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Union Question

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Daniel Stone
Union Question
on Jan 11, 2011 at 2:41:01 am

We're producing a spot for an agency who is a union signatory which, I'm assuming, means we have to use union talent. Ugh.

Can anyone tell me what's involved for us with hiring union talent? I've heard I have to sign a contract with a union for the project and hire a payroll company to pay the talent and royalties to the union. Seems like a lot of pain for one performer.

Thanks guys!


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Cory Petkovsek
Re: Union Question
on Jan 11, 2011 at 3:10:13 am
Last Edited By Cory Petkovsek on Nov 5, 2014 at 11:39:52 am

I would ask your questions of the agency/client. If the talent is a union member you may need to sign the project into a union contract. However not necessarily. It will depend on your client and the talent. If the talent is not chosen and the client doesn't mind, you may be able to work with non-union talent.


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Bill Davis
Re: Union Question
on Jan 11, 2011 at 6:07:42 am

Yeah, the union issue is typically quite a bit more complicated than people new to the industry expect.

A union signatory actor pays their union dues and give up particular rights in negotiations with employers (fully self directed compensation decisions, for example.) in exchange for particular protections (union negotiated terms in payment, working conditions, and extra protection from industry abuse.)

To get the basics do a web search for SAG and AFTRA contract info. You might also look up the Taft- Hartley labor provisions. When a NON union talent is desired on a union job - those provisions allow them to work under some strict limitations without a union contract.

It DOES all get pretty complicated. But if you're going to be in the business for a long time - and want to move up to bigger and bigger projects - this stuff WILL come up eventually.

BTW, you don't say where you are, but your location also can be important in these circumstances. For example, some states have "right to work" laws that make it ILLEGAL for a company to REQUIRE union membership in order to secure work.

That doesn't at all mean that a talent can't fully demand union terms regardless of any state or local laws - all work, after all, is fundamentally a negotiation between private parties, the union becomes a party only because one or more of the parties choses to bring them into the mix.

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Mark Suszko
Re: Union Question
on Jan 11, 2011 at 3:15:57 pm

An outside payroll company might not be a hard and fast requirement: a lot of times they are contracted to handle things just because it is easier than the production company having to keep all the arcana straight. It is kind of specialized accounting work, and an in-house accountant without specfic industry knowledge may not know every little nuance. You are paying the outside payroll company for peace of mind.

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Nick Griffin
Re: Union Question
on Jan 11, 2011 at 3:42:43 pm

[Mark Suszko] "You are paying the outside payroll company for peace of mind."

And you are paying the payroll company's fees so you don't have to withold the taxes and have the IRS and state tax authorities treat you as the talent's employer. One alternative is to use talent who has their own production company and therefore you employ the company and they employ the talent.

None of this is simple or inexpensive, but in the long run that's how you get to work with the best talent and once you get into using union talent you will quickly find that, far more often than not, they are much better than non-union talent. (IMHO.)

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Mark Suszko
Re: Union Question
on Jan 11, 2011 at 5:55:39 pm

I do a lot of training type videos where sometimes scenarios have to be demonstrated with people interacting. I have found that the extra expense for paid actors, versus "volunteers" is always a good investment, and it actually SAVES the production money vesus using "free" talent.

The real pro actors deliver lines convincingly and consistently over multiple takes, and make far fewer continuity errors. This lets me save the cost of a second camera and just shoot single-cam to get all my needed scenes. With amateur or volunteer talent, you can never be sure you'll get the same performance, so I back-stop myself by shooting a second camera on a wide, safety shot, to make editing easier later. That is additional camera cost, double the footage shot, and more time in post.

Pro talent is quick to adapt to changing situations and they have improv skills. With the volunteers, if it isn't on the page, you will never get "it", and sometimes you don't even get *that* much. Pros make a director's life easier because they already understand blocking and positioning and tend to position themselves right from the start. They don't flub lines and they deliver them clearly. They can be more than one character, and modulate the personality and emotions of that persona. Volunteers generally can only play one character: themselves.

All these things pro talent can do save time in production and post, and time=money.

Pro, paid talent is an investment in success, not a cost.

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Patrick Ortman
Re: Union Question
on Jan 11, 2011 at 6:34:14 pm

Agreed, Mark- but please be careful to make the distinction that being in SAG or AFTRA doesn't necessarily make one a professional. There's over 30,000 union actors in LA, and frankly a lot of them are pretty bad (of course, many are very good).

One can find excellent actors in SAG or AFTRA, and one can find excellent actors who are non-Union. But whoever one hires, I do strongly suggest that they take their craft seriously and have training (including on-camera) training under their belts.

Also, Taft-Hartleying a performer who isn't a union member to work on a union shoot isn't as big a deal as some people make it out to be. Finding the right performer for the role is the tough part.

Finally, just a thought- the agency is the signatory, not you. So, wouldn't they handle all of the paperwork and payment, etc.? In my limited experience with advertising agencies, that's how it worked.

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