Unions Don’t Work That Way

Elle writes in:

I’m a production assistant on a talk show. I’ve been in Los Angeles since 2012 after my relocation from Florida to pursue a career in the motion picture industry. I’m still very new and learning everyday, but at this point, I’d like to know what the next step should be.

My goal is to write for television and film, starting as a writer’s assistant if I can find the opportunity. But, what unions can I join while I’m a PA? Or how should I approach joining the WGA or Warner Brothers writer’s program?

Okay, some of my readers are laughing at Elle right now, and that’s not fair. At one point, you didn’t know any of this stuff, either.

There is no PA union. Who would want to join it? You should only be a PA for a few years; don’t make a career out of it.

I’m not sure how unions work outside of Hollywood (season 2 of The Wire really confused me), but in Hollywood, you don’t hang out at the union hall, waiting for someone in need of a union electrician to call.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a DP or a camera assistant, an AD or a PA, everyone finds work the same way– calling everyone in your network and saying, “Hey, my show just wrapped. Got any work for me?” Eventually, if you’re very, very good at your job, people will start calling you and asking if you’re available. The union has nothing to do with finding you work.

Don’t get me wrong, IATSE (the umbrella union most Hollywood crafts fall under) does lots of good. They set union wages, enforce safety regulations, provide insurance for members. They even benefit non-union PAs, by setting minimum turn around times.

So, you don’t just “join” the WGA. There wouldn’t be any point. What you have to do is write, show that writing to someone who can hire you,1 and only then join the guild.

Again, WGA does lots of good. Along with negotiating minimums and offering a generous insurance plan, the WGA arbitrates screen credit.2 This is so some producer can’t change a comma to a semicolon and say, “Hey, I did a re-write! My name should go on there, too.”

Elle has been PAing for close to three years, it sounds like, which is great. The only problem is, she works for a talk show, which doesn’t sound like the kind of writing she wants to do.3 The next step, really, should be finding work on a narrative feature or television show. That’s where you’ll have the opportunity to learn and grow into the position of writer.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Which includes things like the WB writers program.
  2. This isn’t just for ego; screen credit determines how much the writer gets in residuals.
  3. Yes, talk shows have writers.
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3 Responses

  1. For someone that has enough experience under their belt to know that they want to be an AD but not enough experience that they’re ready to put in their book in the next year, I’d recommend the DGA Training Program. OR

    There’s an LA and NY program. Comes with benefits, guaranteed rate, training, and job placement for two and a half years. Upon graduating, trainees are placed on the Eligibility List for the DGA.

    Sure, there are positives and negatives to this program (many ADs are very opinionated) , but it’s a neat way into the Guild and after going through it, I now believe that the positives outweigh the negatives. Also, the support system from trainee Alumn is crucial considering the DGA does not have a Hall quite the other unions.

  2. I can’t speak for the other locals or guilds, but 728 (set lighting) and 80 do send members out on jobs. We’re allowed (and expected) to look for our own work, but when your show or day-playing gig ends (but before you apply for unemployment), you call the local and go “on the books” — which means you are now officially available for work. If a Best Boy calls the hall looking for extra manpower, the call steward of the local will go down the list of available workers until he finds someone willing to take the job.

    When things are slow in town, going on the books won’t result in a call from the local anytime soon — months will go by before your phone rings — but when it’s busy (like right now), that call might come the very next day. Trouble is, most of those calls are for low budget, sub-scale gigs that are always the jobs of last resort — which is why the Best Boy couldn’t find someone willing to take that crappy job. Those are for the newbies who are still paying their dues and trying to get established in the biz. It’s how they suffer and learn.

    As for the WGA — when I asked our writer’s assistant on my last show (who wrote three scripts that were shot over the years) if he’d joined the WGA yet, his reply was telling. “The WGA will call me when it’s time to join,” he said — meaning that until he can start selling scripts on a regular basis, there’s no reason to pay the large fee required to join the WGA. As you said, it’s not like the Writers Guild is going to send him out on any scriptwriting jobs…

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