Unions and Guilds – [or] Workers of the Biz, Unite!

27 03 2012

Anthropologists often focus on social organizations, and since ballots for the SAG/AFTRA merger are due this Friday (March 30), it seemed fitting to write a bit about one of the most prominent sets of cultural groups in the entertainment industry: labor unions.  There’s been a lot written about labor unions over the past few years, mostly about how they’ve grown weaker and felt their political power ebb; but in Hollywood, the unions still reign.

Culturally speaking, there are of course many reasons that human beings form social groups; unions specifically are established because of inequalities in an economic system (“The role of labor unions is to ameliorate the inequities of power that the class relations between workers and owners of capital define via the power of collective action.” – anthropologist E. Paul Durrenberger).  The chart below shows, as near as I’ve been able to discover, the rough current size of the local unionized workforce.  As of 2011, the MPAA estimates that 192,000 people are directly or indirectly employed by the entertainment industry – that figure seems a bit low, as this chart shows that just the local unionized workforce caps that many people, not including the people the MPAA considers “indirectly employed.”

anthropology of Hollywood

Now, this is hardly a unified movement – some of these unions can be operating in opposition to each other, some are the local part of a larger union, etc.  The IATSE, in particular, is made up of a vast number of smaller chapters that cover a variety of different production jobs (I admit it, I did not know until just now there was an individual chapter for Studio First Aid Employees – local 767).  But any way you look at it, these numbers are pretty good for a modern labor movement in the United States.

The unions of Hollywood are an interesting breed for a number of reasons.  One of the more unusual is that often, they place a high bar on membership – in contrast to most modern labor unions, which go begging for members and strive to increase the number of unionized shops.   Perhaps the best-known of these limiting systems is the need for SAG vouchers (despite the many holes in that system); many other unions have byzantine requirements of work on closed-shop productions.  For example, to qualify as a First Assistant Director with the DGA, you have to have worked 520 days as a Second Asst. Director or 400 days as a First.  To become a member of IATSE Local 728 (set lighting), you have to work 30 days on a single union production in a single year.  The irony, of course, is that that to get work, you often need to be in the union, but to get into the union, you need to do the work.  In fact, it makes sense that many of these organizations include the word “guild” in their official titles; in reality they are more akin to medieval craft guilds than to modern organized unions.

anthropology of Hollywood

A medieval blacksmith’s guild. See? It’s just like your union.

As an anthropologist, what strikes me is the way various union rules and activities sometimes have unforeseen or surprising cultural effects: because SAG governed productions shot on film cameras, but AFTRA covered videotaped (including digital video) shoots, when TV productions started switching to AFTRA in order to avoid negotiating with SAG, there’s a strong argument that this hastened the decline in the use of film vs. digital cameras in production.  And in fact, 2011 saw the last motion picture cameras made by Panavision.

Share of television pilots shot under AFTRA or SAG supervision. Note the dramatic increase of AFTRA shops (and the recent slight upswing of SAG)

Details of the way the unions operate also showcase the idea that people who work in the entertainment industry are their own culture (or “tribe,” if you prefer).  In this case, showing the detailed internal rules whose expression makes sense to people inside the culture, but don’t mean make much sense to outsiders.  For example, outside of the industry, people often wonder what the difference is between “story by,” “adaptation by,” and “screenplay by” – details understood by people working within the industry.  In fact, the entire system of credits, heavily structured by union rules, makes little sense to people outside of the industry (and perhaps, sometimes to people within it); that’s one reason conflicts and lawsuits over credits occasionally erupt – relatively recent examples include Crash (producing credit), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (screenwriting credit), and Sons of Anarchy (creator credit).

                                                                                        — Scott Frank

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Credits & Collaboration [or] Nobody Understands What You Do!

12 03 2012

Where I come from, when the credits of a movie started to roll, that meant it was time to leave.  So when I moved to L.A. many years ago, one of the most baffling bits of culture shock was that at the end of a movie, people would actually sit through the credits and watch them.  Asking around to try and figure out the reason for our vast cultural differences, the most common response I got was that people in L.A. stick around through the credits “To see if anyone I know is there.”  Now, I don’t know if this is actually the reason or not – it’s certainly possible, given the number of people who work in the biz and the number of other people who must know them (after all, we’re all less than six degrees away from knowing Kevin Bacon).  But to me what credits really point out is one of the primary hallmarks of the artistic creation know as movie and TV production, and a common feature of cultures around the world: they are collaborative.

In Art Worlds (a groundbreaking book on the sociology of art), Howard Becker uses filmmaking as the example of the most complex type of artistic endeavor in our society.  Becker is writing about the different ways art is created, from individual artists working alone to large workshops fueled by the talent and effort of hundreds of people.  To him, filmmaking is an artistic product that requires the specialized talents of a tremendous number of different kids of artists – writers, directors, and actors of course, and also the below-the-line work of craftspeople that pull together on set and make things work.   One of the most astonishing things about the production of a film or television show is the sheer number of talented people it takes to put one together.

anthropology of Hollywood

These guys from Ben Hur are really just working on a collaborative production.

