Headshot Archaeology, Part I

5 12 2012

The thesis of Hollywood Sapien is that Hollywood has a culture, and all cultures produce artifacts – man-made objects that, when analyzed, tell us something about the culture in which they were produced.  In anthropology, we call these studies “material culture” and in fact, for many archaeologists, it’s the only way to learn about the culture of vanished civilizations.*

The entertainment industry produces lots of artifacts: every film, TV show, and YouTube video is itself a cultural artifact, but there are many other artifacts in use in Hollywood that can tell us about its culture. Here we’ll consider one of the most ubiquitous ones: the headshot.  While some entertainment industry artifacts (like Avid systems and matte paintings) are relatively few and far between, you find headshots all over the place in Southern California – not just in casting directors’ offices, but on the walls of seemingly every dry cleaner and auto repair shop in L.A.

artifacts

That’s right, I’m comparing actor headshots to these ancient artifacts.

Headshots have both a totemic function (to people not working in the entertainment industry) and a commercial one (to people who are).  The totemic function comes across on that dry cleaner’s wall – along with the car stereo stores, hairdressers, coffee shops, and everyplace else that has rows of headshots hanging, touting their celebrity clients.  Like other tribal totems, these headshots are meant to summon some of the power (the fame, image, and cachet) of those celebrities to the shop where they hang.   And by frequenting the shops where they appear, people get to bask – just a little – in the reflected glow of stars.

Figure2

Headshots as totems at a shoe repair shop. If you live in L.A., you probably see walls like this all over the place.

Artifacts are created for many reasons: some for ritual or religious use, some for entertainment, or as tools.  One of the most important things to note about headshots as artifacts is that they are objects produced for commercial use.  While commercial photography itself is very common, that’s not usually the case for portraits, which even when commercial in origin are mostly intended to have a personal use (like the picture of your friend’s baby taken at the Sears photo studio hanging on your fridge).  Headshots, on the other hand, are commercial images, but not personal ones; I’ve never seen one hanging in an actors’ home, in the way that personal snapshots and other photos do.

When I worked on a Roman archaeological site many years ago, one of the things we couldn’t believe is just how many damn pots those Romans made.  Similarly, another remarkable thing about headshot artifacts in the sheer number of them in circulation – every actor has two or three at any given time, and gets new shots made roughly every three or four years.  Even with the conservative estimate of a little over 21,000 working actors in Hollywood at any given time (see https://hollywoodsapien.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/how-many-actors-are-in-l-a/entry), that means well over 100,000 headshots in existence. 

The number involved directly in the casting process are also amazing: one casting director told me that for a minor guest star role on a network TV show, there will be between 1,500-3,000 actors vying for each spot; a typical sitcom episode might have one or two guest stars a week, an hourlong drama three to seven.  So for any given hour of television, a casting professional might have to look at 15,000 headshots – EVERY WEEK.  Of course, people doing the casting often don’t even see the full headshot; most of the time, they see just a tiny thumbnail, which they scroll past on a computer screen, like these:

Figure4

Thumbnail page from a casting site. You can see 12 images here, so for a single week’s episode of a network TV show, a casting director might have to look at over 1200 pages just like this one.  Yikes.

Which makes you feel bad sometimes for all the skill of the photographers who took the shots, and the actors who anxiously pore over details of the images: the way their hair looks, the tilt of the head, the crinkle of the smile, etc.  Small details don’t even come through the vast majority of the time their headshots will be seen by casting directors.*

You can learn a lot about a society from it’s material culture, and we’ve only scratched the surface of what headshots as artifacts can tell us about Hollywood.  There are plenty of topic for the next Sapien entry: how headshots reflect social and technological trends, the way they exhibit a something called polysemy (when people view the same object in different ways), and how, like many cultural artifacts, a history that can be traced in how they are made and what they look like. Until then…

— Scott Frank

  • Fear not, actors and photographers; obviously the time and energy you put into taking, editing, and selecting headshots isn’t really wasted: casting directors do see the details when they click on thumbnails or receive a copy of an actors physical headshot.
  • The impetus for this entry is an academic article I wrote on headshots that just got published in a scholarly journal – for which I interviewed a number of actors, headshot photographers, and casting professionals.  If you’re interested in that version, in all it’s dense academic-ese glory, the full citation is “Ready for Your Closeup? Polyvalent Identity and the Hollywood Headshot” in Visual Anthropology Review, volume 28 number 2, pages 180-189 (coming soon to a university library near you).
  • To my anthropologist and archeological colleagues – yes, I understand the distinction between how archaeological and material studies work; but for the lay audience, the relationship seems key.




