Fraser Forum

Star Wars, the film industry, and the specialized economy

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The Christmas season is a rich time for the arts; new albums are released, concerts are staged and gift-oriented books are published—all to take advantage of a huge market in gift-giving.

The movie industry also attempts to time the premières of big films for December, knowing that millions of people are on holiday, looking for inspiration and entertainment. The most notable big action film this Christmas season is Star Wars: The Force Awakens (episode seven), with a North American première tomorrow (Friday, Dec. 18).

Back in 1977, the series began in medias res with episode four. Now, 38 years later, the action-adventure series is set to break records, with millions of advanced tickets sold already.

I have always been intrigued with the link between the film industry and the free market. Films require lots of private capital (that is, unless they are funded by government bodies, and even then, the government has to get its money somewhere, doesn't it?).

Films also require a dizzying array of specialized skills. If you are one of those people who like to sit and watch the credits roll until the end, it’s truly astonishing how many different people are required to make even a small film: editors and mixers, gaffers and grips, best boys and wranglers, carpenters and make-up artists. If you plan to sit through all the credits after the latest Star Wars film, plan an extra 20 minutes before you leave the theatre. There will be long lists of stunt people, explosives experts, computer modellers, CGI artists, and groups of professions that I cannot even begin to understand (many of which didn't even exist in 1977).

One of the hallmarks of capitalist societies is specialization, and so in some important way the team that works on a film is a microcosm of an entire economy. One of the great early theorists of free markets was Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776), who observed that workers in a pin factory were exponentially more productive if they focused on refining particular aptitudes and skills. A single pin-maker couldn't possibly compete with a team of even two or three pin-makers who focused on one part of the process.

Similarly, imagine if one person (or a small group of people) were to attempt to make Star Wars? How could a director ever learn to be an editor and a foley artist and an animal wrangler on one project?

It simply wouldn't get done, or it would get done very poorly.

A film crew is not only a microcosm of a national economy, but also a microcosm of the global economy. Globalization, that much-criticized phenomenon supposedly responsible for innumerable ills, is, at its roots, an economic system of worldwide specialization that draws on the strengths of different regions and different populations to achieve greater overall productivity.

Why grow grapes in Alaska or search for salmon in Florida? Why should Arizona have its own timber industry and northern Ontario be home to winter golf resorts?

Each region and each population (and each climate zone) has particular strengths that allow it to offer goods and services at the greatest possible efficiency.  If the free market is allowed to operate without onerous regulation and taxation, then we see exponentially greater overall quality, productivity and efficiency.

We might think of big holiday films such as Star Wars as escapist action and adventure, but we would do well to also marvel at the tremendous ingenuity and specialization evident in each film, and think about how those qualities might be better implemented in our own (very real) economies.


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