Will the pressure of Hollywood film producers for a union succeed?
The low-budget satirical drama “Dear White People” garnered critical acclaim, grossed nearly $ 5 million in theaters in 2014, and spawned a television series.
But making the film stretched veteran independent producer Effie T. Brown so much that she almost lost her home.
Over two years, the Echo Park resident said she made just $ 40,000 working on the film, which cost around $ 1 million to make, despite its development, casting and delivery. on time and on budget to the Lionsgate Distributor.
Brown is one of more than 100 feature film producers who recently ratified forming a new union that they hope will provide the kind of basic health care, compensation and protections most others offer. Hollywood union workers.
“My story is nothing fancy,” said Brown, vice president of the newly formed producers’ union. She had a similar experience with the award-winning 2002 film “Real Women Have Curves,” which was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance.
“People say, ‘Well you don’t earn your money up front, you will earn it in the background,” Brown said. “It’s been 20 years. I saw zero dollars.
Brown and other producers say a variety of factors have made it harder for them to make a living. The consolidation of studios and the rise of streaming have changed the economics of the industry, eliminating or eroding their share of so-called backend profits, with the money being divided once expenses are recouped (a form of Hollywood accounting that often goes wrong). ‘subject of litigation).
And, unlike almost everyone else in the cast and crew, the producers do not have a union that guarantees a minimum level of pay and employer contributions to health care and pension plans, a situation magnified when of the COVID-19 pandemic, which interrupted production.
Although the award of the ‘produced by’ credit has been the subject of controversy over the years – a long-sought certification process was only recognized by major studios in 2013 – producers play a role. essential in managing all aspects of a project from the start. finish. This can involve developing a movie, hiring directors, writers, and other producers, finding funders, creating a budget, managing costs, and being on set full-time to see the movie. image delivered on time and on budget.
More than half of producers never see backend compensation, and 70% of respondents last year said they were asked to defer fees to more than two projects, according to the Producers Union study of 550 longs. US-based footage. and documentary producers.
The survey found that 56% of respondents made $ 25,000 or less producing in 2020, up from 41% in 2019, and most said producing was not a sustainable career. Typically, producers spend an average of $ 9,000 out of pocket per project, according to the survey.
As more films end up being shown on streaming platforms rather than theaters, producers argue that the pressure often falls on them to reduce their costs.
“We’re not trying to buy multiple homes,” Brown said. “I just don’t want to be poor. I want to be able to put gas in my car.
Currently, the main representative body for producers is the Producers Guild of America, which has expressed support for the union.
Established in 1950, the PGA has over 8,000 members and has successfully led the effort to establish “produced by” credit. However, the professional non-profit organization lacks collective bargaining power despite repeated efforts to organize, dating back to the 1960s.
The California Court of Appeals in 1974 struck down the last industry-wide PGA contract. The PGA attempted to unionize in 1983 and took its case to the National Labor Relations Board, which dismissed the petition, determining that the directors, officers and members of its PGA bargaining committee were considered employers. -producers. The national labor relations law did not allow union organizers to sit on both sides of the bargaining table, the council argued.
This time the producers are using a different strategy. Instead of forming a traditional union, they form a management union similar to those who represent the police. These unions rely on employers, rather than the NLRB, to recognize them.
But they face an uphill battle.
“In 1983, the National Labor Relations Board determined that producers are supervisors and / or managers and therefore do not have the right to form a collective bargaining unit. Nothing that has happened since has altered that determination, ”said Jarryd Gonzales, spokesperson for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major Hollywood studios, including Walt Disney, as well as the corporations. streaming media from Amazon and Apple.
Chris Moore, Treasurer of the Producers’ Union and producer of the hit films “Good Will Hunting” and “American Pie”, is not discouraged.
“The whole economy of the film industry has been built on success,” Moore said. “We all agree to do things below the market rate on the assumption that what we do will be successful. The biggest thing that has changed is that with streaming there is no success. “
He quotes “Manchester by the Sea”, which made Amazon the first streaming service to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Moore, one of the five producers of the 2016 dark drama, said he was unable to take advantage of the loot.
Because the film was risky, Moore said, he agreed to waive his fees, betting on future profit sharing instead. That pay didn’t come after Amazon bought the domestic distribution rights for around $ 10 million.
The film, which cost around $ 9 million to make, was a critical and commercial success, winning two Oscars and generating $ 79 million in box office sales, according to IMDb.
Despite the film’s success, Moore estimates that he made less than $ 1 an hour in total during the seven years he spent on the film.
“If 2 million people watch ‘Manchester by the Sea’ on Amazon, or if one person watches, we get the same amount of money,” said Moore, 54. “These films that are well made are pushed and carried by producers who are not remunerated in a sustainable way for their efforts.
Determined to fix the problem, Moore teamed up with producer Rebecca Green in the fall of 2019 to organize the union effort. After a year and a half of meetings with colleagues, 108 film producers ratified a constitution for the group in March and elected its first leaders. Now they are crafting a basic deal that will be presented to studios, networks and finance companies.
The cause was also personal to Green. The Detroit-based filmmaker had critical success with the 2014 horror thriller “It Follows,” released in the US via Radius-TWC. “People would think, ‘She must have done a murder.’ I can tell you this movie didn’t pay my bills, ”Green said. “I kind of hit a point of frustration. I started asking some of my colleagues, “Do you know why we don’t have a union?
The 42-year-old said she received an initial fee of $ 15,000 for ‘It Follows’ and was just one of two producers the PGA recognized for possible awards ( the film had four producers in total). The film generated nearly $ 23 million in ticket sales and had a budget of $ 2 million, according to researcher The Numbers. Green received a few thousand dollars of her deferred fees and no backend compensation, she said.
Another problem, according to producers, is that actors, writers, directors and managers increasingly see production credit on a film as a means of having control, a share of the profits and a gateway to recognition of rewards. He was the producer of a film that won the coveted Oscar for Best Picture.
“We all have to share our fees and credits with a host of other people who are not really responsible for the work.” said Lynette Howell Taylor, a veteran producer nominated for Best Picture for “A Star Is Born” in 2018.
By improving producer pay, organizers hope the union will also help attract and support more diverse filmmakers.
The producers of feature films are predominantly white, a majority of women and a majority of them in their forties, according to the union’s investigation. About 10% of the respondents were Asian or Asian American, 6.4% were Hispanic or Latino, 4.9% were Black or African American, and 1.5% were Native Americans. Only 4.1% reported having a disability.
“A lot of us are women … and people of color trying to get our stories told, and if you think misogyny and racism and all of that don’t hit producers, it absolutely is,” Brown said. , which has been producing for 25 years. “We are not complaining. We are not looking for a document. We just want equality and consideration.
She hopes the pressure on Hollywood to be more inclusive will force employers to recognize the union.
“Now might be a good time because people are talking about inclusiveness, equality and fairness,” Brown said. “I think we’re at a point where we can do it now. I feel hopeful.