Unicorns that poop rainbows: why are union editing gigs so rare?

unicornMany 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.)

One show! My work here is done.
One show! My work here is done.

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.

Hey, *you* try paying the overhead for this place every month.
Hey, *you* try paying the overhead for this joint every month.

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.

unicorn-poop-rainbow1The 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.

6 thoughts on “Unicorns that poop rainbows: why are union editing gigs so rare?”

  1. your last paragraph is so true. I just got flamed for posting in an editors forum on Facebook that a kid who wants to get into editing asked me what NLE he should learn and I told him the tools don’t edit, study the work of Kurosawa and Fellini. The vitriol spewed at me for even suggesting that an NLE is just a tool was venomous.

    1. Bwahaa!! I’m pretty sure I’m a member of that forum. Yeah, the zealotry can be pretty amazing at times.

  2. The editors guild ignored unscripted television for decades while it took over a huge slice of the pie of work being produced. Now the strategy is to attempt to flip one show at a time. This has produced very few show flips in the last few years. This strategy will only lead to less union gigs in the years to come, not more.

  3. I think the unicorn situation is primarily related to Reality show editing. Coming from the scripted world, everything is union. The question from how to break into scripted and get out of the reality pigeonholing seems to be the bigger concern. Though we have seen a few reality shows unionize. Hopefully the trend will catch on. You’re right about it tending to be successful franchises. Because they’re obviously making money they should be passing on to their workforce.

  4. It’s not the jobs that are unicorns it’s the editors who work in the non union industry who behave like unicorns. Why doesn’t the workforce flip their own shows? Union shows don’t just exist they need to be created…. Created by the editors who work on them

  5. how about this… go back to where ever it is you came from. Hollywood obviously ate you up and spit you out… now you whine and cry foul language about the union status… The Union doesn’t need you either….

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