Dissecting Hollywood from the Inside Out

Social Sciences8 MIN READ

Sociologist Jun Fang applies his expertise in social relations to a popular course about the film industry

Jun Fang, assistant professor of sociology, listens to students during his Sociology of Hollywood course.
By Lindsay BraytonPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
November 14, 2023

Assistant Professor of Sociology Jun Fang grew up in rural China watching pirated Hollywood movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, and American Pie. The films provided a way to learn English and served as a gateway to American culture.

“It’s almost impossible for a working-class kid to study or work in America,” Fang said. “Actually in Chinese the word for America is translated into ‘a beautiful country,’ so I thought, ‘Oh wow, I need to learn more about this country,’ so I started watching a lot of Hollywood movies.”

Years later Fang found himself working inside the Hollywood film industry that gave him his first glimpse of the United States. He turned the knowledge he gained from the experience into a course called Sociology of Hollywood, which he’s been teaching since he arrived at Colby in 2021.

The course dissects the structure of Hollywood, examining the power dynamics of the industry and the social forces that determine which films are or are not produced by Hollywood studios. This sociological approach eschews a cinema studies perspective, which typically involves close readings of individual movies and dives deeply into film history, genres, and the visual language of cinema.

Fang wants his students to see Hollywood as a mode of production and to consider who gets to make decisions within the industry’s hierarchy. The class explores how Hollywood movies transformed from entertainment to art; the role of nepotism in Hollywood; racial inequality in front of and behind the camera; the role of agents in wielding creative and economic power in the industry; and how independent filmmaking produced a counter-narrative to the conventions of Hollywood films.

Jun Fang, assistant professor of sociology, found that his background was an asset when he worked in Hollywood because his bosses hoped a sociologist would be able to predict box-office hits.

Fang’s hope is that students will learn to see the machinery behind Hollywood’s veil of glamor and seek jobs in the industry that will enable them to make positive changes to the insular industry. “Hopefully, after taking this class, students will be able to see all of the very intricate relations that exist in Hollywood and all of the perpetuating problems that have been in Hollywood for many decades. Maybe if they want to, they can also judge them and push for social change and one day become one of the decision-makers in the room. That is my goal,” Fang explained. 

Inside Hollywood

As a graduate student at Northwestern, Fang spent three years observing the industry as a case study for his dissertation. His focus was the marriage of convenience between China and Hollywood, which became the subject of Fang’s current book project, When China Meets Hollywood: Global Collaboration and State Intervention in a Creative Industry. The book is an ethnographic look at China’s role as a source of financial funding and cultural imagining for Hollywood studios and how the content of the movies being made by Hollywood is affected by the financial necessity to succeed in China’s large audience market. 

After two years of research in Los Angeles and Beijing, Fang secured an internship at a major studio, where he observed creative meetings about script development, closed-door business meetings where deals were made, and industry gatherings where key Hollywood players reflected on challenges. He found that his sociology background was an asset because his Hollywood bosses hoped a sociologist would be able to predict box-office hits. Because it can take years for a movie to develop from script to screen, executives were interested in someone who could read scripts and forecast what kinds of stories and themes would resonate with audiences several years in the future.

While foretelling the next box office hit would be an enviable skill, assessing scripts is really a matter of taste. “Taste is a very arbitrary concept and is questionable from a sociological perspective,” Fang explained, but by examining the forces that determine which scripts go into production, “we start to see all of these inequalities and exclusions and secrecy and performance that are central to the industry.” 

Jun Fang discusses the entertainment industry with his Sociology of Hollywood course.

On Mayflower Hill, Fang has become someone students who are interested in the film industry go to for advice and guidance. And Fang is happy to teach students the practical skills needed for entry-level work in the industry, like how to write script coverage, how to pitch a story to an executive, and the overall performance skills necessary to succeed in the industry.

“I’m doing my best to give them some skills,” Fang said. “Hopefully, Colby’s education, the classes they take, and the talents they have can help make the process of getting into the industry easier.”

Real world experiences

Jack Lenox ’24 took Sociology of Hollywood the first year it was offered, and last summer he worked as an intern at United Talent Agency in Los Angeles. Lenox is interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry and found Fang’s lectures on the types of connections people make in the industry useful. “These lessons that Jun Fang applied in this class seem really interesting, but once you get to the real world you realize how important they are,” Lenox explained. “I took a lot of things he taught in his class and was able to use them to move my career forward and gain these opportunities.”

Lenox’s internship came at a momentous time in the industry. This summer both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) went on strike, the first time the unions were on strike simultaneously since 1960, leaving the industry paralyzed. 

The unions were negotiating new contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents the major studios and streaming platforms, including Disney, NBCUniversal, Paramount, Sony, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and Warner Bros. Discovery. Lenox said you could feel Los Angeles slow down because of the strikes. “You definitely felt the effects because there’s not as much happening,” Lenox said. “Every Uber driver had an opinion about the strike. Every person was very affected and understood the impact” the strikes were having on the Los Angeles economy.  

Jun Fang, assistant professor of sociology, first became interested in Hollywood watching pirated movies to learn English.

The strikes were contentious with one studio executive declaring in Deadline, “The endgame [of the writer’s strike] is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” 

Statements like this helped solidify the resoluteness of the strikers, and at the end of September, the WGA reached a contract agreement with the AMPTP ending the writer’s strike after 146 days. SAG-AFTRA reached a tentative contract agreement on November 9, ending their strike after 118 days. The industry is now slowly getting back to work.

Much of the urgency around the SAG-AFTRA and WGA contract negotiations stemmed from the industry’s shift into streaming, which has drastically altered Hollywood’s business model. Fang explained, “In the past, network TV would hire a group of talented writers to form a writers room, and then from August to May you would have 40 weeks of work, so you actually make decent money that allows you to live in LA or New York City. But now all of the TV shows we watch on Netflix are 10 or eight episodes, which means you’ll be hired for only 10 weeks,” leaving writers scrambling to string together multiple gigs to make ends meet.

SAG-AFTRA has stated 86 percent of their members do not work or earn enough to qualify for the guild’s health plan, which requires either 102 days of work or earning $26,470 annually. The streaming model has meant less transparency about viewership, which has led to greatly reduced residuals, which often tide over writers and actors during periods between jobs. Another contract sticking point for both unions was the need to create guardrails on the studios’ use of AI technology

“I really enjoy these classes where I get to think in a different way. Not as much in terms of numbers or the economy, but more of, why do people think this way? Why is the world this way?” 

Jack Lenox ’24

Fang is cautiously optimistic that this moment will lead to positive change in the industry, “You are trying to get a good deal with the studios but at the same time within [these unions] there are so many problems they’re trying to address.” For Fang, a sociological perspective is helpful because it enables conversations about internal hierarchies, discrimination, and unequal pay.

This fall Lenox returned to the Sociology of Hollywood classroom to tell students about his experience in the industry. Fang hopes it will inspire students to dare to dream that they too can find a career in the industry. For Lenox, who is currently taking Fang’s Sociology of Creativity course, sociology is a welcome change of perspective from the core classes he’s taken for his economics major. “I really enjoy these classes where I get to think in a different way. Not as much in terms of numbers or the economy, but more of, why do people think this way? Why is the world this way?”