Why isn’t there even more nepotism in Hollywood?

Alan Crede emails me the following:

It seems there’s a lot of nepotism in Hollywood (the Sheens, Clooneys, Douglases, Arquettes, Goldie Hawn-Kate Hudson, Aaron Spelling-Tori Spelling, etc.).

But it seems for every Angelina Jolie with industry connections, there’s someone like Brad Pitt (an outsider from Missouri).

My question is why is it not *all* nepotism?

I’m struggling to think of a bit of a theory of economic theory that could explain the equilibrium that we see other than the (question-begging) contention that, in order to maximize profits, Hollywood producers cast the ablest actors available to them.

Imagine a talent selection system with many different levels of filters and many, many applicants and also few winners.  The first level could be something as simple as “does anyone even look at your photo shoot or ask you for an audition?”  Let’s also say that nepotism gets you past the first filter, or maybe a bit more, but not past the final filters.  They won’t let you star in a movie just because you’re Goldie Hawn’s daughter (by that time most of her clout is gone).  Nonetheless relatives of famous actors, actresses, etc. still will end up considerably overrepresented on the screen.

There is also someone known who can vouch for you, albeit not always with perfect credibility: “Believe me, if you give my brother this role, he won’t ruin the movie promo efforts with a cocaine addiction.”  And so on.

You will be remembered more easily: imagine a director saying “hey for this bit part, why don’t we get what’s-his-name, you know the brother of [xxxx].”  It is then easier to work your way up.

Being the brother, sister, etc. of a famous actor gets you publicity and makes for a good story.  It draws interest from viewers, just as I was keen to have met Alex’s brother in Toronto last year.  That will help your chances too.  At the same time, talented outsiders still will make their way through the process and achieve stardom.

Nepotism and focality are closely related and they often reinforce each other.


I wonder if just the simple fact of growing up with such close ties to the industry doesn't provide some essential training for success in the industry. The ability to act will still be something of a necessary condition but I suspect even a great actor that lacks certain other skills will not go far in the industry. Are these other skills more easily acquired as in insider than an outsider?

Maybe there's just a greater appearance of nepotism in the entertainment industry because it's so visible -- though I think it's clear nepotism exists in Hollywood.

There's rarely one cause. I think some combination of the following probably is true:

1. Pure nepotism
2. Insider knowledge / training from an early age
3. Shared "natural" talent
4. Halo effect (which may be some variant on the belief by others that #3 it true, even it's it's not).

For a related example, you may be able to look at baseball. There's a lot of relatives in baseball.

Here's a list of father/sons:

Here's a list of brothers:

Sometimes they're all genuine talents (like the Upton Brothers and the Molina Brothers), but there's also quite a few examples of talent disparities like the Joe DiMaggio and his brothers, Jose / Ozzie Canseco, Jason / Jeremy Giambi, etc.

Point being, I wouldn't get caught up in the specifics of acting. Finding the common reasons to acting and baseball may help.

Not to nitpick, but Dom DiMaggio was a very good player in his own right.

Vince DiMaggio wasn't bad either. He hit 28 homers one season and was an excellent defensive outfielder.

I agree, I suspect there are a number of factors what produce the results that prompted the question.

I suspect we'd also find similar correlations in other industries -- building/construction, manufacturing/fabrication, other sports like auto racing, medicine, politics, shipping/fishing, agriculture and the like.

All of these will have industry specific idiosyncracies and cultures that make it easier for those familiar with the industry to out perform a random selection of those who didn't grow up with exposure to the industry. That's the point I'm suggesting; and it will create something that looks like nepotism is greater than is probably the case. In all these other cases the general public doesn't keep hearing the names as is the case with the entertainment industry.

Actually, the number of father-son pairs in major league baseball vastly increased over the last generation. In the 1990s, there were superstars (Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr.) who were the sons of stars. That was very rare before the last two or three decades. Before then, father-son pairs were much rarer. Adam Bellow's book "In Praise of Nepotism" from a decade ago shows that dynasticism has increased in many fields.

As prestige occupations become better paying and more competitive, there will be advantages to youths trained from childhood. For example, NFL quarterbacks are increasingly the product of a long process of training involving private quarterbacking tutors, repeating grades to be older than high school rivals, and much else. Top QBs increasingly tend to be either sons of QBs or sons or wealthy, effective executives or professionals. Andrew Luck, for instance, is the son of a former NFL quarterback who became a lawyer and a sports executive.

