Labor's stake in the
electronic cinema revolution

by Michael Nielsen

from Jump Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 78-84
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1990, 2006

In a previous article published in the Journal of Film and Video, I commented briefly on the impact of electronic cinema on the workers employed in the theatrical motion picture industry. (Nielsen, 1984) In this paper, I want to more completely address the labor issues raised by the transition from film to video to tape in any or all of the three branches of the film business-production, distribution, and exhibition.

In order to understand the context of the contemporary labor situation in the film industry, it's useful to have at least a cursory background in Hollywood's labor history. Back in the 1910s, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) claimed jurisdiction over motion picture machine operators (more commonly referred to today as "projectionists") and shortly thereafter over motion picture production work. IATSE saw this as a defensive move, recognizing that many of its stagehand members were losing their jobs when live performance theaters were converted to motion picture theaters.

But merely asserting jurisdiction on paper was not enough to secure jurisdiction in fact. Several other American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions also became involved in motion picture work, particularly the Carpenters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). IATSE was also an AFL affiliate and made frequent appeals to the parent labor body for clear jurisdiction over all branches of the motion picture industry. Unfortunately, the AFL could not settle the job disputes in the motion picture industry for a variety of reasons, particularly because none of the unions involved would accept compromise solutions. Thus, jurisdictional fights in the picture industry continued until the late 1940s, when IATSE emerged from a series of violent strikes as the dominant union representing a great variety of film technicians and theatrical employees, ranging from the very well-paid cinematographers to the near-minimum wage concession workers in many large city theaters. The National Labor Relations Board 9 NLRB) conducted representational elections in 1948 that resulted in IATSE obtaining jurisdiction over nearly all production work. (Nielsen, 1983)

The major motion picture producers accepted IATSE Hollywood locals as hiring halls from which they drew employees based on union seniority lists. IATSE originally organized all its Hollywood film production workers into a single large local, but it has since established a large number of locals based on particular crafts. This form of organization is called horizontal. At present, more than 40 separate locals, the majority of which are IATSE affiliates, are involved in motion picture technical work. An alternative scheme of organization ("vertical") groups different job categories together in large locals based on geographical or corporate boundaries. This vertical organizational scheme forms the basis of large AFL unions such as the United Auto Workers and relatively small unions such as the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET).

Transitional points in the history of the industry such as the introduction of sound motion pictures inevitably produced inter-union and inter-local conflicts regarding jurisdiction over new classes of work. It could be argued that such divisive relations among the unions actually benefited the producers, because union officials often discounted wage rates in the spirit of getting a foot in the door of new technologies. In the case of sound motion pictures, the fight was between IATSE and the IBEW over which union would control the sound engineer jobs. In the early 1930s, IATSE more successfully organized the sound engineers than the IBEW. But in 1933, IATSE blundered by calling a walkout against the producers to gain recognition for the sound local. IBEW sound technicians crossed the IATSE picket lines as did many other AFL unions, leading to the almost complete elimination of IATSE from the studios. IATSE became reduced from a force of several thousand production workers down to less than 200 full-time workers. (Nielsen, 1983, pp. 5964)

In the next two years, IATSE conducted a campaign to recover the production jobs lost to the IBEW and the Carpenters. A key factor in this recovery was the union's control of the projection booths. A projectionists' walkout was threatened in 1935, a strike that would have hit the major companies where it hurt, at the box offices of the theaters that the major firms owned. IATSE demanded and got the first closed-shop agreement with the major production companies. This meant that workers in several job categories could not work for the largest companies without joining IATSE. Twelve-thousand workers were forced to rejoin IATSE locals or lose their jobs. (Nielsen, 1983, pp. 66-7)

Several examples like that of the introduction of sound motion pictures could be cited to demonstrate that union control of the motion picture workers has always been closely tied to the technology and structure of the industry at any given point. In terms of structure, the vertical integration of the "majors" in the period 1920-48 made those dominant companies quite vulnerable to a projectionists' sympathetic boycott. IATSE has used its control of projectionists, along with film lab and film exchange jobs as a means of achieving certain bargaining ends with producers. The union label (known as the "bug") was a mark that told the various workers in the chain of production-distribution-exhibition whether or not a film was made under union conditions.

