Pandemic Soundstage: Policy and Reality in Hollywood’s Return to Work

Kate Fortmueller (2022). “Pandemic Soundstage: Policy and Reality in Hollywood’s Return to Work” Essential: Global Film and Television Production During the Pandemic. April 9-11. Tulane University. New Orleans, LA.

Abstract: In September 2020 Hollywood blockbusters resumed production, but it was by no means a return to normal. On big union productions, life on set had been altered in accordance with new safety measures as outlined by a task force comprised of the AMPTP, all the unions and guilds, and several health officials in their white paper and a second document, “The Safe Way Forward,” that added additional “organizing principles.” This collaboration between unions and management was unprecedented, marking a shift in how producers, studios and unions dealt with set safety proactively rather than in response to a tragic accident. However, the collaborative effort between those who fund and those who make Hollywood film and television, was just one of the media return-to-work plans. Stakeholders in these plans represented different state and private financial interests. I look at union-endorsed policies and the state guidelines to identify and compare the varied interests are reflected in the policies. Regardless of whether pandemic measures (or on-set consultants) remain long-term, these plans have helped raise new questions about media worker safety.

Hollywood Shutdown: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition in the Time of Covid

Abstract: Hollywood Shutdown examines how the COVID-19 pandemic affected film and television production, influenced trends in distribution, reshaped theatrical exhibition, and altered labor practices. From January movie theater closures in China to the bumpy September release of Mulan on the Disney+ streaming platform, Fortmueller probes various choices made by studios, networks, unions and guilds, distributors, and exhibitors during the evolving crisis. In seeking to explain what happened in the first nine months of 2020, this book also considers how the pandemic will transform Hollywood practices in the twenty-first century. 

Below the Stars: How the Labor of Actors and Extras Shapes Media Production

Abstract: Despite their considerable presence in Hollywood, extras and working actors have received scant attention within film and media studies as significant contributors to the history of the industry. Looking not to the stars but to these supporting players in film, television, and, recently, streaming programming, Below the Stars highlights such actors as precarious laborers whose work as freelancers has critically shaped the entertainment industry throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. By addressing ordinary actors as a labor force, Kate Fortmueller proposes a media industry history that positions underrepresented and quotidian experiences as the structural elements of the culture and business of Hollywood.

Hollywood Shutdown: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition in the Time of COVID

Abstract: Hollywood Shutdown examines the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on Hollywood beginning with the closure of movie theaters in China over Chinese New Year and ending with Mulan’s bumpy September release on the streaming platform Disney+. One goal of this book is to answer the question: What happened when the coronavirus closed Hollywood? In order to answer this question I look at the pandemic’s effect on production of film and television, the various changes and trends in distribution, and finally the influence on the theatrical exhibition. In each section I consider different aspects of the business and examine studio, network, distributor, and exhibitor choices made during the evolving crisis. This book will be short (30,000 words) and aimed at a general audience.

Right Here in Hollywood: The Greatest Story Ever Told, the American West and the American Film Worker

Abstract: The 1950s and 1960s saw a swell of films shot on location and abroad, often big-budget, widescreen epic films. These runaway productions represented a practical financial decision for Hollywood studios, incentivized by tax breaks, government subsidies, frozen funds and rising union salaries in the U.S. When George Stevens began pre-production on his Biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965),he was well aware of both the power of location shooting as bearer of textual meaning and provider of jobs and opted to shoot the entire film in the U.S. Stevens eschewed the conventional aesthetic realism and economic logic that sent many filmmakers to foreign locales and instead he stressed that the American Southwest was the ideal setting for this Biblical story and that the professionalism of the more expensive American film workers was unparalleled. The locations and publicity for The Greatest Story Ever Told position it, despite its Biblical setting in Western Asia, as an American story and an accomplishment of domestic filmmaking. Stevens’s visual choices and the production history reveal an uneasy attempt to balance the spirituality of the religious story with the demands of capitalism and nationalistic ideals. Production documents from the Margaret Herrick Library illuminate the transformation of natural environments in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona and the interactions with extras and the Screen Extras Guild. Below-the-line unions scrambled to negotiate for more union jobs on the film, but in order to pay for union workers George Stevens Productions turned to inexpensive Native American labor to keep the cost of extras within budget – a casting choice which created yet another layer of contradiction between the profilmic space of production and the filmic space onscreen.

Time’s Up (Again?): Transforming Hollywood’s Industrial Culture

Abstract:  In the 1970s, almost fifty years before the “Time’s Up” movement, women in Hollywood unions organized “women’s committees” to counter institutional sexism and address rampant underemployment. While the unions supported the general motive behind these committees’ efforts, women activists struggled to gather information about hiring practices and enact policy changes. To understand gender inequity in contemporary Hollywood, I argue that we need to reexamine Hollywood infrastructure and consider how it continues to inform labor practices. Using the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) women’s committee as a case study, this article shows how employment insecurity, a problem that has plagued male and female actors, and the inability or unwillingness of Hollywood institutions to address the precarious work culture inhibited women’s activist efforts in the 1970s.


Hollywood Freelance: Extras, Actors, and On-Screen Talent

Abstract: Actors are, and have always been, the biggest labor force in Hollywood. Although their faces might be familiar, how they have negotiated the extremely competitive and ever-changing business of Hollywood is typically a mystery. For many, at least those below the level of stars, work in Hollywood is inconsistent. Hollywood Freelance demonstrates how sporadic work has been a defining characteristic of actors’ labor and sheds lights on the lives and collective struggles of working and aspirant actors. Supported by archival evidence and interviews with industry workers, this book looks at the relationship between labor, technology, and capitalism to provide a cultural framework of actors, unions and Hollywood’s industrial practices. This contract was granted on the basis of peer review and approval by the University of Michigan Press’s editorial board.

Below-the-Line Labor and Infrastructure in Hollywood

From the ragtag crews of 1910s productions to the organized backlots of Classical Hollywood to the runaway productions of the last fifty years, Hollywood has employed a wide array of workers. Their duties have ranged from hanging lights and writing music to designing sets and casting talent, and their professional norms and practices have helped shape Hollywood’s industrial culture. This seminar will focus on these workers, often labelled as below-the-line, and the organizations that cut a horizontal swath across the studios from above (AMPAS, MPPDA, etc.), below (ASC, SAG, etc.), and outside (SMPE, ASCAP, etc).

When we enlarge the view of what Hollywood is and explore how it sustains the economy of a city and the livelihoods of thousands of workers, how does that change our understanding of this paradigmatic creative industry? We seek to expand on recent historical works that look beyond the screen, and even beyond stars and directors, to focus on the production conditions that bolster the system. Like Vicki Mayer and production studies scholars, we take a broad view of what it means to make media, from manufacturing raw materials to drawing storyboards to making legal arguments.

This seminar carves out space between several fields which are often disconnected, including media industries, labor, technology, and Hollywood history. We invite a range of methodological approaches that engage with one or more of these animating questions:
How do motion picture and television workers perceive themselves and their labor?
Who defines professions and forms gatekeeping mechanisms?
How are technologies, techniques, and practices codified and disseminated throughout the industry? In what way do institutions (both top-down and bottom-up) shape professional identities and control labor?

Participants will submit a 5-6-page paper including three pages on their project and its interventions in the field, followed by 2-3 pages on the current state of and areas of struggle with their research, sources, methodologies, and writing. Participants and auditors are expected to read these papers in advance. We will begin with small group discussions and end with a full group conversation about ways we can bring these projects and fields into closer dialogue. We particularly encourage projects in nascent stages.