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August 31, 2016 11:34 AM   Subscribe

How do artists' unions work?

For example, if me and a couple of friends want to get together and write and produce a web short for kicks, is that like...not allowed? Or in what contexts would it be a problem? If someone makes money off it?

Assume this is in a jurisdiction that has writers' and actors' unions. This question is just for curiosity's sake--I am curious as to how unions actually work in the context of professions that are also hobbies for some people.
posted by quaking fajita to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think this mostly matters if you and your friends are in a union and/or want to work with people who are in a union on these projects. You might have trouble finding good non-union technical people, like key grips or whatever, but for a small web series that's probably not be an issue.

There are plenty of non-union productions out there, even on actual television and film, never mind web series. You are allowed to make money on non-union projects. The union isn't, like, some kind of governmental body. The union is a group of actors (or writers, or whatever) who have banded together and made rules about what kinds of contracts they will accept, basically.

Even in professions that are never hobbies, there are often union shops and non-union shops. Like, in my town there used to be a unionized supermarket and a non-unionized supermarket.
posted by mskyle at 11:57 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you and your friends do all the work you don't have to think about the union. It's the same as if you and your friends are trying to repair that old fixer-upper you bought. It's only when you want to hire someone, say a few back up singers, that the union becomes relevant. You can do all the plumbing you want, and you can even slip Aunt Gwen a few bucks under the table to do the soldering for you.

Let's say you want to hire some people to hand tint backdrops for you. You can always ask for volunteers. People with experience, and who can get paid work are not going to volunteer because unless they really value your production they won't want to support you.

You can always try to hire non-union people - High school art students from the Manga Club, perhaps? If you are making a low budget You-Tube video nobody will pay attention enough for it to matter.

But if you want good artists, artist who have devoted time and money to their education, then likely they will know about the union and expect union rates.

The union is often most useful as a talent agency. You can give them a call and ask if there is anyone in your area doing the kind of work you want. They will be able to direct you to more skilled people, and know who is out there so you can hire people who will make your production look and sound much more professional.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:01 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

This FAQ from SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Actors) explains some of the rules of using union actors.

There are no minimum salary requirements, aside from your state and local minimum wage laws and lots of other provisions are negotiable. Almost all entertainment industry unions have different contracts for different types of productions from low-budget to hollywood blockbuster, so you may be able to work with union folks while only paying nominal fees or stipends. It's important to note that union representation is just about getting paid, it can also be helpful in protecting your intellectual property rights.

I think the question of using union or non-union labor really comes down to your definition of "for kicks." Is this really just a side project for fun or do you hope doing this will lead to more professional work and a career in the entertainment field. If you hope to be a professional, then I think from an ethical standpoint and from an eye to your future standpoint you might go the union contract route.
posted by brookeb at 12:33 PM on August 31, 2016

I know a *little* bit about musician's unions... first thing is to think of them as trade unions, rather than industry unions, although they may have similar force in places and situations where they can bring some pressure to bear on the companies that hire them. It's more case-by-case, and they tend to focus on where the most money is being made for people using their services, rather than trying to control every possible situation where people do what they do for fun or profit.

As Jane the Brown mentioned, in creative trades the unions also function as talent/staffing hubs - if you want a guy to come in and play drums, you don't know anyone, and you definitely need a pro not a semi-pro, the union local should help you find that person. If you're the neighborhood church and you are trying to get some volunteers to play music for the church social or Sunday worship, it's not like the union can stop you from doing that.

It may also be helpful to think of any trade union as functioning more like a cartel than anything - those who are sufficiently trained in their trade, have decided this is their profession, not a hobby, and join the union are effectively agreeing NOT to provide their services for less money or under conditions that the union has collectively set. So if the union can recruit enough of the people in that industry for that region, *and* can keep those members allied with those regulations, then you effectively have to play by their rules to hire professionals.

In areas where the local does NOT have enough members to "dominate the supply," it winds up being a situation where they focus on one or two large organizations, like professional orchestras, the bands at the local casino or concert venue, and kind of turn a blind eye to everything else. So a lot would depend on WHERE you're trying to do this. If you're in a big "industry town" for whatever kind of creative effort you're trying to do, expect a union to be a factor; not so much in smaller metro areas.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:42 PM on August 31, 2016

My experience is with the musician's union in a random midwest town. I belong to the union only because I have to in order to play certain union gigs. I play in non-union gigs, but they are mostly one offs. The reoccurring gig I have is a union gig that only hires union musicians. This is because there just aren't enough gigs for the union to be strong enough to control the source of musicians. So the union picks their battles where they want to strong arm into forcing union-only.

I'm supposed to have higher standards because I'm in the union and not play for free or cheap, but I do it anyway because really I don't care and I just want to play. To me, the union just eats some of my money from some of my gigs and they don't really offer me anything for it. Maybe if I were the best player on my instrument I'd be on a call sheet and might get work out of the union, but I'm not and I don't. The union gives me guidelines for how much I should get paid for things and how I should be treated, but I can make my own decisions and do what I want and other than pro-union lectures through email the union doesn't really do anything about it.
posted by cmm at 12:59 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's one big problem with your question, which is that this is different in different creative fields, and even within filmmaking, there are different unions and guilds which have different policies about things. Like, painters can paint as many paintings as they want. There's no "painter's union", and if there was, it probably wouldn't extend to pure creative endeavors not done on a for-profit basis. (I could see there being a Painters' Guild that applied collective bargaining techniques to agreements with wealthy patrons, but that's not germane to your actual question...)