In technological terms, perhaps the greatest challenge to the established patterns of control for both management and labor has been the introduction of television. As early as the 1930s, IATSE leaders expressed concern over the coming of television and the possible impact that television might have on employment opportunities for the union's members. By the late 1940s, television had clearly become more than just a possibility. In several metropolitan areas over 100 stations were already on the air and providing home delivery of live and filmed entertainment. Twentieth Century-Fox and Paramount both became involved in early broadcasting experiments. (Smoodin, 1982) A great many of the television stations started with built-in labor unions as radio broadcasting companies formed the nucleus of the new industry. The IBEW and the National Association of Broadcast Engineers (later broadened to "Employees") and Technicians (NABET) organized radio technical work in the 1920s and 1930s. By the dawn of the television era, IBEW had a firm hold on CBS engineers while NABET represented technicians and non-technical workers at both NBC and ABC (formerly NBC-Blue). IATSE formed a special Radio-TV Department in 1951 to assert jurisdiction over television.

In the next two decades, the three contending unions carved up the television pie through a series of NLRB elections and voluntary agreements aimed at clearing up jurisdiction over video and film camera operators, projectionists, film editors, lighting technicians, sound technicians, teleprompter operators, and so forth. At stake were tens of thousands of new jobs at the networks, local stations and new independent production companies. (Wasko, 1983, pp. 8692)

While there have been several skirmishes in the 1970s and 1980s over the control of jobs at particular stations, the labor relations situation for the technical unions in broadcasting has remained relatively calm since the late 1960s. At the risk of oversimplification, the boundaries between NABET and IATSE have been drawn to give the film union control of film and stage production work and to give work related to electronics to NABET. Thus, television studio lighting has generally been conceded to IATSE, as has the operation of 16mm and 35mm film cameras. The operation of video cameras and video tape machines has been the domain of NABET. But important exceptions to this rule have developed as outlined below.

If the technology of videotape had remained at the level set when Ampex brought out the first two-inch VTRs, when the only broadcast quality video cameras weighed in at 100 pounds, the simple demarcation of tape vs. film might have proved a workable jurisdictional boundary. But the development of portable video equipment of broadcast quality (a.k.a., Electronic News Gathering equipment) has eliminated the film production departments at virtually all television stations. Unused film developing machines which long ago lost their commercial value to local television stations sit in dusty basements alongside the old Ampex videotape consoles. In their place sit compact half-inch and three-quarter-inch videotape recorders and editing units, and the former IATSE film camera operators and editors have either changed jobs or unions.

Videotape editing has changed television national program production significantly. While a few comedy programs such as CHEERS are still produced on film, the great majority of comedies, as well as daily soap operas, game shows, and talk shows are now produced and edited on videotape. Those programs produced on tape at the majors' studios have come under the jurisdiction of IATSE. Walter Diehl, former International President of IATSE stated at a union gathering in 1981 that regardless of the format of program origination, his union will maintain control of the majors' studios.

This control cannot be maintained without yielding to certain economic pressures from IATSE's primary rival in television program production, NABET. The kind of concessions that IATSE has made in recent years have been over flexible crew requirements and wage scales geared toward handling both low and high budget productions. (Dobuler, 1981) For its part, NABET has become something of a "hiring hall" for lower budget features, television programs, and commercials. Jurisdictional issues have become subsumed under the more pragmatic issue of which union can offer the best deal to a particular production company. For the workers involved in production, just getting into either union can offer enough challenge. They have little or no chance of working in both unions; members are prohibited from holding cards in both unions.

