"That's a wrap!" The organizational culture and characteristics of successful film crews.

Author:Peterson, Lisa C.


Since Louis Le Prince made the first film with his friends and family clowning around in their garden in France, in the spring of 1888, the creation of a film has been a team effort. Just seven years later, the Lumiere brothers presented the first commercial exhibition of a projected motion picture to a paying public in the world's first movie theater in Paris. By 1910, the first Hollywood studio was opened for the sole purpose of producing commercial movies (Higgins, 2005). In less than a generation, the creation of moving images developed from the odd hobby of a few inventors to the world's favorite form of storytelling and launched a hugely successful industry that continues to thrive globally today, more than 120 years later.

The films themselves have changed greatly and innovation is integral to the industry's continued success as popular entertainment. What has changed very little is the way film crews function while employed on the production. D.W. Griffith, American film director in the early 1900s, could step onto a set today and know exactly what was going on. The hierarchy, set protocols and the vocabulary itself are very much the same as they were at the very beginnings of the art form. The crew is divided into two parts, management and labor, much like any team endeavor. This hierarchy has remained constant through the years. Even the studio system did not change the on set structure of the crew, it only altered the way the crews were put together, i.e. staff year round employment versus freelance employment. The organizational make-up remained the same (Davenport, 2006).

The nature of a career as a film crew member has also remained constant. There has always been a very robust freelance workforce in the film industry. Freelance in this sense is defined as a worker who is not employed full time by one entity, but rather goes from one short term job to another, seeking his/her own employment each time. During the heyday of the studio system the "majors" (Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, et al.) did indeed keep crews on staff and working all year round. But the first crews in film history were freelance and they existed concurrently with the studios during the rise and fall of the studio system. The studio system collapsed in the late 1960s, but the freelance structure remained strong and is the industry standard today (Bohn, Stromgren, & Johnson, 1978). Film crews come together for one project, execute it at the top of their game and then reconfigure into completely new line-ups for the next project. "... four people who've never worked together can meet each other at nine o'clock in the morning and by ten o'clock they know what they're all doing" (Relph as cited in Davenport, 2006, p.254). The crew members are specialists in their skill sets. They need no training for each individual job. They know what the job descriptions are and they know where their responsibilities begin and end for them individually, as a department and as a film crew. They work in challenging and often physically harsh conditions, attempting to create a unique and compelling form of artistic expression, while under financial constraints and tightly constructed schedules with little or no margin for error. This study arises from the author's personal experience from 1980 to 2000 as a freelance live action line producer and production manager. Work experience led the author to investigate the theoretical underpinnings of organizational culture and conduct research that could shed light on the film crew organizational structure. What makes film crews so efficient? How are they able to come together in different iterations time and again, always with a different script, different set of problems, a different artistic vision and a tight schedule, yet manage to create such items of universal wonderment? What is the profile of a film crew organizational culture?

Like the military, on a film crew all members know their jobs, where the boundaries are and who the boss is, always under absurd time constraints and while solving logistical problems under adverse physical conditions. Unlike the military, they are working on an artistic project that demands constant creative as well as financial problem solving. The ability of film crews to succeed so consistently under this tension is the seed of this research query. Scholarly work is scarce on the organizational culture description or profile of this type of group. This study seeks to define the film crew organizational culture as a way to determine the traits of the organization common to all levels of the film crew unit. As a unique form of project-based and boundaryless enterprise, the career of the film crew member has been the predominant focus of much of the research. Little evidence exists of research into the workings of the film crew organization itself, once the crew member has secured the hard-won gig. There is room to define the culture of the film crew organization, and to study how it functions. There are also important connections between the way film crews have always worked and the way many workers are being forced to adapt to freelance careers as a result of the current economic turndown and layoffs. Many who assumed they would been employed by a permanent organization and enjoy benefits and job security now find themselves competing for short-term freelance work just as film crews have been doing since the beginning of the industry. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from this group of successful project-based workers that can be applied to other fields.

A brief overview of the relevant theoretical approaches is provided herein, followed by an explanation of the methodology. The results, discussion, validity issues and suggestions for further research conclude the paper.


While a film crew career may appear unique to those viewing it from the outside, it can still be described using two traditional definitions: Film productions are project-based and film crew members participate in what's termed a "boundaryless career". Research has focused on seeing the film-crew job through these lenses (Jones, 1996).

The Project-Based Enterprise

As a project-based enterprise, the film crew fits the model to a T. "Project-based enterprises (companies formed to pursue a specific project outcome) and project-based careers (careers habitually moving from one project to another) are most typically found in knowledge-intensive professional service firms in fields such as law, management consulting and architecture" (DeFillippi & Arthur, 2002, p. 189). The project-based enterprise of filmmaking is similar to practices in architecture. Film scripts are often referred to as the "blueprint" for the project, and the sequence of production and building are very similar in that they both hire the best for a specific project and disband as soon as the project is completed (Epstein, 2002, p.1). Jones and DeFillippi (1996) describe filmmaking as a knowledge intensive process. Its crew members move from one project to another, several times a year and always for a different organization. A film production company is set up for just that one project and is disbanded when the film is released. The industry standard for filmmaking crews is to be thrown together with new colleagues on every film. There may be a few crew members who go from one project to the next with a few of the same members, but the majority of crews are combinations of professionals who have never worked with anyone on the crew before the current job. While the crew at large is made up of members who are new to each other, the departmental structure keeps some of the crew members together as a team. Department heads (i.e. director of photography, production designer, assistant directors) may be different on every film, but the members who work for these department heads are often a unit that the department head strives to keep together from show to show. It serves the department supervisor and the film production overall to have cohesive units who know how to work together with each other on the small scale, even if the combination of departments as a whole consists of teams working together for the first time (Jones & DeFillippi, 1996). "Everyone comes with a team ... because the job is too big for any one person" (DeFillippi & Arthur, 1998, p. 133). Fundamentally, the crew is a unique combination of talent--it does not have the benefits (or drawbacks) of having worked together on multiple projects consistently and with the knowledge that its members will be working together as long as they have a job, the expectations at a traditional enterprise. Yet the departments and the production benefit from the prior team experience of the units, as they fit into the larger crew made up of first time partners.

Typically, a producer procures a script through various means and finds the financing to turn the script into a film. The producer then hires a crew of freelance workers to execute the production. These crew members are selected for each project based on several variables--skill level, availability, salary range, affiliations with others on the crew and nature of past experience. The prioritizing of these variables changes with each film production. On a well-funded production, getting the best filmmakers available is the priority. On a smaller scale budget, the most affordable crew would be primary. Often, the director will have some assistants and department heads that he or she likes to work with on every production. The producer will often have favorites that have proven reliable and creative on past projects. The genre of the film can determine which department heads to consider. For example, when making a Western, it's always a good idea to use a production designer who has worked on a Western at some point in his or her career. That way the production benefits from...

To continue reading