Kate Fortmueller examines entertainment labor practices in normal times and during the pandemic

Editor’s Note: Kate Fortmueller will discuss “Below the Stars” during an Avid Bookshop Zoom discussion July 13 at 7 p.m.

While many people were spending the initial time during COVID-19 watching “Tiger King” and reruns of “The Golden Girls,” Kate Fortmueller was writing not just one book, but two.

Fortmueller’s books, “Below the Stars: How the Labor of Working Actors and Extras Shapes Media Production” and “Hollywood Shutdown: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition in the Time of COVID-19” come out this month by University of Texas Press.

“My interests have always been behind the scenes. If we are going to understand the kinds of stories that are being told and the film and television we are watching, we are going to have to understand the culture that creates them. Nothing will change on-screen if that culture stays the same,” said Fortmueller, an assistant professor in the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies at Grady College.

“Below the Stars” takes a historical look at the impact of extras and working actors and labor unions on the formation of Hollywood and current practices. Fortmueller examines how background actors and central casting started in the early twentieth century, the creation of unions like the Screen Actors Guild, the impact of actors in cable and commercials, and discussions about voice actors and the start of the video game voice actor strike in 2016.

Fortmueller says there is a lot of unglamorous work in Hollywood, much of it due to the fact there are so many actors looking for work—she estimates about 270,000 in the LA area—and the fact they have the biggest union at about 160,000 members.

Fortmueller continues: “When you listen to interviews with actors, they are often very reticent to talk about the kind of power that they have because they feel very beholden to the director who makes decisions. There are a lot of ways they don’t feel empowered. This book is about the ways they do have power and how they have shaped Hollywood’s practices and influenced the way Hollywood does business.”

These topics have been of interest to Fortmueller since childhood thanks to stories her grandfather told her about his time as an extra in Hollywood. In the foreword to the book, Fortmueller describes how he was discovered when he was selling newspapers in front of landmark Musso & Frank Grill, but that he was always trying to piece together different jobs because he was not paid well for acting. She explains there was a perception that these were the golden times of Hollywood thanks to studio contracts, but in reality, many were working in underpaid, unstable jobs and still are today.

Fortmueller was revising the first book when COVID struck the United States in March 2020. Just days into the shelter in place edicts, her editor suggested she add a chapter about how the movie industry was affected by the shutdown.

“Actors were very vulnerable on set at the outset of COVID because they couldn’t wear masks or face shields or do a lot of social distancing,” Fortmueller explained.

The addition of the new chapter in “Below the Stars” led the publishers to ask if she would be willing to write a shorter book examining the effects of the pandemic on production, distribution and viewing during the first nine months of the pandemic.

“Hollywood Shutdown” explores the closing of production and theaters, and the explosion of streaming and Premium Video on Demand during COVID. Fortmueller said that many of the changes that the studios implemented were already planned for the future, however the timeline was advanced.

The book covers topics like “Mulan” being released on Disney+ through PVOD, the decision by HBO Max to release theatrical and made-for-cable projects, AMC’s bankruptcy and how local theaters like Ciné in Athens, Georgia, moved toward virtual screening rooms.

“The biggest lesson learned in the industry is that the theater business needs to reinvent,” Fortmueller said. “I think they need to embrace new strategies to get people into the theaters.”

EMST faculty give recommendations for shows, movies, games

Grady College encourages all students, faculty and staff to remain informed with the University of Georgia’s information and resources regarding coronavirus at: uga.edu/coronavirus.

In following the advice of national health officials to stay home, many people are searching for movies, shows and games to consume. Grady College asked entertainment and media studies professors which content they recommend others see. Here are their recommendations.



Taylor Miller

The Peabody Awards iOS app
“It curates a list of the previous four years of winners, citations by jurors for why they won and links to where they can be watched.”

“It is a search tool into which you can type a show and season and see which all streaming services carry it/or where it can be purchased.”




Matthew Evans

Streaming platform: Hulu
“Normally, I’d wax poetic on classic movies. But given today’s headlines, I recommend “Seinfeld.” Although there are “Best Of” lists available, you can pretty much pick up anywhere. They’re all hilarious, and at 22-minutes a pop, it’s a nice break without making a huge commitment. Sure, it feels like “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-lite, but that’s okay: we all know that Larry David was the real genius behind NBC’s hit. It’s the best way to distract yourself from living in a real-world version of “Contagion,” which I’d also recommend, by the way.”

Jay Hamilton

“Better Call Saul”
“New season of the best character study on TV since Mad Men. No need to watch its related show “Breaking Bad” to be immediately immersed and marvel at the writing and acting. Start with Season 1 if needed.”

Garland McLaurin

“Mad Men”
Streaming platform: Netflix
“It’s a good series that follows interesting characters over a period of time.”

Streaming platform: Netflix
“A great show that follows the 80’s ballroom culture.”

