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Should I join Local 600 at this time?


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#1 Michael Morlan

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Posted 06 May 2009 - 10:31 AM

Hello all.

Looking for some insight whether to pull the trigger on my application to Local 600 as a DP. I've been invited to join by the reps on the strength of my reel. They have a membership drive going on right now with 50% initiation fees. Everyone wants your money, of course. If I could get some feedback from industry professionals on either side of that line, it would be great.

My belief is joining the union will open the door to features beyond the <$200K region I find myself consigned to. (Indeed, a conversation with a regional union rep revealed $225K is the trigger point for organizing a non-union film in Texas.)

Some parameters affecting my choice:
  • I live in Texas, a right-to-work state. L.A. could be in my future depending on future opportunities.
  • Texas just passed an effective film incentives bill (that is partially financed and still needs to be fully financed with a separate appropriations bill.)
  • I have 160+ days on set as a DP in the last three years so qualify to work the West Coast.
  • I've worked on six features, three as DP, and numerous shorts, commercials, and music videos.
  • My reel/resume is at michael-morlan.net
  • I own a one-ton G/E package and RED One. While the gear opened a lot of doors for awhile, recently producers and directors have been citing my reel as the deciding factor in hiring me. (Eventually, I would like to walk on set with nothing but my meters on my hip. :rolleyes:)
Thoughts? Opinions?

Many thanks,

Michael
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#2 Tom Jensen

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Posted 06 May 2009 - 10:48 AM

I did not see any mention to an agent on your web site. I would talk to as many agents as possible and get their input. They look at reels all the time and really have the inside scoop to work both union and non union. They look at reels daily. It's slow now and a lot of agents have a stable of DP's. I know a lot of DPs who aren't in the union and they work steadily, or used to. It's a tough one, I think your work speaks for itself. Levie Isaacks moved out here from Austin and has done quite well. He used to be a local newscaster in Austin before he moved out here. As far as the union goes you have to ask yourself, is it financially worth it? Does it make dollars and sense?
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 06 May 2009 - 11:13 AM

If there seems to be a chance of being offered a union job, then join the union, especially if they've cut the fee by 50%. The quarterly dues are not a big deal.

The higher rates on union jobs will pay for that fee over a short period of time.

But all this depends on whether you really feel some union jobs are coming your way.

I didn't join until after my 23rd feature, after working in L.A. for a decade non-union. This was back when any movie under a 3-mil budget was generally non-union and that's all I shot at the time. But I always knew that I was going to shoot something with a bigger budget, so I just had to time things out, join when it seemed likely I was going to be going out on job interviews for bigger union projects.

After I shot "Northfork" in 2002, the Polish Brothers were talking to a studio about another project, so that's the time I figured I should join. The project never happened but within a few months, I shot "D.E.B.S." for Screen Gems, which was about a 4-mil feature and went union within the first week. And I really haven't had to take any non-union features since then.

The fee was enormous, nearly $10,000 to join (could be paid in installments), but my yearly income doubled and then tripled within three years, so it more than paid off for me. And I have a nice health plan that I hope to keep qualifying for...

But again, it's a matter of timing and long-term goal thinking, i.e. do you see yourself as a union DP eventually, shooting more mainstream production? Joining too early may be a waste of money, so you have to have a sense of what sorts of jobs you'll be going out for. Those movies coming to Texas due to tax breaks will probably hire a DP out of L.A. but perhaps not, or perhaps they'll need a B-cam operator and 2nd Unit DP type who is a local.
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#4 Michael Morlan

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Posted 06 May 2009 - 04:04 PM

Tom and David,

Thanks for your excellent feedback. (Mr. Mullen, how do you find the time to answer my question within 45 minutes? Thanks, as always, for everything you give back to the community.)

I don't have any union gigs and, as you note David, most features coming to my region hire their DP's out of LA. I need to query some of the DP's in Texas about their union status.

It seems the budget at which shoots get organized in LA is quite a bit higher than out in the Texas hinterlands. I'm just trying to get bumped up to the <$1M pics right now. (Last year, I was going to be signed to a $150K feature that got bumped up to $1.2M where I was unceremoniously dropped in favor of a an LA DP. And so it goes.)