Buffy v. Athena: Mythology Onscreen

18 07 2012

A couple of articles on the “mythology” of Prometheus, and the suggestion of a friend, have made me think maybe it’s time to consider the idea of mythology as it pertains to TV and movies.  Does such a thing exist?  Critics, bloggers, and fans talk about the mythologies of Lost, or Battlestar Galactica, or what have you.  The “artificial mythologies” section of Wikipedia lists detailed mythologies for the X-Files, Heroes, Carnivale, Lost, Babylon 5, Stargate, and Fringe.

The first thing you notice when looking into this subject is that there seems to be a focus on sci-fi in those entries; I suspect that’s because sci-fi tends to deal with the issues mythology does: where do we come from, where are we going, what makes us human, etc.  Shows like Law and Order, when they deal with larger social issues, are usually ones of more day-to-day politics, sex, or crime, as opposed to the meaning-of-life subjects of (some) sci-fi.  Because of this, it seems even shows that have a significant backstory and deal with larger elements of the human condition – The Wire, or even The Simpsons, are not, generally, referred to as having a mythology.  Keep in mind I don’t necessarily agree with that division, but it seems to exist nonetheless.

Anthropology of Hollywood

Should the cast of Lost be on this vase, rather than Poseidon, Athena, and Ares?

Anthropologically, none of these programs are a true mythology in the strictest sense.  Classical mythologies are not created by a team of talented writers sitting around a table; they evolve over centuries from bits and pieces of folklore, and emerge from the collective cultural imagination of a society.  Mythologies that are created by a single person or a group are more properly called “mythopoeia” (a term created by J.R.R. Tolkien, actually, who created a very extensive one).  When considering how real these mythologies are, however, it’s interesting to consider that many of these shows have an internal mythology that is authentic – that is, to the characters living in that world, the mythology of Prometheus or Star Wars is authentic (if perhaps a bit convoluted); but they don’t serve that function in the outside world.

Mythologies perform two functions in a society: 1)they explain how and why things are the way they are (why the sky is blue, where humans came from, etc.), and 2)they give us “culture heroes” – individuals or beings whose deeds and stories we can use for inspiration or to learn lessons.  The mythologies of TV and movies don’t generally fulfill the first function (unless you’re one of those people who puts down “Jedi” on forms asking for your religion), but they definitely fulfill the second.

It’s often argued that today’s comic book heroes are the equivalent of gods in modern society – super-powerful beings with who have abilities regular human beings don’t.  Generally speaking, however, most don’t have the same cultural ubiquity that gods did in ancient societies.  There are a few who do – Superman and Batman are probably the closest, maybe Wonder Woman or Spiderman.  But I’d suggest that many of the cultural heroes we get from TV and films aren’t superpowered at all: James Bond seems a good example; Ripley from the Aliens movies, Jack Bauer of 24.

Anthropology of Hollywood

Meet your modern culture heroes.
Indy, Ripley – say hi to the nice people.

They don’t even have to be necessarily heroic to be culture heroes; I’d argue that you could add Gregory House (of House) and Roseanne Conner (of Roseanne) to the list.  These are all characters who have embedded themselves in the public consciousness by faithfully appearing for years on our television and movie screens; they can bring excitement, entertainment, and maybe even hope into people’s lives.  It’s certainly reasonable to suggest that people today cheer for Indiana Jones or Buffy the Vampire Slayer the way people in ancient Greece thrilled to the stories of Herakles.  And that’s what really makes for a TV or movie mythology.

— Scott Frank

  • By the way, the ancient vase pictured above features Poseidon killing a giant by dropping the island of Nisyros on his head.  That’s right, he threw an island at a guy.
  • Another thing to consider when asking why the term “mythology” is applied to so many sci-fi productions is because some – like Stargate or Prometheus – genuinely deal with classical gods, or the creation of humanity; it’s no surprise that the word mythology gets used.