But the video revolution has also begun to affect the theatrical film industry. In recent years, we've seen the development of a variety of video systems that are transforming the filmmaking process and offer the promise (or threat, depending on one's perspective) of shaking up the entire chain of production, distribution, and exhibition. The idea of shooting theatrical films with video cameras is not new. The technology has been under development since the 1950s, and several films have been released since the ill-fated Electronovision production of HARLOW in 1965. The problem with Electronovision system was apparently that the image definition was not up to 35mm standards. Variety called the images in HARLOW grainy and poorly lit. (May 19, 1965, p.6)

But in the succeeding two decades, video technology has improved greatly, to the point that even the film-dominated American Cinematographer has begun to take video seriously in articles with titles like "Film or Video." (Patterson, 1982) Given the proper economic and aesthetic considerations, it is conceivable that video may become preferable to film in most production situations. The lesson from the television industry should not be missed. Television stations made the change from 16mm film news to videotape news when it made economic sense. The motion picture industry will probably do the same, but what are the factors that would fit into this equation? Let's consider the potential changes and their consequences for workers and labor unions in the motion picture industry.

Perhaps the most visible sign of video inroads into the film industry is in the editing room. Film editors and directors with sufficient capital can now use a variety of new offline editing systems such as Montage and Editdroid to make videotape workprints that can be matched with 35mm footage. The movement toward computerized editing is not motivated solely by the need to reduce costs. People such as Francis Ford Coppola are very interested in the creative potential of new film/video hybrids. During the peak of activity of Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, his staff developed a video-assisted editing system that offers new creative opportunities for film directors to mix finished shots and sequences with stills, storyboards, and rehearsals. (Fielding, 1984)

However, the major motive in the development of the new computer-based editing systems is to reduce labor costs incurred in post-production. In a recent interview in The New York Times, Jim McGee, a post-production supervisor for Centerpoint Productions noted:

"You no longer have to hunt for the right snippet of film dangling somewhere from a clothesline like laundry in a backyard. Every scene is indexed in the computer memory and you can call it up instantly on a monitor screen. You no longer have to thread it into a Moviola. No more frame counting, either. The duration of every piece of action is stored in the computer down to the last fraction of a second. We can now do all the editing on a 90-minute show in three or four days. It used to take three weeks. Now translate that into costs, and you wind up with a much cheaper production." (Fantel, 1985)

Kodak has developed a magnetically-coated film called Datakode that can be coded to correspond to videotape segments. Note that, according to Kodak, Datakode was developed to enable automation of "labor-intensive, non-creative aspects of motion-picture production," in the areas of production, post-production, and distribution. (SMPTE Journal, April 1983, p. 379) A great deal of film splicing can now wait until the final assembly stage of editing.

As these computerized systems become increasingly user-friendly and come down in price, the traditional manner of film editing may face extinction. This is not to say that there will no longer be room for creative film editors, but that the opportunity will exist for film directors and producers to participate more directly in the editing process. The computer-assisted editing systems make it easier to cut and paste images sequentially without actually having to splice the pieces of film to view the effect. Previously, the skills of splicing film and the sense of visual continuity went hand in hand — the film editor provided just this sort of hands-on go-between in the filmmaking process. Because the film splicing process was painstakingly slow, a director could hardly be expected to handle both directing and editing. Now, however, it seems possible that the video editing systems almost beg directors to try their hand at editing their own films. In this new scheme of things, it seems that there would be strong incentives for producers to demand new work rules in post-production that would substantially reduce the labor costs through elimination of various editing personnel.

Videotape is a cost-effective intermediate step in the editing process for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the contracts with IATSE film editors call for lower wage rates for videotape editing than for film editing. The IATSE New York Editors Local 771 has attempted to equalize these two rates in recent years, but they do this at the risk of driving the producers into NABET shops. (Dobuler, 1983) Secondly, as noted above by Jim McGee, video-assisted editing is fast in comparison to film-only editing.