Methinks now is not the time to join the union. I'll continue doing good work and building my experience and reputation.

Many thanks.

Michael
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#5 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 06 May 2009 - 09:17 PM

In LA they've just increased the hours from 600 to 800 a year you need to work to qualify for their nice insurance. Now that's fine if all yo do is features, but for a commercial DP that's not as easy figure to get to. Mind you, only union hours work, so any non union work goes uncounted.

My friend who's a very successful commercial DP in LA can't make it. He still has to pay just as much, so all he gets for his $10.000 joining fee and his 1% of every job fee, is the ICG magazine. That's a rather expensive subscription.

The union is clearly biased towards feature film production and makes it real hard for anyone who works shooting other stuff. I would not join until I was specifically asked/forced to.
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#6 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 12:39 PM

In LA they've just increased the hours from 600 to 800 a year


I thought it was from 300 to 400 hours?
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 01:34 PM

I thought it was from 300 to 400 hours?


For a six month period.

The thing is that the system is based on hours worked, so it will always benefit long-form shooters -- TV series people first, features second, commercials last.

On the other hand, it's near impossible to get much higher than guild minimum rates for TV and feature work unless you are a top professional, yet commercials pay much more than that. I've only done three commercials in my career and they paid per day what I normally make per week on a feature. So a commercial that lasted a week could end up paying what I make in a month on a feature.

Not that it wouldn't be nice if commercial shooters had an easier way of qualifying for their union health care.

They should come up with a way of breaking down hours by type of production, so that an hour of commercial work, for example, was equal to three hours of feature work or six hours of episodic television work, at least in terms of qualifying for health care and banking hours.

Trouble is that I think these qualifying figures were determined for the entire IATSE contract, not just Camera Local 600 -- so some guilds may not want it broken down that way. On the other hand, I'm sure the problem is the same for short-term commercial workers whether they do make-up or editing or gripping, etc.
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#8 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 02:56 PM

It must smart a bit to pay upwards of $10k to join a union and then be told you don't qualify for union benefits. Surely there is some fairer way of deciding eligibility?
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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 May 2009 - 05:31 PM

It must smart a bit to pay upwards of $10k to join a union and then be told you don't qualify for union benefits. Surely there is some fairer way of deciding eligibility?


Other than by the number of hours you have worked? Like what, seniority? That's not going to help the newcomers either.

The only "fair" thing is to cover everyone in the union, but it's the basic problem that all business are dealing with in this country -- healthcare is too expensive, and part of the costs are being covered not only by dues and fees, but also by the producers guild. And most of that money goes to covering the retirees' healthcare needs, so there isn't enough to cover all the working members. And at this last contract negotiation, the producers demanded some method of reducing the number of members covered to control rising costs, hence the rise in the number of qualifying hours needed. Apparently the producers had suggested something more draconian than that.

Yes, it sucks but unless healthcare becomes radically cheaper in this country, I don't see any way of extending benefits to cover all members.

You see, the system only currently "works" if they come up with some mechanism to deny coverage to a member. So you can say "if you paid so much to join, you should be getting covered" but that's basically saying that everyone in the union who works at all should be covered -- which is a nice idea. Just unaffordable. Unless they want to increase the fees and dues even more, make it $30,000 to join and $5000/year in dues, but I don't see that idea being popular either.

Remember you are covering a lot of retirees who have certain medical needs and worked many decades in the system and expect now to reap the benefits of all the years they put in.
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#10 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 02:26 PM

I've a feeling we're retreading old ground here, so I'd like to say now that this post is not meant as argumentative.

If joining Local 600 doesn't guarantee you any of the pension and medical benefits (and I understand why it doesn't), why is it so expensive? What are you getting for your $11k? That's a hell of a lot of money to join an organization that without the benefits is just a rubber stamp on the work you were doing anyway.

