Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

25 04 2012

Congratulations! If you work in the entertainment industry, you are statistically more likely to make it big than in a regular field.  Of course, you’re also more likely to completely fail.  Welcome to the magic of living and working in a kurtotic system.

This news comes courtesy of the absolutely-fascinating-every-single-one-of-you-should-read-it book Hollywood Economics, by Arthur De Vany.  I’m not a statistician (as you’ll obviously see), but De Vany is, and the book is full of brute force statistic analysis of different aspects of the entertainment industry, including “does having a star in your movie guarantee box office?”  “is the blockbuster strategy successful?”  and “does luck or talent predict a strong career in the industry?”  (that last one should be of interest to pretty much everybody).  Now, as an anthropologist, I am loathe to rely on strictly statistical analysis of what are clearly strongly culturally-determined effects, but DeVany’s data is compelling.  Statistics can’t give you an idea of the cultural reasons behind the effects they’re showing, but they are good for measuring those effects.

One of the most interesting overall conclusions De Vany makes is that analyses of almost all Hollywood functions reveal that the entertainment industry is, statistically speaking, highly kurtotic (as opposed to having a standard, bell-curve-like distribution).  That means that the industry is characterized by a non-standard distribution curve of resources, and is highly sensitive to nonlinear event cascades: so exceptional statistical values, both high and low, occur more frequently than in normally structured systems.

anthropology of Hollywood

Different statistical curves – note that high kurtosis (technically called “leptokurtic” here) has an unusually high peak, but also that the downslopes of the peak are lower than in a standard distribution. I know, statistics make my head hurt, too.

In other words, there is an unusually large proportion of people at the bottom, and that people at the top are really at the top.  And as a side benefit, seemingly small events can snowball into large outcomes more frequently than in a standard system (for example, you write a small screenplay for a webisode, someone likes it, they offer you to write an episode of a TV show, you get bigger and bigger screenwriting jobs, and eventually you’re a well-known, powerhouse screenwriter (?), being yelled at by Mel Gibson – all originating from a single, small event).  Now, things like this can certainly happen in a regular system, but in a kurtotic one, they’re more likely to happen.

That’s right, in a system of high kurtosis, extreme values occur more often than in a regular system.  As De Vany notes, the Hollywood system is “dominated by a handful of extraordinary movies and artists that account for nearly all of the industry impact and revenue.  The kurtocrats are Hollywood’s elite, the actors, directors, writers, and producers who are associated with the major movies.”

Figures do indeed bear this out.  According to the MPAA, in 2010 the entertainment industry was responsible for $16 billion in wages in the state of California.  The top ten earning actors that year made $349 million of the total $16 billion in wages – meaning 2% of the total wages were earned by roughly .0038% of the workforce.  But we shouldn’t forget that there are 121,990 more actors out there; DeVany is correct about the kurtotic nature of the industry, but his analysis creates an unreasonable focus on the super-elites in the system, while ignoring the vast number of middle-class, working stiffs.

anthropology of Hollywood

One of De Vany’s graphs, showing the effect of having big-name stars in a movie. From the names, you can tell this article was written in 1999. (full citation below)

A system of high kurtosis means a lot of high values, but a lot of extremely low ones as well – all the people you know or have met that are trying to make it for many years, or exist on the fringes of the industry.  But hey, look at the bright side: a nonlinear event cascade could mean that any one of those people could (relatively) suddenly be unbelievably successful.  In fact, the rise of the original studio heads is an excellent example of this; and it’s arguably part of the dream that has kept people coming to L.A. since the biz began.

— Scott Frank

  • Table from “Uncertainty in the Movie Industry: Does Star Power Reduce the Terror of the Box Office?”  by Arthur De Vany and W. David Walls, Journal of Cultural Economics, 23: 284-318, 1999.
  • By the way, as an anthropologist and not a statistician, my grasp of these concepts is admittedly weak.  I’m going mostly by my reading of what De Vany writes, and will welcome corrections from people with a deeper understanding of statistics than myself.

A Boffo B-Roll – Linguistics in Hollywood

19 04 2012

An Abby Singer. Points. Upfronts. Residuals.  Chances are, if you’re reading this you know what these words mean; if you don’t – well, that’s sort of the point.  When people ask what makes the people who work in the entertainment industry a culture (in the anthropological sense), I point out that they have their own language.  Or rather, in a technical sense, not their own language, but their own dialect.  A dialect is a specific subset of a language, used by people in a “discourse community.” This is an (admittedly imprecise) term that means, basically, people who use the same dialect.  Speech communities can be based on geographic region, socio-economic class, ethnicity – or in this case, profession.

There’s a lot to write about language in the industry (including what we mean by “the industry”); and this entry is just the beginning of a discussion on linguistic aspects of Hollywood culture.  But when we speak about language, one of the primary markers of a local dialect is the presumption that other locals know.  For example, check out the billboard pictured below:

anthropology of Hollywood

Do you know what an upfront is? The person who paid for this billboard is betting that you do.

“WE LOOK GOOD IN AN UPFRONT – even if you don’t know what an upfront is.”  Now, whoever paid a lot of money to put that billboard up on Wilshire blvd is aiming it at people who clearly do know what an upfront is – otherwise, why advertise to them?  But by adding the tagline “even if you don’t know…” they imply to those viewers that they are part of a privileged in-group, people in the know who understand the specialized dialect of the industry.  They’re saying that if you know local dialect, like the difference between Above-the-Line and Below-the-Line (and on which side of the line you stand) – then congratulations, you’re one of the cool kids.

