June 10, 2024

Telling Untold Stories Beyond Hollywood: Regional Labor Markets and the Possibility of a Diverse Film Industry Talent Hub

CKing headshot 1 4.3 Uma gupta author photoBy Colby King and Uma Gupta, Associate Professor and Director of Business Analytics at USC Upstate

Where a person lives, and where they’re able to work, shapes their sociological imagination, and their opportunities. Today’s local labor markets are defined, though, by historical patterns of segregation, continuous ebbs and flows of capital investment, ongoing shifts in occupational mixes. This context contributes to unequal power between groups of workers, and ongoing racial inequalities.

Over the past year, we have been working on a research report for the Urban League of the Upstate (ULUS) studying South Carolina’s labor market and the possibilities of developing a film industry hub in the Upstate region of South Carolina.

The Upstate of South Carolina is a diverse region, but the long history of segregation and impoverishment makes it difficult for talented people from African American and other historically marginalized backgrounds to make the most of their talents. One important thing we have learned through this project is that many talented people have left the Upstate to find opportunities in the film industry.

As Josh Foster explained, “It can feel daunting for a person trying to break into the industry. It can feel like you HAVE to move. People have moved to Atlanta, Hollywood, New York City, and other places with established industry infrastructure. This likely contributes to something we found in our analysis of the region’s film industry today: this sector of the local labor market is less diverse than the community overall. This means that there is talent left untapped and stories left untold.

The idea of a local film industry hub is that such a hub would help these people find film industry opportunities locally, bring a more diverse, richer set of stories to film, and change the narrative, or the place character, attributed to the region.

Many states have offered a variety of financial incentives to encourage film industry activity within their borders. South Carolina began offering incentives for the film industry in 2004, and there is now an active industry cluster in and around Charleston, filming shows including Righteous Gemstones.

But this industry is not only comprised of large-scale, sustained productions. Instead, the industry is highly fluid. Production companies and industry specialists will frequently work across multiple sectors of the industry on various projects. For example, a production company that specializes in independent film may also work in commercial marketing, or a visual effects artist who typically works in advertising may work on a documentary film.

There are ongoing debates about the effectiveness and impact of state incentives. Years ago, in ASA’s TRAILS system I published a teaching resource about state subsidies as economic development tools. Recently, there has been a renewed wave of geographic shifts in film industry activity and renewed debate about state incentives. The New York Times reported that 38 states are now offering incentives to the film industry. In April, Marketplace reported that over the past few years, employment in the job category “motion picture and sound recording” has grown nationwide, but, “the share of workers in LA or New York went from just under half at the beginning of 2023 to just one-third earlier this year,” based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The ongoing geographic shifts could contribute to the development of a new, dynamic and diverse, talent hub. A rich scholarly literature on economic development argues that agglomeration and density of high-skilled, creative workers leads to innovation and spurs further economic development.

For example, Harvey Molotch and Dierdre Boden discussed of what they called the “compulsion of proximity,” underscoring that face-to-face interaction remains an important component of business transactions and economic growth. Ed Glaeser refers to this as agglomeration economics, and scholars at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research have published this literature review on the subject.  

The film industry is uniquely project-based and location-driven. Long-term sustainability and industry presence and growth does not come from one or two companies, but from a cluster of temporary, short-term engagements. As Ric Kolenda explained, sustained agglomeration of talent in this industry requires nurturing these project-based, temporary business engagements. So, it is critical to build local networks of talented workers (also referred to as “geographies of scope”) and expand service-related industries to provide what production operations need when on location.

Other shifts are reshaping the film industry as well. For example, the increasing use of generative artificial intelligence technologies (GenAI) for creating or editing both visual, audio, and textual content are rapidly revolutionizing the world of creative work. As Karen Sternheimer wrote here at the ESB recently, technological changes are sources of structural mobility, since they change how many and which types of jobs are available.

While cutting-edge technologies like GenAI lead to extraordinary innovation, creativity and efficiencies, they have also destabilized opportunities for creators, with artists asserting that the use of such technologies constitutes theft of their intellectual property. Concerns about the use of generative AI in film and entertainment production was a key bargaining concern for members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in their recent contract negotiations.

In our interviews, Darla McGlamery of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) compared the emergence and impact of AI on the industry to the previous shift from film to digital about a decade ago. She explained that they “… don’t want to come from a fear-based position but do want to encourage people to step into the unknown,” and emphasized that all workers in the film industry could make use of education and training that helps them create with technology.

Justin Myrick, a visual effects artist, explained to us that making the most of GenAI requires technical skills, artistic perspective, and problem-solving abilities. Developing a new cohort of talent that is technologically savvy and equipped to work in the industry presents an opportunity for South Carolina and the Upstate.

A common refrain we heard from industry practitioners is that there are talented people with compelling stories to tell through film in our region. Development of a local film industry talent hub that better reflects the diversity and talents of our community would help elevate the region’s people and their untold stories and create more robust and rewarding opportunities across the region’s labor market.

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