Film Producers Seek to Unionize to Address Low Pay

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A group of 108 film producers announced Thursday that they are seeking to form a union, as they aim to address low pay and skimpy health care benefits.

Calling itself the Producers Union, the group wants to negotiate a minimum basic agreement that will provide health benefits and set a floor for producer fees.

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“We’re one of the very few people on a set that don’t have a union,” said Rebecca Green, producer of “It Follows” and the lead organizer of the group. “We’re seen as the ones making all the money. But the majority of producers are really struggling to pay their bills.”

Producers are considered supervisors or employers under the law, which creates enormous hurdles to any effort to organize. The Producers Guild of America — which represents 8,000 members — fought over a span of decades to represent producers in labor negotiations with the studios. But those efforts were thwarted by the courts and the National Labor Relations Board, which held that producers are not covered by federal labor law. The PGA operates instead as a non-profit trade association, with no authority to bargain on behalf of its members.

Green and Chris Moore, producer of “Manchester by the Sea” and “American Pie,” argued that the traditional image of a movie producer does not match the current reality for most producers, and that the time has come to give unionization another shot.

Green is editor-in-chief of Dear Producer, which released a survey earlier this year showing that 41% of producers made less than $25,000 in 2019.

“There’s a drive for budgets to go lower,” Moore said. “The main line item they go after is the producer fee, because we are not collectively represented. Nobody really wants to go make something without a producer, but they want that person to do it for free. We’ve gotten to the place where some of us have undercut each other.”

Green argued that the precarious economic situation for producers, especially when they’re starting out, limits the diversity of voices in the profession. The survey of 474 respondents showed that 79% of producers are white, 10% are Asian, 6.4% are Latino and just 4.9% are Black.

The group has adopted a constitution, which sets minimum eligibility thresholds, and also sets a lower threshold for “emerging” producers. The constitution also forbids members from working on non-Producers Union projects, once a basic agreement is in place. It also sets dues levels and provisions for diversity and inclusion.

The group will not go through the standard NLRB process, due to the legal obstacles to that route. Instead, it will seek recognition directly from financiers and distributors.

The PGA formed as the Screen Producers Guild in 1950, but did not attempt to engage in collective bargaining with the studios until the late 1960s. In 1968, the guild reached an agreement on an industry-wide contract with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The deal provided pay and benefits for producers that were comparable to the terms offered to the Directors Guild of America.

But the Writers Guild of America raised objections to the PGA’s authority to represent writer-producers, and a lengthy court battle ensued. The California Court of Appeal invalidated the PGA agreement in 1974, finding that the PGA was dominated by producers who had an ownership stake in their production companies, and who were thus employers.

In 1983, PGA petitioned to the NLRB for the right to unionize. A group of producers argued at a hearing that they were actually employees, and should be afforded rights under the National Labor Relations Act. But the NLRB administrator ruled that the producers acted as an arm of the employers, and often shared in the profits. He denied the petition, and an appeal was rejected.

The PGA joined forces with the Teamsters in 1985 in another bid for union recognition. The producers threatened to go on strike, and was able to force the studios to negotiate. In a compromise, the AMPTP agreed to provide pension and health benefits, but did not recognize the PGA as a bargaining unit. PGA members who work at least 600 hours in a six-month period on union projects on the West Coast are eligible to participate in the Motion Picture Industry health plan.

A spokesperson for the Producers Union noted that the offering is extremely limited. Only three of the 474 respondents in the Dear Producer survey reported that they got their health care through the MPI plan.

“We’re happy some can cover themselves, but this is not a true healthcare plan,” the spokesperson said.

In a statement, the PGA noted the roadblocks it had encountered in seeking union recognition. But it also noted that it remains committed to the best interest of its members, including seeking better working conditions. “Consistent with that, the Guild supports the efforts of those producers who, today, have sought to form a new union,” the PGA said.

Green also contested the notion that she is an employer. She said that her deals with financiers are all work-for-hire, and she does not have an ownership stake when a film is produced.

“We’re trying to shift the narrative and perception of who we are,” she said.

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