By way of contrast, the union here in the UK costs around £150 - £200 a year to be a member. There is no joining fee. It offers legal advice and a range of other services, most important being Public Liability insurance of £5,000,000 for just £23 a year. The downside is, it's toothless, and largely ignored by producers.
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#11 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 02:48 PM

Here's an idea. Instead of a system where there is a cutoff point, below which members do not qualify for coverage, how about a system where every member qualifies to join a union plan where both they and the union contribute. There would be a minimum contribution from both member and union, which would give a basic level of coverage. The more hours a member worked (or the more they contributed themselves) the higher the level of coverage would be. That way every union member has at least some coverage.

This is not dissimilar to the way company health plans work here in the UK. Am I missing something? Is there a reason why this would not work for IA600 (and the other locals)?
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#12 Michele Peterson

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 02:55 PM

Unless you have the means/connections to be hired for a union job, then you will be wasting the money. It's like buying gear in the hopes of it getting you a job instead of waiting until you have a job that will pay for that gear. Once you have the union opportunities, you can join then. Even if you end up paying more in initiation fees, I think it is better to pay the full price when you have the union job that will earn your money back than to buy into it now just because it is 50% and end up wasting that 50% + quarterly dues with no return at all.
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#13 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 03:03 PM

This is not dissimilar to the way company health plans work here in the UK. Am I missing something? Is there a reason why this would not work for IA600 (and the other locals)?


Perhaps what you're missing is the high cost of healthcare in the U.S... And also, as I said, most of the money the union collects goes to paying for the healthcare of its retired members, which would be hard to cut. I know that doesn't sound "fair" but that's the way it works -- you're paying the increasingly expensive benefits of people who have already finished a career of working. And it only gets worse as more baby boomers reach retirement age.

The only type of health coverage that would be radically cheaper would be simple gross coverage in case of emergency work and hospitalization. Years ago, when my wife was out of the country, before I was in the union, I got a minimum Blue Cross plan -- something $150 a month, and all it did was get me a high deductible and protection if I ever ended up in a hospital, where bills can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars here. Didn't really give me any basic healthcare like free doctor visits, dental, etc. It really is just more like disaster insurance.

Honestly, this is not really a union issue, it's a healthcare crisis issue, and it's affecting large and small business alike across the U.S. The union is just in the same boat as a company like General Motors, with their large "legacy" financial obligations.

The main thing you are getting by joining the union is the ability to work on higher-paying union jobs. You are also contributing to a pension plan as well. And if you work enough hours in the year, you get healthcare.

Look, I'm out of work around 30% to 50% of the year... and I have yet to fall out of my healthcare coverage. So meeting that required level is not impossibly high. I forgot what the statistic was, something like 11% or 19% of members don't make that level? Something like that, I'm not sure.
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#14 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 03:29 PM

I understand what you're saying David, but one of my questions still stands (although it might not be your job to answer it ). Why is the joining fee for DP's so high? $11k is a lot of money. What do you get in return? Is it just membership? The right to be on the roster?

A case in point is of a forum member here who was shooting union commercials for a long time before he was asked to join Local 600. As a commercials DP, he was unlikely to qualify for benefits, and he was already working on union shows, so the request that he join the union for $11k could be construed as a form of coercion, unless there are other tangible benefits outside of the medical plan.

Once again, I'm asking out of interest, not antagonism.
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#15 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 03:42 PM

I understand what you're saying David, but one of my questions still stands (although it might not be your job to answer it ). Why is the joining fee for DP's so high?


And I think for the third time, the answer is that all that money is mostly to pay for the benefits of the retired members. How many other ways can I say the same thing? The union has "x" amount of financial obligation so they have "x" amount of money to raise to pay those obligations, through joining fees, dues, residuals, payments by the producers guild, etc. And the costs keep rising at a time when the producers want to cut their obligations by cutting residuals and other payments.

Hey, joining the ASC also costs $10,000... and there are no benefits like healthcare or a pension plan with that fee. Luckily it was only $5000 when I joined, but I didn't see it as some sort of financial investment with a return. It's a payment to keep an organization running that I believe in.

As for a DP paying twice as much to join the union as an AC, well, they theoretically get paid twice as much...

