The Academy Museum Ignores Hollywood Labor HistoryRoundup
tags: museums, film, Hollywood, labor history, Academy Museum, Movie Industry
Andy Lewis was an editor at the Hollywood Reporter from 2011 to 2018. He is a former professor of American history at Wesleyan University and Hamilton College.
In recent weeks, two events have dominated coverage of Hollywood. One is the long-awaited opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a Wilshire Boulevard shrine to the magic of moviemaking. The other is the death of a cinematographer after a gun was accidentally discharged on the New Mexico set of the movie “Rust.”
These two events — one celebratory, the other horrifying — have more in common than you might think. The very issues roiling around the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins — worker conditions and safety — are older than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The academy was formed in 1927 to help studios arbitrate contracts with Hollywood unions after the signing of the Studio Basic Agreement, which established a basic framework of labor relations in Hollywood going forward. The shiny gold statuettes, fancy awards ceremonies and museum dreams arrived two years later.
It would take 92 more years to make the museum a reality. The finished product has been met with praise for architect Renzo Piano’s stunning design with its futuristic spherical theater; the cool props displayed, including the droid C-3PO from “Star Wars,” the fiberglass shark from “Jaws” and the Rosebud sled from “Citizen Kane”; the thoughtfully inclusive video montages on the history of cinema; and the kitschy fun simulated Oscar acceptance speech experience.
But there’s one topic that the museum has not quite confronted: the history of labor and unions in the industry itself. To be fair, it makes a few stabs at it. The exhibit on “The Wizard of Oz” uses the movie as a case study on the contributions of different departments such as publicity, sound and editing. It reminds visitors that the magic was made in “factory-like settings” and gives a nod to the teams of craftspeople who made it happen. Still, the museum presents filmmaking as primarily an artistic endeavor, not an industrial production.
A prominent display on the capacity of movies to influence the public highlights four issues: climate change, the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, and labor relations. The labor section mentions classic films such as “Norma Rae” (1979) and the blacklisted “Salt of the Earth” (1954) and documentaries including “American Factory” (2019) and “Harlan County, USA” (1976). But all of it is focused on labor conflict outside the industry. Labor relations within Hollywood are left unexamined, at least for now. (The Times asked the museum to address the absence of a more comprehensive exhibit on unions and the industry, but Kramer’s statement did not offer a specific comment.)
It’s not as if there’s a shortage of material. Unions have played a significant role in the history of Hollywood. Filmmaking was the original gig economy, and how the movie business dealt with solving problems of pay and portable benefits has lessons for today, says Catherine Fisk, a UC Berkeley law professor and author of “Writing for Hire,” a history of labor relations in film, television and advertising.
On such issues as pay, residuals and credits, the unions have helped establish “a system of sector-wide collective bargaining wage and benefit and intellectual property systems that are the envy of video game production, software development” and other tech industries, Fisk says.
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