Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Night At The Opera and Green Stamps

Some jokes lose all value when the reference becomes archaic.

As indie producers follow the spiral downward in terms of pay for crew, I have already had some DP friends  joke ,"Will shoot for food," and, sadly, they often are not far off, given some of the rates.

I'm old enough to remember people joking that someone wanted to "pay them with Green Stamps," and recently, this thought came to me when I accepted barter in exchange for some work I was doing.

First, an explanation about Green Stamps.

The reference is to S&H Green Stamps. The way it worked was a number of supermarkets, department stores and other retailers would give you these Stamps along with your purchase. The stamps would go into books, and the books could be traded in for items.

As with most "rewards" programs such as this, the work was hardly ever worth the effort. To get anything of real value - you know, more than a new toaster, for example - you needed to amass an amazing number of books, not to mention the embarrassing process of having to put them into the books. Like postage stamps, they had to be moistened on the back.

I can still remember Mom, with the sponge on one side, the books on the other, and stamps in the middle. She created a small assembly line. Remember, our parents were from what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation," that had grown up during at least part of the Great Depression. Getting value from everything was important. If some company was going to give something away, they were going to be there to take it.

Even then, however, some people saw how the process outweighed the rewards, and the joke about allowing others to pay you in "Green Stamps" arose from people offering something of little value for barter.

Usually, this is the reference that comes to my mind when I see these "job" notices that offer "meals, IMDB credit, copy of the film and a chance to work with other filmmakers." Nice, except all of those things should go without saying, and in no way change the idea that many of us do this for a living. These are not really forms of compensation - and I already have a toaster.

Now, my case was slightly different, and, to my mind, worked out not so bad at all.

There is a filmmaker who has had a number of projects over the years that required a budget to raise funds, and he has repeatedly come back to me. These were good projects; there is no reason they should not have been funded. One, a feature, had gone up and down the budget ladder in what would look like a Marx Brothers movie if it weren't so sad. The script, based in part on his life, was a good tale of a young man who marries an older woman, who expects them both to live a high life, and keeps them both living lavishly.

The townhouses and rich lifestyle they chase made it impossible to do this in the very low indie mode, say, below $1 million. We budgeted it for the least we could imagine. Then, a big name producer and director wanted to get involved, but, of course, that that upped the budget, so we revised it upward. The result? It's too big a budget- can you cut it?

I've been on this roller coaster before, and while it is frustrating for me, it is more frustrating for the filmmaker. Reasonable changes I do for free - I can't justify making someone pay every time someone wants to tweak something in one direction or the other. In this case, each of the changes was so drastic and so much work that while I charged a good deal less for the revisions, I did require an additional fee.

There were also two other projects, one a documentary, as yet unfunded. Each time he paid me.

This time, he needed something simpler, and asked if I could do it for a little below my regular rate. I really felt bad for the guy - these were all worthy projects, and all he saw was money going out.

"Just give me a number," I told him. I knew he would be fair, and while it was way below what I would have charged someone else, it was more than reasonable.

He works at the Metropolitan Opera, and asked if, in exchange for accepting the lower end of the range we discussed, he could throw in a pair of tickets to the opera.

It was a new production of a contemporary piece, and while I don't ever get to go to the opera any more, I lived with an opera singer, was married to a musician and once directed for a young opera workshop. Sure, I would take the tickets.

Accepting the tickets also allowed me to do something nice for the camera person who is one of my favorite crew people who let me crash at her place when Hurricane Sandy left me with no power for a while.

She had never been, but asked "Can we get dressed up?" Sure, I told her. "Don't let me down," she said, and on the day of, when I reminded her of the time, she reminded me of the promise. There was a little history.

She has her own camera, and a few years back. I line produced a Live from the Artists' Den show for PBS.. I hired her, but told her that the producer wanted all the camera operators to dress in formal wear. She was the only female, and was glad to do so. "Are you going to dress up."

I didn't have the time to change, but joked that one day I would dress in my teen 70s attire - full bell-bottoms, dickey, etc.  Now, most of you may have seen pictures of your folks in bell-bottoms, but dickeys, in their late-60s and early 70s incarnation, were not false tuxedo tops, but rather false turtlenecks. No, I cannot describe why this ever became a fad, and, to borrow from that current fashion reality show, few of us made it work.

Well, even at my Mom's place, most of those clothes are gone, and, sad to say, what may remains no longer would fit. I've gained more than wisdom over the years.

My friend was worried that I would renege again, but, as the picture below can attest, I did not.

Of course, when my loving ex saw the picture, she couldn't resist. "Aw, father and daughter. How cute."

When one of your friends and crew people is also a lovely opera and dinner companion for the evening, let them joke. It's certainly rare that I get to dress up, and there's joy enough in the charm of good company.

The opera that evening. The Tempest, by Englishman Thomas Ades, was written only a few years ago, and this was the first time I got to see a composer conduct his own work (in no small part because most of them are dead).

The opera was wonderful, the coloratura who sang the spirit Ariel being among my favorites.

The next week, my producer friend had another spare pair of tickets, this time to Verdi's Un Ballo en Maschera.  This was a more old-school production, but again, marvelous voices.

Two wonderful evenings of entertainment in return for a small discount. Not bad at all.

Of course, I hope that the general work environment does not become one in this digital age where barter becomes the norm, but heck, I can't complain. I didn't even have to lick any stamps.

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