This is especially important to producers because of the high costs of financing a production. The greatest costs are incurred during the filming process but the interest due on borrowed funds escalates as post-production work drags on. Raymond Fielding, who was directly involved with Zoetrope Studio's attempts to streamline post-production work through electronic systems, has likened the interest costs in the post-production period to a "ticking time bomb." (Fielding, 1984)

As with many other technological innovations, the development of videotape editing in motion picture production has driven a wedge between two important groups of IATSE film technicians: the film editors and the sound technicians. Assuming that a good deal of editing is now done off-line on videotape (which can combine sound and image editing in a single process), a question of jurisdiction arises. For example, the current President of IATSE, Walter Diehl, has supported the film and videotape editors in their attempts to control this new field, to the great agitation of the many sound technicians. The leaders of the Hollywood sound technicians' local recently blocked the implementation of a state-sponsored job retraining program intended to train editors in the new videotape and video-assisted editing techniques. (Variety, March 9, 1983, pp. 4, 32; May 22, 1984, pp. 4, 46) This situation illustrates the previously mentioned divisive effects of new technologies on groups of workers and their local unions.

In addition to computer-assisted editing, there is a distinct possibility that film itself could be eliminated from any or all three stages of theatrical motion picture production, distribution and exhibition. Sony has been working on High-Definition Television (HDTV) systems for over a decade now, aiming at developing the technology in as many different applications as possible. The Sony HDTV system produces video images that approximate the resolution of 35mm film by greatly increasing the number of picture elements per video frame. The immediately obvious application would be in the area of developing advanced television system to replace the current 525-line systems used in the U.S. and Japan. However, an HDTV broadcast system seems unlikely at this time because HDTV channels are five times as wide as normal U.S. television channels. (Various technologies are now under development to reduce the channel width of HDTV.

It is far more likely that HDTV will find its first uses in the printing, computer display and motion picture industries, i.e., in closed-circuit applications. In these applications, HDTV's high bandwidth requirements are not a problem. Sony has been developing HDTV equipment such as cameras, signal systems, recorders, telecine (film chains), and laser-based tape-to-film transfer systems that could find immediate applications in the motion picture production industry. (Green and Morss, 1984)

Image Transform has developed a 24 frames per second video system with a greater number of lines of resolution, (called Imagevision) for originating theatrical films on tape. The taped images are transferred to 35mm film for theatrical release. MONTY PYTHON LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL and RICHARD PRYOR IN CONCERT are two films that have taken advantage of this new system. The Monty Python concert was recorded with four video cameras and one film camera, edited entirely on videotape, and released in 3 5mm. (Glickman, 1981) Obviously, Hollywood producers view the Imagevision system as only second-best at present, but it does seem to have found a niche — namely in covering live events such as concerts for later release in theaters.

Thus far, there has been little talk in technical circles about the possibility of film's total elimination from the chain of motion picture production. Longtime cinematographers are quite skeptical about the "cost-cutting" aspects of video production. Wadsworth Publishers has just issued the first "textbook" on Electronic Cinematography in which the authors, Harry Mathias and Richard Patterson claim that tape may in fact be more expensive than film in most applications. To get video cameras to produce the kind of images possible with film, the authors argue, cinematographers will need to understand waveform monitors (graphic displays of video signals) as well at they understand film stock and various developing processes. Also, they note that the idea of tape as a cheap medium is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Since the client and the producer decided to shoot a commercial on videotape because it's supposed to be cheaper, they then pay the crew less, use a smaller crew with less lighting and grip equipment, and have a tighter shooting schedule and a lower shooting ratio-all because video is supposed to be cheaper."

Simply put, the "film look" is not only a product of technological determinants, but also the result of careful lighting on a shot-by-shot basis. Videography has tended to rely on the "cheap and dirty" technique of flat lighting. We, as the audience, have rather low expectations of the depth and texture of video images. The superb videography of many BBC dramatic productions suggest a greater aesthetic potential for videotape than that realized on THE COSBY SHOW or FAMILY TIES.