But defining group identity is just one of the effect of language; specialized language – or jargon, if you prefer – is actually handy to people doing their jobs.  One of the most common forms of local language is in the specialized professions of production.  Each of the professions involved in production has their own set of terms; a professional language, technically called a “cant.”  Sometimes when I talk to a friend who works cameras, for example, I can barely understand him.  In Hollywood, even the names for the jobs themselves have meaning only to those who already live and work here: gaffers, grips, and show runners, for example. And how many people in Poughkeepsie know what a production designer does?

Finally, the trades (another local term) are also famous for their use of specialized language.  The best-known example may be the famous Variety headline “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” – that is, people in rural areas aren’t going to see movies about rural life.  Variety also routinely uses terms like boffo, payola, and skein, and provides a dictionary of self-titled “slanguage” online.  Similarly, in its’ official history, The Hollywood Reporter proudly trumpets its use of localized language back in the day  (“Studios were referred to as ‘the plant.’ Directors would sign on to ‘megaphone’ a picture.”)

anthropology of Hollywood

The famous headline (in 1935, Variety cost 15 cents – and was published in New York)

Linguists believe that the way we speak influences the way we think.  I’m not sure what that means for the speech community using the local dialect we’re talking about here (that they want everything to be boffo?  That they see an actual line dividing workers in different parts of a production?); maybe it means that Southern Californians should have twenty different words to mean “70 degrees and sunny weather.”

(by the way – it’s not true that Eskimos have twenty words for snow)

— Scott Frank

  • Two exhaustive collections of the dialect of the entertainment industry can been found in Movie Speak: How to Talk Like You Belong on a Movie Set by Tony Bill (a producer) and Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde: And Insider’s Guide to Film Slang by Dave Knox (a camera operator).  Actually, it’d be interesting to compare the two in-depth, to see the differences in dialect from people with different jobs in the industry.
  • For a more academic look at the language of different professions, you can look for the work of linguist Roger Shuy (he’s written about the language employed by lawyers, doctors, and other professionals).
  • People keep asking what an upfront is, so: upfronts are presentations that networks hold for advertisers, in order to convince them to purchase air time for ads.  They have also become the de-facto place for major networks to unveil their lineup of programs; so often it’s the first place where a shows’ future (renewal or cancellation) is confirmed.

Housewives and Death – Ritual Violence onscreen

5 04 2012

The L.A. Times recently ran an article on the lawsuit former cast member Nicollete Sheridan is bringing against the producers of Desperate Housewives.  There’s lots to culturally unpack about that whole situation, but what struck me was that the article noted that in course of the show’s eight seasons, 49 characters have been killed off.  Forty-nine! This isn’t a police procedural, or a show that takes place in a combat zone or a deadly meat-packing plant; in fact, it’s supposed to be a white, upper-middle class neighborhood.  Housewives takes place in a tough neighborhood – according to LAPD statistics, there have been just eleven actual homicides in the past six years in all of West L.A. (the 405 to the ocean, and the 10 north to Sunset blvd).  Can you imagine if a similar upper middle-class neighborhood in L.A. to the one depicted on the show actually had that crime rate?  It’d be in the news every day (and then, imagine if a predominantly poor or ethnic neighborhood had the same rate; would the coverage be as extensive?)

anthropology of Hollywood

Map showing locations of L.A. county homicides (bigger circles indicate more murders per area)

Not that anyone expects TV to depict reality; certainly not with an explicitly escapist show like Desperate Housewives.  Violence, especially ritualized violence, is a common subject for anthropologists to focus on.  “Rituals” to anthropologists are almost any behavior that occurs over and over, according to certain social rules (sometimes written, but often oral or even unspoken).  So yes, your Quinceanera or Bar Mitzvah were rituals, but so are the dance of studio contract negotiations, or the Academy Awards.  “Ritualized violence” is violence enacted in a specific, rule-driven way.  Examples could be a blood vendetta in which both sides are trapped by social rules that keep the an endless cycle of violence going; or the “jumping in” ritual for a gang, where current members beat on prospective ones.

In a sense, most of the violence we see on TV, and to some degree in movies, appears in a ritualized way.  Almost all police procedurals are like this, in which the pursuit of the crime unfolds the same way every week.  On a show like Castle, the ritual is followed with almost robotic devotion: each episode opens with a murder, the cops bring in exactly one wrong suspect, then after a flash of intuition bring in the right one.  This isn’t a critique; I enjoy and appreciate genre conventions, and the writers there do an excellent job of following them.

anthropology of Hollywood

Duels are an extremely ritualized form of violence (this one is illustrating a scene in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin)

Violence-wise, even individual fights in movies and on TV to some sense follow a cultural script: in a well-choreographed fight scene, certain things will occur every time – a flurry of blows, a moment where the adversary gets the upper hand and things look grim for Our Hero, and then a final bold/desperate/lucky move that results in triumph.  This script has been followed from the days when Errol Flynn dueled sword-to-sword with Basil Rathbone to modern times, when Matt Damon throws everything he has (literally) at his opponents in the Bourne movies.  You can trust me on this one not because I’m not just an anthropologist, but a fight choreographer, too – well, that’s my single IMDB credit, anyway.

One final note about onscreen violence: a 2008 study by economists Gordon B. Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna  (“Does Movie Violence Increase Violent Crime?”) showed that on weekends when violent action movies get released, violent crime actually decreases.  They propose a number of reasons for this: the primary one is that people who are likely to commit violent acts like to go see violent movies.  Since those people are in movie theatres, they’re a)not out and about, committing crimes, and b)not drinking, which is positively correlated with increased violence.  In fact, Dahl and DellaVigna speculate that the release of a big, violence-oriented action movie results in 1,000 fewer assaults on opening weekend.  And people say movies aren’t good for you…

— Scott Frank