let me tell you, it’s absolutely worth it to have someone come willingly work – for free.

It wasn’t until some months down the road that the person they did hire, left or got fired (they never said), that they decided I was just okay enough to come work for free. What an honor.

Quick analysis break: You’ll be fine. I know it stings when you have a Master’s degree and you get rejected from the serving gig at Barney’s Beanery, but fuck ‘em. Also, almost everyone’s first job here is terrible. So, it’s important to know your worth as well as your tolerance for bullshit and have the wisdom to distinguish between the two. Because sure, that “job” was demeaning, but I made some really amazing connections there.

Fast forward a few years later and I was finally established enough to get paid to work, I guess? We’re going to touch on this a bit later so just stand by.

But here goes – allow me to set the scene. 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light… just kidding, that was obviously Dickens.

It was 2015 and I was drunk on a bus.

Actually, hold on, let me take you back a little further… in the early 2010’s, people were just figuring out the many ways to monetize the internet, which spawned the birth of Branded Content. If you know it at all, you’ll know it better as Spon Con or Sponsored Content now. Anyway, this shit was lucrative – like the music industry during the compact disk era.

Companies were pairing with New Media outlets to release content and get as many eyes on their product as they would with a network (if not more) for a discounted price and without dealing with all the union garbage that comes with a network commercial.

Websites like Buzzfeed and College Humor developed a symbiotic relationship with advertisers because they could generate massive amounts of revenue for their original content which would drive traffic to the site and then use those numbers and sell spots to ad agencies who want to get eyes on some low budget commercial for a new body spray.

Sorry, back to it. Enough learning. Remember, we’re still cliffhanging on the edge of me getting fucked up on a form of mass transit.

So, I was producing a shoot with a pop star (who I think is now married to a former pirate?) for a Rock the Vote campaign but we had a company party the night before and rather than be responsible, I just fully went for it.

Smash cut to the following morning and I was a train wreck. Ironically, the premise of the video dictated that the pop star look like she’d just rolled out of bed after a night of hard partying – still in pajamas and hair frazzled with bits of the previous night bespeckled throughout. When I went to check on her, we chatted about the schedule for the day and I somehow managed to conceal the dumpster fire that was my morning.

Shortly thereafter, we realized there was something missing from her look. No one could put their finger on it, but they all knew it needed a pop of color. “What about a lollipop? Can we put a lollipop in my hair?” she asked.  “I think it should be yellow. Yeah, that’s perfect; can we get a yellow lollipop?” she sounded sure. 

I, of course, answered in the affirmative and then promptly forgot the entire conversation about two minutes later when someone came up to me and said we’d lost the production truck. Don’t worry, we found it. And sometime later, when we’d walked our star to set and the crew was ready to go, I felt the entire team’s anticipatory eyeballs settle on me.

“Did you get the lollipop?”

Son of a bitch. Ok, it sounds simple but right now, if you stopped reading because someone told you that you needed a yellow lollipop in the next 10 minutes or your dog was going to die, do you think you could do it?

Where would you start? The soda fountain on the corner? Sorry, we’re not in the 1950’s anymore or at Charlie’s Fucking Chocolate Factory.

Surprisingly, or maybe not… she absolutely refused to start filming without this damn lollipop, and we were running behind on an already tight day. Meanwhile, I was getting hit from all sides. 

Her team wanted to know why they were ignored, the Executive Producer was losing her mind because she sees every minute lost as another bundle of cash going out the window, the crew was pissed, and the nosey client just wants to know what’s going on so Jessica and Karen can give their two cents. Long story short, I got the entire production team together and told them whoever’s first to bring me back a yellow lollipop gets $200. And sure enough, one guy, being the life-saving angel that he was, found the prized possession at a gas station nearby and had it back before I had a total mutiny on my hands.

Quick (Actually Long) Analysis Break: Mistake number one is that I underestimated the seriousness of the request. Mistake number two was that I underestimated how much talent runs this town. If the customer is always right everywhere else, then in LA, the talent’s word is gospel. Plus, they’re even called “The Talent”. There are literally hundreds of talented people on any given set, from the DP, to the writer, the editor, etc. Anyway, mistake number three? That one’s obvious and we already covered it – I was hungover as all holy hell.

Ok so now that I’ve hopefully got your attention, I feel like I should start to wrap things up here and in light of much of what’s going on lately, I’m taking this opportunity to address a few key points.

It may feel like a sudden left turn, but I should mention (if you haven’t already figured it out) that I happen to be a cisgender, straight, white male from the middle class. It’s important to mention because it gives me a certain perspective.

I think a lot about how some of the specific points in my career could have been shaped differently if any one of those aforementioned adjectives of mine were different. Exactly how much do I owe to those adjectives? Let’s take a look back. I’ve already provided some light-hearted analysis to each story but what happens when we look at things through a different lens? Is it possible to gain a different perspective?

Thinking way back on that fateful night in the valley, would the situation with the truck have been handled differently if I weren’t white? Could the cops maybe not have just taken my word that my light was green, and it wasn’t my fault? I don’t remember the ethnicity of the minivan driver but if our roles were reversed might it have yielded a different outcome? Would the unpaid internship, that I wasn’t even getting college credit for, be viewed differently by myself or the company if I were a person of color? Could something seemingly as small as a lollipop have been my downfall in the eyes of my bosses if I were anybody but a straight white male?