But there are some indications that the major production studios are revising their production practices to accommodate the rapidly changing technological environment for the various stages of production, distribution and "exhibition" (in quotes here to include videocassettes, cable, and videodiscs, in addition to the traditional theatrical release). The production companies now carefully consider a variety of factors when deciding whether to originate a television program on tape or film, and when deciding what kind of intermediate steps should be taken between production and distribution of television programs and feature films. John Whitman of Universal cites a number of determining factors in his company's decision of whether to originate on film or tape. Broadly speaking, these are the final release format, program type, financial and creative considerations, time restrictions, and labor and equipment costs. (Weston, 1983) Universal and the other large Hollywood studios are trying to develop flexible production strategies to hold costs to a minimum. But to succeed in these cost-cutting strategies, the studios need the full cooperation of the unions involved.

A real hammer that the studios could use against IATSE to get the union's cooperation is the threat of turning over the electronic cinema production jobs to NABET. This strategy goes against the grain of well-established relationships between the producers and the majority of their technician-employees. Although NABET has managed to secure jobs for its members with a large number of independent low-budget productions (and probably a few "back-door-financed" independent productions), the large budget productions of the major studios has remained the exclusive domain of IATSE.

But let's take the electronic cinema scenario one step further. The ultimate electronic cinema system would involve the development of high-definition video systems capable of filling a theater-sized screen with images that match the average platter house operation of today. (In these theaters, a single projector is used to show an entire feature with trailers by splicing all the reels together onto a large flat platter.) If you have been to one of these platter houses, you have probably noticed that, to quote a line from a song by the Band: "The good old days, they're all gone." Nonunion projectionists operate the equipment in at least sixty percent of all theaters today.

"Non-union projectionist" represents a euphemism for "no projectionist" since the non-union operators also sell popcorn or manage the theater. In the majority of theaters, nobody stays in the booth during the actual film projection. The presence of an experienced projectionist does not guarantee a quality show, but the absence of any projectionist frequently results in an inferior showing. 35mm film projection has a critical problem with focus. Different reels of the same film often have different surface characteristics and demand different focus settings. Also, as the aperture area of the projector and the lens heat up, focus characteristics also change. In short, even with platter systems, a certain amount of prudent baby-sitting remains necessary to provide a quality film showing. In most theaters today, we do not get this level of quality.

In other words, video projection really doesn't need to be all that great to match the average film presentation of today. In fact, if an all-electronic system could merely deliver fair images in a manner more consistent than that of the average platter house of today, that system might actually be preferable to the current state of affairs in most theaters. Essaness Theaters in Chicago has already begun experiments in video projection, combining elements of several systems to deliver video images of 35mm quality to a theatrical audience. A test run of the system was carried out with the willing cooperation of the Chicago IATSE projectionist's local 110. (Segers, 1984a, b) According to an article in The New York Times, the youthful audience most liked the video theater's Dolby sound system, truly a weak link in the many film theaters that do not have optical Dolby sound systems. (October 2, 1984)

Sony has created a chain of 200 video theaters in several Tokyo shopping centers using ¾-inch videocassettes as the transmission medium. This "Cinematic" system will soon be marketed on a world-wide basis. (Segers, 1983) Still under development is a video projection system that, unlike most current systems, would not project beams of electrons at all. Rather, light from a standard xenon projection lamp (the kind used in most 35mm film projectors) would illuminate an aperture containing a tiny translucent liquid crystal display screen. The display would change according to digital video signals. This system could brightly illuminate a very large screen, run unattended, and provide digital sound of a quality unattainable by either optical or magnetic systems. (Fisher, 1984) The video theater per se is clearly not a future trip but a 1985 reality.

Let's mix this information with a seemingly unrelated bit of film industry news. Shortly after Reagan's inauguration in 1981, the U.S. Department of Justice began an exhaustive review of the 1948 Consent Decrees that forced the five major film production/ distribution/ exhibition firms to divest themselves of their theater chains. The Justice Department invited comments from the affected parties. As of this writing, the battle has come to a quiet halt, largely due to the strong objections to vacating the 1948 Decrees offered by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). (Tusher, 1985)

Let us assume that the Justice Department does eventually exercise the extreme option of vacating the decrees. Then the major producer/ distributors could buy out a chain of theaters and operate an all-electronic cinema chain based of the kinds of systems now available from Sony and the video projector manufacturers such as General Electric and Hitachi. Such a system might mean the wholesale elimination of jobs in three areas — film laboratories, film exchanges, and the already largely abandoned projection booths. "Films" could be delivered by videodiscs, videocassettes, satellites, or some combination of these technologies.

