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February 21 at 8:30am

Sherry B Ortner’s “Not Hollywood”: Producers and the Neoliberal Economy

By Ted Hope

Here’s another excerpt from Sherry B Ortner’s new book Not Hollywood, an ethnographic look at Independent Film since the late 80s. In this excerpt Sherry looks at social and economic background of producers in the independent sphere, finding that the majority come from upperclass background and educations.

The Sociology of Producers and the Neoliberal Economy of the 1990s

The independent producers who are part of this project are mostly within the age range of the filmmakers, Generation X, born between the early 1960s and the early 1980s. Some are a bit older, and most fall at the early end of the Gen X range, but on the whole there is not a major age/generation gap between the producers and the filmmakers. This is relevant in the sense that the producers and the filmmakers would share the worldview and the general aesthetic behind the independent films they make together. Beyond this, however, there are some interesting differences. First, gender: As we will see in the next chapter, women form a relatively small percent of directors and filmmakers. But it is a striking fact that women constitute almost half of the ranks of producers. In 1974, the Producers Guild of America (pga) recorded that 8 out of 3,068 members were female, or 0.3 percent (Abramowitz 2000: 65). According to Vance Van Petten, executive director of the pga, currently about 45 percent of its members are women (interview, December 13, 2007).

Next, class: It is an equally striking fact that independent producers tend to come from relatively high capital backgrounds and collectively are clearly part of the Professional Managerial Class or pmc. Many come from upper-middle-class families with significant amounts of money. Even if they are not all members of the pmc by virtue of money, they are almost uniformly so by virtue of higher education. I note first that all of them at least completed an undergraduate degree. This might seem unremarkable except that it is not always true of the filmmakers whose work they produce. Further, most of these individuals went to private colleges and universities, and many of them went to very prestigious colleges (Tufts, Amherst, Antioch, Wesleyan, Brown, Smith) and universities (Columbia, ucBerkeley, University of Chicago, Stanford). Beyond the bachelor’s level, more than half of them have advanced degrees.

The high proportion of independent producers with elite educational backgrounds stands out against a significant number of independent filmmakers with little or no higher education at all. Examples include such well-known figures as Quentin Tarantino (who never finished high school), Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Richard Linklater. This is not to say that all filmmakers should be seen as in some sense ‘‘low capital’’ compared to producers; on the contrary, the profile of filmmakers is extraordinarily diverse in class terms, covering a wide range of economic and educational backgrounds, and complicated further in some cases by artistic parents fostering a creative habitus even in the absence of money and/or education. But the fact that one can list seven well-known independent filmmakers with little or no higher education does underscore the fact that 100 percent of independent producers completed at least a ba, that a significant number of those went on to higher degrees, and that a significant proportion of all those degrees are from elite institutions.

Both the gender and the class demographics make sense when situated within the context of the 1990s and beyond. The improvement in the representation of women in the ranks of producers starts from nearly zero in the 1970s, at the time of the (‘‘second wave’’) women’s movement, and grows steadily to the present figure of nearly 50 percent. It is clearly one of the payoffs of the movement.

As for class, in chapter 2 I discussed briefly the contradictory economy of the 1990s, in which the general trend of the economy for most people was downward, but in which some people, in certain booming areas of the economy (mostly in the finance, high technology, and knowledge/information industries), were able to make spectacular amounts of money. The downward trend, for the middle and working classes, had actually begun in the 1970s, but only fully registered starting in the 1990s, when the public culture began telling young people (‘‘Generation X’’) that they would be the first generation since the Great Depression that would not do better than their parents.

As for the much smaller number of people who did well and moved into the upper tier, I discussed in chapter 3 the very interesting development in which, for a certain sector of the pmc, there was a reconfiguration of the traditional relationship between wealth, politics, and cultural interests. In the traditional configuration, wealth tended to go with conservative politics, and with an interest in ‘‘high culture’’ or else no cultural interests at all. While there was always a more politically and culturally progressive wing of the pmc, it tended to be less wealthy and powerful, what Bourdieu called ‘‘the dominated fraction of the dominant class.’’ In the new configuration, on the other hand, there has emerged a certain hybrid fraction that has both significant wealth and progressive political and cultural interests, what David Callahan (2010) called the ‘‘new liberal rich.’’

