Are you curious about the union? This blog is a continuation of my previous entry on how you get into the Motion Picture Editors Guild. I thought it would be a good idea to provide a little insight into getting into the union. What I didn’t realize is that it would devolve into an entire diatribe about the state of the Editors Guild in the larger Hollywood perspective. So I packed my first entry with information, and saved the rant for here. I guess I figured that it would be a good idea to keep my thoughts organized, no?
These days, so much editing work in Hollywood is non-union. You can find nearly any type of production being done without the protections of the Editors Guild. But why is this, you ask? This is due cheifly to the introduction of inexpensive editing systems in the last ten years. Experience aside, one once needed access to extremely pricey equipment to be able to hone one’s skills and practice as an editor. This provided an extra barrier to entry for anyone trying to get into the business. With the introduction of Avid and Lightworks and then Final Cut Pro, it has become easy for any person with about $5000 to be able to create a broadcast-capable editing system. Now, all people need are talent, skill, and connections. (He says, as if it was nothing.) That has made it easy for young kids in high school and college (I’m speaking about yours truly and many following after me) to learn the skill of editing quite easily.
This situation has created a problem for the union because, given its current setup, its members maintain no monopoly on any tangible skill anymore. Unlike the other Hollywood unions such as SAG or the DGA, the Editors Guild places no requirement on its members to only work on union productions. In order to maintain your benefits, a union member must work 300 hours every six months. (Here is a link explaining the requirements.) This is a double-edged sword, because it allows union members to take advantage of all the non-union work but sometimes have to choose less union work over more non-union work. You can be a member in good standing but not be given benefits based on the fact that you have not enough hours in your given six-month window. Now, you can “bank” hours, which means that you can keep some of your hours if you work more than the 300, but it’s not that simple because the bank is limited to 450 hours, meaning that you can really only keep your benefits for another six months without a union gig of at least 3-4 weeks. Not as easy as it seems, is it?
When it comes to getting non-union work, I have seen more better-paying jobs as an assistant editor there than I have working union. Typically, I do independently-financed union features, and that work typically comes with depressed budgets and depressed rates. Granted, at least these productions are union projects, where I can work for a depressed rate but still get my union hours, but the grass is not necessarily greener on the union side. Other work, like reality TV and award shows, can be well-compensating but not pay into your benefits at all. And thus, I am constantly left with a dilemma. Recently, I turned down a large amount of non-union work for a smaller amount of union work, because its cheaper in the long run to not pay for my own individual health insurance. But its only getting harder to make those choices. Starting in August 2011, a union member must work 400 hours to maintain benefits!
In today’s post-production reality, it does make sense how the union has positioned itself. Their allowance for union members to work non-union without penalty has allowed me to keep working union but not lose out on all my previous connections. This is good. However, this has only contributed to the union’s increasing irrelevance in this town. Unless the project is a high-profile film or scripted television show, it is almost certainly non-union. American Idol, the biggest show on TV right now, is non-union. The biggest producers of reality television right now are non-union. Many of the biggest post-production houses in Los Angeles are non-union. And union people will take those jobs because they pay. I am no fan of this. Let it be said, though, that all I am trying to do is make clear the realities to people who are looking at joining the union. I don’t know how to fix this. I just know I wish I could keep my benefits and be able to pay my bills. Sometimes I wonder if that will ever come to pass.