Thanks for the baseball father-son list. One fascinating aspect is the relative absence of father-son pairs from the first 60 years of the 20th Century (i.e., the son came up before expansion in 1961-62). There are only a small number and virtually none in which both the father and the son are well-known today. The vast majority of listings are post-WWII for both father and son.

I wonder why?

Presumably one factor is the money. Baseball players got royally screwed over their pay well into the 1970s. In fact it wasn't really until Scott Boras started out as an agent in the 1980s that baseball players could make a really good living at it. So why would you want your son to follow your footsteps unless there was a good chance of a solid career in it?


But from the 1920s onward, you don't see much evidence of baseball players retiring early to pursue more lucrative careers, the way a few players did in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. For example, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson retired at age 37 with lucrative post-baseball business careers set up, while today they'd probably play a couple of more seasons for the big bucks. But, in general, it's hard to see much evidence that being a big league ballplayer wasn't superior to whatever else the great majority of potential ballplayers could do. Baseball's not like boxing that takes a massive health toll. I grew up with about a dozen guys who played minor league baseball. After they washed out, most of them went to med school, B-school, that kind of thing. It didn't seem to set them back much.

So it seems implausible that big leaguers used to strongly discourage their sons from being ballplayers.

It's actually kind of hard to find records of past athletes who retired early because they could make more money doing something else. Bill Simmons cites 10-time NBA All-Star Paul Arizin who retired from Philadelphia in 1962 because he was sick of being Wilt Chamberlain's teammate and had a nice job offer to be an IBM salesman. But the NBA was a lot more rinky-dink in 1962 than the MLB, and Arizin was already 33 (and he had to put up with Wilt scoring 50 ppg).

Okay, I found a good example to test this Low Salary theory: in 1974, the season before baseball salaries started to rise due to free agency, Bobby Bonds, the father of future superstar Barry Bonds, earned $100,000 playing for the San Francisco Giants. That was far less than the $5 million his son made with the Giants 20 years laters, but $100,000 was still a lot of money back in 1974, enough for Barry to grow up in beautiful San Mateo, CA. I can't imagine Bobby telling little Barry not to bother with baseball after college because he can make more money in a regular job.

So, we still need an explanation for the vast increase in father-son pairs in MLB over the last generation.

I am not sure the early retirement proves much. Suppose a man really loved playing baseball. He might go on playing baseball for as long as possible, but still not want his son to follow him. The rule seems to be that some people succeed in high-risk, high-pay off jobs, like selling drugs, starting their own company or boxing, but they want their children to do something safer like accounting.

Moreover perhaps with Bobby Bonds you are looking at a peak player. It is wrong to assume that because Magic Johnson slept with 100,000 women (and certainly was not on the down low) that all men sleep with 100,000 women. So if he made a comfortable career out of it, he might naturally encourage his son to follow him. You would have to look to see if his career was an outlier in terms of pay. After all, few father and son combinations are going to be similarly out standing. A moderately good player these days would naturally encourage his son to follow him. But if in 1974 he was only earning enough to buy new shoes, he might not. Has pay not just risen but also broadened?

Major league ballplayers attract the attention of hordes of women. Naturally, they are attracted to the most healthy, genetically advantaged females and then they marry them. So their children have enabling chromosomes and succeed in athletics, and other endeavors, too. No chubby short babes tying the knot with big leaguers.

In addition to the ability fostered at an early age, which goes hand in hand with interest fostered within the family, in a field that presents such uncertainty in job prospects, most people will have numerous alternatives that they would go to first - its a scary thing trying to become an actor.

In contrast, if you're in a family that has succeeded in that field, you are more comfortable with trying your hand at it yourself, less averse to taking even the same risk as someone coming from outside of the field.

If nothing else, your 'insider knowledge' gives you comfort in having a sense of what it takes to succeed, it reduces the uncertainty in your mind, so you're more willing to make the leap.

Does being a relative of a celebrity benefit one from something like a "halo effect" . Producers/directors overestimate one's ability.

On the other hand, Nepotism is really high in the Indian film Industry.

Shah Rukh Khan

Alan Crede has no credibility when he states: "My question is why is it not *all* nepotism?" - but it *is* all nepotism. Has he not heard of "The Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon"? Everybody in Hollywood is related.

Have *you* heard about the six degrees of Kevin Bacon? It has nothing to do with family relations.

I believe that was what most of us would call a 'joke'.

If you did a statistical analysis based purely on lineage, I think you'd find nepotism in politics and in business. Indeed, I think you'd find nepotism in winning Nobel Prizes.

