Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Movies Recession Resistant?

One of the great myths of Tinsel Town is that the movie industry weathers the bad times wonderfully well. But the L.A. Times puts that old actor's tale to rest:

Studio executives note that during the Great Depression, when more than a quarter of the country was out of work, people still scraped together dimes to see the latest motion picture ...

Although cinema attendance increased during five of the last seven recessions, a closer examination of movie box office receipts during the Great Depression seems at odds with Hollywood's conventional wisdom. Attendance soared in 1929 and 1930, after the advent of "talkies," but the novelty appears to have worn off amid hard times. By 1932, ticket sales had plunged and did not recover until 1940, just before World War II.

Of course, as the L.A. Times points out, there's a lot more competition for eyeballs than there was in 1933. Video games, YouTube, five jillion blogs, you name it. Hollywood just isn't going to have an easy time this time around.

But Hollywood didn't have an easy time of it at the bottom of the Hoover Depression, either. What you might not know is that Hollywood, seventy-five years back, was energetically sticking it hourly workers.

One of its Hollywood's manuevers then was to cut everybody's salaries, top to bottom, in half. The moguls said: "We all have to sacrifice in these hard times." Unsurprisingly, some were slated to make bigger sacrifices than others. The front office executive was certainly going to take a hit when his paycheck went from $1500 to $750 per week, but $750 was a fortune in 1933.

For the electrician, grip and cel painter who was making $25 per week and suddenly faced with living on $12.50, the sacrifice was a hell of a lot steeper. Because all of a sudden it was a question of having enough money to pay the rent and buy the groceries.

At the last minute, the studios rescinded the mandate to slash everybody's wages and exempted the people at the bottom. However, they didn't do it out of the goodness of their flinty hearts. They did it because the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employes, weaker in the studios then but strong in the movie theaters across the country (it controlled the projectionists) said:

Fine and dandy, you go ahead and cut the salaries of the electricians, editors, makeup artists, and the people working on the sound stages. But hey, how are you going to get your movies projected onto all those silver screens? Because projectionists won't be doing it ...*

And as if by magic, the studios found enlightenment. "Okay," they said. "You make good sense. We won't cut the lower-tiered wages. That would be bad. Thank you for showing us the way and the light." **

And the studios acted on their own economic self-interest, and did not cut the lower wages. Big of them, don't you think?

* Paraphrased.

** Also paraphrased. And the actual sentiments were probably a trifle different.


Anonymous said...

Remember that story when our C.B.A. comes up for renewal. Work is down and even successful studios that should have no cause for concern are pleading poverty and seem to be desperately looking for every possible opportunity to economize. There is a reason so many of us are out of work. I know that, in general, it's not unusual for a business to try to be efficient, curb waste, eliminate redundancy and bolster it's profit margin, but something is definitely up here. I fully expect the studios to use the economy as a justification to ask for a rollback.

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