Emslie Horniman Award – Anna Sarkissian

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Award Holder: Anna Sarkissian
University: University of Oxford
Title of Research: Structural gender inequality in Hollywood: an ethnography of film and television production

Introduction to the topic
My project focuses on the experiences of women filmmakers as they attempt to break into the Hollywood industry and sustain their careers. Research has shown that 95.7% of Hollywood films are directed by men (Smith et al. 2016), leaving few opportunities for women and even fewer for women of colour (Smith et al. 2018). This is a systemic issue with deep roots; women filmmakers are overlooked at award shows (Wittmer 2018), underrepresented at major film festivals (Lauzen 2018), and absent from film history (Stevens et al. 2018).

My work will detail what it means to navigate Hollywood’s film and television industry as a woman and demonstrate how industry structures (including practices relating to mentorship, hiring, networking, pitching, production, distribution, marketing, remuneration and work/life balance) make it more difficult for women to develop careers. I am exploring the career paths, aspirations, and beliefs of women directors, while also discussing the attitudes that industry professional have towards women filmmakers.

My fieldwork
I conducted fieldwork in Los Angeles for nine months in 2016-17 and continued with semi-structured interviews remotely until September 2018. Originally, I planned to use participant observation to shadow directors for several months. I hoped to observe day-to-day dynamics, attend their meetings, social events, dinners, and festivals. I wanted to learn about the daily challenges they faced and compare the experiences of men and women. I was going to supplement this with interviews to deepen my understanding of the inner workings of the industry, the relationships between individuals, and the hierarchies that develop.

Due to the challenges of conducting participant observation in a highly exclusive and secretive industry, a situation which will be discussed further below, I ended up spending more time conducting interviews than anticipated. Though women filmmakers remained my primary focus, I spoke to 40 film professionals (a mixture of men and women), including directors, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, assistant camera operators, and production designers, in order to present a more complete picture of the film and television industry (typically referred to as “the industry” by filmmakers). I aimed to interview newcomers who were trying to work their way into the industry, mid-career filmmakers who had achieved some success and were seeking to establish themselves further, as well as those who had a significant amount of experience working within the tightly-controlled studio system. I was not looking for “big names” per se, but rather people who would speak honestly about their work and their position, and more importantly, be willing to give me some of their time. My participants ranged from recent film graduates to Oscar-winning producers.

A great deal of my time has been dedicated to the issue of access: working proactively to try to work my way “into” Hollywood, reflecting on my strategies, and trying new approaches. I knew that obtaining access would be my biggest challenge; Sherry Ortner’s (2010) essay on trying to “study up” in Hollywood helped me prepare myself mentally for the significant obstacles ahead. Ortner wrote, quite accurately, that Hollywood was structured with layer upon layer of exclusivity, making it very difficult for an outsider to “get in,” while those who are seemingly already on the inside strive to get further in (Ortner 2010, 213–214). She predicted that insiders would have little interest in or time for academic research (Ortner 2010, 222), a prediction which ended up being quite accurate. Facing challenges and delays, Ortner eventually had to abandon her research on Hollywood and shift to studying independent filmmaking instead (see Ortner 2013). I have experience as filmmaker myself and I was hopeful that this would help me build relationships and gain entry into Hollywood more successfully than someone without film experience. The timing of my fieldwork also presented potential advantages, because I was set to enter the field at a time when discussions of “diversity” and “inclusion” were fairly prominent in Hollywood trade publications and the mainstream media. Furthermore, the US federal government had recently announced an investigation into alleged gender-based employment discrimination at Hollywood studios (Keegan 2015), with the possible result that the industry was under pressure to review its practices. With growing interest in this topic, I was optimistic that I would be able to forge relationships with creative professionals who would be sympathetic and willing to be involved. Instead, the issue of access remained a central preoccupation throughout my time in Los Angeles, and indeed the exclusivity of the industry became a key story in my own research.