I think the fact is a lot of apparent nepotism is actually supply side. People choose their careers based on what they think are realistic aspirations and based on the role models who set their ideals for how they see themselves in the future. Many people consider becoming an actor or a politician or a CEO or a famous scientist as an unrealistic option. If your parent is one of these things, it seems much more realistic. I think people pursue what they perceive as realistic options much more successfully than other options (this gets into psychology).

It's crazy to me that Larry Summers can count both Kenneth Arrow and Paul Samuelson as uncles!

And both of Larry's parents are professors of economics.

Nature and nurture.

Similarly, the Bachs almost always married daughters of other professional musicians so that their brides would be trained in music and could copy scores -- a very important task before photocopiers and mimeograph machines.

"If your parent is one of these things, it seems much more realistic"

Right, that's a big, big psychological factor.

It could be the incest taboo at work. You cannot comfortably sleep with close relatives. Hence the sexual favours traded for career advancement cannot really be cashed in if you promote the careers of close relatives.

If you are the daughter of somebody important in Hollywood, you might be able to get a fair chance as a new starlet without sleeping with a bunch of producers and agents the way Marilyn Monroe climbed the ladder of success. For example, Gwyneth Paltrow's father was a big producer and her godfather was Steven Spielberg. Kate Hudson's mother was Goldie Hawn and her quasi-stepfather is Kurt Russell, whom I would think twice before insulting his family.

Yeah but it probably works pretty well the other way around - why isn't Hollywood all nepotism?

Who wants a blow job from their niece?

Woody Allen?

When I first posted my suggestion, I never imagined it would lead to such a fabulous punch-line. Thank you!

There's lots of nepotism in football, too. For example, the two Manning brothers, who only got to play quarterback because their father played for the Saints. What do they have--three Superbowl victories between them? What underachievers.

Or the Harbaugh brothers. They never would have made it to the Superbowl without connections. Or at least a lot of luck.

Just plain old insider knowledge should account for some of this. I have no idea who Steven Spielberg's children are, but I'll bet they know a lot more about directing and producing films than I do, even if they don't want to get into that business.

Even if Spielberg's children were to change their names, and their father (and his associates) were to specifically refuse to help them, they would have a leg up on the rest of the otherwise similarly situated entertainment industry talent pool in many ways: how the agent/manager relationship really works; what kind of scripts/auditions/demo tapes get noticed; etc... They would also waste less of their time and efforts in endeavors not likely to really help with their careers, thus making the activities they do engage in even more efficient relative to their competition.

This is just another attempt to explain the stardom of Nicholas Cage. It will end in failure, as did all the others -- the true cause of his success is beyond our comprehension.

Nicolas Cage? Pah. Easy street. Try and explain the career of Adam Sandler. It is almost enough to make you believe in Zionist Conspiracies.

I believe P.T. Barnum explained it best when he said, “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.”

The nepotism in Hollywood is more on the business side than the fame side.

Better question: how does Hollywood get away with pretending none of their movies ever make a profit as far as the IRS is concerned? Or is that just an urban legend?

I think you're thinking of how Hollywood gets away with pretending it doesn't make any money when it comes to profit-sharing arrangements with actors. Hollywood is legendary for employing methods for screwing people on back-end payment deals, in which talent participates in a movie's success. There are infinite ways of accounting for an individual movie's profits and losses, and the notorious stories about certain highly successful films that somehow never managed to break even are true. But I don't know how this carries over the IRS, which will presumably be less interested in the success of any individual movie than in a studio's overall profit and loss.

From what I've read, it typically has to do with how the studio books internal expenses, so the studio can make plenty of money on a movie that, on paper, is in the red. Example, "Hot Summer Blockbuster" is filmed and produced by "Hot Summer Blockbuster Production Company" a subsidiary of "Giant Studio Incorporated". The studio then bills the production company for things like overhead, distribution, and marketing expenses at largely arbitrary rates. The fees are basically a mechanism of converting revenue from the movie into expenses to be paid to the studio. This leaves the studio plenty of money, while leaving the movie itself and the production company at a loss.

Which is just the way the Chinese and, historically at least, Jewish trading networks worked. Trustworthiness is more important than talent. Better to do business with someone with whom you have ties, recommendations from those you trust,, and some moral pressure to observe the spirit rather than the letter of contracts when difficulties arise.

Maybe because Hollywood is relatively competitive compared to politics or education. Consider late Silverster Stallone son as counter-argument. Parents induce children in some direction, but children may take not rational decisions.