“Who Killed Malcolm X
Streaming platform: Netflix
“Great doc series about the facts surrounding the murder of Malcolm X”

Taylor Miller

Streaming platform: HBO
“This Mini-Series asks a simple question: what is the cost of lies? With its incredible storytelling, an event from history is scripted into a powerful parable that could not be more prescient for this moment. I simply don’t know of a better mini-series. Make sure to listen to the accompanying podcast after each episode to learn why certain production choices were made, hosted by “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” host Peter Sagal.”

“Schitts Creek”
Streaming platform: Netflix
“While the first two seasons may seem a little slow, they set the important groundwork for a very funny show with way more heart than you’d imagine. If laughter through tears is your favorite emotion, you’ll love a refreshing swim up Schitts Creek.”

“The Golden Girls”
Streaming platform: Hulu
“With 180 episodes, there’s enough charm, humor, and good ol’-fashioned nostalgia to last you quite awhile! And the studio audience laughter will make you feel less alone.”




Kate Fortmueller

Anyone who wants to watch great movies should at the very least sign up for the 14-day free trial for The Criterion Channel. This month they have a series called “Film Plays Itself,” which has movies like “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Player,” and “The Bad and the Beautiful.”

“The Player”
Streaming platform: Criterion Channel
“Satire of Hollywood filmmaking staring Tim Robbins. As with all Robert Altman films it has a stellar ensemble cast, overlapping dialogue, and a mix of genres (in this case black comedy/film noir). I like this film’s biting critique of Hollywood filmmaking and culture.”

Streaming platform: Criterion Channel
“Bank heist set in Germany starring Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn with a score by Quincy Jones. This is a stylish movie that combines Goldie Hawn’s quirky style of humor with a genuinely suspenseful bank heist.”

Jay Hamilton

“Lady Bird”
“Greta Gerwig’s breakout feature is infinitely better than “Little Women.” Lead Saoirse Ronan and the script captures the sassy turmoil between a single mom and her on-the-cusp young adult daughter. A paean to following your own path to find yourself.”

“I, Daniel Blake”
“Palme d’Or winner at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival by long-time gritty realist Ken Loach. The northern English accent may be tricky for American ears, but turn in the subtitles if you need to. A heartfelt, unyielding portrayal of the precarious times in which we live, plus the need for a deep human response to confront it.”

Garland McLaurin

“Purple Rain”
Streaming platform: Netflix
“You can’t go wrong with Prince.”

“Sorry to Bother You
Streaming platform: Hulu
“A great film from Boots Riley”



Shira Chess

“Dash Adventures”: “For those who have not previously played a game in the Dash franchise, you are in for a fast-paced treat. In “Dash Adventures,” you work through zany adventures as a waitress and entrepreneur, saving a town from a variety of disasters. Kicking in a little bit of money from time to time gives you more abilities to complete levels and areas. The level styles are varied and the challenges are fun and just a bit weird.”
“Hungry Babies Mania”
“Polar Pop Mania”

“Donut County”: “You play as a hole in the ground. Seriously. An army of racoon bros are destroying an area oddly similar to Los Angeles and the player guides a hole in the ground as it sucks up items, becoming larger with the more things that fall into it. In our chaotic times, there is something oddly cathartic about swallowing up everyone and everything into a hole in the ground.”
“Monument Valley (1 & 2)”

“Stardew Valley” “For more involving play I cannot possibly recommend a game more than Stardew Valley. Stardew is what is referred to as “slow gaming” – you are farming, mining, fishing, and performing other tasks that seem relatively normal, on the surface. But the game is infused with some odd moments of magical realism (it’s like FarmVille but really weird). Also, you can have involved relationships with non-player characters. If you are looking for an absorbing experience to take you out of your doldrums or anxiety, I can’t recommend a better experience than Stardew Valley.”
“Ticket to Ride”
“Broken Age”

“For those with iOS, getting a one month subscription to Apple Arcade gives free play for a long list of games that are included. Ticket to Ride (mentioned above) is a great asynchronous board game with a digital version. You can play with up to 4 friends over the course of hours/day/weeks.”


From the Peabody Awards:



“Independent Lens: Dolores”   [Peabody Winner] Network/Platform: PBS
“Peter Bratt’s exhilarating portrait of activist and community organizer Dolores Huerta serves as a timely reminder of the power of collective action in service of social justice.”

“Blue Planet II”   [Peabody Nominee] Network/Platform: BBC AMERICA
“A view of our oceans using the latest diving and submarine technologies reveals we have more in common with, and are more connected than we ever imagined, to our deeply threatened seascapes.”

“The Jazz Ambassadors”   [Peabody Winner] Network/Platform: PBS
“A story about the people, especially African Americans, who created jazz and the pivotal role their contributions played in cold-war diplomacy, American race relations, emerging black identities, and newly independent third world nations around the world.”