How Many Actors are in L.A.?

5 07 2012

It’s one of the most asked questions about Los Angeles, and one of the hardest to answer: how many actors are there in Hollywood?  And it’s one that SAG-AFTRA could easily answer, but they famously keep mum about it.  A couple of years ago, writing a paper for the national anthropology conference, I came to a point where it would have been good to know. I spent hours and hours trying to figure this out, poring over different resources, and trying to get a handle on it.  I came up with a rough figure then; recently, working on the problem a little more, I think I’ve come up with a better one.  All in all, I’ve probably spent a solid 12-14 hours of research doing nothing but trying to figure this out.

The Anthropology of Hollywood

There’s a lot of comedy and a lot of tragedy in this town. The question is – how much?

There are a lot of problems with trying to arrive at a figure: first of all, how many actors are there in total?  How much work is done in L.A.?  What percentage of SAG-AFTRA members are/were actors, vs. broadcasters, musicians, etc.?  The two (now one) actors unions are notoriously reticent to give out figures, other than their total membership numbers.  Pre-merger, you at least knew that all SAG members were actors (in some way); but not all AFTRA members were, so the post-merger combined membership figures are tough to use.  Because of this, this estimate is based on the numbers reported pre-merger last March by the unions.

I’m going to be very candid: this is at best, a very educated guess as to the number.  That said, this is my best guess, and it’s certainly as good a figure as any of the rest I’ve seen out there (in fact, I haven’t really seen any, so as flawed as it is, it might be the best guess, period).

Here we go.  Based on the following figures:

Total SAG membership:                                                                                         122,000

Total AFTRA membership:                                                                                       70,000

Percentage of AFTRA members that are actors: 84%, so AFTRA adds…                    58,800

Minus the overlap between the guilds, generally considered to be …                  -45,000

  All together, this yields a figure of…                                                                                     135,800

Roughly 80% of the acting work is estimated to be conducted within Los Angeles, so that brings us to a final figure.  The number of actors in Los Angeles is…(drumroll, please):

108, 640

Now, smart people (i.e. all of you) will be able to easily pick up the holes in this number.  I’m almost embarrassed to put this figure up, but even though it’s flawed, it’s still the best figure out there (trust me, after all the years of anthropological methods training, I know exactly where the flaws are).  I did work as hard as possible to get the best numbers I could for this calculation.  Some of the figures are ones that are reported, some are estimates that I’ve drawn from as reliable a source (or usually sources) that I could find.  Some are almost entirely speculative, but that’s the best we can right now.

This 108,640 figure is based on actor union membership – and of course, that’s people who have ever acted, at a level that gets them into the union.  Many of them aren’t working now, but nonetheless, they are still actors, so it’s valid to include them in the figure.  How many working actors are there?  The number that’s usually (and casually – I can’t find anything to back this up) used for how many are actually employed is that 80% are out of work at any given time.  If we apply that to our previous figure, the number of working actors is:

21,728

This figure actually sounds pretty reasonable, though slightly on the low end (casting directors have told me of roles posted in L.A. that bring in 7,000 prospective actors for a single guest star gig, which would be a third of all the working actors?)  But then, what do we mean by “working?”  If you book one gig, you’ve worked.  You have to have worked at least a little to even get into the union.  So do we mean earning their entire income by acting?  Even people who work a lot often don’t do that.  The best way to measure “successful” actors is probably how many people qualify for the top tier of the SAG-AFTRA health plan; but once again, those numbers are unrevealed by the union.

So here it is, presented to you, warts and all.  I look forward to people adding their own, better numbers, or speculating as to how to tighten this up.  And of course, if anyone from SAG-AFTRA is out there reading this – hey, feel free to give me a call and tell me what your figure is.  I promise I’ll keep it a secret.

— Scott Frank

  • One big question is why does SAG-AFTRA keep these numbers secret?  They won’t even tell their own members.  I’ve heard many theories, most suggest that the figures are somehow embarrassing to the union or the profession.  One is that if people knew how many actors there are in Los Angeles, they’d get discouraged and not come out.  Or if they knew how small a percentage worked at any given time – same thing.  A more subtle argument is that wealthier actors don’t have to pay the 1.575% to the union on earnings over $500,000, so revealing how many of them there are versus barely-scraping-by actors might upset some of the lower-level membership, who pay the percentage on every dime they make.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep figures on the number of actors in California (though they list 7,450 in New York and 1,170 in Louisiana).
  • Per the USBLS, 1.77% of people in the L.A. metro area work in entertainment, the highest percentage in the country (in second place: New York City, where it’s 1.38%).