My approach
I used multiple strategies in an attempt to build relationships and gain access. Before starting my doctorate, I began by expanding my professional network at film-related functions in the spring of 2015. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles in late September 2016 for fieldwork, I had numerous potential participants to reach out to. I was not sure where the exact boundaries of my field site would lie so I chose to live on the west site of Los Angeles, close to several main arteries. I initiated a range of strategies to try to broaden my network. I became affiliated with the University of Southern California (USC), home to what is arguably the world’s top film school with very close ties to Hollywood. I also tried, unsuccessfully, to establish research partnerships with several industry organizations that were already invested in gender parity initiatives. I proposed volunteering my time for them in exchange for help reaching out to contacts in their network. I also offered to publish a portion of my findings through them. I was never able to get the organizations to commit, and as the weeks turned into months, I moved on to other prospects. I volunteered at events relating to women in media and worked two to three days per week at an organization pushing for gender parity, which I am choosing not to name because eventually they also declined to participate in my research. On a day-to-day basis, I spent several hours writing emails, calling, and tweeting at people I hoped to speak to. I also attended networking sessions, professional development events for filmmakers, workshops, panel discussions, and special events. Studios and streaming services regularly organized free screenings of their latest project to generate publicity, so I signed up for multiple mailing lists to keep track of them. These screenings generally featured Q&A periods with well-known directors, producers and actors, so I saw this as an excellent opportunity to bypass their assistants and managers to speak directly to these people about becoming involved in my research. More generally, I explored Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, participated in activities in my area, socialized with fellow dog owners at the dog park–which as an aside, is an excellent way to meet people–and joined the Los Angeles Rowing Club.

Through the aforementioned fieldwork activities, I met a lot of people and pitched myself and my project on a daily basis, amassing an extensive list of potential participants. The first obstacle was simply getting interested parties to respond to my emails or phone calls to set up a meeting. I realized there was a difference between expressing interest during a conversation and committing to a scheduled interview. It often took several weeks and multiple follow up messages to elicit a response. I noticed that emerging filmmakers were generally more responsive, and that experienced filmmakers were less likely to acknowledge my messages. After weeks or months of trying, I had to accept that many were likely too busy to respond, and so I moved on.

Many of my interviews ended up being held over the phone or via Skype at the request of my participants. I suspect allowing such remote access was less of an imposition than having someone come to their office; they could easily cancel if needed; and no travel time was required. The heavy congestion in LA was also a factor–people seemed to be accustomed to meeting virtually rather than risk sitting in traffic. When meetings were eventually set, it was very common for participants to cancel at the last moment or not be available. One day, this happened with all three of my scheduled meetings. While this situation was somewhat frustrating on a personal level, I knew that creative work was unpredictable by nature, and many of my participants were freelancers with irregular work patterns. I made it clear to them that if the interview interfered with work, they could reschedule. Using Calendly, an online appointment tool for interviews, facilitated this process in a significant way: I used the app to allow participants to choose their interview time on my schedule, submit their biographical and contact details, and reschedule as needed.

Shifting gears
Although I could often speak to high profile filmmakers or actors at the aforementioned public events, such interaction did not translate into “access” to them. While many said “yes” to an interview in person, I was not able to reach them using the phone numbers or emails they provided. After several false starts and many months of unanswered emails and phone calls, I realized that this method of trying to make contact was not a fruitful exercise for multiple reasons. Firstly, mid-career and established professionals had very demanding schedules. Many were away from home for long periods of time on shoots, or travelling to promote their films. Secondly, they needed to funnel all their energy towards making their own films successful. Even long-time women directors did not view themselves as “established” and felt the need to prove themselves repeatedly. As Ortner predicted, they did not see the benefit of contributing to academic research when their own careers were on the line. Thirdly, I later found out that they were already being asked for multiple favours on a daily basis and likely could not process one more “ask.” While film students may acquire the technical skills needed to make films while they are studying, few graduate with the business acumen to make money through filmmaking (and I include myself in this category). This knowledge gap leads to the development of informal skills-sharing practices, such as asking a more senior filmmaker out for coffee to learn about her or his career. One filmmaker I spoke to said that she was asked out for coffee many times per week and had to refuse most as a matter of survival. Finally, even if filmmakers had the luxury of spare time and the cushion of a permanent position, they could not have an anthropologist–me–sitting in on their meetings with executives or investors with my notepad in hand. Hollywood deals are built on personal relationships, and it is critical to maintain a competitive advantage through confidentiality. Not only would my presence have been obtrusive, it would have hindered all progress.