Actually, there's even more nepotism in Hollywood than people think.

Hollywood is dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, and two random Ashkenazi Jews are about as closely genetically related as 4th or 5th cousins would be:


Back in Golden Age Hollywood, there were about nine major studios. All the studio bosses hired nephews and in-laws for executive jobs. Eight of the studios were run by Jews, so the great majority of nephews and in-laws hired were Jewish. Similarly, Walt Disney hired his nephews and in-laws, but since they weren't Jewish, the Internet today is full of detailed articles debating whether Disney was anti-Semitic. Nobody is interested in the larger and parallel question of whether the majority of studios were anti-Gentilic because "anti-Gentilic" isn't a word and, as Orwell pointed out, it's hard to think about things for which you are not allowed to have a word.

There is obviously a genetic component. Attractive people have attractive children. Charismatic people have charismatic children.
It helps a child become a pro athlete if their father was a pro athlete. Mainly due to the superior genes conferred by the father.

Angelina Jolie became a star because she was better looking than everyone else. It's good to be superior.

The odd thing is that dynasticism has increased in major league baseball over the generations.

Perhaps old time stars (who were only modestly affluent) tended to marry their high school sweethearts, whereas now they wait longer and marry women with more elite physical genes?

I guess the question is "Is Hollywood really talent-constrained?"

I imagine there are thousands of perfectly qualified people for each actor role, including looking good and ability to act. Then it's just a matter of picking which of those people get the part.

In baseball, someone who can hit 38 homers a year is better than someone who can hit 36, maybe even enough to justify a massive pay disparity. Is there any fundamental difference in Brad Pitt's skill for his pay over another actor?

(NB: He has built a brand and is a legitimate draw, so it's not nuts to pay him that. That's not what I'm disputing. Why did Brad Pitt get a chance over some other actor's good-looking kid in the first place before he was a brand?)

A few years ago, I reviewed back to back for The American Conservative two movies starring Casey Affleck, the brother of Ben: "The Assassination of the Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and Ben's directorial debut "Gone Baby Gone." I tried to sketch out a qualitative and quantitative model of Hollywood nepotism:

"Film noir detectives have traditionally been world-weary types, such as Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, but Casey, a small youngster with a pinched baby-face, looks like he's trying detective work because he's not sure he's mature enough yet for law school. Casey is perfectly fine in both films, possibly because he gets a lot of real life practice at the main demand of these roles: acting peeved and perturbed when nobody takes him seriously.

"Casey is also the brother-in-law of Ben's wife Jennifer Garner (Alias) and his own wife's brother Joaquin Phoenix ("Walk the Line"). Would he be starring in movies without all these connections? Golden Age Hollywood was intensely nepotistic in the executive suites, but the modern industry is more nepotistic in the above-the-line jobs, because power has migrated from the head office to whomever is raising the money. Ben Affleck's famous name was responsible for scraping together the $19 million for "Gone Baby Gone," so he got to cast his baby brother.

"Surprisingly, Hollywood nepotism is seldom fatal to films, because its beneficiaries, like Casey Affleck, are almost all at least competent. Why? Let's do the numbers. If, say, one percent of all adult Americans have the natural talent to be a movie star, director, or screenwriter, and maybe ten percent of them try to make it in the business, well, that's still 200,000 people to choose among! So, among that qualified 0.1 percent, it's who you know that counts."


Ties of blood or sex are important in Hollywood, but it's difficult to estimate how important. Nepotism is more public, but casting couch relationships are much whispered about. For example, there are persistent gay rumors about practically every tough guy star in Hollywood other than, say, Mel Gibson:


Yet, most of the gay rumors appear to be about men who are now expensively heterosexual -- e.g., a certain muscle man / governor supports a secret second family in Bakersfield, which

So, I tried thinking rigorously about how many heterosexual male stars allowed themselves when young to be exploited by gay power brokers:


I suspect the full story would dwarf the Catholic priest scandals, but nobody seems that interested in it.

Another aspect of Hollywood nepotism is in the lower level blue collars jobs working on the set. These are some of the best blue collar jobs in America, and they are, in effect, off limits to Mexican-Americans. I frequently pass film or TV crews shooting on the streets of Los Angeles, and this is the only place in L.A. where you'll see blue collar work carried out by overwhelmingly white workforces. I don't believe a person of Mexican descent raised in America has been nominated for an Oscar in either the glamour or technical categories since the 1980s.