All I can say is that in my case, the $10,000 joining fee for the union paid off in spades, so I don't regret it. What I "got" for my money was the ability to work on bigger projects with bigger salaries. But others won't have the same experience as me.
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#16 Michele Peterson

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 05:02 PM

Unless I am wrong, the initiation fee for 600 is different for depending upon which position you are. A DP's is higher because a DP makes substantially more than an AC. The fee is designer to increase regularly, just like the wages are designed to increase 3%. It is supposed to be a portion of your income and that portion is based off of the person having been working in the capacity they are applying for on union features to get their 30 days.

There is a psychological aspect to why initiations into a group is beneficial to the group structure. There is a term for it that I learned when taking psy courses in college, but I don't remember it. Basically the idea is if you have to invest something of yourself into a group before joining you are more likely to value that group. Either you value the group enough to begin with to go through it. Or in the opposite, if it wasn't worth it to begin with but you go through it, you have to justify it in your mind, so you convince yourself the group is worth it, thus making you value the group more after the fact. I'm not trying to say that makes anything right, but that explains a lot in my opinion.


Insurance in dependent upon hours worked because the production company that employs a union crew member pays into motion picture tv fund per hour. If you don't work, they don't contribute. It's not the union paying for healthcare, it's still the employer. The union just makes it possible to combine all the employers that one freelancer works for together. The union also fights to get and keep healthcare in the first place.

Edited by Michele Peterson, 08 May 2009 - 05:04 PM.

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#17 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 07:39 PM

Was thinking again about the hefty price tag of joining the union -- compared to the costs of many U.S. film schools these days, that's nothing. It's a lot easier to see the pay-off from dropping $10,000 to join the union than spending $25,000 a year to go to film school these days. I find it a lot harder telling some young person that it is worth going into that much debt for an art degree.
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#18 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 09 May 2009 - 02:26 PM

And I think for the third time, the answer is that all that money is mostly to pay for the benefits of the retired members. How many other ways can I say the same thing?


I think perhaps I'm so used to having an ineffectual union here in the UK, that I forget that the trade union movement is something that people still feel strongly about elsewhere in the world.
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#19 Michael Morlan

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Posted 10 May 2009 - 05:56 PM

The challenge for me is identifying that sweet spot moment to join, as David was describing. That's a bit harder to do in the Texas hinterland (call Texas what you will, it's still just another location for Hollywood) where budgets run shallow and any production with sufficient budget to pay your living expenses comes from the coasts with DP already attached.

I'm still examining a couple scenarios as I continue to improve my craft:

  • Work for as many people as possible, waiting for the moment when one of their projects goes the distance (in festivals or distribution) and I get recognized for my contribution.
  • Pursue contacts and projects in L.A. directly by establishing a living base and hanging my freelance shingle there.

I think the point between these two approaches is also still in my future. Much more work to do... :)

Michael
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#20 Corey Steib

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Posted 06 July 2009 - 02:07 AM

The challenge for me is identifying that sweet spot moment to join, as David was describing. That's a bit harder to do in the Texas hinterland (call Texas what you will, it's still just another location for Hollywood) where budgets run shallow and any production with sufficient budget to pay your living expenses comes from the coasts with DP already attached.

I'm still examining a couple scenarios as I continue to improve my craft:

  • Work for as many people as possible, waiting for the moment when one of their projects goes the distance (in festivals or distribution) and I get recognized for my contribution.
  • Pursue contacts and projects in L.A. directly by establishing a living base and hanging my freelance shingle there.

I think the point between these two approaches is also still in my future. Much more work to do... :)

Michael





I feel the same way to you Michael, I was a union member as a 2nd AC for a year and remind you that I live in Orlando, FL where their a a lot of work more commercials and music videos but features have been increasing the past few years and their was a guy who was about 10 hours away from getting full health care and was not able to get it. I am no longer a union member now because I was not getting on union jobs and other bills came first. Now I am a DP and Camera Op (with my own gear)- (which I still do AC work) I have been getting more work. And in order for you to work in LA you have to get on the roster and or make the hug amount of hours to work. I know a lot of union members and only 2 have gotten me on jobs so yes it's who you know and networking but sometimes it does not. It's your choice to join the union but me I feel that they never even helped me out when I asked for it.
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