Nobody Knows Anything – Uncertainty Rules

14 06 2012

“Nobody knows anything.” It’s perhaps screenwriter William Goldman’s most famous quote (second only to “my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father prepare to die”). Goldman was referring the fact that prior to a movie’s release, studio execs really have no idea how it is going to do. The idea is that if people knew what would work and what would flop, there’d be no bombs. Well, outside of hilarious, Producers-style scheming intentional bombs.

What Goldman is really getting at is the heart of what it means to live and work in Hollywood. People sometimes ask me what, as an anthropologist, I’ve learned from ten+ years of studying the entertainment industry; and perhaps the number one lesson is that everybody, everywhere in the business, is plagued by Uncertainty. Studios don’t know whether their movie will be a hit or a flop. Screenwriters don’t know if their next script will be bought. Actors don’t know when their next gig will come. Actually, almost nobody knows when their next gig will come, not for sure.

Uncertainty hangs over the head of everyone, like the sword of Damocles. But uncertainty is the situation, what’s interesting is what behavior results from it: anxiety. This anxiety caused by uncertainty is one the hallmarks of Hollywood life. It’s this fear, for example, that can sometimes lead people to do things that seem odd to outsiders – like cancelling a new TV show before it’s even aired a single episode (this has happened at least 70 times in the history of television).

anthropology of hollywood

The myth of the Sword of Damocles.  Moral of the story: in positions of great power and prestige, there’s always a sharp, pointy piece of uncertainty hanging over your head.

Everybody seems to feel this anxiety, from the top of the industry food chain down to the bottom. But what do they do about it? Asa Boholm, writing about the anthropology of risk, said that people think about uncertainty along two lines: the probability that something will or won’t happen, and whether the stakes are high or low. So basically, if you look at a situation and decide that the stakes are low and the probability something will happen is high, you’ve got one response, and if the risks are high and the outcome uncertain, the reaction is different (he then details what those coping responses are; I won’t bore you any further with it, though). In most of Hollywood, the stakes are actually fairly well-known and pretty high: it’s your livelihood that are the stakes (or how well the movie or TV show you’re working on does, which affects your livelihood). What’s uncertain is the probability of the outcome – booking the job, whether the movie will be a hit or a flop, etc.

So people come up with coping strategies to try and manage that risk; you try to schmooze all your contacts to get the job; you try and advertise the heck out of John Carter so people will go see it, etc. That’s how this anxiety translates into actual behavior: the way many people act in the entertainment industry is based on trying to mitigate that risk – to lower their uncertainty.  What this means is that many people’s behavior in the industry seems to be driven, at least to some degree, by fear.

One big example of this is when studios hire stars for big movies as a way to try to mitigate the risk; Arthur De Vany and David Walls published an article analyzing statistically whether having a big-name star in your movie could reduce the uncertainty of an opening, and guarantee a hit. The answer, they found, is that stars can’t guarantee a movie will open big, but they do seem to statistically insure a minimum return; in other words, they can’t guarantee that a movie will be more successful, but they can make it fail less.

One of De Vany’s charts, showing the statistical analysis of whether stars matter to a movie’s bottom line. If I’d taken a statistics class, I’d probably understand this better (citation at bottom of page)

So in the end, while Goldman was pretty much right – nobody knows anything for sure, people do actually have coping mechanisms to make up for that fact. So maybe it’s better to say “Nobody knows anything; but they can still try and stack the deck.”

— Scott Frank

• Two lists of TV shows cancelled before they ever aired can be found here: (http://www.imdb.com/list/8E9XSxU6F34/) and here: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_television_series_canceled_before_airing_an_episode)

• Table from Artur De Vany and W. David Walls, “Uncertainty in the Movie Industry: Does Star Power Reduce the Terror of the Box Office?” Journal of Cultural Economics 23: 285–318, 1999.





