Today we welcome a guest post from Ronny Regev, author of Working in Hollywood: How the Studio System Turned Creativity into Labor, just published by UNC Press.
A history of the Hollywood film industry as a modern system of labor, this book reveals an important untold story of an influential twentieth-century workplace. Ronny Regev argues that the Hollywood studio system institutionalized creative labor by systemizing and standardizing the work of actors, directors, writers, and cinematographers, meshing artistic sensibilities with the efficiency-minded rationale of industrial capitalism. The employees of the studios emerged as a new class: they were wage laborers with enormous salaries, artists subjected to budgets and supervision, stars bound by contracts. As such, these workers–people like Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and Anita Loos–were the outliers in the American workforce, an extraordinary working class.
Working in Hollywood is available now in both print and ebook editions.
On Film History and Labor Contracts
“I have two words to leave you with tonight, ladies and gentlemen: ‘inclusion rider.’” This is how actress Frances McDormand chose to end her acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for Best Actress in 2018. Her plea did not go unheard. Merriam-Webster tweeted a few hours later that “inclusion” was their top search for the night followed by “rider.” This moment was exceptional in Academy Award history not only because of McDormand’s call for equality but also because of her determination to talk shop.
Since the earliest days of the Hollywood studio system, the people working in the film industry consistently preferred to keep the mechanisms behind the production process, for example contracts, cloaked in a shroud of mystery. Like trained illusionists, in public they constantly spoke about their trade in terms of randomness and wonder rather than expertise and practice. “It isn’t possible to make a successful picture [only] by selecting any good director and by engaging any good actors or actresses who happen to fit the parts for which they are selected – except, perhaps, by luck,” affirmed Irving Thalberg, the legendary executive in charge of production at MGM back in 1933. About a decade later, his colleague at Warner Bros., Hall Wallis added that “If there is an unpredicted business, it’s motion pictures. Make one bad bet … and you’ll find yourself in the unenviable position of having a picture on your hands in which people are no longer interested.”