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How many people work on a Hollywood film?

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Last week I ran a course in Malaysia for the Met Film School and the Malaysian Government. Malaysia is set to be a popular destination for Hollywood projects, thanks mostly to the 30% tax break and the brand new Pinewood Studio complex. The studio is not officially open yet but already ‘Marco Polo’ has set up shop and is hiring. The Malaysian government is funding courses to prepare locals for work on huge Hollywood productions and my course last week was for would-be Production Assistants.

In order to give the students a sense of the scale of these productions I asked them to guess how many people worked on the movie ‘Avatar’. Guesses ranged from a few hundred up to a thousand. The actual figure (according to IMDb) is 2,984.

This got me thinking about what the number of crew members could tell us about a production. There are few caveats to this approach which I’ve laid out at the bottom of this article, but nonetheless it’s quite a revealing process. I took the 50 highest grossing films of each of the past 20 years (giving me 1,000 films to study) and looked at the number of people credited on IMDb. In summary…

  • Iron Man 3 credits 3,310 crew members
  • The average number of crew credits in the top 1,000 films between 1994 and 2013 was 588.
  • Over half of the top films had under 500 people in their crew
  • On average the top films of the past two decades have each had 3.5 writers, 7 producers, 55 people in the art department, 32 in sound, 55 in camera / electrical and 156 in visual effects.
  • The Butler had 39 producers – 5 producers, 17 executive producers, 6 co-executive producers, 4 co-producers and 7 associate producers
  • A third of the workers on Love Actually were in the art department
  • Crew credits suggest that Peter Jackson favours special effects over visual effects more than the industry average.
  • Now You See Me has six times the average number of people in the camera department
  • 23% of the people who worked on ‘Pokemon: The First Movie’ were in the music department

The largest crews

The biggest crews are rather staggering, with 3,310 people receiving a credit on Iron Man 3.

Films with largest crews (1994-2013)
Iron Man 3 3,310
Avatar 2,984
Marvel's The Avengers2,718
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey2,709
Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe2,622
Man of Steel2,543
Captain America: The First Avenger2,536
Thor 2,384
Transformers: Dark of the Moon2,376
His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass 2,235

Overall, the average number of crew credits was 588, with the top 25% of films accounting for half of all credits. Out of my list of 1,000 films…

  • Only 1 film had over 3,000 credits
  • 13 films credited between 2,000 – 2,999 people
  • 133 films credited between 1,000 – 1,999 people
  • 287 films credited between 500 – 999 people
  • 566 films credited under 500 people

Average credits per department

Visual Effects

Avatar just pips Iron Man 3 to the Oscar for ‘Most People Credited in the Visual Effects Department’. Interestingly, The Golden Compass is the only film in the top 20 of this visual effect chart which was not released in 3D.

Films with largest Visual Effects department (1994-2013)
Avatar 1,844
Iron Man 31,834
Marvel's The Avengers1,514
Man of Steel1,445
The Golden Compass1,252

For 57 of my 1,000 films, the Visual Effects Department made up over 50% of all crew members. If you meet someone in a pub who says they worked on Harry Potter there is a 62% chance they worked in visual effects. Similar numbers are true for Gravity, Pacific Rim, Avatar and Total Recall. In fact, the VFX department of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II made up a larger percentage of the total crew than Avatar (62.0% versus 61.8%). This is surprising as Harry Potter appears to be an almost exclusively live action film whereas Avatar is largely CGI animation.

Art Department

Looking at numbers alone, the first Narnia film had the largest art department of any of the best performing films in the past 20 years.

Films with largest Art Departments (1994-2013)
Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 436
King Kong416
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey370
Lost In Space347
Captain America: The First Avenger336

A third of the people credited on The Village were in the art department (201 people out of total crew of 613). This is not very surprising as it’s set in a… well, a village, that needed to be designed and constructed.

