Job Negotiation Is a Contract Sport

by Louis Bertini, MPSE

Louis Bertini.

The following examples are of contract violations that have taken place recently.  The names have been left out to spare the offending parties further embarrassment.

1. An assistant editor was negotiating for a job on an out-of-town shoot.  He received the following letter:

Dear ____,
I am a post-production supervisor looking for an assistant editor to work during the shoot of an independent feature film in _______.

The details are as follows:
• Shoot days as of now are ____ to ____, five, five-day weeks, Wednesday to Sunday.  We would need you from five to six weeks, plus a few days before and after principal photography.

• No housing, per diem or travel provided.            [Three Contract Violations)
• Union.    [OK]
• Scale.    [OK]
• You will be considered a local hire.        [Contract Violation]
• Editing system:  FCP or Avid (to be decided).      [OK]

If you are interested and available to work in ____ during those days, please e-mail your resume to: _____.

Thank you,
Post Executive

2. Post-production was nearing completion on a new television series.  The crew members asked if they would be getting vacation pay.  Inquiries were made to the post-production supervisor who claimed that vacation pay was never a part of the deal on that show.  The crew then read through the contract and––what a surprise––there it was:
“ARTICLE 8-(d): Employees shall receive vacation pay…calculated at four percent (4%) of the weekly straight time wage rate.”
The post-production supervisor was shocked!  He had no idea that vacation pay was supposed to have been included.  “But this money was never budgeted!” he claimed.  “I can’t go back to the network now and ask for it!  The deal is done, the books are closed!”

It is truly surprising how many producers and studio executives do not read the terms of the contracts they have signed.

3. A picture editor on a modestly budgeted feature agreed to the producer’s request that they would not hire him an assistant.  He would handle the assistant duties himself.  And no one needed to mention anything about the unpaid intern, who was actually doing the assistant editor’s job.  Even worse, the contract on this job had a mandatory staffing requirement, and stated clearly that an assistant picture editor had to be hired from the outset.

A lot of time and effort could have been saved in all of these instances if the parties involved––producers and crew–– had taken the time to carefully read the contract at the start of the job.  Knowing the basic details of the specific contract before your next job begins will make your work life easier, and (hopefully) avoid grievances or hard feelings as the job continues, or worse, when it is over.  But if you get stuck in a difficult situation, let us know.  The union is here to help you.
In the first example above, we notified the producers that travel, housing and per diem were all mandatory requirements for location work, and employees from out of town cannot be used as local hires.  If the proper payments were not made, we would pull the bond on the job.  Most members are unaware that the union requires all independent productions to deposit a bond with the payroll company equal to two weeks’ payroll for all employed members.  As in the case cited, if problems or violations occur, the union will cash the bond and use it for the benefit of the crew.

In the second example, we emphatically told the post-production supervisor that, budget or not, a contract was signed for that job which included vacation pay.  There was no getting around the fact that it had to be paid.

In the third example, the unpaid intern eventually contacted the union and asked for help.  We contacted the producers and insisted that he receive salary and benefits according to the terms of the contract for all work performed back to the beginning of the job.

A lot of time and effort could have been saved in all of these instances if the parties involved––producers and crew–– had taken the time to carefully read the contract at the start of the job.

These problems do not just occur on lower-budget projects.  Big-budget features are often just as bad.  A major release from last year’s holiday season paid its sound edit crew for a 40-hour workweek.  But when the union reviewed the payroll reports and cross-checked the contract, it was discovered that sound editors should have been paid for 48.6 hours, and assistants for 45 hours.  This added up to a lot of extra hours of pension and welfare contributions, and the crew was grateful to receive them.

It is truly surprising how many producers and studio executives do not read the terms of the contracts they have signed.  This is irresponsible management and, frankly, insulting––given the hard work and collaborative efforts you bring to the film or television show. We recommend you call the union office first to avoid confusion or hard feelings, because your employers can get testy when it comes to talking about money.

Because of your professional relationships, and the manner in which the project has come to your attention, we would like you to do the following.  Get the conversation started by asking what contract under which you are going to be employed.  In addition, here are some questions you should ask:

• Is this a low-budget project?  If so, is it a Tier 1, 2 or 3 job?

• If it is not a low-budget project, is it a studio job under our Majors Local 700 agreement, or does the job fall under the HBO, Showtime or Video Electronics Supplemental Agreement?  If none of these apply, did the New York production locals negotiate an independent agreement for this project?

These problems do not just occur on lower-budget projects.  Big-budget features are often just as bad.

•What are the daily or weekly guarantees of hours for this specific job?

•Will work have to be performed on any upcoming holidays?  If so, what are the contract provisions?

•What is scale for my classification/position?

•If travel is involved, ask what your daily per diem, housing and local transportation allowance will be.  Get an advance on per diem for meals.  Make sure the company has used its credit card to book and pay for your flights and hotel, or extended-stay accommodations.

•What are the overtime provisions?

•Is there vacation pay due under the specific project’s agreement?  (Not all contracts have vacation pay.)

Knowing these things before you start a job can save you a lot of headaches later on.

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