Don’t Do That – Taboos in Hollywood, Part II

30 05 2012

In 1949, Hortense Powdermaker wrote that “every part of a movie production is circumscribed by a very specific code of taboos.  We know all societies, from primitive ones to modern Hollywood, have their ‘thou-shalt-nots’.”  This is the second in a two-part entry on taboos in the entertainment industry.  The first part covered taboos about what could be shown onscreen; this writing covers taboos in the industry itself.

As mentioned in the first entry, most taboos serve one of two purposes: to insure luck and success in an endeavor or to maintain a social status quo.  The onscreen taboos against what can and can’t be shown generally serve the first purpose; the taboos discussed today serve the second.

Anthropology of Hollywood

“Mondo” movies like as this one confronted so many social taboos that they had to be produced outside of Hollywood (mostly in Italy)

Because the entertainment industry is a community that is, in a sense, a professional one (you usually join by working within it), taboos in Hollywood often govern working relationships.  For example, a complicated set of status quo taboos dedicated to maintaining departmental boundaries govern below-the-line workers on a set.  “Keep it in your department” is the law of the land; don’t go outside your department with complaints, or to air dirty laundry; never touch equipment belonging to another department.  And make sure your loyalty to your own department is paramount: be on time, never leave early, and if your department head quits, you need to at least consider doing the same.

Actors have a number of taboos for the auditioning process; once again, these are mostly professional taboos, dedicated to making sure everyone acts in a proper way: don’t shake the casting director’s hand.  Don’t make small talk around your audition with the casting staff.  And most of all, once you go on, don’t tell the casting director that you need to “take a moment” to get into character.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but you get the idea; other taboos govern nearly every occupation or type of work in the Industry, and can be seen across the professions involved in movie and TV production: if you’re in a guild, for example, it’s considered a serious transgression to work a non-union show (at least by your union).  There seems to be a taboo against stealing each other clients among agents and managers, but from the limited amount I’ve spoken with people about it, this seems less of a true taboo, and more like etiquette.

Taboos also cover the attribution of credit on a production: it’s considered pretty bad to try and take credit where credit is not due, or to screw people out of it when it is due: just ask the plaintiffs in the many lawsuits over credits that have been filed over the years; the long-running one over the movie Crash was an example of this.  Suits over credit- and idea-theft have entangled movies including Titanic, The Matrix, The Expendables, and Kung Fu Panda.  And just last November, a nun sued the studios that produced Sister Act almost twenty years earlier, saying they stole her life story – apparently some taboos even the Lord’s people will not forgive.

Anthropology of Hollywood

Is this the original Kung Fu Panda, and the Dreamworks creation just a knockoff? His creator hopes a court thinks so.

Note that in these cases, there isn’t much of a taboo against actually doing it – people try and screw other people out of credit all the time – but there’s a solid taboo once you get caught.  Taboos can be like alcohol: if they begin to be transgressed often enough, society eventually develop a tolerance, and once-forbidden behavior can find its way into the mainstream.  This isn’t to say that one day it’ll be okay for a gaffer to make off with the costumes on set, or people won’t care if you steal their clients – but social rules do change, and it’ll be interesting to see which taboos hold sway over Hollywood in the next fifty years.

                                                                                                                       — Scott Frank

  • The departments on a set can include: Camera; Grip; Electrical; Sound; Art Department; Hair/Makeup/Wardrobe.
  • There are many excellent anthropological works about taboos; some of the more interesting are Mary Douglas’ work on food taboos, and George Gmelch’s writings about taboo and superstition in baseball.




See No Evil, Hear No Evil: Taboos in Hollywood, Part I

23 05 2012

Anthropologists love to talk about taboos.  By talking about what is forbidden, you can discover the hot-button social issues in a society.   Roughly speaking, a taboo is any sort of behavior that is significantly frowned upon by society at large; how big that frown is (are you killed for transgressing? Exiled? Sued?) depends on the society, the nature of the taboo being broken, and the purpose of the taboo.  Some taboos are in place to insure luck or success in an endeavor – like the groom shouldn’t see the bride before the wedding.  Some taboos exist to maintain a social status quo – such as those governing which races, religions, and sexual orientations are allowed to marry.  Taboos of sex, religion, and violence are common in societies around the world, including our own.

