Thursday, September 11, 2014

Macro Labor Trends in Show Biz

Employment in movies and television moves in a downward direction?

While the U.S. economy has steadily added jobs since the end of the recession, one business is seeing a sharp decline: the movie industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the motion picture and sound recording industry has dropped from as high as 368,000 in 2013 down to just 298,000 in August. That’s a 19% drop in just over two years.

Bloomberg reported last week that Warner Bros. plans to offer buyouts to some of its employees, and may ultimately fire staffers if too few accept the offers; this being part of a plan to help boost its profits. The same article reported that the studio’s domestic box office receipts dropped 15% in 2014. ...

Technological change has wreaked havoc in many parts of show business.

The music industry has been taken apart by downloading and streaming over the internet. It was happening fifteen years ago, when I sat on a panel and listened to an industry lawyer tell a roomful of high-powered attorneys that it was "over" for little silver disks sold by RCA, Capitol Warner Bros Records, Elektra, etc. etc. And that they'd better get a new business model fast, or they would be out of business.

The guy wasn't wrong. Record company after record company has since gone through bankruptcy and restructuring. Rock bands and country western singers make the bulk of their livings with concert appearances, records are no longer a big factor for most of them. (Paul McCartney makes millions filling Dodger Stadium; he doesn't sell a lot of recordings anymore.)

And now Marketwatch tells us that employment in the "movie business" is shrinking, and Marketwatch isn't wrong. But the reality is more complicated than that. Today, much of the high-end movie business has exited L.A., but contributions into industry pension plans, propped up by hourly contributions, have not plunged. Much of the slack has been taken up by low-budget reality television shows, low-budget television, and a generous sprinkling of sitcoms. While more television shows are getting made (you have to fill up the hundreds of cable channels with something), the number of mid-budget features has declined.

Animation, both television and feature, is the one part of moviedom that enjoys robust growth. Over the past three years, the Animation Guild has seen a steady rise in the number of employees working under its jurisdiction. This isn't because feature work has exploded, but because there are more television shows being produced for a lot more outlets. Netflix. Amazon. Adult Swim. Cartoon Network. Animation Domination. Fox Broadcasting. The Disney Channel. It all adds up to more jobs for more artists, and it occurs because the profit margins for animation are healthy and the ancillary markets robust.

It's been otherwise in the past. So let us give thanks that our fine entertainment conglomerates have now decided that cartoons are the entertainment business's own private gold mines, and they want to dig lots more of them.


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