Hollywood Has a Labor Problem

Thousands of film workers want to make good movies, and millions of viewers want to watch them. What’s stopping Hollywood?

New York, NY. Peter Cameron / Flickr

From discussions of equal pay to #OscarsSoWhite, the past year has brought Hollywood sexism and racism into mainstream consciousness. The ACLU is currently investigating Hollywood studios for gender discrimination in hiring, and a number of high-profile actresses and directors have spoken out about everything from pay to hiring to on-set sexism.

Rampant racism and sexism in the film industry often hit ordinary workers the hardest. Like workers in many industries, film workers are finding it increasingly difficult to find and hold down stable, sustainable jobs. Digital technology means it’s easier to make a film now than at any point in the medium’s history. But it’s harder than ever to make a living in the film industry.

In Hollywood, as in many industries, the pay gap between men and women persists. Equal pay for actors making millions of dollars may not seem like a very relatable problem for most Americans. But the vast majority of people employed in the film industry are not A-list stars — they’re working craftspeople trying to make a living in a highly competitive field.

The global financial crisis, ongoing media consolidation, and studios’ reliance on making fewer films with bigger budgets have all put the squeeze on film workers. This has only amplified existing inequalities, both on screen and behind the camera.

To make matters worse, work can be hard to come by, especially for workers who aren’t white and male. On-screen diversity is often discussed in terms of its effect on movie audiences: the psychological and social ramifications of seeing — or not seeing —particular identity groups well-represented on screen. But for film workers, representation is an employment issue. Actors can’t act in roles that don’t exist.

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University tracks women’s employment in the film industry, both in front of the camera and behind it. The center analyzed the one hundred top-grossing films of 2015 and found that women made up only a third of all speaking roles, and only 22 percent of protagonists. And 2015 was considered a good year for women in film — in 2014, that number was only 12 percent.

The vast majority of those speaking parts (76 percent) went to white women, with black, Latina, and Asian women making up 13 percent, 4 percent, and 3 percent, respectively — ratios that have remained basically unchanged since the center started keeping track in 2002. White women were also more likely than women of color to portray a main character over a supporting one.

These statistics reveal a self-perpetuating cycle of casting inequality. Fewer roles for women means fewer chances for actresses to become famous — that is, to become the kind of movie stars studios consider suitable for big-budget films. When studio executives complain that there are not enough “bankable” female stars to justify more leading roles for women, they’re complaining about a problem of their own creation.

Studio executives are fond of justifying the lack of women on screen by arguing that movies with female leads aren’t profitable. Box office numbers say otherwise. Multiple box office studies have shown that, after controlling for budget, films with female protagonists and films with racially diverse casts do better at the box office, both in the United States and globally.

A recent study by the film financing platform Slated also showed that films with a woman in a key creative position (writer, director, producer, or lead actor) generate a higher average return on investment —partially due to female-helmed films being able to perform well despite lower budgets.

So even by capitalist logic, a summer full of movies headlined by white guys named Chris doesn’t make much sense. Yet studio film slates are still driven by a vague perception of what’s “marketable,” rather than any serious analysis of who makes up movie audiences and what they want to see.

Strategies for changing this dynamic are not obvious.

The most common proposal is to increase the number of women in key production roles and studio executive suites.

The current numbers are bleak. Among the 250 top-grossing films of 2015, women comprised just 9 percent of writers, 11 percent of directors, and 6 percent of cinematographers. In the top one hundred films of 2013 and 2014, women made up just 2 percent of directors. (In comparison, the US military — hardly a bastion of progressive thinking — is about 15 percent women.)

While data is scarce, women and men seem to attend film school in roughly equal numbers. But in an industry where it can take decades to build a successful career, women get pushed into lower-paid segments of the workforce, get pushed away from the most coveted creative roles, or get pushed out altogether.

Film directing, in particular, is not one skill but a collection of skills: the ability to execute an artistic vision, communicate with actors, work with complex technology, lead a large team of people, and make decisions about how millions of dollars get spent. On all these fronts, women are still likely to be seen as less competent. Female directors face an uphill battle for both jobs and financing for their own films, meaning they make fewer films over their career and have less room for error. If one film flops, it may be years before they get to make another.

Overt sexism is far from rare, and in an environment where most workers are independent contractors and hiring decisions are highly subjective, bias runs rampant.

The conditions of film labor don’t help. Income is unpredictable. Twelve-hour days and six-day weeks are considered normal, and what benefits exist are dependent on membership in unions still organized along an outdated craft model. These conditions put particular strain on women raising children or shouldering other social reproduction tasks. This is one of the reasons (but not the only reason) why women are slightly better represented in producing and editing — jobs that can be done from a home office and on a more flexible schedule.

Chances are good that your favorite action movie was directed by a man but cut by a woman. Of course, any filmmaker knows that editing is a creative role, and a good editor is just as important to the quality of the film as a good director. But the director is still perceived as the author of the film, and the editor is seen as someone who organizes and facilitates his (and it is usually his) artistic vision.

Outside the industry, strategies for combating Hollywood racism and sexism are often oriented on consumer politics — support films directed by women on opening weekend; boycott films that are deemed problematic in some way. While buying a movie ticket may have some effect on an individual filmmaker’s career, by the time a film reaches the theater, the hiring and pay decisions have already been made. Consumer activism has at best a limited impact on industry trends.

While various industry organizations have offered their own solutions — from television and studio diversity programs to modestly expanding the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — these changes are a drop in the bucket and have little effect on early-career filmmakers.

Short of expropriating the big media companies and seizing the means of film production — an idea to which I’m not opposed — there are a number of reforms that could work perfectly well within capitalism, if social power inside and outside the industry could be organized to demand them.

To name a few examples: A nationalized system of arts funding with affirmative action for underrepresented groups. A small tax on films over a certain budget that goes into a production fund for films by and about women and people of color. Overhauling and restructuring the film unions from an exclusionary craft model to an industrial, rank-and-file-oriented organizing strategy with an emphasis on workplace equality. Finding ways to reduce the current exorbitant cost of theatrically exhibiting a film, allowing more films not financed by mega-corporations to reach the theater.

Currently, there is no organized social force capable of putting pressure on the film industry or the state to make any of these things happen. Artist organizing in the United States tends to coincide with periods of generalized social struggle, when wide layers of people see collective power as a winning strategy.

While we can’t summon such a wave of social upheaval on command, we know that mass struggle tends to generate artistic ferment and bring new voices to the fore. That can only be a good thing in our current cultural landscape. We have so many stories to tell.