Bizarrely, the film with the second highest percentage of crew members working in the art department was Love Actually (31%). Given Richard Curtis’ reputation for romanticising the real world (Exhibit A: the racial diversity of the cast of Notting Hill versus that of the real residents of Notting Hill), the data suggests that Richard Curtis films need to build their own London in order to fulfil his ideal.

Producers

Lee Daniel’s The Butler has 39 producers credited to it. I don’t quite know how the “team” of 5 producers, 17 executive producers, 6 co-executive producers, 4 co-producers and 7 associate producers worked together. Since 1998, the Academy have only allowed 3 producers to be credited on a ‘Best Picture’ Oscar which must be a relief for the engraver faced with etching the 560 characters needed to spell all of these vital producers.

Films with the highest number of Producers (1994-2013)
Lee Daniels' The Butler39
Lone Survivor30
The Simpsons Movie22
Olympus Has Fallen21
Sahara20

I’m not sure what the collective noun for a group of producers is. A crook? A scourge? A pride? An ostentation? A cluster-fuck of producers? Answers on a postcard please.

Writing Credits

The WGA strictly regulates the way in which writers can be credited on live action films, meaning that on average, each film had 3.5 writers. Animated films are not covered by the WGA agreement with the studios and thereby reveal what writing credits for all films might look if they were unregulated. The average number of writing credits for animated films in my sample was 7.4, compared with 3.1 for just live action films.

Films with most credited writers (1994-2013)
Mulan32
The Lion King29
Pocahontas28
Brother Bear26
The Hunchback of Notre Dame25

Special Effects

Special effects include on-set physical, mechanical and in-camera effects and should not be confused with digital / visual effects (which is exactly what the BBC did again yesterday!). Films by Peter Jackson take up four out of the top five places, revealing his love of real-world, on set trickery.

Films with largest Special Effects Departments (1994-2013)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey225
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring217
Avatar212
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King211
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers195

Stunts

The number of stunt performers involved with the most recent Batman film is rather impressive, due in part to the huge street battles.

Films with largest Stunt Departments (1994-2013)
The Dark Knight Rises 258
The Green Hornet223
The Bourne Ultimatum 188
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer177
The Lone Ranger175

Costume and Wardrobe

I was surprised to see that Thor topped the chart of films with the largest costume departments. It beat period films such as Troy (60 people), films with elaborate costumes such as Moulin Rouge (77 people), films with huge crowd scenes such as The Dark Knight Rises (88 people) and sci-fi films such as Star Wars Episode III (99 people).

Films with largest Costume and Wardrobe Departments (1994-2013)
Thor144
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey112
Star Wars Ep. II: Attack of the Clones99
Captain America: The First Avenger96
Snow White and the Huntsman94

2nd Unit Directors and Assistant Directors

Films will large amount of action often have a few directors (2nd unit, aerial, stunts, vehicles) and numerous Assistant Directors to manage the scale of shooting (action, crowds, etc) in their numerous locations.

Films with the most 2nd Unit Directors and Assistant Directors (1994-2013)
The Bourne Ultimatum60
The Da Vinci Code52
World War Z 50
X-Men: First Class 35
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides34
The Bourne Ultimatum has got many highly-specific AD credits, including ‘second second assistant director: second unit’. 18 of the 60 people in the ADs department on The Bourne Ultimatum have the note ‘(uncredited)’ attached to their IMDb credit. I don’t know if this is a result of slack crediting by the producers of The Bourne Ultimatum, IMDb being too liberal in crediting people who claim to have worked on the film or something else entirely.

Sound Department

Action film dominate the list of top 20 films with the largest sound departments. All those explosions, whooshes and crunchy punches mean plenty of post-production sound work.

Films with largest Sound departments (1994-2013)
Speed II: Cruise Control89
Armageddon82
The Rock72
Titanic71
Avatar70

Transportation

Some Hollywood films can shoot in many countries with large teams of cast and crew, all of which require big transportation departments.

