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.
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5 responses

7 03 2012
Justin William Rettke

What is the least comprehensible aspect of Hollywood culture you have found to date?

10 03 2012
hsapien

In anthropology, we consider all human behavior to be equally valid as an expression of individual cultures. That said…perhaps the strangest story I ever heard in the industry is about how a major motion picture didn’t get made because two of the principal producers couldn’t agree on a restaurant for their first big meeting. Sunk the whole project. (!!)

11 03 2012
Norma Palmer

Ah yes, Hortense. Remember her well, though I was a very young child actor at the time she interviewed me. I bit her on her rather fleshy calf–the right one, as I recall. I had nothing against her, mind, I was just a biter.

I’m thrilled, absolutely thrilled, that finally someone is finally bringing to light the anthropological aspect of this magnificent industry. By the by, dear, have you read John Gregory Dunne’s book “Monster.” Seriously, your comment about the producers in the restaurant made me think of the late Mr. Dunne’s take on screenwriting for such as
them.

12 03 2012
hsapien

You were interviewed by Powdermaker? Wow, that’s fantastic; it was definitely groundbreaking research at the time (though i’ll have to re-read her to see if she mentions the biting). Thanks for your kind words, hope you enjoy the future posts…

12 03 2012
Leah Smith

Is there any credibility to the theory that the majority of employees in the entertainment industry are not indigenous to the filmmaking capital of the world, California? And if so, why is this?

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