Reflecting on my fieldwork
Getting access to the “right people” was a constant source of anxiety before and during my fieldwork. Ortner referenced a desire to speak to participants who were far enough “inside” Hollywood to be able to provide valuable information (2010, 222). However, without ties to powerful people, it proved impossible for me to convince filmmakers to let me in to engage in  traditional participant observation or conduct interviews. While in the field, I did view this exclusion as a “failure” to gain access, and as something I had to “fix.” For months, I worried that I had not collected any useful data. However, while I did not observe directors in the typical sense, I ended up engaging with them (and attempting to engage with them). I have come to realize that this perceived lack of access and the roadblocks I encountered were actually beneficial. Getting caught up in Hollywood’s extensive network of gatekeepers gave me first-hand experience with industry structures and a taste of what it is like for filmmakers who are trying to break in to this restrictive world. In many ways, I was truly participating in the Hollywood system by trying to forge a path for myself as emerging filmmakers might. I discovered what it was like to arrive in a new city with no connections and work to create a network using every tool at my disposal.  

While research on media is a relatively recent area of inquiry for anthropologists, Hollywood itself has been overlooked for nearly 70 years, when Hortense Powdermaker published her monograph Hollywood, the Dream Factory: an anthropologist looks at the movie makers (1950). In it, she suggested that Hollywood’s social system influenced the types of films that were produced. While I am not concerned with the content of films, I plan to adapt her central premise in the introductory chapters of my thesis, arguing that what is happening in Hollywood has been heavily influenced by the current political climate in the United States, and that recent developments in Hollywood (e.g. #MeToo) have in turn had a profound impact on the political climate in the US and the rest of the world. Since Powdermaker’s time, Hollywood’s influence on global values and beliefs has grown, with multiple nations aiming to replicate the same business model for their own industries, and the international proliferation of films and television shows. With greater focus on gender equality in our society and the so-called “democratization” of the modes of production–inexpensive filming equipment is now readily available–a contemporary study of this industry is long overdue. In light of my redirection away from traditional participant observation towards more interview-based research, I will be developing a new theoretical framework before I begin the writing up process. Possible areas for exploration include examining the exchange (or withholding) of knowledge and power in this highly exclusive industry; the precarity of Hollywood compared to other creative and cultural industries; or changing gender relations in the 21st century. It is hoped that my methodological challenges and attempts to “study sideways” among my peers will contribute to new understandings of conducting fieldwork among elites.

Keegan, R. 2015. The Hollywood gender discrimination investigation is on: EEOC contacts women directors. latimes.com. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-women-directors-discrimination-investigation-20151002-story.html [Accessed November 26, 2018].

Lauzen, M.M. 2018. Indie Women: Behind- the-Scenes Employment of Women in Independent Film, 2017-18. Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University. Available at: https://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2017-18_Indie_Women_Report_rev.pdf.

Ortner, S.B. 2010. Access: Reflections on studying up in Hollywood. Ethnography 11(2): p.211–233. Available at: http://eth.sagepub.com/content/11/2/211.abstract.

Ortner, S.B. 2013. Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Available at: www.dukeupress.edu/not-hollywood [Accessed November 15, 2018].

Smith, S.L., Pieper, K., & Choueiti, M. 2016. Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment. Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, University of Southern California. Available at: http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/CARDReport%20FINAL%2022216.ashx [Accessed April 6, 2016].

Smith, S.L., Pieper, K., & Choueiti, M. 2018. Inclusion in the Director’s Chair? Gender, Race & Age of Directors across 1,100 Films from 2007-2017. Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, University of Southern California. Available at: http://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/inclusion-in-the-directors-chair-2007-2017.pdf [Accessed November 14, 2018].

Stevens, I. et al. 2018. Washed away: lost films by female directors. British Film Institute. Available at: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/lost-films-female-directors [Accessed November 14, 2018].

Wittmer, C. 2018. Greta Gerwig is the 5th woman to be nominated for a best director Oscar — here are all the others. Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/women-nominated-for-best-director-oscar-list-2018-1 [Accessed November 14, 2018].