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





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





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.