1980s – 2000s Not much public sympathy for film workers… We think they’re rich.

            There is not a lot of public sympathy for film workers for a number of reasons.  Among those are beliefs about the wealth, glamour and privilege of those who work in the industry.   The public perception of Hollywood wealth is accurate:  there is an enormous amount of money in the American film business.  But the wealth is not evenly distributed. Blockbuster profits in Hollywood depend on the success of a tiny margin of films: Only three percent of those movies are big hits, and the perception that star-driven movies are more profitable is false: “the sample average profit of superstar movies is negative…[M]ost movies lose money” (Devany 2004:225,234).  Despite the fact that stars do not guarantee box-office success, salaries of star actors, directors, and writers are set in relationship to negotiations among high–level agents, distributors and financiers. “With this mercantile power at work, the variable in limiting budgets takes place below the line [with regard to salaries of all other film workers], where union power can be eluded by shooting elsewhere” (Miller et.al. 2005:119).  Even actors, writers and directors, over the long haul, do not benefit in the way that the mass media tabloids suggest. For example, the average Hollywood film director and the average Hollywood actor can expect to make only two movies. Seventy-five percent of directors direct one film (Devany 2004:238).  Two-thirds of the members of the Screen Actors Guild make less than $2,000 a year (Prindle 1988).  And ninety-five percent of Screen Actors Guild members make less than $5,000 a year.  All below-the-line workers, including cinematographers, editors and makeup artists who win Academy Awards, are “day hires” who can be fired at will after a single day’s work.[1]  The average work day, which in the 1940s was about eight hours, has gradually increased to approximately 16 – 22 hours (Wexler 2007).  As film scholar Toby Miller put it, “This is not a labour aristocracy suffering a temporary inconvenience” (2001:82).  For those who can get jobs, the working conditions are, for the most part, not conducive to living a life that meets the basic human need to provide for one’s family so they can live with dignity.  In almost any other industry, these working conditions would be considered ample grounds for large-scale labor activism. Yet, for anyone who complains, there is a glamour-drunk surplus army of trained talent eager to take that job, and IATSE union leadership willing to blacklist the complainer (Wright 2006, Dunham 2006 interview).  

            For America as a nation, the loss of American film work has larger costs, “Harnessing the creative energy of people currently ignored and misused is crucial to our long-term economic prosperity” (Florida 2004:63). 

            Tens of thousands of ordinary people—actors, writers, directors, editors, camera people, carpenters, plumbers, agents, secretaries, producers and janitors—still struggle to make a living in the Hollywood film industry.

           I share with Toby Miller the following bias, “We regard films as commodities whose value is derived from the labour that makes them” (Miller et. al. 2005:5).   Because film is a creatively collaborative art form, the power of cinema is also derived from the labor that makes it. 


[1] There is also a misconception that these workers are all extraordinarily wealthy.   Most–69.2 percent–of Local 600 members earn less than $100,000 a year (8.1% of the members earn over $200,000.  8.4% earn less than $20,000, 12.7% earn between $20,000 and $39,999, 16.2% earn between $40,000 and $59,999) (Glover 2004).

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