Films with largest Transportation Departments (1994-2013)
Now You See Me129
2 Guns125
Sahara89
Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls86
Iron Man85

Camera and Electrical

I’m not sure what this set of data show us, if anything. Now You See Me has 50% more people in the camera department than fifth placed Thor and six times the average. If anyone has any thoughts on why this might be then please contact me and I’ll update this article.

Films with largest Camera & Electrical Departments (1994-2013)
Now You See Me334
Iron Man 3 260
Titanic230
The Dark Knight Rises214
Thor213

Other Fun Facts

Whilst most of the data in this article looks at the raw numbers of people working within each department, I did also take a look at department percentages within each production. These results are less significant than looking at raw numbers, because a film with a small number of people is likely to lead to strange percentages, such as…

  • 11% of the people on Paranormal Activity were producers and 13% were within the sound department. 40% of all the people credited to that film were in the ‘Thanks’ section.
  • A higher percentage of the crew on ‘Naked Gun 33 1/3‘ were in the stunts department than on ‘2 Fast 2 Furious‘ or ‘Taken 2‘ (24.4%, 23.7% and 21.7% respectively).
  • 23% of the people who worked on ‘Pokemon: The First Movie‘ were in the music department.

Methodology

I used the Opus database to build a list of the 50 highest grossing films for each year between 1994 and 2013, giving me a dataset of 1,000 films. I then researched the number of people who were credited on IMDb for the various departments. Putting all this data into Excel gave me 660,000 data points to play with and analyse.

Caveats

This research should be read as fun and mildly revealing, but far from scientifically sound. There are a number of factors which could skew the results and I do not have the resources to count these.

  • Time served – My numbers take no account of the length of time each person worked on the production. this means that a rigger who worked on set for one day, or a VFX artist working on one shot will receive the same weighting as the cinematographer or director.
  • Seniority – My research is inadvertently Marxist, offering each person equal status to another. Anyone who has been on a film set will know that they are run more along the lines of Stalin than Marx. Consequently, we cannot infer that the bigger departments are more important. We can simply say that they had more people credited to them.
  • Self-Reporting Bias – The credits for films on IMDb are submitted by production companies, studios, the public and some chap in a pub called Bernard; i.e. anyone can suggest a credit. IMDb requests evidence from the submitter and larger films can verify their credits as complete but this cannot completely eliminate the nature of self-reporting data being naturally skewed towards those who are the most proactive / self publicising.
  • A Study of Successful Movies – This data is based on the 50 films which grossed the highest amount at the domestic box office each year. This means that there are some flops which would not appear in my analysis. For example, ‘John Carter’ was 60th in the 2012 box office charts so was not included. However, its crew was large, meaning that it would have been the 3rd largest transportation department (93 credits), 3rd largest visual effects team (1,687 credits), 4th largest camera department (222 credits) and the 11th largest make-up department (98 credits). This is the exception rather than the rule and the only way to mitigate this would have been to increase my sample size beyond 1,000.

If one were to have unlimited resources then there are a few things that could be done to add rigour to the results. Firstly, the list of crew members should be taken from the end title roller of each film, not IMDb. This would eliminate almost all of the bias introduced by the self-reporting nature of IMDb. Secondly, we would factor in time worked, presumably via access to the accounting records of each film’s production company, in order to prevent equal weighting of someone who worked on the production for a day and someone who worked on it for a year.

Epilogue

This way of thinking about film productions is exactly the reason I research and write this blog. I find both the process and results intellectually fascinating and they make for good dinner party chatter for film types (although interminably dull for any layperson). Each of these explorations into film data starts with a simple question or thought. If you have a thought, question, idea, etc that you want me to explore then please do drop me a line. The harder the question the better

24 Responses to How many people work on a Hollywood film?

  1. Amazing! Thanks so much for sharing this, Stephen, I will be thinking about these figures all day :-)

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  3. Karl King says:

    What about Locations??? Why is my dept always forgotten about??? I am intrigued how big our dept is?

    • Karl, I agree. I wanted to show more departments but I was faced with a choice – use IMDb’s classifications and study 1,000 films or manually reclassify each role for a much smaller number of films. I went with the former to create a larger sample size but at the expense of smaller departments. It’s something I certainly want to revisit in the future so hopefully I can fill in those blanks at some point.