Taboos are a big subject, and so this will be a two-part entry on taboos in Hollywood.  This week we’ll cover taboos against what is shown onscreen, and next week taboos on people actually working in the industry: what you are and aren’t you allowed to do if you’re a gaffer, actor, agent, etc.

Onscreen taboos – what you can show or say and what you can’t – have been a part of Hollywood since the beginning.  Concerns over the content of sex, violence, and drugs have been part of the dialogue about movies since they were just starting to be made: in 1934, to head off possible government intervention, the MPAA created the Production Code, overseen by the mighty Hayes Office.  The Code was a very explicit expression of the social mores of America at the time; or at least a segment of them.

The Code had very strict rules for what you were allowed to show onscreen: all crime had to be explicitly punished by the end of the movie, for example.  No profanity was allowed, and of course interracial mixing was strictly forbidden (also, by the way, you weren’t allowed to show childbirth).  The censors of the Hayes office reviewed every film, and if you didn’t pass you got fined $25,000 and couldn’t show your movie in member theatres; as well as facing boycotts by powerful social organizations like the League of Decency.

anthropology of Hollywood

An image that shows ten of the things forbidden by the production code (taken by A.L. Shafer, at that time the head of photography at Columbia Pictures)

Hortense Powdermaker, writing in the late 1940s, suggested that while the Production Code appeared to be enforcing taboos to maintain the status quo, its real existence was to enforce the kind of taboos that ensure luck and success: if a moviemaker followed the dictates of the Code, then their movie could be released, and make lots of money.  In this view, making a movie that followed the rules and abided by the Code was a ritual that enabled the filmmaker to avoid the bad luck of boycotts and fines, in favor of official approval and a successful release.  We see a similar pattern with the way films are made today.

The eventual successors to the Production Code, of course, are the MPAA ratings that everyone is familiar with: G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.  What the Ratings Board allows and doesn’t once again tells us things about society; the primary criterion on which a movie’s rating is based include sexuality, violence, and profanity.  But of course, those aren’t given equal weight: a PG-13 movie can have plenty of violence (as long as it isn’t “realistic and extreme“), but the moment two naked people have sex, it’s a R rating (naked people not having sex can be PG-13.  So look, but don’t touch, people).  Also considered worse than violence are drugs and swearing – any drug use automatically means a minimum PG-13 rating, and if you swear more than once, you’re rated R.  So are we, as a society, less worried about violence than about sex?  Or is it just that the ratings board thinks we are?

In the final analysis, what’s interesting is that these taboos also fall into the category of ones in place to insure success or luck: the people who write and produce these movies and TV shows usually don’t believe in the taboos they are required to enforce, but they have to pretend as if they do in order to insure that the TV show will be allowed to air, or the movie will get a good rating from the MPAA and thus get a shot at a successful box office take.

anthropology of Hollywood

Why does that one couple have the same creepy smile on their faces when they view G-rated content, as when they’re watching an NC-17 movie?

Critiques and controversies arise in these taboo-regulation systems when the censors start to march out of step with society as a whole.  This happened at the end of the Production Code era (it collapsed in the late 60s), and you can see it today in controversies and challenges to the MPAA system by the distributors of Bully, Darren Aronofsky (for Blue Valentine), Kevin Smith (for Zack and Miri Make a Porno) and of course the so-ironic-it’s-almost-too-good-be-true battle over the rating for This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a film about the rating system itself.   From all this, we see that taboos tell us about the values a society holds both when they are enforced, and when they are broken.

— Scott Frank

    • The standards for what can and can’t be shown on television also merit a solid discussion.  There wasn’t space for that here, perhaps in a future entry. The cultural reasons for those standards, however, are very similar to the ones outlines here for films.
    • The criteria for MPAA ratings are a fascinating read, and can be found at http://mpaa.org/ratings/what-each-rating-means
    • You can still read the Hayes Office censorship reports upon request at the Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.  They’re a fascinating read.
    • My favorite lines from Hayes Office reports: “There must be no excessive gruesomeness in the shot where Lorenz lets the dead, limp body of the hag slump to the floor.”  And “Delete shot of Doctor smothering Pygmy’s face with cotton wool while Pygmy is in his hand.”




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.