But, OK, let's leave aside all other art forms and talk only about film. You want to make a short film for digital release. I'll go through each step in the process/type of participant and explain the situation.

1. Writing the script. Unless your script is an official commission by a television network, film studio, or certain production companies that are also signatory to the WGA contract, you do not need to be a member of the WGA (Writers' Guild Of America) in order to write a short film script, even if you definitely plan to produce it. Interestingly, even if your script is never actually produced, if you're hired by one of the aforementioned signatories, you MUST be a member in good standing (or, in certain cases, on the path to membership, but this is complicated and probably not relevant to you). Eligibility for WGA membership is connected to selling to or being hired by signatory companies, so it's actually pretty straightforward. If you need to be in, they'll let you in.

2. Directing. I don't know as much about eligibility for admission to the DGA as a director*, but much like the WGA, you really only need to worry about this if you are producing this short under the auspices of a signatory company like a studio. Your only real concern here is if you have a DGA member who wants to direct. But they will probably know what they need to do or if this is even allowed. I would cross this bridge when you come to it, considering that you are unlikely to come to it.

3. Crew. This is where it starts getting hairy. For a web short, you can probably just be "non-union", which means that your crew will range from skilled amateurs (a la a student film) to people who've worked on a non-union basis on a lot of different projects. If you're looking to put together a skeleton crew of friends, this will easily fall under "non-union". Nobody from any of the crew unions is going to be mad at you for not hiring union crew; you really only ruffle feathers if, as a union member, you take non-union jobs. Note that this means that if you were hoping to bring on your super talented DP friend, or you have a connection to an award winning production designer or sound mixer, you may not be able to use those people. This will depend on the specific union local's bylaws. So if you did have a connection who is a union member, check with them about whether this can work.

3a. Back to the DGA! Assistant Directors are members of the DGA, not the "crew unions" which are mostly IATSE. So they may have different rules. That said, there are lots of non-union ADs out there. It would probably be better to hire a non-union AD than try to get a DGA AD to work on a non-union project, but if you have a friend in mind discuss it with them, by all means. Like the other unions, the DGA isn't going to hunt you down for using non-union labor. Instead the onus is on members not to take non-union jobs.

4. Cast. This is where you might want to consider going union. Unlike the other guilds and unions, SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) is super serious about all types of filmed content coming under the rubric of SAG. Unlike some of the other unions, SAG has contracts for low-budget digital content. If you are in a major entertainment market, it can be hard to find talented actors who aren't already in SAG. However, the good news is that, right now, SAG actually doesn't have a "scale" rate of pay for their low budget digital contract, which means that you can 100% just go ahead and sign that, hire SAG actors, and pay them whatever you would have paid non-union actors. They know these projects don't make money and thus can't afford to pay the rates they charge major studios, they just want to be in the loop. And, like I said, if you're in a major market you're not going to find good actors who aren't in SAG, anyway. The main issue with becoming SAG-signatory is that it requires a lot of paperwork. But honestly it's not that hard, just complicated.

4a. What if some of your cast is SAG and some isn't? This happens a lot when you write a web series or short and want to star in it yourself, or you have an actor friend who wants to star in your project but isn't in SAG. In this case, the person in question is required to apply for SAG membership. (You can't be SAG-signatory but have some actors who are just not interested in going union.) This is done with something called a Taft-Hartley form. Submitting this makes the person "SAG-eligible", and on booking their next SAG-signatory job, they will be required to join SAG for real. You are only allowed to submit a certain number of Taft-Hartley forms per production, and I believe it's tied to the number of SAG cast members. If you're otherwise having a small cast, you may only have the option of casting one or two non-SAG actors. When you sign your SAG contract, you'll have a "SAG rep" who can explain this process to you if necessary.

5. Producers. In my experience, producers almost never have to worry about union issues. There is a Producers Guild a la the WGA and DGA, but it's not as powerful and you would never be required to join in order to produce a project of such a small scale. Traditionally, producers are more considered "management" and thus not really subject to organized labor agreements, anyway. Note that this is different for Production Managers (they're in the DGA, weirdly enough), but it's unlikely that a project of your scope would hire a Production Manager, anyway.


All of the above is true whether your project is professional or "just a hobby". Especially when it comes to SAG. You want a professional actor to be in your movie, the guild doesn't care whether this is just a hobby or what. You need to do right by the professionals you intend to hire. The other guilds kind of don't give a fuck if you're not a major production, but you really don't want to tangle with SAG. Especially since it's free to get in the clear with them, anyway.

Note that while independent film projects aren't necessarily subject to the above, if there's a strong chance that you will sell said independent project to one of the studios, networks, or production companies that is signatory to all the guilds and unions, you're going to want to be a union project. It just makes the whole process easier.

