Many tv or video editors view union jobs like unicorns. You hear they exist, and that they’re amazing… but good luck ever catching sight of one.
Since coming to Los Angeles, I’ve scratched my head many times about the whole thing. I myself joined The Union, left for the bulk of my career, and recently rejoined, and have watched people endlessly rant and rave about The Union – in this case, the MPEG, aka Motion Picture Editors Guild Local 700, part of IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees.
People have all sorts of questions about unions, organized labor, and its place in entertainment hubs like New York and Los Angeles (for our international friends, I’m not familiar with labor outside the US, so I’ll stick to what I know). I doubt those questions will ever all be answered.
But I do see one question keep popping up over and over, usually from aspiring editors and assistant editors wanting to edit: why is it so hard to find a union editing job?
I propose two main reasons: projects and companies that disappear, and the technology-driven need for security in going big.
1: Projects and companies that disappear.
Unions typically become the strongest in entities that aren’t going anywhere. Think schools, factories, steel mills. In medieval Europe, artisan guilds operated in towns that had been in existence for centuries, and continue to exist 1,000 years later. In early 1900’s Detroit, unions gained positions of power in car manufacturing plants, because let’s face it: it really sucks to move an entire factory. And in Hollywood, unions sprang up because the center of production was based around a handful of large studios that created all the movies and TV shows in the same place. Making those movies or shows required a lot of gear, and a lot of money.
So in terms of the editors union today: virtually any union job is on a movie or scripted show that’s expensive enough to be bankrolled by a long-established studio or production entity, or it’s a staff job at one of those entities, or it’s a position on a non-scripted TV show that’s been running longer than three seasons. (As an example, I’m currently cutting on the 6th season of American Ninja Warrior, which became a union show after moving to NBC a few seasons ago.)
Union organizers don’t have long enough to set up shop when television shows or their related production corporations shut the shop down after one season or one project. Producers know this. The longer a hit show runs, the more likely it is to unionize. The vast majority of shows don’t go long enough.
2: The technology-driven need for security in going big.
Hollywood has undergone a huge technical shift over the last decades. Technology for making movies and tv used to be so bulky and expensive, big studios were the only entities who had the money to buy and use it. And the unions were already established there. Now, anybody can get the gear and create the content. In order to compete with the multitudes of independent content creators, Hollywood has had to go big. It’s had to in order to stay in business.
If you examine the budgets of Hollywood studio-released movies within recent years, you’ll see a widening of the gap in production budgets. In broad strokes, you’re most likely to see a movie with a production budget of $200M or $3M, not $50M. Studios either wanna go all-out huge and bring in huge returns, or they cover their financial butts on tiny little projects that bring very little risk at all. Or better yet, they acquire the rights to projects they didn’t have to bankroll in the first place.
Because of this technology-driven shift, producers want to minimize risk in every way humanly possible. That means making movies based on proven franchises, and hiring editors who’ve been doing that specific kind of big-time cutting for a long time. You can get the gigs once you’re in, but getting to that place takes years. Even decades.
The result? Union gigs have become so ridiculously scarce, it’s like hunting for unicorns. They’re out there, but if you want them, you gotta go where the large, heavily bankrolled, union-engaged entities are.
And even if you do go there, it’s no guarantee you’ll get a steady stream of union jobs or any union job at all. Many of my editorial friends in LA have been trying unsuccessfully for years.
The best answer I can give anyone who really, really wants to cut union gigs: meet and develop relationships with people who already have them. And you gotta really, really want it and act accordingly.
Because from my observations of Hollywood, I personally predict the number of union gigs going down not up.
On the subject of mythical creatures, there’s another unicorn I constantly hear people looking for – specifically from video editors who consider themselves advanced hobbyists or growth-minded pros:
Everybody will talk about the technical aspects of editing, but so few people discuss the creative, nuts-and-bolts aspects of editorial storytelling. How do I learn more about that?
If that’s you, then you need to see this.