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Studio Labor and the Origins of Hollywood’s Thirty-Mile Zone, or TMZ

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Hollywood is a place. It’s a constellation of tattoo parlors, casting offices, law firms, and church basements that line Sunset, Franklin, Santa Monica, and Hollywood Boulevards between various boundaries east and west. And it’s a district within the larger city; incorporated as an independent municipality in 1903 but parched for water, Hollywood annexed itself to Los Angeles in 1910 and remains a neighborhood therein, its boundaries delineated on official maps.

WPA Land use survey map for the City of Los Angeles, book 6 (Hollywood District to Boyle Heights District), sheet 11
1939 WPA land use survey of Hollywood. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, via the USC Digital Library. [source

But Hollywood also exists on another map: the one that Hollywood the film industry draws of itself, a cartographic self-portrait that helps it organize its armies of workers.

The Hollywood Studio Zone ­– known also as the “Thirty Mile Zone” or "TMZ," hence the name of the celebrity gossip outfit – has real consequences for those who clock in for work in motion pictures and television.

Hollywood exists on another map: the one the Hollywood film industry draws of itself, a cartographic self-portrait that helps it organize its armies of workers.

Within its boundaries, on-set laborers, particularly extras and other craftspeople, are expected to transport themselves; the zone also determines pay scales and other working conditions. When workers are required to show up for work outside the zone, studios become responsible for transport, meals, and other compensation.

Existing informally as early as 1917[1], the zone has shifted its size and locus dramatically through the years. A 1934 agreement formalized its geography, circumscribing the production zone within a circle six miles in radius, centered on the intersection of Rossmore and Fifth.

Today, the zone extends over a 30-mile radius and pivots around the intersection of La Cienega and Beverly boulevards, the former headquarters of the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), where the Beverly Center now stands. It also now includes other pockets of filmmaking activity that technically fall outside its circle: Agua Dulce; Castaic, including Castaic Lake; Leo Carrillo State Beach; Ontario International Airport; Piru; Pomona, including the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds; and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Ranch property.[2][3]  

Thirty Mile Studio Zone map
Hollywood's cartographic self-portrait – the Thirty Mile Studio Zone map, courtesy of the California Film Commission. [source]
Spahn Movie Ranch buildings
Many studios opened ranches on the periphery of the thirty-mile zone to take advantage of greater Los Angeles' diverse cinematic landscapes. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library. [source]

As the industry expanded over the decades, many studios purchased property at the very periphery of the thirty-mile zone, establishing studio ranches as production sites for Westerns or anything that required a dusty background. Producers could thus take advantage of the cinematic landscapes at the edges of Los Angeles – desert, mountain, ocean – without paying overages on labor costs. Paramount purchased its ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains in 1927, for example. Walt Disney bought his Golden Oak Ranch near Newhall in 1959. Both lay within the thirty-mile studio zone.

Hollywood labor associations began to form as early as 1910 with the creation of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. More powerful guilds, like the Screen Writers Guild and predecessors to the Screen Actors Guild, took shape in the 1920s. Worried about labor unrest, in 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was set up as a company union with five branches – producers, writers, directors, actors, and technicians – to represent members in labor grievances. However, membership was, as it is today, invitation-only, and labor strife continued in earnest for decades.

Shooting within the zone, on a ranch or otherwise, meant saving on cost. And there were other advantages to staying close to home: skilled technical labor was, indeed, hard to find the further afield a producer traveled.

In 1970, in an attempt to bring “runaway” production back to Hollywood, the AMPTP enlarged the zone’s radius from six to 30 miles, lowering labor costs and thus making L.A.-based productions more attractive to filmmakers. But this expansion affected not just those commuting to work within that area ­– the workers and artists represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and the Screen Extras Guild (SEG). It also affected the drivers whom studios hired to transport employees outside the studio zone. In 1973, on behalf of these drivers, who hadn’t been consulted about the change, Studio Transportation Drivers Local 399 brought a case against the AMPTP before the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB ultimately deemed the zone’s expansion an unfair labor practice, and allowed the drivers an exemption.[4]

In 1946, anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker spent a year in Hollywood studying the place and its people. In the resulting book, “Hollywood, the Dream Factory,” she concluded: “Hollywood itself is not an exact geographical area, although there is such a postal district. It has commonly been described as a state of mind, and it exists wherever people connected with the movies live and work.”[5]

Nevertheless, the thirty-mile studio zone, by governing the location of film shoots, the placement of studio facilities, and the everyday lives of workers, grants Hollywood the industry a real presence and a specific geography within the Los Angeles metropolis.

Further Reading

Bordwell, David.  Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film, Style and Mode of Production to 1960.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Creason, Glen. Hollywood in Maps. Forward by D.J. Waldie. New York: Rizzoli, 2010.

Magers, Boyd.  So You Wanna See Cowboy Stuff?  The Western Movies TV Tour Guide.  Madison: Empire Publishing, 2003.

Ross, Murray.  Stars and Strikes: Unionization of Hollywood.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1941.


[1] In 1917, Variety announced in its “Coast News” column that “Film companies are lining for the fight against the city over the studio zone question” (Guy Price, “Coast Picture News,” Variety, March 30, 1917).

[2] In the interim, different industry unions claimed zones of various sizes. The Screen Actors Guild and Screen Extras Guild, for example, at various points from the 1930s onward, held jurisdiction or preference of employment zones over a 150- to 300-mile area.

[3] http://www.film.ca.gov/30milezone.htm

[4] Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, Inc.  and Studio Transportation Drivers Local 399, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs,  Warehousemen and Helpers of America. Case 31-CA-1791, Decision and Order, July 6, 1973.

[5] Hortense Powdermaker, Hollywood: The Dream Factory (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950), 19.

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