At the beginning of the New Year I like to ring up a handful of my fellow publicists and catch up. Find out what they did the previous year, swap war stories, diss on stars we don't like, that sort of thing.If a fellow flack hasn't worked in a while, there's a "Publicists' Protocol" regarding what to say and what not to say. Acceptable empathetic responses include, "Hell, who is busy these days? I've never seen it so dead around here." Or, "Well, that's a blessing in a way; you've always talked about wanting to take some time off." (In the movie industry, everyone talks about taking time off, but no one ever actually does it - voluntarily.) What you must not do, ever, is speak favorably about whatever gig you may have had. Behave as if it were the worst ordeal of your life. This is accomplished by simply saying, "It was the worst ordeal ever." Optional add-ons include, "You'd think I'd have had the sense to leave by day three," or "Why do I always get stuck with the stuff no one else wants?" Nonetheless, even when said in the most sincere tones, the effectiveness of this rejoinder is inherently diminished by the fact that every freelancer, in any field, knows the only thing worse than an awful assignment is no assignment. A final cushioning comment is therefore necessary before moving on to other topics (such as who else isn't working). It goes as follows: "I have absolutely nothing on the horizon, of course. No idea what I'm doing next." Should it be revealed the very next day that you're working on the set of Tom Hanks' new film, the standard escape clause is, "Well, they just called me out of the blue. I'm sure I wasn't their first choice. Someone must have died." Even with this protocol firmly in place, conversations were much tougher this year with my informal "Circle of Six." Two of them were toiling out of town - reluctantly, as both are family types and hate leaving LA - and one had left the business altogether. Gone straight, as it were. Of the other two, only one worked in their chosen field last year. And that was for just nine weeks! Film production in Hollywood is still way down from what it was in the '90s, and it's leaving publicists and other industry tradespeople with two options: nomadism and following the work to far-off lands (Canada, Europe, Australia, Mauritania) or working on their tans at home. Yeah, I was lucky enough to have worked last year, but, I hasten to add, it was the worst ordeal of my life, and I have no idea what I'm doing next.