Walk the Line – part I

19 11 2013

(note: because this is one of the most important concepts in the cultural anthropology of Hollywood, the topic gets a two-parter.  This is part one).

Outside of the entertainment industry, people use a number of divisions when they talk about Hollywood: A-list and B-list, movies vs. TV, broadcast vs. cable.  But when you’re working in the industry, the most important division may be Above the Line and Below the Line.

What does it mean?  The term originated with a literal line on the paper of studio budget projections; in general, above the line were fixed costs (i.e. people who got paid no matter if the movie ever finished production) and below the line were flexible costs (i.e. if you stopped filming at some point, you didn’t need these people).  But that’s the origin, not really what the terms mean today.

The problem is, this is one of those situations where the distinction is both generally agreed upon and maddeningly vague.  What that means is that if you name a specific position on a film or TV production, it’s generally agreed upon whether that person is Above or Below the line.  For example, a writer?  Above the line.  Gaffer?  Below the line.  The fuzziness enters the picture because it’s far less clear what, in a cultural sense, the distinction means.  Is it a class difference?  A creative one?  A difference in the power structure?


Neither of these are the line that we are talking about.

Before we get into all that, and for those unfamiliar with the specifics, here’s a partial list of where certain members of a production fit:

Above the Line:                      Below the line:

Producer                                Director of Photography

Director                                  Gaffer

Writer                                     Key Grip

Actor                                      Costume Designer

                                              Production Designer


So who belongs in each group is fairly well-established, generally speaking.*  But as anthropologists, it’s important to look a little deeper: what, in a cultural sense, does the distinction actually mean?

You hear a lot of different ideas about this from people involved in different parts of the industry.  Probably the most generally accepted distinction is that above the line is “creative” staff and below the line is “technical” staff.  But there are a lot of holes in that: directors (good ones, anyway), have a strong grasp of the technical aspects of the production process.  And a lot of below the line positions – production designers, for example – are creative people who can have a lot of impact on the final product.  And rightly or wrongly, not many people think of a producer as creative.

Another perspective that is sometimes heard is exemplified in J.R. Helton’s book Below the Line**: the line is “the demarcation where the real money and power starts and stops.”  This too is pretty simplistic, though – some of the people who are above the line don’t really seem to have a ton of power (ask a writer), and some who are below can wield considerable influence over a production.

Other distinctions that I’ve heard include: 1) Above is “creative” people, or who have financial control of the project, 2) Above is people who get residuals, 3) Below is production and postproduction crew, 4) Below is people who physically produce the project, 5) Above the line is decision-makers, 6) Above is people you hire before shooting, Below is people you hire during or after.  All of these seem to have elements of truth in them, but none of them really captures the entirety of the cultural reality.


Unbeknownst to most people, “the Line” referenced in the terms Above and Below the Line is this particular line in the street at La Cienega and Wilshire Blvd. (not really, of course).

One of the more interesting observations is has to do with labor relations (and how often do you hear that sentence, really?); specifically, the organization of unions for the workers involved.  The distinction is this: above-the-line positions almost all have their own unions – actors have SAG, writers the WGA, directors the DGA.  But below the line workers are, in a general sense, bundled together with one larger union: the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE.  Now, the IATSE has specific divisions for each position (like Local 839 for Animators, and Local 44 for props craftpeople, etc.), but still, it says something about the divisions that abovers each get their own union, while belowers have to share.***

There’s much more to discuss, but we’ve reached the end of what I consider an acceptable length for a blog posting, so in part two we’ll see a more anthropological perspective, what people have worked both above and below the line have to say about it.  Also, how the economic needs of below the line workers bring together the LA Mayor and Hellboy Ron Perlman.

— Scott Frank

*Nowadays, one of the current problems is that there are some relatively new positions that aren’t yet clearly in one place or the other, or it hasn’t been determined yet – like if you’ve got a social media manager, are they above or below?

** This mention is not to in any way endorse Helton’s book, which is supposedly a “tell-all” but really seems more a chance for him to vent some bitterness over perceived slights from years of working below the line.

*** Not all below the line employees are in IATSE.  There are some who are members of the Teamsters Local 399.  But in keeping with the main thrust of the argument, they are still members of a larger union, they do not (unlike above the line folks) have one of their own.

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.

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