*The DGA also covers Assistant Directors, Casting Directors, and maybe a few other production positions I'm not thinking of right now. But let's leave those guys aside for the moment.
posted by Sara C. at 1:13 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

There are plenty of non-union productions out there, even on actual television and film

This is much less true than it was 20+ years ago. Nowadays non-union scripted TV is unheard of (and unscripted is starting to unionize, too), and non-union features tend to be ultra-indie arthouse films which have no prospects of ever going into formal distribution.

If you are doing this in New York or Los Angeles, you have almost no chance of finding well-qualified professional crew who aren't union members, because of the above. This is fine for a web project, but there just isn't the non-union labor market that there once was.
posted by Sara C. at 1:22 PM on August 31, 2016

It's so complicated.

It's not illegal or anything to make a non-union production, it's just a decision that affects what you can and can't do. You can go non-union - as you might if it's you and some friends and some maxed-out credit cards, so the union talent you've lost is talent you couldn't have afforded in the first place anyway. And you don't have a ton of moving parts, so you don't need to care about the benefits of using union crew - all the shit that's pre-negotiated, for example, things which do in fact prevent you from making people work 23 hours a day for a dollar, but when you have a cast and crew of 200 the rules save you from separately negotiating work hours for each of your 12 grips.

Though you can go union and qualify your production as Ultra Low Budget or Student or Short - this is also complicated, but basically it's union rules, modified to accommodate very little money. All the unions have some version of this. As far as I can tell nobody's in love with them, but it is good that it is a thing. More information, if you were in the mood to have a headache, here. But to do that, you'd have to even realize you were making Something up front, which in your hypothetical scenario maybe you don't know. Maybe you're just fucking around figuring out how a camera works.

There are ways to hire one or a few union members, but there are rules you'd have to follow. (I'm pretty sure the only reason the unions allowe this is so the union members can attempt to organize from within.) And SAG members make their own stuff all the time with pocket change and non-union members, by means of some kind of pinky swear that they aren't hiding big bags of production money under the couch while they do it. But if you were randomly making a thing, and you asked your friend who was SAG to be in it, they would have to tell you that there are rules you have to figure out and follow.

If you accidentally made a thing, and a network or studio or whoever - an entity with union obligations - loves it and wants to buy it, they deal with any retroactive stuff when they buy it. But if they have you make a sequel, it's going to be union and you will be in the union and your friends will be in the union.

If you are doing this in New York or Los Angeles, you have almost no chance of finding well-qualified professional crew who aren't union members

Which is not the same as it being impossible to hire quality crew, often for miserably cheap, because the bar to union membership is catch-22-y and it takes people a while to get there...and how you get there is by taking these jobs so you don't starve to death until you get there. There are lots of those people in LA.

But as long as you are not trying to force union-affiliated entities to do non-union things, yes you can take a camera out in your backyard and make a movie and then *underpants gnomes* and then profit, and at that point you can afford lawyers to figure it all out.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:18 PM on August 31, 2016

A good rule of thumb is: it's not so much about whether you as a producer are allowed to make a thing, it's more about whether they, as union members, are allowed to work with you on that thing.

The union I know most about is Actors' Equity. I was a stage manager for 10 years, and got my union card after 3 years. While I was non-union, I could have worked with any non-union theater production out there - but when I was with the Union, I wouldn't have been able to.

And what Lyn Never says is true about it being tough, but not impossible - 95% of the theater in New York, for one instance, works with the union, but there are non-Union shows - one longtime theater company was non-Union and still managed to attract a high calibre of talent and a solid reputation.

Also - and I'm speaking, er, hypothetically - if you have union-member friends who are down with what you're doing, and what you're doing sounds fun or is easy, sometimes they may be willing to do the work under assumed names just to give you a break. (Like, say a friend of mine needed a stage manager for just an afternoon at something that sounded just way too awesome, but she wasn't Union; if it was just an hour of my life, I may agree to do the job, but she'd just have to agree to call me "Nancy Drew" or whatever in the program instead of "EmpressCallipygos".)

Also, it may be worth calling the union that would impact what you're doing to see what their rules are. They may have some really simple contract that actually is dealable and covers what you're doing, so you can involve union talent. You may have to pay for things like insurance that you hadn't planned on, but there are so many different types of union contracts and deals and things that you actually may be able to find something you can do. And if not, then that's fine, it's just that you'll have a harder time finding union members who would work with you.

But it's not like SAG would arrest you for doing a Youtube video in your living room or anything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:29 PM on August 31, 2016

One slightly derailish point, have some kind of paperwork/release for everyone that contributes a visual or sound even if there is no chance ever of there being money involved, because if something clicks and there is something sold it may be possible to unravel the details. Hunt down boilerplate and promise something if lightning strikes.
posted by sammyo at 3:11 PM on August 31, 2016

Yes, you should have a deal memo for every crew member (even if it's unpaid) and an image release for every cast member. Regular cast -- people coming for every day of the shoot and/or future episodes if this is more of a series -- should get deal memos as well.
posted by Sara C. at 3:41 PM on August 31, 2016

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