Ronny Regev: On Film History and Labor Contracts

Working in Hollywood by Ronny RegevToday 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.”

Lucky bets might have been necessary, but they were never sufficient. As McDormand’s closing words suggest, other essential parts of film making are contracts, so are detailed budgets and labor unions. These parts are often forgotten or muted due to the noise generated by glamour and celebrity talk. As a result, an important element of filmmakers’ lives, namely their identity as workers, is repeatedly disregarded, hidden behind a discourse about entertainment and popularity that diverts the spotlight away from the sphere of production.

My book shifts the conversation by revealing Hollywood’s more mundane, though equally fascinating, apparatus. Uncovering the everyday commercial and labor practices that were responsible for the golden age of the Hollywood studio system (1920-1950), it brings into focus the stories of the men and women, who produced the narratives, images, characters, and style of the American motion picture industry. Yet, the chronicles I recount are neither these workers’ sparkling, stardust-filled biographies, nor their memoirs from Tinseltown nightlife. I also do not follow the granted ingenious travails of the filmmakers’ creative process. Rather, the book brings to life the story of Hollywood filmmakers’ employment, the routines and interactions they endured while navigating their careers within the big motion picture production companies. In that sense, it is a labor history of Hollywood, a study of the creative occupations that comprised it, which exposes the skill behind the showmen’s veneer of luck.

Unfortunately, inclusion riders were not part of early Hollywood. In fact, the idea that actors, actresses, and other powerful people in a production can insert a contractual stipulation for inclusivity among the other crew members was introduced only in 2014. It was suggested in an article by Professor Stacy Smith from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, following her findings about the under representation of women and ethnic groups in the film industry. But such recent findings and innovations have a long history, which links to the “option clauses” of the 1930s, among other things. It is a rich history about a magical industry that successfully and skillfully turned creativity into a modern form labor.


Ronny Regev is assistant professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Follow Ronny on Twitter at @Ronnyregev.