While watching a movie, have you ever noticed certain logos or acronyms in the credits? Sure, there’s plenty of those from companies and such, but some of them are also from societies, guilds, and unions. There’s also a good chance, if you have dabbled in some area of serious movie making, you have learned about a movie union. But what is a movie union, where did they come from, and what do they do?
Movie Union Definition
Explaining movie unions
Unions have been around for a very long time, as they date back to the (First) Industrial Revolution. When applied to the film industry, the concept and basic idea of a union does not change too much. Thus the main components that make a union are intact and adapted to the world of making movies.
MOVIE UNIONS DEFINITION
What is a movie union?
A movie union, also known as a film union, or just a union, is an organized group of professionals that looks after its members. This can include making sure contracts are fair, that they are getting paid fair wages, that they are being treated well, and that they are working the right amount of hours. Movie unions are a huge part of the industry, with a few of them being extremely well known and basically requiring you to join, depending on what you do or plan to do in the industry.
Unions vs Guilds and Societies:
It should be noted that unions, guilds, and societies are all separate groups, each one with its own requirements and advantages. That said, some very prominent unions have “guild” in their name.
The most notable thing a guild or society offers is an organization to be a part of that has history and connections, along with some benefits. However, as a member of a guild or society, you are not as protected as you would be if you were in a union. In that respect, guilds and societies are like clubs; you can benefit from being in one, but you may not be as protected.
Movie Union Characteristics:
- Organized group that looks after its members
- Allows you to practice collective bargaining and make sure you are being treated fairly
- Paying fees and making sure you’re working on union-approved projects to stay in the union.
Movie Union History
History of movie unions
The definition of a movie union already gets you half-way to understanding what they are and their importance. To fill in some gaps, we’ll go over a brief history of how unions as a whole came to be.
Essentially, film unions came about because workers were being treated poorly during the opening stages of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom. Many unions tried to stay open while governments and businesses tried to shut them down. Eventually unions became legal, and other countries followed suit in allowing unions. You can learn a lot more about this in the video below.
Unionization allows for a collective group of employees to organize and protect one another from the higher ups who might otherwise take advantage of them. This is how the eight-hour work day came to be, along with other standard work practices that we have today.
That said, not many people actually belong to a union, especially in the USA (it varies across the world). Membership to a union was never that high — the peak was over one-third of the American workforce — the emerging middle class dwindled those numbers.
In the world of cinema, unions are still very much a thing. It could be because making movies is, ironically, not restricted to a regular 9-to-5, eight-hour work day. Regardless, most people working in Hollywood are part of a union.
Many of the “guilds” in Hollywood were created for the reason of protecting writers, actors, and directors. The 1930s saw the creation of the Screen Actors Guild (which was integrated with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in 2012), Screen Writers Guild (now the Writers Guild of America, West or East), and the Directors Guild of America.
Some of these definitely started as “guilds,” but they are now all certified film unions that you can be a part of. In the next section, we'll review all of the major movie unions and film professional associations and who they serve.
Movie Union Examples
List of movie unions
Each listed movie union below comes with a link to their site embedded in the text; in some cases, we provide more links if the union has separate divisions.
Note: All of the following are film unions and not simply “associations, societies, or organizations.” Additionally, some of these unions do in fact have the word “guild” in them, but they are recognized as legitimate film unions.
Association of Talent Agents
Founded in 1937, the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) represents a large swath of artists, from actors to writers to producers in film, television, stage, and radio. There are over 100 agencies who are part of ATA, almost all of whom reside in either New York or Los Angeles; the union itself is LA-based.
Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers
Founded in 1924 (and renamed in 1964 to include television producers), the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) represents over 350 companies in collective bargaining with trade unions. Major movie studios and TV networks are associated with AMPTP, from Disney Studios to NBC.
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers
If you ever need anyone to make sure you’re getting paid every time your music is used, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has your back. Founded in 1914 and headquartered in New York City, ASCAP represents over 775,000 members and makes it easy for rights holders to get paid for licenses to use the music. They are also open to non-Americans, meaning that they are a non-exclusive union.
Directors Guild of America
Founded as the Screen Directors Guild in 1936, they merged with the Radio and Television Directors Guild in 1960, thus becoming the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Encompassing many departments and sections of direction (managers, associate directors, production assistants, etc), this film directors union covers not just film but television, radio, news, and more.
Some notable filmmakers do not belong to this film directors union for various reasons, usually related to DGA restrictions. This list includes such heavy-hitters as George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez.
A few guilds like the DGA have their own annual awards leading up to the Oscars. Here's recent winner Chloe Zhao accepting the award for Nomadland.
International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees
Featuring one of the oldest histories, one of the longest full names, and one of the most recognizable logos is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The entire name is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada. This is a massive organization and represents a large swath of workers in the entertainment industry.
Established all the way back in 1893, the IATSE film union is unique in that it encompasses a very large breadth of local unions. Many well known unions are thus part of the IATSE film union and come with their own local designations.
Some of these local unions include the Animation Guild (Local 839), the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG) (Local 600), the Art Directors Guild (ADG) (Local 800), and the Motion Pictures Editors Guild (MPEG) (Local 700).
Producers Guild of America
Founded in 1950 as the Screen Producers Guild, it later merged with the American Association of Producers to become the Producers Guild of America (PGA) that we have today. As a production union, they represent producers in film, television, and new media, which includes websites and other forms of interactive media.
An interesting feature that this production union gives to producers — whether they’re members or not — is the Producers Mark, which can be seen in film credits as “p.g.a” (all lowercase). It signifies that the person credited did significant work as a producer on the project.
It does not, however, carry over to other films the producer is credited on, meaning the Producers Mark is considered on a film-by-film basis.
First there was the Screen Actors Guild established in 1933; then there was the separate American Federation of Radio Artists, which later merged with the Television Authority to become the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
Finally, in 2012, these two merged to become SAG-AFTRA, possibly the most high-profile movie union in Hollywood.
This film and TV union exists to protect and provide benefits, among other things, for film and television actors, voice actors, recording artists, singers, and more in the entertainment field.
These include voice actors in the field of video games, who in 2017 went on strike in protest against major video game companies for reasons of treatment, payment, and residuals.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters/Union 399
A bit of an exception on this list is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). Founded in 1903, the Teamsters are easily the most notable union in the United States, with well over one million members. In Hollywood, there is the Teamsters Union 399, a local that represents handlers, mechanics, warehouse workers, and others.
Since there are locals, that means there are other Teamsters unions across the country that represent those that work in the film industry.
Writers Guild of America
Originally formed as the Screen Writers Guild in 1933, the WGA came to be in 1954 and is divided into West (WGAw) and East (WGAe) divisions. It was established to protect the rights of writers of film, television, radio, and new media. You can learn more about how to join the WGA.
Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, the Screen Writers Guild actually ran into a lot of trouble with Congress and its suspicions of Communists in Hollywood, resulting in the blacklisting of some Hollywood writers.
More recently, the 2007-08 WGA strike made major headlines and resulted in the interruption of movie and television productions.
Working with Unions
Now that you know what movie unions are, read up on how to work with one in our ultimate guide to working with unions. Our guide covers how to deal with representatives, dealing with grievances, and how to choose a union wisely, among other helpful tips.