Union vs. Non-Union: Know What You’re Getting Into

Making movies is an exercise in the art of making difficult compromises.

One of the biggest debates when making a film is whether to go union or non-union. This question is often dependent on budget. Bigger budget productions hire union cast and crew. Ultra low-budget films and student films usually favor non-union because they can’t afford to pay anyone. Seems simple. If you have the money, go union. But does union membership ensure quality?

Sometimes. For technical crew positions like sound or camera assistants, you know that a union professional has the expertise to get the job done, while a student or someone working to gain experience is more likely to fall short. For example, on a film I directed, a non-union camera assistant accidentally deleted a whole day’s footage. Fortunately, it turned out the story didn’t need the lost scenes, but I could’ve done without the emotional stress. It pays to go union when technical skill is critical. Getting your sister to do make-up may save you money but when that scar ends up looking like a waxy worm, you might regret it.

However, when choosing your closest collaborators, union status should be low on the list of deciding factors. With positions such as DP and Editor, many directors agree that beyond talent and experience, the most important thing to consider is rapport. If you don’t get along with your editor, post-production will not only be a drag, your artistic vision may be compromised. If on-set conflicts get so bad you have to fire your DP, you lose time and money. Choosing an AD is another delicate matter that’s more dependent on style than professional status. Are you motivated by someone who behaves like an adversary, yelling and pressuring to excess? Or would you work better with someone who has a more supportive approach?

According to Jay Stern, New York-based moviemaker and founder of Iron Mule Comedy Film Series, “You can tell in an interview or audition if an actor or a crew member is going to be a problem. And from my experience there are people who are problems, not unions.” The collaborative nature of moviemaking demands complementary visions and communication skills, qualities that have nothing to do with whether someone is union or non-union.

Actors generally are a mixed bag. You can get a terrible union actor or a brilliant non-union actor. When it comes to talent, many directors don’t care whether an actor is union or non-union. Yet Stern, who has worked with both union and non-union actors, finds it harder to find great quality non-union actors, especially older ones, now that SAG and AFTRA have merged. “But film is a unique medium,” Stern says. “Many movies, for example, Beasts of the Southern Wild, use non-professional actors to great effect. It might be more work for you as a director in some ways, but if you’re prepared for that then you can make it work.”

Choosing between union or non-union actors often comes down to fiscal priorities. If your goal is to cast name actors, you need to budget for that because unless Joe Pesci is your uncle, they won’t work for free. If you could care less about names and just want to make your arty film, don’t limit the casting to union actors. If a union actor auditions for a non-union film, he can still be cast. SAG actors are not supposed to work in non-union projects, yet many do anyway. The producer is not liable for the actor’s violation as long as it’s made clear that the production is non-union. Yet even with this freedom of choice, some indie moviemakers find dealing with SAG-AFTRA rules and regulations an expensive hassle.

In moviemaker Ben Feuer’s experience, SAG is “inflexible and does not understand (or care about) the limitations of Ultra Low-Budget filmmaking. Do you feel you should have to pay your actors their full day rate for an hour of rehearsal? SAG will make you do that. Do you think meetings about the film or ADR count as workdays? SAG does. They make a big deal of their Indie contracts but at the end of the day, SAG is still SAG, a governing body designed to bring studios to heel, and to them, you’re a smaller, less competent studio.”

Case in point? Educate yourself about SAG rules. If you don’t do your homework, you could end up shooting a 16-hour day and learn later you have to pay your actors four hours overtime.

If you think casting 100 percent non-union will avoid these problems, think again. Non-union doesn’t exclude productions from standard industry practice. Verbal agreements are legally binding, so if an actor sues a producer and takes him to court, the producer could end up paying according to a standard SAG or IATSE agreement. Feuer advises, “With non-union, remember that you make the rules. You know you’re going overtime? Put it in the contract. You don’t want to pay rehearsals? Get it in writing. Be thorough. Make sure they understand what they’re getting into.”

Legal issues aside, you can’t judge an actor’s talent or professionalism by her union card. Stern says, “You’d be hard pressed to be able to tell who is union and who is not when you watch (the) films. Non-union is not the same thing as non-professional.”

What about writers? Again, it comes down to weighing skill against cost. If you’re a director or producer wanting to team up with a writer who is a member of the guild, you better be informed about WGA policies and pray there isn’t a writers’ strike during your contract. As with SAG, WGA requires writers to work only for union companies. Since the WGA strike of 2007-2008, WGA writers are now entitled to a piece of digital revenue, which may be something to consider on an independent production.

Thinking about all these pros and cons can be overwhelming. Often a combination of union and non-union cast and crew works best, as long as you know what you’re getting into on both sides.

Moviemaker Michelle Cohen had an enlightening experience with a union crewmember who showed up on set the first day very jaded. “(He) had barely read the script and was simply coming in to do a job. He was so amazed by the generosity of spirit and the happy atmosphere that by the fourth day of shooting, he was baking cupcakes for the crew and quoting his favorite lines from the scenes!”

In the end, it boils down to hiring skilled people who have awareness and integrity. If you do that, union or non-union, your moviemaking experience—and vision—will be far less compromised. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2013. Featured image courtesy of @lifejustis.

3 Comments

  1. Jerry Oliver

    June 6, 2018 at 10:55 am

    I don’t understand. I’ve requested assistance in joining the union because I’ve been passed over for jobs because I’m not union, but every union rep I’ve talked to has encouraged me not to join (they say just get the job then apply for the union…but I can’t get the job because I’m not union.)

    I was planning on relocating to New York but because they won’t let me join I can’t really move to a place where union work is more common without knowing there’s availability. It’s very frustrating.

    • Jman Richards

      June 23, 2018 at 1:51 pm

      lmaoooo im union and im tryna land non union roles idgaf
      according to google

      “But film is a unique medium,” Stern says. … If a union actor auditions for a non-union film, he can still be cast. SAG actors are not supposed to work in non-union projects, yet many do anyway. The producer is not liable for the actor’s violation as long as it’s made clear that the production is non-union

      • Amanda_LA

        August 10, 2018 at 4:45 pm

        This is correct in that the actor is liable, not the producer. However, as someone on the production side, it can really screw you over if you book a union actor on a non-union show because when the time comes to do any promotion for it that actor won’t want to do it (understandably) and the show can suffer. Plus, it can bring unwelcome union attention to the production company – the union can decide that the company is engaging in shady business and put out a “do not work” order to the other union members. So in the immediate, a union actor working a non-union gig isn’t a big deal. But if the project is of any note or becomes successful, it can become a huge problem in the longer term. Hope this helps!

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