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, above, 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 you’re 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.