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Union Busting 101

by Jeff Steele

A learned colleague once said that the three biggest obstacles to getting a movie made are unions, agents and producers.

Generally speaking, that’s true, but it ultimately depends on which side of the table you’re on at any given moment.

From the financing side, Unions and Guilds are dicey because they tend to come to the table with an antagonistically defensive posture – not wanting to play ball.  They’re viewed as being uncompromising, with an all or nothing, zero-sum strategy.  Interestingly enough so do producers and agents, especially when squaring off against each other.  The unions were never agreeable to begin with, but they honed their modus operandi after decades of being shortchanged by scrupulous and unscrupulous producers alike (mostly the latter.)

Though they prefer to call themselves Guilds, they are labor unions consisting for the most part of the WGA, DGA, SAG, IATSE and Teamsters.  The Producers Guild is not technically a labor union; it’s a trade group.  There are numerous other unions and locals, but the above five unions are who you need to clear a path through to get your film or show made.

Like most things in Hollywood, dealing with unions is not rocket science; it’s social science.  It’s about managing expectations and the rules are very straightforward:

  • Your experience will be a reflection of what you expect it to be.
    • If you’re expecting torture, you won’t be disappointed.

  • Approach them before they approach you.
    • Know what you need (vs. want) before you sit down.

  • No budget is too small.
    • Most unions have tiered pricing based on the budget amount.
  • Movies cost what they cost, so budget properly and pay accordingly.
    • There is no inalienable right guaranteeing filmmakers can make a movie for next to nothing, with whomever you choose.  If you can’t afford it, don’t make it.
  • Know that “Passion Project” means ‘I don’t want to pay you’.
    • If you’re going to pay people less than they deserve, then don’t expect them to be flexible without offering something in return.
  • “Right to Work” does not preclude right to picket.
    • Do not waste time pursuing the benefits of a “right to work” state – it’s a myth and a punch line.  Stay away from it.  States tout it — don’t buy it.

  • Get everything in writing.
    • Follow-up all conversations with written summaries.

  • They will find out and shut you down.
    • Like police, they tend to show-up faster than you were expecting.
  • If struck, an idle set costs $80,000 per day, or more.
    • Compare that with how much were you expecting to save by going “non-union”.
  • Non-union films cannot get a completion bond.
    • Mainstream investors and lenders only finance bonded pictures.
  • Everything is negotiable because people need to work.
    • But, negotiation requires compromise from all sides.
  • Budget for your residual reserve and payroll reserve.
    • If a union owes you money, expect to fight for a very long time to get it.  When you do get it back, don’t expect more than 50 cents on the dollar.

  • Never ask a union member (Cast or Crew) to be “a team player”.
    • It’s not your team they’re playing for.

It’s not a walk in the park, but it doesn’t have to be mugging either.  If worse comes to worst, you can always move production to Eastern Europe, just be ready to step up and do so.  They hear it all the time, but know you never will.  I did.  You can.  It’s hard, but worth it.

13 Responses leave one →
  1. September 28, 2011

    Jeff,

    I’m going to predict this post will receive the most comments to date.

    I know of no producer who ever got 50 cents on the dollar for their reserve return. They usually got zip. Nadda. Nothing. But headaches.

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    • Jeff Steele permalink
      September 30, 2011

      If producers don’t have a knack for getting nasty, then they should hire a collection agency.

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  2. September 29, 2011

    Jeff, excellent article.
    Stan, I agree.
    Its totally on the money, Jeff.
    Thank you!

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  3. September 29, 2011

    Thanks for the posting Jeff. You made great points. I had my first taste of unions and guilds when I set out to produce a 2 minute promo video for my first feature FATHERS DAY (fathersday-themovie.com). Not only did I hire and fly John Billingsley (our principal actor) up from LA but the script called for modest pyrotechnics. SAG (for John) and ACTRA (for the Canadian stunt person) were more than helpful in assisting me to navigate through the mountains of paperwork and regulations. I think that it is essential that indie producers like myself approach unions, agents, and guilds with honesty, transparency and an understanding of their needs….in my opinion anyway.

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  4. Scott Hillman permalink
    September 29, 2011

    The counter point to principal eight is that when your working on very small projects and activley seeking them out, they can be extremly slow to return your calls. Or have union reps go on vacation a week before your shoot. Or on web projects actively ignore you.

    Also get a fax machine. No one else in hollywood really uses them much these days. Except of course unions.

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  5. September 29, 2011

    From my experience, unions are just are part of doing business. I found that if you approach them with respect, they will be more inclined to help you out. My primary experience has been with SAG and Equity. As Jeff suggests, manage your expectations. You may not always get what you want, but, you’ll get what you need if you’re reasonable. SAG wants your business. They know filmmaking is not a perfect world. One reason for the tiered pricing. But I think if a producer sets out to be a hard-ass with the unions, they can expect problems.

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  6. Karri O'Reilly permalink
    September 29, 2011

    Unfortunate that the title of this article is “Union Busting 101″. This is great advice for having a professional, working relationship with the unions.

    I’ve negotiated union contracts (term and individual project) for years, and coming to the table educated (about the basic contracts), flexible and realistic yields great results. Rule #4 is key – get a real budget done by someone who knows what they are doing, and listen when your line producer tells you that you are being unreasonable in your expectations.

    I’ve never encountered anyone at any union at the national level who was completely un-flexible or unfair, so if you find a local level BA who just is insane (i.e. demanding 10 van drivers for a million dollar feature), go up to national. Try to do it without completely running around the local BA, but get some help from above. They won’t throw their guy under the bus, but if you aren’t making it a dick-swinging contest, there is always room to let the other guy save face.

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    • Jeff Steele permalink
      September 29, 2011

      The first budget is the last honest budget you’ll see. BA’s can be difficult, especially if they get wind that the producer is a bad actor. They won’t hesitate to throw anybody under the bus so long is it driven by at least two teamsters.

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  7. Andy Halmay permalink
    September 29, 2011

    This post reminded me that you’ve been silent for quite a while and I’ve missed you, Jeff. I’ve been a union member for more years than I can recall and appreciate the need for their creation in the first place. But when producing, because of some of the folks occasionally running this one or that one, they can become a colossal pain in the rear. I play by their rules. However, if an individual in the union starts to make up his own rules, then I get personal and nasty. It’s the only sensible way to deal with not just unions, but the world.

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    • Jeff Steele permalink
      September 30, 2011

      Laugh, and the world laughs with you.
      Yell, and you’ll get better service.

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  8. Mark permalink
    October 10, 2011

    Jeff,

    When I was reading this blog post, it just further reminded me of why I have stayed away from the unions and have produced (or acted in) non-union projects. The wealth of talent on both sides of the camera is just as great on the non-union side as the union side. Having once been a member of AFTRA, it did nothing to help my career. And with the explosion in digital distribution, the unions are not required and certainly not necessary. I’ve often explored the monster amount of paperwork (that will usually come with a union lien on your project) to work with some union actors I know. It’s not worth it. In addition, it’s not necessary to work with unions to qualify for the tax incentives (at least in my state). If you work in a coal mine, sure you need a union. But seriously, why do actors and crew need a union in the 21st century?

    Thanks,

    Mark

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    • Jeff Steele permalink
      October 12, 2011

      Collective bargaining. Stars can negotiate anything, the rest cannot.

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  9. Daniel Lyddon permalink
    October 18, 2011

    Love, love, love this post! in more ways then one.

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