Sure, there are arguments to be made on both sides but what’s important is to recognize there are some big issues that white people may not have been privy to, or chose to ignore, or didn’t realize. I call it being snow-blind. Literally blinded by whiteness.

As I’m not an expert on the matter, I’d rather use this as a platform to add to the discussion – or at least assure the readers (after a long four pages of me mostly getting away with shit) that I’m open to having the conversation.

And through that lens, what I will say, is that as it stands now, the way this industry is set up, it most certainly discriminates in terms of socioeconomics.

After sharing everything I just did, this article couldn’t possibly end with some trite guarantee that all your Los Angeles based dreams will come true as long as you work hard and keep at it. Nothing in this entire world really works that way and honestly, this is a steeper hill than most.

At dinner, after a long shoot, I once heard a fellow Producer explain that she and her boyfriend (who was an editor) thought a person needs a 2-part combination of luck, work ethic, and personality in order to be successful in Hollywood.

Yes, LUCK.  It’s pretty crucial. There are so many stories here of right place, right time. You meet someone at the bathroom sink who knows your roommate from college so you have a couple of drinks and afterward your script accidentally falls out of your bag and the title happens to be the name of your new friend’s recently deceased Aunt so they read it and pass it along to their boss and all of a sudden A Star is Born.

Work Ethic? You have to want it. Both the long hours and constantly being under a pile of shit all to someday dress up for an overly elaborate dinner party at the Beverly Hilton for one night. Some people simply work harder for it than everyone else.

Personality? It kinda sounds like you don’t want it to be true but if you’re not a joy to be around, it can make things a lot harder. However, like I already said, you only need two out of three and you hear a lot about this one; I assure you, talk-show host monsters, and ficus-lurking pedophile producers/rapists are all still out there.

Now I agree with all of the above, but there is something I think they missed. There are actually four, of which you need three to make it. But god, if you have this fourth one, the others start to seem far less important.

You absolutely need a support system. Almost every person I know above the level of an assistant comes from means that have enabled them to make under 25K per year for a long time – including myself. Nepotism is certainly a factor, but it mostly comes in the form of having the means (wealth or influence) to get your family member’s foot in the door. And now what we’re talking about is the inexcusable economic divide many people of color have been pointing out for centuries but especially so in the last few decades.

There is a difference between EQUALITY and EQUITY. While most of the recent fight has been for equality, many have forgotten the importance of the other word. So many of the laws up to the Jim Crow and beyond have been directed at keeping equity away from minorities in this country, and I think white people are finally beginning to open their eyes to the very real consequences effecting the subsequent generations.

So, I’m again going to be more open than I’m used to here in order to illustrate a point.  This would never happen but say for argument’s sake that I did actually somehow end up being responsible for an insurance claim on the truck from my story. It would be a long, uncomfortable talk with my family and certainly entail a ton of pride-swallowing but in the end, I could comfortably cover that claim.

Meanwhile, according to a statistic in the NY Times, only 9 percent of Black households headed by people aged 30-59 answered affirmatively when asked in a survey if they had received any inheritance.  

The cold hard fact of the matter is that so many young people of color (who are fucking crucial to the continuation of representation in storytelling) may not have the soft financial pillow to fall back on that so many of their white peers enjoy.

That said, what I don’t think is helpful, is to lower my accomplishments due to the color of my skin. Not that I personally mind, but we’re preaching here to the lowest common denominator and I think it’s helpful to lean toward positivity rather than negativity to avoid any impulse to become defensive.

There’s a wonderful movie called Hidden Figures and in it, I think the filmmakers made a really powerful choice. Although there are a few scenes that should feel incredibly uncomfortable to someone watching today, they never intentionally made the white characters in the film overly nefarious caricatures of the time period (albeit ripe with ignorance). Instead, they chose to build up the three black female protagonists to the same level of their white male peers (or rather at least attempt to put those white men in the same category as Katherine Johnson, but quite frankly, she’s in a league of her own).

Rather than focus purely on the hypocrisy and injustice of the time period, they chose to highlight the faults of the system that had been built around them which inevitably lead to the toleration of such a system, which in turn slowed any progress toward lifting racial bias.

What we have in the entertainment industry, much like in many other aspects of this country, is a broken system. The very idea of “paying your dues” has become a manifestation of inherent racial bias. You can only pay your dues if you and your family can AFFORD for you to do so. And as more and more people flock to this city, the wait times for certain positions seem to be increasing, so in turn, offering a living wage to the entry-level positions might help to eliminate this subtle form of discrimination.

Treating actors and actresses like Gods and Goddesses, fighting over big-name Directors by signing them to deals so big it allows them to buy their fourth mansion in Malibu, and pissing on the kids in their twenties that keep the wheels turning and the lights on doesn’t seem to be the answer to Hollywood’s problems. Even still, year after year, we’ll sit through the same discussion of why every single person in the Best Actor category is white until something changes from the bottom up.

Again, I don’t claim to have all the answers nor do I wield anywhere near the power needed to change anything, yet, but I still believe I should ask the questions, understand the head start I was given, and vow to give back and attempt to fix the broken machine from the inside.

Because remember way back at the beginning? I promised only good behavior and redemption to save my sorry ass from blowing up in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. And you know what? Someone or something listened that night. They sent a minivan. Let’s all do the same… listen, I mean… don’t send anyone a minivan – that’s fucking pointless.

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