These jobs are unionized and you need a relative or close friend to help you get into the union. Oddly, the Obama Administration seems to be in no hurry to file a discrimination lawsuit against Hollywood, despite obvious disparate impact against Latinos visible to the naked eye of anybody who stops and watches a location shoot for two minutes.

By the way, the wages are high, but Hollywood movies have not been wiped out by competition from countries with lower wages. Maybe the "race to the bottom" isn't always such a good idea?

I was going to quote Emmanuel Lubezki five Oscar nominations, but he's a mexican born to jew immigrants. Maybe you're right.

Right -- lots of top notch film makers grew up in Mexican elite circle and came to Hollywood well-established. Very very few who came to American before 18 like Anthony Quinn did.

I agree with Steve above... there is not more nepotism because of all the other types of croneyism going on, including the casting couch and promotion of friends.

To give some perspective, here are the backgrounds of a random list of some bigger male stars in Hollywood:

George Clooney -- aunt was singing star Rosemary Clooney whose husband was Oscar winner Jose Ferrer; father was TV anchorman who was long on the fringe breaking through to national prominence

Brad Pitt -- middle class middle American

Johnny Depp -- middle class middle American but downwardly mobile broken family (divorce comes up a lot in family backgrounds of stars)

Daniel Day-Lewis -- father was Poet Laureate of England (C. Day-Lewis), maternal grandfather the mogul of Ealing Studios

Robert Downey Jr. -- father was in movie business, uncle Jim is head politics writer for Saturday Night Live since 1970s

Will Smith -- middle class, no obvious movie connections

Denzel Washington -- Working class, no movie connections

Tom Hanks -- working class, no connections

Tom Cruise -- lower middle class, no connections

Matt Damon -- upper middle class / bohemian, Harvard, elite connections (Howard Zinn a neighbor) but not notably to movies

Ben Affleck -- marginally upper middle class / bohemian, friend of Matt Damon

Leonardo DiCaprio -- Bohemian, father was underground comic book artist

Sean Penn -- father in movie business

Ben Stiller -- parents were prominent comedy duo Stiller and Meara

Tommy Lee Jones -- working class; played football for Harvard, roommate of Al Gore, model for hero "Oliver" of his professor Erich Segal's bestseller "Love Story," which was played by Ryan O'Neal in the hit movie.

Mark Wahlberg -- lower class juvenile delinquent, nearly killed two guys in racist attacks as teen.

James Franco -- upper middle class Silicon Valley background, no obvious movie connections

Steve Carrell -- Middle class, no obvious connections

Jonah Hill -- Parents in the entertainment industry, attended Crossroads School in Santa Monica, where many stars send their kids.

Jeff Bridges -- father was Lloyd Bridges of Sea Hunt, thus got very early start as leading man

So, I see entertainment industry connections for 7 out of 20. But your list of stars may vary.

I'm classifying Tommy Lee Jones' connection to "Love Story," in which he was given a small role, as self-made, so he's not one of th 7 of 20.

Al Gore once claimed that he and Tipper were the subjects of "Love Story," but Prof. Segal said only the parts about Oliver having an overbearingly successful father were based on Al, the rest was based on Al's roommate, Tommy. But young Al did not lack for attention from his own fawning professor: Martin Peretz, future owner of The New Republic, developed a lifelong obsession with Al Gore when Al was his teenage student at Harvard.

Kind of creepy ...

Will Smith mostly got into acting as a way to pay off his back taxes resulting from his music career and subsequent poor financial decisions (though he admittedly had no family background in the music business either).

All those filters in the original post reminded me of life in general. Always good to hear about working stiffs making it!


Frank Stallone is a market failure.

This vague review deterred me from reading the book. But I'm from Chicago, where we know from nepotism and are wary.


Maybe not so much in Hollywood, but nepotism is rife in Bollywood. The majority of stars have some - normally very strong - family link (ie father). Otherwise they are models.

If it weren't for Angelina Joile's father she wouldn't be in the acting business, plus she's not talented and she's a media whore along with that douchebag Brad Pitt.

Julianne Moore didn't have family connections and she's an underrated actress who deserves an Oscar.

In regard to actors getting screwed out of percentages, they should sue their lawyers who are apparently working for the studios instead. An old country lawyer with a degree from Ohio State told me in Business Law class that only suckers take a percentage of the net because the net can be fudged around so much. What you want is a percentage of the gross. I think I'd also be careful how gross is defined in contracts.

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