There’s a new union in town: the Producers Union, which is the first all-new Hollywood labor union to be formed in decades.
More than 100 indie feature filmmakers have unanimously ratified its constitution, and more than 300 have signed letters of intent to join. “After decades of working without basic protections, low and/or inconsistent wages, no employer healthcare contributions and an industry insistence that they should work for free to demonstrate their commitment, film producers are taking a stand,” organizers said in a statement.
The Producers Union website launches today.
Rebecca Green is the new union’s first president. Green, whose producing credits include It Follows and I’ll See You in My Dreams, is the founder and editor-in-chief of Dear Producer, a website designed “to challenge archaic business models that stifle diverse and original voices and to advocate for innovation, transparency, and fiscal responsibility from our industry.”
She teamed up with Oscar-nominated producer Chris Moore (Manchester by the Sea), the new union’s treasurer, to begin the organizing efforts in 2019 and formed an exploratory committee of 24 producers, which evolved into a nine-member steering committee. The need for a union, they say, became more pressing in 2020 as the pandemic shut down productions and upended festivals and theatrical markets.
Many of its leaders are members of the Producers Guild of America, but the PGA is a trade association, not a union that collectively bargains for its members. The PGA, they say, is supporting their efforts to gain recognition from employers and sign their first contract.
As for that first contract, Moore said: “It remains to be seen who will talk to us. My gut is that [management’s] AMPTP is going to be the last group that will want to talk to us. We’re not big enough for that yet. I think at first it’s going to be project by project, company by company.” Right now, he said, “We’re just trying to get health care and minimums for individual producers. But it would be nice if the AMPTP would say, ‘That’s a good idea. Let’s negotiate.’ We’re certainly going to try, but we have not built our strategy around starting with them.”
Moore said that when the guilds – SAG, the DGA and the old Screen Writers Guild – were formed in the 1930s, “The producers weren’t a part of it because the industry was structured very differently. The role of producer was much more the owner-manager of the project. That’s why the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has the word ‘Producer’ in it. And they’ve become distributors and networks and financiers. But there’s still the role of the person who’s actually doing the work; finding the movie, getting it paid for, and delivering it on time and on budget. And that’s a role that’s also called a producer.”
The Producers Guild of America once had been an actual union, recognized as such for several years by the AMPTP before the California Court of Appeals stripped it of union status in 1974 as the result of a lawsuit financed by the WGA West, which represents writer-producers even though it doesn’t bargain for them as producers. That case was known as Knopf vs. Producers Guild of America, and its lead plaintiff was Christopher Knopf, a former president of the WGA West.
The main issue was whether the members of the PGA were employers, and thus not eligible to unionize. The appellate court ruled that “The uncontradicted facts showing that the overwhelming majority of all PGA officials having any power or authority with respect to the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement were ‘employer-producers,’ establish as a matter of law that PGA was ‘interfered with or dominated or controlled’ by employers within the meaning” of the state’s Labor Code.
You can read the Knopf ruling here.
Asked if he’s familiar with the case, Moore laughed. “I sure am. I did a dramatic reading of it for our executive board,” he said. “And that’s why we’ve been working hand-in-hand with the Producers Guild, because they were part of that. And some of those factors about producers being management are still a factor, but there’s a new category that we’re going directly after which is called a supervisory union – which is a group of people who can collectively bargain, but acknowledge that they have some management role, but they’re still employees.” Then he added: “Personally, I think the court made the wrong decision.”
He said that outgoing PGA national executive director Vance Van Petten, who’s set to step down soon, and Susan Sprung, who holds the same title and is the guild’s new leader – have both been supportive. “Vance was the one who sent me that legal information about Knopf, and Susan, who’s the new head – she and I and Rebecca talk – and they want health care and minimums for producers also. They represent a much larger group of producers, and we have picked this very small group of feature film producers to start out with, because it’s a hard conversation.”
Organizers addressed the issue of “supervisory” union in a series of frequently answered questions. “As producers, we may be ‘supervisors’ under the National Labor Relations Act and, as such, would be excluded from the protections of federal labor law. However, the right to self-organize and select a bargaining representative are fundamental rights predating the existence of any labor relations laws. The Supreme Court has recognized that supervisors have fundamental labor rights that exist independent of federal labor laws. So, while we would not be protected by the NLRA, we have an independent right to form a union.
“The PGA attempted to organize in the early 1970s but were shut down by the courts because at the time, the PGA’s directors, officers and members of its negotiating committee were considered employer-producers and the National Labor Relations Act does not allow union organizers to sit on both sides of the bargaining table. Because of this, and at the recommendation of our lawyer, we have chosen to move forward as a union of supervisors without seeking certification under the NLRA. It is up to us and our collective efforts to convince employers to recognize our Union.
“In addition to navigating labor laws, the biggest hurdle in forming a Union has been defining the role of the producer. The role has been sliced up in endless ways over the decades and the lack of a clear definition of what a producer does has greatly hurt the profession. What we have set out to do is define the role of the producer in a way that is both forward-thinking, to accommodate the ever-changing landscape, and also specific to the work we do.”
Green, who was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in 2016, conducted a survey on her Dear Producer website to gauge he concerns of her fellow indie producers. The survey of 474 respondents – more than half of whom are women – found that in 2019, 41% of producers earned just $25,000 or less from producing. And things only got worse during the pandemic. “I can tell you that the state of producing since 10 years ago only keeps getting worse,” said Green, who has been producing since 2010.
“We found that more than 44% of producers in the U.S. – almost half – weren’t able to make a living from producing in 2020,” she said. “That is beyond unacceptable and unsustainable given the time and energy producers give to each project. And that percentage represents experienced producers, many of whom had films debut at major festivals or had success at the box office. The survey showed that even before the pandemic, producers could not support themselves on their producing income alone.”