“The Americans”   [Peabody Winner] Network/Platform: FX Networks, Hulu
“A rare show that has won two Peabody Awards, including one last year for its final season.  It tells the complex story of two Soviet spies deeply undercover as middle-class American parents dealing with patriotism, family, relationships, and duty.”

“Hannah Gadsby: Nanette”   [Peabody Winner] Network/Platform: Netflix
“A blistering treatise that finds the tragedy in comedy, in which Hannah Gadsby commands, breaks apart, and reconstructs the standup comedy special format all while delivering a powerful message.”

“My Brilliant Friend”   [Peabody Nominee] Network/Platform: HBO
“The adaptation of the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet novels follows two girls and their personal triumphs and tragedies against a setting that swirls with political, social, and cultural strife in post-war Naples, Italy.”


UGA Today profiles Grady College assistant professor

Editor’s Note: This article contains excerpts from a profile originally published on Sept. 8, 2019 as part of UGA Today’s Focus on Faculty series. To read the full profile, visit UGA Today’s site here.


Kate Fortmueller, assistant professor of Entertainment and Media Studies in Grady College, helps prepare students for careers in the growing Georgia media industry and beyond.


What are your favorite courses and why?

I teach courses in media theory and media industries. I love teaching both, but they are very different courses. In the media industries course, my goal is to give students an overview of the history, hierarchies, key debates and developments in the screen industries – it’s a lot to cover in a semester, and we are always talking about current issues facing the industry. Most recently, we have spent time talking about changes to streaming platforms, production centers outside Los Angeles—including the growing Georgia media economy—and the ongoing negotiations between the Writer’s Guild and Hollywood talent agents. In media theory, we watch and discuss television shows, films and music videos, and I help students explore how people have studied, written and thought about media. My hope in that class is that the aspiring media makers will take all of those big ideas and critiques of media and apply those to their own creative practice.


What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

Many of the students I teach want to make a living making media, whether that means film, television or branded content. Regardless of their professional aspirations, I want students to develop strong critical thinking skills, which includes understanding the relationship between industrial practices, media makers (and their working conditions) and media texts.


The one UGA experience I will always remember will be …

I am consistently impressed by the generosity of UGA alumni. One of my favorite Grady LA memories is sitting in on a “Simpsons” table read with alumnus Chris Edgerly (ABJ ’91). After the table read he walked students around the Fox lot and spent a lot of time talking with students before bringing us in to watch him rerecord some dialogue and songs for an episode. Experiences like this one, where I get to spend time with current students and alumni, give me a sense of being part of a larger UGA community.

New EMST faculty member researches media industry labor

As a media industry scholar who studies labor issues, Kate Fortmueller brings a unique perspective to the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Fortmueller joined the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies (EMST) this fall as an assistant professor after previously teaching at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and Fairfield University.  Her work centers on media industry labor with an emphasis on actors and below-the-line workers—people who are essential to the production, but not visible on screen.

“Dr. Fortmueller’s research in motion-picture production studies with an emphasis on labor issues provides the department and college much-needed depth in key areas,” said Jay Hamilton, EMST department head. “In the current times of increasingly contractor and project-based employment in media industries, her blend of historical and contemporary research helps make better sense of why this kind of employment is so pervasive, how it shapes the kinds of entertainment media made today, and how it will shape the media work and products of tomorrow.”

“Given the growth in media production in Georgia, UGA was a particularly exciting place for me to study some of the key changes in the contemporary media industries,” said Fortmueller, whose work appears in Television & New Media and is forthcoming in The Journal of Film and Video and Film History. “My research is not strictly contemporary, so access to the Peabody Archives and UGA’s Special Collections was tremendously appealing.”

Fortmueller is working on a book project that builds off research from her dissertation that looks at the history of actors and extras as a labor force.

“Even though actors constitute the largest body of media workers and most people relate to films and television programs through on-screen performances, there has been very little work that sheds light on what it means to work as an actor,” she said.” I am, of course, interested in actors and extras as a labor force, but they also provide a lens for understanding broader shifts in labor, as well as a way of looking at struggles and complications that come with working in a competitive and creative field.”

In addition to research, Fortmueller is enjoying her time in the classroom. Though classes began only weeks ago, she says she is already impressed with the caliber of student work.

“Grady students have lived up to their reputation,” she said. “They are bright, inquisitive and engaged in the classroom.”

Fortmueller looks forward to teaching the Business of Media Entertainment this spring, a class closely related to her research that “will also help give students a much clearer understanding of the complicated industry that they plan on entering after graduation.”

This summer she will teach in Los Angeles as part of the Grady LA program.

“This is a great opportunity for students to connect their classroom learning to the culture and resources in Los Angeles,” she said. “I lived there for nine years, so I am looking forward to sharing my LA knowledge of everything from Hollywood history to where to find the best tacos.”