The great irony of the potential elimination of projectionists altogether is that these workers at one time were among the highest paid craft workers in the industry. As noted previously, IATSE used its control of projectionists, film lab technicians and film exchange workers a bargaining tool. But since the Paramount Decrees of 1948, exhibition has become separated from the other two sectors of the industry. At present, any attempt by IATSE projectionists to refuse to project films made under "unfair" conditions would probably result in a theater management lock-out. This lock-out would be backed by contract law and the terms of the Taft-Hartley Act, which has clauses prohibiting the use of such "secondary boycotts."

Thus, IATSE, which at several times in the past had the potential of becoming "one big entertainment union," encompassing broadcasting, motion picture, and live theatrical workers, is now one among several competing unions involved in the various entertainment industries. In the last five years, the rank-and-file members of IATSE and NA-BET production locals have called for a merger between the two unions. But such a merger seems at present only a dim possibility.

The issue of videotape jurisdiction remains as unclear as ever, and NABET has established itself as a low-cost alternative source for motion picture technicians. Membership in NABET costs much less than joining IATSE production locals, and NABET crew arrangements have become far more flexible (and thus less costly) than have those of IATSE. IATSE has accused NABET of "raiding" its members working at WOR-TV in New York, and during a recent NABET strike at that station, IATSE technicians crossed NABET picket lines to work. The bitterness of these exchanges was given public display in a quarter-page Variety ad taken out by NABET accusing IATSE of "scabbing." Thus, hopes for a merger are not good at this time. (Variety, December 26, 1984, p. 6)

The net result of this dissension among the craft unions involved in broadcasting and film is that the producers have continued to have the upper hand in all negotiations. The unions seem too concerned with their immediate organizational needs to recognize fully the potential impact of new technologies. The inability of writers and directors to get what they consider their fair cut of residuals out of videocassette sale and rentals is but one example of how shortsighted the entertainment industry unions have been thus far. All of the talk in the technical journals about reductions in costs through elimination of certain "uncreative" steps in the various production/ distribution/ exhibition processes is more than just talk.

It should be a call to arms for the unions involved. But just as the projectionists have gradually gone the way of the blacksmiths in many cities, it seems that the producers will be able even more easily to toss out the many production and post-production workers who are hired on a picture-by-picture basis. And if the fulfillment of the totally electronic cinema system comes to pass, there seems little hope for the thousands of workers employed in film labs and film exchanges.

This disappointing scenario may be tempered somewhat by the thought that the electronic age that would make possible the elimination of many jobs in the motion picture industry, has also stimulated the development of more productions to meet the voracious appetite of the new program outlets of cable and video software. Also, the ever-spiralling drive toward more sophisticated technology leaves behind in its wake what JUMP CUT co-editor John Hess has called a "detritus" of salvageable film and video gear that can be effectively put to use by independent film and video producers/artists.

For the film technicians, however, the fact remains that there presently exist no plans to retrain projectionists, lab technicians, and film exchange employees to take advantage of these new production jobs, nor is there the appropriate economic geography to even make such a plan feasible. If we can take the projectionists as the example of how other workers will fare in this technological transformation, then there seems little future for the workers who will be eliminated with the emergence of electronic cinema. Neither the union nor management seems to have the interests of the workers at heart.

The goal in development of electronic cinema is toward efficiency in organization and production. The film unions, like unions bargaining for workers in many other U.S. industries, seem to be unable or unwilling to resist the demands for increased automation and elimination of jobs. The producers welcome dual unionism in the film and television production industry because it allows them to play the unions off against one another. A merger of IATSE and NABET, a common-sense solution that the rank-and-file can understand, and indeed, have called for in recent years, can only take place when the leaders of the two unions place worker welfare above organizational needs, i.e., the need to have as large a membership as possible to support the union officers in the manner to which they have become accustomed.


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