Among the survey’s key findings:
• In 2019, 64% of producers said they earned their primary income through producing. In 2020, the proportion dropped to 56%.
• In 2019, 30% of respondents reported an income of $50,000 or less from all sources, including producing. In 2020, nearly 42% reported an income of $50,000 or less.
• In 2019, 41% of respondents earned $25,000 or less exclusively from producing. In 2020, income from producing dropped significantly, with 56% of respondents earning $25,000 or less.
• More than a quarter of respondents earned less than $2,500 from producing in 2020.
• More than 80% of respondents have had to defer their producing fee on at least one project, with nearly 50% deferring their fee on multiple projects.
Asked why the Producers Union is being formed now, Green told Deadline: “For me, it’s personal. I love my work and think the role of the producer is really vital in our industry, and yet a decade into my career, I do not support myself fully on producing. I have to take other jobs and teach, and it is not a career, from a financial standpoint. And that is the same story for all of my colleagues.”
“We often forget,” she said, “that filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler and Chloé Zhao – we know their big movies – but may forget the films they made on the indie level with their indie producer collaborators. So to me, the role is really important in building talent and finding new filmmakers, and we’re really feeding the studios a pipeline of amazing filmmakers that are in our training ground in the indie space. And I think that work should be compensated.
“As someone who very much believes in workers’ rights and equitable pay, we’re the only people on a project who don’t have a collective bargaining organization for that. For myself, and the majority of my colleagues, we’re at a certain point where you sort of grow out of the space of being able to work for free – and then what? I believe in the role, and in order for the role to continue in our industry, we need to be supporting producers.”
“As for why now,” she added, “there’s a huge conversation about inclusion and diversity in our industry, and if you have to be able to work for free to produce, what does that say about who gets to make films? It’s people who have financial sustainability through their family or a partner to be able to do it, and it absolutely is a systematic issue and why we are still having diversity and inclusion issues in our industry. So to me, you can’t really talk about diversity and inclusion without talking about compensation. And that’s been a big driver of the producers who are involved in this.”
“Rebecca and I came together two years ago, and we come from very different places,” Moore said. “I probably represent the old-school producer, in that the talent I came up with, like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, we stayed together; we moved up together. We were creating projects, and I made a career out of finding scripts that people turned into movies that didn’t have to be based on a book or a comic book hero. We did our own original screenplays. But the industry has changed. I’ve taught classes at NYU and AFI, and right now, when young people come up to me and ask if they should try to make a career out of producing, I say no, because I’m not sure if this is a sustainable business unless something like this happens. Because the industry doesn’t do that the way it used to. Rebecca is totally right. Producers are just being left out there, being squeezed on all sides. And I think that’s what collective bargaining in America was designed to protect.”
Collective bargaining would permit producers to come together as a unit to negotiate contracts with employers to ensure the work of the producer is not exploited. Monique Walton, producer of Bull and a member of the Producers Union’s executive committee said that “The more immediate, yet somewhat intangible, benefit of the Producers Union will be the ability to respond to the rapid industry shifts happening with one collective voice, ensuring that producers are part of any conversations that affects their futures.”
Producer Kishori Rajan (The Short History of the Long Road), who’s also a member of the executive committee, said that “Independent producers often work with first time directors, cultivating new talent before they have agent representation or management,” noting that that is just one aspect of what producers contribute that often goes uncredited and uncompensated. “Today’s producer is responsible for developing intellectual property alongside the director, often for years, raising financing, managing budgets, overseeing production, and delivering the completed film to the distributor after a sale.”
The new union is currently open only to producers of feature films, but plans to expand its membership to also include producers of documentaries and TV shows. “We understand that producers in all areas of content creation deserve the protections of a union and our goal is to eventually include documentary and television producers,” organizers said in their frequently asked questions. “Each different type of producer will have different needs. Because of this, we chose to be very specific in our work with the assumption that we could get off the ground faster if we focused on one type of producer first. Once we have industry support, we can decide whether to expand our reach.”
The union will have two different types of membership status: professional membership for those who have produced two or more feature-length, scripted motion pictures, and emerging membership for those who have produced only one feature-length, scripted motion picture. Eligibility, rights and privileges differ for each type of membership.
All the FAQs can be seen here.
Here’s the new union’s executive committee:
Rebecca Green, president
Effie T. Brown, vice president
Monique Walton, vice president, emerging producers
Avril Z. Speaks, secretary
Chris Moore, treasurer
Lucas Joaquin, at-large officer
Amanda Marshall, at-large officer
Gabrielle Nadig, at-large officer
Heather Rae, at-large officer
Kishori Rajan, at-large officer
Robert Salerno, at-large officer
In Hollywood, there’s a union for almost everyone – and now there’s one for producers, as well. Founded in 1893, IATSE is the entertainment industry’s oldest union. The American Federation of Musicians was formed three years later, followed by Actors’ Equity in 1913. The old Screen Writers Guild was formed in 1921, merged with the Authors Guild in 1933, and became the modern day WGA West and WGA East in 1954.
The Screen Actors Guild was founded in 1933, and the Directors Guild three years later. SAG merged with AFTRA in 2012 to become SAG-AFTRA. The American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA) was founded in 1937, and with the advent of television, became the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) in 1952.
The Editors Guild, IATSE Local 700, was founded in 1937; the Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839, in 1952, and Script Supervisors, IATSE Local 871, in 1958. The International Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600, was founded in 1996 with the merger of IATSE Camera Locals in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, which, like many of IATSE’s other production locals, had been around since the silent movie days.