A group of over 100 feature film producers have announced their intention to form a labor union. The group is led by producer Rebecca Green (“It Follows”), who says the time is right for this move. She notes that survey data revealed that 25% of US producers earned less than $2,500 from producing work in 2020. The goal of the Producers Union would be to bargain collectively with studios, networks and streamers.
This would not be the first organizing attempt by producers. In 1974, the California Court of Appeals declared that the Producers Guild of America could not be recognized as a labor union because its leaders were also the owners of the production companies with which the PGA was negotiating. Knopf v. Producers Guild of America, 40 Cal. App. 3d 233 (1974). The PGA has operated since as a trade organization but has announced that it supports the Producers Union in its attempt to obtain recognition as a union.
The Producers Union is employing a number of strategies to avoid the fate of the PGA. The group will be organizing as a supervisory union. Supervisors are permitted to organize and bargain, even though they are not subject to certification by the NLRB. It will focus initially on feature film producers to the exclusion of documentary and television producers. This decision is partly due to practical considerations arising out of limited resources. The needs of documentary and TV producers are different from those of feature producers, which the Producers Union organizers can hope to address at a later date. In so doing, the leaders of the Producers Union also sidestep a potentially nasty jurisdictional dispute with the Writers Guild of America, which represents television writer-producers. The Producers Union has good reason to avoid this dispute. The WGA financed the plaintiff, Christopher Knopf, in the case that led to the decertification of the PGA. Knopf himself was a past president of the WGA.
The Producers Union is also looking for members principally from the ranks of producers for independent studios rather than from the majors. Producers employed by the majors are more in the business of financing and distribution and are easier to classify as management. As the Producers Union treasurer Chris Moore puts it, “that doesn’t always overlap with our definition of a producer: the person tasked with finding the project, finding the funding and making sure it gets done on-time and on-budget.”
If history is a guide, if the new union organizes successfully, we can expect its initial push to be to establish mandatory pension and health contributions and perhaps set aside the issue of minimum wage scales for another day. This was certainly the approach of the other above-the-line unions when they sought to expand their jurisdiction into new media. It makes particular sense for the independent producers that the Producers Union is seeking as members. The work they do developing and financing projects is on their own account. Their fees are often not determined until a project is greenlit for production and they are engaged by the financing studio, at which point their fee is negotiated based on the budget among many other factors that would be difficult to set by reference to a schedule of minimums.