The Filmmaker’s Guide to Working With Unions

The Filmmaker’s Guide to Working With Unions

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Once a film advances from the development stage, a producer, director and actors are needed. I suppose this is fairly obvious as without this “cast of characters,” the film could never be made. This is the perfect time to start thinking about the various “players” you will encounter during the filmmaking process along with the types of agreements you will be dealing with.

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Any discussion pertaining to agreements is likely to give rise to labor unions, especially if you intend to use union labor. Now is as good a time as any for a brief digression into the history of labor unions.

Labor Unions are designed to protect workers from unfair wages and poor working conditions. So what unions can you, as the filmmaker, expect to deal with when producing a film? This depends on the personnel you hire.

Screenwriters

When it comes to screenwriters’ agreements, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is the 800-pound gorilla. It regulates most of the issues relating to the engagement of writers. For example, the WGA regulates writer agreements for theatrical, TV, original new media, and subscription video on demand (SVOD), including Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

Actors

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) regulate agreements for professional actors. SAG-AFTRA and/or American Federation of Musicians (AFM) also regulate voiceover artists, recording artists, singers, arrangers and instrumental musicians who participate in recording music for films, television programs and commercials.

Directors

Directors agreements are governed by the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Basic Agreement (BA). The Directors BA includes films made under an agreement with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The DGA BA covers employment of Directors, Assistant Directors and Unit Production Managers. DGA Agreements broadly include such creative works as narrative and documentary films intended for theatrical or home video/DVD release, television shows and new media.

Below-the-line Crew

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) regulates agreements for below-the-line crew, and Teamsters union for other key production personnel, such as drivers.

Producers

Unlike screenwriters, actors, directors, and below-the-line crew, no union regulates the employment of producers. This may come as a shock since the Producers Guild of America (PGA) is a widely-recognized organization. However, it is not a union. Instead, it functions as a non-profit trade group. The fact that the employment of producers is unregulated by a union means that every term and condition of a producer’s agreement is subject to negotiation. And because there are many different types of producers, it stands to reason that there will be many different types of producers’ agreements.

However, the reality of the situation is that most productions employ at least one “line producer.” Not surprisingly, “line producer” agreements tend to be the most commonly negotiated agreements insofar as producers are concerned. For those who may be unfamiliar with the role of a line producer, he or she is responsible for preparing budgets, securing locations, negotiating leases, supervising the accounting department, and managing the production.

Helpful Tips

Assuming a filmmaker wants to use union labor, he or she must make the production company a signatory to the applicable union agreement. One of the biggest myths is that a production must have a staggering budget in order to use union labor. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Some unions, such as SAG-AFTRA offer enticing contract options for lower budget films, such as the Ultra Low Budget Agreement for independent films with budgets under a $250,000 threshold.

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