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.

How Many Actors are in New York?

13 12 2012

Following up the most popular Hollywood Sapien blog post ever (How Many Actors are in LA?), we are proud to present the sequel: How Many Actors are in New York?

The head of a company that serves New York actors recently wrote me about the LA entry, and we chatted about speculating on the number of NYC actors.  Now, I’ll once again put a big caveat on this: while I feel confident that my LA numbers are as good as anybody could reasonably calculate, my specialty has been studying the California-based entertainment industry, and since the professional culture and variables in New York are different, the NY numbers will be even more speculative than my LA ones.


Even the comedy and tragedy masks love NY!

One difference that was suggested to me was that while LA figures are based on the number of actors in SAG-AFTRA, because so much of New York’s acting culture is theatre-based, NYC ones should be based on Actor’s Equity membership instead, with SAG-AFTRA actors added.  Based on previous estimates that 80% of SAG-AFTRA members are in California, that makes sense, and figuring out the number of Equity Actors in NYC, while it took some digging, clearly is possible.

My calculations are based on Equity figures about the number of total members, the percentage who are stage managers vs. actors, and percentages of Equity jobs in the Eastern Region (basically the East Coast and eastern portion of the South) vs. the Central and Western regions (which cover the Midwest & western South, and West Coast & Southwest, respectively).  And so, the calculation:

Number of members of Actors Equity                    49,000

Minus 14% who are Stage Managers                        -6860

Leaves us with                                                       42,140

Adjust for 56% of Equity work in East region         23,598

 So, further estimating that 80% of the work in the Eastern Region occurs in New York, we get the final figure of Actor’s Equity actors in New York:


There are some educated assumptions here, mixed in with solidly known figures.  The number of members of Equity is known, and figures released by Equity in 2009 have the percentage that are stage managers, and the percentage of work that occurs in the Eastern Region.  I’m speculating as to what percentage of that work occurs in New York.  Still, the final figure of 18,963 makes sense; figures from the early 2000s had roughly 15,000 members of Equity in New York City, and so the figure above would include some moderate growth over the last ten years (one could expect a small but clear expansion in the numbers over a decade).

Okay, so we’ve got a good figure for the number of Actor’s Equity-based actors in New York.  But what about SAG-AFTRA actors who live there?  Previous calculations suggest that roughly 30,000 SAG-AFTRA members work predominantly outside of the LA area.  I’d say a hefty percentage of them are probably in New York, as high as 30%, or roughly 10,000 (keep in mind, those same previous calculations show that only about 20% of those people are actual working actors at any given time – so 10,000 people translates to “just” 2,000 working actors).*

If that’s true, including the SAG-AFTRA members brings the figure to:


While I’m very comfortable with the 18,963 Equity figure, there are some serious issues with the second (SAG-AFTRA inclusive) one.  Among them, 1)What is the percentage of SAG-AFTRA members in New York?  (I speculate, but without any actual data to help) and 2)What is the number of crossover actors, who are members of both SAG-AFTRA and Actor’s Equity?  (this isn’t even taken into account in the figure above).  Also, while I have a good educated guess of the % of SAG-AFTRA members who are working at any given time, I have almost none for Equity actors…so those aren’t even taken into consideration here (a sizeable problem for me, but – it can’t be helped).

So, there you have it.  People more familiar with the New York acting world, please – I invite you to chime in with suggestions, thoughts, and ideas on how to refine these calculations.

— Scott Frank

  • The percentage of SAG-AFTRA actors in NY (here calculated at 30% of the total outside of California) was probably much higher in the past: likely 50% or more.  But the success of entertainment industry productions in Louisiana, Canada, North Carolina, Georgia, etc., has significantly impacted that figure.
  • The Equity calculation above uses the estimated figure that 80% of Equity work in the Eastern Region is done in New York; I have a vague feeling that is probably high, but have no way of verifying it.

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:


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%).

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.

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