I’ve worked in museums for many years, and one of the most interesting things about them is how little people who work in one end of a museum often know about the ones who work in the other – and how rarely anyone really seems to think about how integral everybody’s individual job is to running the whole place.  The people who take care of the artifacts don’t always think much about the financial people doing fundraising for the museum, and the financial ones don’t always seem to realize that the whole point of having a museum (okay, one of them) is to care for those artifacts.

This happens in the entertainment industry, too – as an anthropologist, many people I talk to seem to think that, whatever their role, it is eternally underappreciated by everybody else who works in the industry.  A few weeks ago a screenwriter told me that nobody seems to understand that without the writers, nothing would be created.  Grips and other below-the-line professionals feel that they’re invisible to people outside the production office, and actors complain that people don’t understand that what they do is a craft, and requires talent and skill.  And of course, there was Stanley Motts’ (Dustin Hoffman) rant in Wag the Dog about how there isn’t an Oscar for producing , because nobody knows what producers do (actually, producers usually accept the award when a film wins Best Picture).

And I think, to some degree, everybody who thinks these things is right. Each job in the industry is specialized, and professional, and involves talent and knowledge that is often hard-won through experience.  And so sometimes we denigrate people who try to step outside their own profession – actors who try to write screenplays, writers who want to be showrunners or direct (my screenwriter dopplegänger Scott Frank is one), etc.   But I think it’s a good thing, because it teaches everybody exactly how hard the other jobs are.  That actor who is writing learns how difficult it can be to be a screenwriter.  The writer who directs finds out that the directors they’ve cursed for changing their words have reasons to do the things they do.

Obviously, the industry isn’t a happy fantasyland of smiling workers all getting along and whistling while they work.  But when you look at the sheer amount of collaboration and teamwork that’s required to produce any piece of media – from small independent webisodes to major motion pictures – from a social engineering perspective, it’s not exactly building the pyramids, but it’s still pretty damn impressive.

— Scott Frank





Welcome to Hollywood Sapien – the Anthropology of Hollywood!

7 03 2012

Hello; my name is Scott; I’m an anthropologist (that is, I have a Ph.D. in it), and I’ve been studying the entertainment industry for over ten years. 

What can an anthropologist tell you about the entertainment industry?  When most people think of anthropologists – if they think of us at all – it’s in terms of studying remote tribes: in Papua New Guinea, perhaps, or among the !Kung bushmen.  Occasionally you get an image of Indiana Jones, or for the people who remember their anthropology course back in freshman year, Margaret Mead.  When people at a party ask what I do and hear “I’m an anthropologist,” they say “oh, you dig up dinosaur bones?”  The correct answer is to say “yes,” then slowly edge your way over to the punch bowl.

Anthropology is the study of human beings, in any place and any time; modern anthropologists use their skills for understanding human behavior everywhere, from remote villages in the Amazon or Himalayas to the bustling urban streets of Shanghai or Paris.  At Hollywood Sapien, the goal is to look with an anthropologist’s eye towards the “tribe” of the entertainment industry.  Those who work in the business know: people in Hollywood are like their own remote tribe – with specialized language, complex social networks, and strange behaviors that seem bizarre to outsiders.  Over the years I’ve presented scholarly articles and papers on casting professionals, actors, scientific and technical consultants, headshots, and production design.  And with an estimated (by the MPAA) 193,200 people working in the entertainment industry, there’s plenty more to write about.  By the way, that number is low – there are about 192,000 people just working in the local Hollywood unions; if you include all the related jobs, the figure is much, much higher.

A New Yorker cover featuring Oscar "worshipers"

The anthropology of Hollywood: the entertainment industry tribe “worshiping” their Oscar idol

In 1949, anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker first wrote about Hollywood from an anthro perspective.  She wanted to see how understanding the people who make movies [no significant TV then] helps to understand the final product  (in her words, “how the social system underlying the production of movies influences them”).  That was 63 years ago, and although in many ways the Hollywood of today is not the one she studied, the culture she described is familiar to any denizen of modern Los Angeles and the entertainment industry: the competition, the belief that everybody is just one “break” away from success or failure, the jealously-guarded profit figures, and the phenomenon whereby “schoolteachers, doctors, white-collar workers, and many others…spend their spare time writing movie scripts.”  That’s right, apparently that was true in 1949 as well as today.  So the fact that the guy who does your hair says he’s also writing a script is part of a long and noble tradition.

There are so many amazing, fascinating, crazy, and occasionally unbelievable things about the Industry; in the coming weeks and months (years?), there will be no shortage of subjects to write about.  I welcome discussions, responses, and suggestions for topics; this should be a conversation we all have, no a lecture.  Look forward to next time!

                                                                                 — Scott Frank

  • I shouldn’t be confused with the screenwriter Scott Frank (whose real name is Alan Scott Frank).  Pseudonyms, screen names, and naming conventions and will be covered in a future post.  For now let’s just note that nicknames and alternate names are common in cultures around the world.
  • People interested in a historical perspective on the Industry might enjoy Powdermaker’s original 1949 anthropology of Hollywood book, titled Hollywood, The Dream Factory.  Out of print for a number of years, you can find it on abebooks and Amazon.