Michael Curtin: An exposé on the film industry in his book Voices of Labor

By Katherine Mosqueira

Film and Media Studies professor Michael Curtin.

Film and Media Studies professor Michael Curtin.

Michael Curtin, a UC Santa Barbara film and media studies professor, has released his newest book Voices of Labor: Creativity, Craft, and Conflict in Global Hollywoodabout the exploitation of labor in the entertainment industry.

Published with co-editor Kevin Sanson, the book is a set of interviews with individuals who work in the entertainment industry. They recount labor conditions such as unsafe work environments and 15-hour work days without the legally-required amount of turn around time between them. The interviews also dive into issues of gender inequality in the industry and the personal experiences of women in entertainment.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Curtin to discuss the background to his book, as well as some of his earlier work. Here is an edited account of our conversation.

Q. When was your latest book published?

A. There were two versions. One was a collection of scholarly articles, Precarious Creativitythat was in 2016. In 2017 was the publication of Voices of Labor.

Q. How long did it take you to write and compile all of the interviews before publishing Voices of Labor?

A. Some of those interviews go back four years. Part of the challenge was to get people who had very different jobs in the industry and would bring different perspectives to similar issues.

Q. When did you first become interested in researching labor conditions in Hollywood?

A. That’s an interesting question because these issues have been emerging over the last 25 to 30 years and there have been other people who have studied it. I was doing work on the Media Industries Project, which was part of the Carsey-Wolf Center. We did a book called Distribution Revolution, which was about how digital delivery systems were changing the very nature of screen media, film and television. We interviewed a whole bunch of people on that issue. Some who we came in contact with were associated not simply with certain jobs, but also with workers’ organizations like unions and guilds. It was a series of snowballing conversations among people working in different jobs. We started noticing similar things and we thought it would be good to bring together a set of comprehensive interviews that speak to each other. In a way, the book is designed as if you’ve got 25 people all in a room and they all are able to speak. Each person talks about their own particular job. But then we try to lead them back to a certain set of issues that we’ve heard talked about by many of those workers.

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Q. Have you personally worked in Hollywood before?

A. I hadn’t worked in Hollywood. I used to work as a news reporter in the San Francisco Bay area. I was also a Tokyo correspondent for NPR back in the early 1980s. I also worked for another NPR nationally distributed program and for Pacifica Radio. I also worked for Wisconsin Public Television doing some television producing.

Q. Did you publish any books before the 2016 Precarious Creativity?

A. I wrote a book about the history of documentary television in the early 1960s when there was a boom in documentary production in the United States. All the major networks had documentaries and they played them in prime time. I describe the rise of documentary and then also its demise — why documentary became a troublesome genre for commercial television.

Q. What was that book called and when was it published?

A. It was called Redeeming the Wasteland, published in 1997.

Q. What do you hope readers take away from reading Voices of Labor?

A. We were hoping that it would be a book read by people in the industry. That it would be a book that would help people who work in the industry in Southern California understand the problem as being about things likes globalization, conglomeration, and financialization — not about runaway production. That’s such a simplification and in many ways it’s a misinterpretation of what’s going on, such that it’s kind of dangerous. It makes it difficult to solve the problem if you’re pointing at the wrong thing. What we need to do is understand these issues are affecting other industries. I think that it’s only by having a very clear sense of what the issues and challenges are that we can begin to address them and do something about them.

Q. Do you plan on writing more books on other issues in the entertainment industry?

A. I’m actually working on a book right now [called Media Capital] about the nature and influence of globalization in media around the world. It’s about what places are becoming the centers of the global media economy.

Q. What is your favorite part about teaching a course based on Voices of Labor to your students?

A. My favorite part about that course was that it’s a point where many students in the class are very close to graduation and they are thinking about the future and they are thinking a lot about work. I enjoyed teaching that class because it was about work, but it was a very grounded set of discussions we got to have about work.

Katherine Mosqueira is a fourth year Film and Media Studies major at UC Santa Barbara.