I discussed this shift with respect to investors in independent film, and I now bring the point to bear on producers. In aggregate producers are not as wealthy as the investors, but most come from situations of clear financial security if not great wealth. More important for thinking about producers in class terms is education. As noted above, a large majority of producers come from elite educational backgrounds. Callahan, among others, has called attention to the close connection between wealth and education in the new economy, which has been called ‘‘the knowledge economy’’: ‘‘When the Forbes 400 list was first published in 1982, it was dominated by oil, manufacturing fortunes, and old-money families. . . . By 2008, nearly half of the billionaires on the Forbes list . . . derived their wealth from financial services, technology, and media or entertainment’’ (2010: 22). When I have spoken with producers about my ‘‘finding,’’ that is, the high-capital profile of contemporary independent producers, I have encountered a certain resistance. Some questioned the finding itself and wondered about a possible skewing of the sample. It is true that the sample is small and I cannot offer any robust statistical claims for representativeness. Yet the high proportion of independent producers with blue-chip educations is striking, not only in comparison with the more mixed profile of filmmakers but also in comparison with past patterns in Hollywood. For example, a biographer of independent producer Walter Wanger, who was active in the industry in the 1930s and 1940s, notes his college degree at a time when ‘‘articulate, college-educated producers were unheard of ’’ (Bernstein [1994] 2000: xiii) and goes on to say that ‘‘[t]hrough the late 1970s, the prevalent view of the producer . . . was [as] an uncultured philistine’’ ([1994] 2000: xiv)

Others, however, acknowledged that independent producers may indeed be more likely to come from wealth, in the sense that producing requires a certain cushion of resources to underwrite both financial risk taking and dry periods when there is no money coming in. But when I suggested that the producers’ high educational capital (as well as the money) might play a role in their success, I again encountered some resistance. Ursula Jackson,* partner in a production company that make studio-oriented films, had this to say: ‘‘It doesn’t matter where you went to college or anything. . . . Here, it is such a crapshoot. The kid who was the dumb one in the mail room is next thing running the department. It is ridiculous. There is such a vagueness as to what the future holds; it allows for the dreamers to dream. It allows for the weird, fluke anomalies to hit’’ (interview, November 12, 2005).

The idea that one could be catapulted from the mailroom to the head of the department (or from the drugstore ice cream counter to stardom) is a very old and enduring idea in Hollywood. There is probably still some truth to it, because the system is in some ways very free-form and kind of crazy, and canny self-promotion without official credentials can indeed get one quite far in some cases.

But it is precisely my point that times have changed—the 1990s are not the 1950s—perhaps with people not quite noticing, or not noticing its implications. I also had several conversations with independent-oriented producer Ron Yerxa about this. At first he too denied the relevance of the high-class education factor: ‘‘Really, producing you don’t need anything, there is no license, no college degree, no one respects a college degree necessarily. I mean, once in a while saying that you went to Yale or Harvard counts somewhat, but most of the time it would be more interesting to hark back to the early moguls and say you came up in some seat-of-the-pants kind of a way.’’ But then Yerxa checked himself: ‘‘As a producer I might be saying something contradictory because it is certainly a much more Ivy League time than ever before’’ (interview, April 5, 2006).

Pierre Bourdieu would not have been surprised to find that independent producers tend to come from high-capital backgrounds. Like my informants, he points to the necessity for a financial cushion, especially in the more risky zone of the field of cultural production, such as is occupied by independent film: ‘‘The propensity to move towards the economically most risky positions, and above all the capacity to persist in them (a condition for all avant-garde undertakings which precede the demands of the market), even when they secure no short-term economic profit, seem to depend to a large extent on possession of substantial economic and social capital’’ (1993: 67). Although Bourdieu is writing in this passage about the artists themselves, he makes the same point in an earlier discussion about art gallery owners (1993: 40), whose role in the art world is analogous to the role of independent producers in the film world.

Above excerpted from Sherry B Ortner’s Not Hollywood. Copyright Duke University Press, 2013



Sherry B. Ortner is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at UCLA. She is the author of numerous books including New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of ’58 and Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject.

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  1. Ornana Films / Feb 21 at 8:30am

    In the new era of filmmaking, currently just in its infancy, the idea of independent producers with elite educations seems intuitive–the relevant aspect being social capital, rather than just financial. Isn’t this another outcropping of networking? If someone starts with a powerful network, from just the people he or she has met in college, isn’t she/he given a head start? Elite institutions have always offered their brand umbrella as part of their self-perpetuating influence. Great piece here on the evolution of that in an increasingly brand-conscious society.

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