March 10, 2020
Alumni Spotlight: Eric Hoyt
THE 21ST CENTURY ARCHIVIST
By Matt Meier
The stories of classical Hollywood are hidden in the pages of old trade publications like Photoplay, Variety, Screenland, Motion Picture News, and others. These historic tabloids are often inaccessible to many cinema scholars, buried in the closets of private collectors or scattered in the archives of Los Angeles or New York.
A graduate of both the Peter Stark Producing Program (’08) and the Division of Cinema & Media Studies (’12), USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus Eric Hoyt knew the problem well and is actively bringing archival research into the 21st century. Hoyt is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the director of the Media History Digital Library (MHDL), “a non-profit initiative dedicated to digitizing historic books and magazines about film, broadcasting, and recorded sound for broad public access.” Among its key projects is Lantern, an open access database containing over two million pages of industry publications spanning 1905 to 1964. With a simple keyword search, Lantern scans every word of every publication within the search parameters and returns the relevant pages with the keyword highlighted in context, significantly truncating the research process. What would once have been days of finding and flipping through old magazines is now at one’s fingertips in a matter of seconds, effectively giving scholars unprecedented access to an essential component of Classical Hollywood research.
The idea for Lantern originated with Hoyt’s time as a Stark student, working in the mailroom of United Talent Agency (UTA). “I delivered the trade papers to the agents’ desks and saw how people read them for information and news. But they also read them with a critical eye,” says Hoyt. “People would poke fun but also invest a tremendous amount of energy.” He quickly realized “the function that these trade papers play as gatekeeper and scorekeeper.”
The experience also revealed the important role of film archives and libraries within the studio system. “That was a research question that I would have never even thought to explore if it hadn’t been for my time working in the industry,” Hoyt says. That question fueled the foundation of his PhD research (and, eventually, the subject of his first book, Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries before Home Video), but it also helped sow the seeds for Lantern. Understanding the significance of both the archives and the trade publications, Hoyt set to work, collaborating with MHDL Founder and Director Emeritus David Pierce, collecting old publications and writing the backend coding that would eventually become Lantern.
“It started out with me in my car driving to the San Fernando valley to borrow old volumes of Film Daily and Photoplay from a collector up there,” recalls Hoyt. The project “took a lot of work, and it almost didn’t happen many times simply because there were lots of other demands,” says Hoyt, who was also finishing his dissertation and raising newborn twins. But the long drives and late nights proved well worth it. Like any field, the quickest way to make inroads in academia is to address a need, to offer something people want. Lantern offered exactly that, and other scholars quickly took notice. “I could tell early on, just working on this project, it was getting me goodwill in the field,” says Hoyt. “As a young budding academic, you’re trying to make a name and get attention. This was a way that I’m creating resources that people would use.”
His work with Lantern helped Hoyt land a coveted position at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where he is now a tenured professor in the Department of Communication Arts. As both a scholar and a teacher, Hoyt sums up his work as a “blend of digital media production and information science with the study of film and broadcast.” His forthcoming book, Motion Papers: The Triumph of Hollywood’s Trade Press, was “born out of the digital work” he and his team have been doing at MHDL, which also includes Project Arclight, a data mining and visualization tool that serves as a companion to Lantern. It is certainly a unique intersection, combining the digital humanities with archival research and Classical Hollywood studies. But after more than a decade spent studying the conditions that move the tides of media industries, Hoyt understands better than most that sometimes looking backwards provides the best vision for what is yet to come.