      In the meantime, please accept my apologies!

  4. JohnRSC says:

    Its not surprising Visual Effects has the highest ‘Average number of film crew credits per department’. Studios have swelled to accommodate shorted deadlines and more “ambitious” visuals

    Here’s a very rough hypothetical

    1500 VFX shots in a film
    farmed out to 5 VFX studios with anywhere from 50 to 1000 artists
    ~10 artists working on a single shot (often more), each doing their small part.
    Support staff: – production staff, IT / systems, software engineers, admin, etc. who may also receive a credit.

    And with many shows in-house at one time, an artist may spend a very small amount of time (relatively) on one show , jump to the next one, and the next, and receive a credit for all.

  5. Mazza says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. Another caveat you might want to add is that some production companies let vendors list all their crew, others only let them list the company name, and maybe a handful of their key crew. So for instance the number of Special Effects crew credited on Peter Jackson films is probably because he tries to get as many (if not all) the Weta Workshop crew credited (a sister company to his production company), whereas other productions don’t. It’s telling that the other film on the Special Effects list is Avatar, which also had Weta Workshop on board.

    • Very true. I asked a few people about this when I was researching this article. They suggested that some companies are indeed limited to how many of their staff can be submitted to the official credits list (the number 40 came up as an example) but that many of the crew left off would then submit their own credits to IMDb. This would explain the large number of crew credits which include the ‘(uncredited)’ tag. I only investigated that issue in VFX but it may hold true for other depts.

      Sadly I have no way of verifying this issue and your right that it could skew the numbers.

  6. Balazs says:

    The ‘camera and electrical department’ is really 4, some would say 5 pretty separated (but friendly!) departments: Camera, Grip, Electrical, Video and to some extent publicity (still photographers).
    I never understood why camera dept and electrical is under the same category on imdb. Sure the head of the camera crew, the DP, is the boss of the gaffer (head of electricians) but he or she is the supervisor for most things art and vision. These two department are really far apart, and look for very different qualities in their personnel. Obviously this is not to say any wrong things about anything but they are very different and should not be included in the same category.
    An average movie (IMHO) rarely has more than 20-30 people in Camera, in two units, while there could easily be 80-150 electricians and about 40-60 in Grip dept.
    The high number in ‘Now you see me’ is somewhat explained by the multiple locations. It seems the production hired locals mostly instead of traveling the crew.

  7. Weaselspoon says:

    I think I know what it would look like, but I’d love to see the graph of credits over time. Are there any departments that are shrinking?

  8. Stephen, thanks for this blog post–really illuminating! Thanks.

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  10. Sarah says:

    As a production accountant, I know that there are more people that don’t get credits then do (I’ve seen their pay cheques). I have worked on just under 12 movies and just under 20 TV shows, and I only have 2 credits on iMdb.

  11. Jose says:

    It is very common in VFX to work on a film for months and not get credit. Often times you can work on show X and then get moved to show Y and since you did not take show X to the end they will not credit you. So this is where the “uncredited” mostly comes in. People can add their own names to the credits. IMDB does contact the studio (vfx company) to verify.
    So the number of credits on IMDB will mostly never match that of the list at the end of the film. A worker who spent a lot of blood and guts never gets credit because of a credit limit set between the vendor and the vfx company. So the odds of someone working a day on movie Y and getting credit a very slim, at least in the vfx world anyway.

  12. Knuckles says:

    Awesome! Any more details on Editors?

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  14. Hi Stephen, thank you very much for making available to all your research.
    Issues where there is much to do an analysis. One,
    There is correspondence between the number of people working on a film and the resulting artistic quality?
    best
    Roberto Fernandez-Rizo

  15. Pingback: How many producers does it take to make a film? | Stephen Follows

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  18. AW says:

    I talked with Sven Nykvist once, and he told me that on the “Cries and Whispers” set there were 18 people, cast and crew.

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