Film Unions Explained

A Film Producer’s Industry Guide

As a film producer, you have many big decisions to make that determine the success of your film. One of which is whether or not the next film you make should be a union or a non-union show. Perhaps the initial thought of going union makes you panic — having someone always watching over your shoulder and making sure that you play by the rules doesn’t exactly sound fun. However, there a lot of benefits to joining a union both for you and your crew that you need to consider.

Additionally, there are risks of choosing not to be part of a union. For instance, if you have a large budget and don’t go union, there is always the risk that your set will be flipped (this when your film is changed to union halfway through shooting). 

This guide is here to help you understand how film unions work and what you can expect from them. We’ll also include a list of popular film industry unions you should familiarize yourself with. Let’s dive in! 

Union Vs. Non-Union

Film industry unions are organizations set up to protect workers on movie sets. If film crew workers and actors had always been treated fairly, there would be no need for unions. These unions provide a variety of benefits to individuals, such as health care, pensions, access to entertainment lawyers, and pay rate advice. 

Each union has specific details on working conditions, payment terms, and set safety procedures. To ensure that the work environment meets the requirements, a union representative will keep an eye out in production. For example, unions will advise on how many breaks the crew and actors should have and how much they will be paid for overtime. 

Whether or not you make a union film is determined mainly by your production budget. A union will have fixed pay rate guidance for actors and crew. So if you can’t afford to pay people their full wages, you will have to make a non-union film. Many unions provide pay rate advice on their websites, so you can make an estimated total cost of crew salaries

A union film will cost you more to make, but you can get access to a more experienced crew and actors in return. Arguably, a union crew will be more professional, have faster setup times, and make fewer mistakes. It is also more likely that you will have a crew strike on a non-union production; this is especially true if you have a larger budget. 

To sum up, if you have the budget, it usually makes sense to go union. If you are making a low-no-budget film, you will likely be non-union. However, keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that you can exploit your crew – you still need to be fair with your rates and work hours.

Here is a list of the potential pros and cons of joining a union – 

Pros of Being a Union Film Shoot:

  • Experienced Crew
  • Access To Profitable Actors
  • Advanced Quality
  • More Professional Set
  • Better Contracts

Cons of Being a Union Film Shoot:

  • Fixed Working Rates
  • Fixed Work Hours
  • Fixed Turnaround Time
  • Fixed Contract Conditions

Hiring Union Crew

So, you have decided to make a union film, and now you need to hire a union crew. How you hire won’t be much different from a non-union film, but you will have to pay more attention to contracts and union guidelines. The easiest way to find people is through past contacts, using agencies, and advertising jobs online. You can also ask film industry unions if they can help you hire, and many unions have an online crew dictionary you can use. 

Like with all crew, when you hire your key department heads (HODs), the rest of the team will be easier to employ since many HODs will hire their assistants. When you have chosen your crew, you should get all film crew contracts checked by an entertainment lawyer. This will cover you for any future problems that might arise from production to distribution. You should also plan for overtime hours, health care payments, and injury payouts. Your union and lawyer will be able to help you with all of these additional contract details. 

How to Find Union Crew

  • Ask Your Contacts
  • Ask State Film Commissions 
  • Use Union Dictionaires
  • Advertise Jobs Online

Union Grievance

If the union guidelines are not met, an employee might contact their union and file a grievance. A union grievance can also be put in place by the union itself. At this point, a union representative will be sent to set and make a report. If the union finds any problems, you will need to make changes based on their report. 

You will be given a few days to a week to make these changes. However, if you fail to do so, you will be fined by the union or have your set shut down. Additionally, your union crew can collectively vote to walk off the set at any time. A common issue is when non-union crew work on a union set. Film industry unions have the power to close down sets that are not fully hiring union crew. As such, when making a union film, many producers choose to only hire union workers. Keep in mind that it is possible to have union actors and non-union crew working together. This setup is particularly appealing on low budgets as it means producers can hire professional actors and still not go over budget. 

While this all may sound worrying, most often a union grievance only happens if there has been a lot of neglect, such as issues with overwork, paying employers on time, and poor working conditions. If you get a grievance, you should have the time and resources to make the union changes before your set is brought to a halt. It’s helpful as a producer to be prepared for grievances, strikes, and flips.


Union Strike/Flip

If your film strikes, this means that your crew or actors walk off set until their terms have been met. As mentioned, this will only happen if there has been a lot of mishandling on set, and the unions should make their demands clear. Occasionally, a whole union can strike at once, pulling all crew off several productions. For example, the 2008 writer’s strike lasted for 100 days, affecting many major film and TV studios. In October of 2021, IATSE came very close to staging a full film crew strike, which would have affected many productions in the USA. 

As an independent film producer, you are more likely to have your set flipped than to have the crew strike. This is when a non-union set is coerced into becoming a union in the middle of production. If a union representative finds that your set should flip, they will write up a report and provide a negotiating period to change agreements. This means re-writing contracts, making changes to work rates and the production schedule. This will be a stressful time for any producer – but getting flipped is often less costly than shutting down or restarting the whole production from scratch.

How to Pick a Union

There are many film industry unions which you could choose to go with. Each supports different departments (above-the-line and below-the-line), and each has there own pay rate regulations. There are also guilds that run in a similar fashion but have less control than unions. A union is an official organization that has to look after its members by law. A guild is classed as a group of tradespeople who work to support one another. 

It’s also possible for your workers to be part of both unions and guilds simultaneously. As a producer, you need to stay informed on these organizations and what they expect from their members. It’s likely on any given set that you will have crew within a range of unions and guilds (for example, SAG-AFTRA actors union, IATSE crew union, PGA production team guild). 

Although it’s hard to keep up with every union and guild, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the most popular unions and how they work. Even as a low-budget independent producer, you will come across unions at some point in your career. 

Next, we’ll look at a list of notable US film industry unions –


A List of Film Unions



(Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists)

If you are going to be working with any union, make it the Screen Actors Guild. By using SAG, you have access to more professional actors. They also have production agreements for different film budgets, including an ultra-low-budget, short film, and student film tier. For example, the ultra-low-budget tier is for films with a budget under $300K. On this agreement, an actor’s daily rate starts at $205 a day. So, even though you have a low budget, you can still work with SAG and thus have access to top-named talent. 


  (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada)

This is the oldest, largest film union covering most departments on set, from casting, lighting, grips, costume, and sound. They run state-wide, so it’s very likely that some members of this union will be on your set. Similar to SAG, they have budget tiers. However, the low-budget IATSE version is for films between $1.8-$5.5 Million. There is an ultra-low-budget option where you can negotiate fees, but you will need to pay people a decent wage. 


  (Writers Guild of America)

The Writers Guild of America looks after TV and motion picture screenwriters. If your script was written by a WGA member, there are regulations on how much you should compensate for the screenplay rights. The leading WGA tier states that a writer should be paid no less than $79,432 in total for an original screenplay and treatment. However, there is a low budget tier for films under $1.2 Million; producers with low-budget will need to negotiate a fair deal with the union on behalf of the writer. 


(Directors Guild of America)

The Directors Guild of America is the principal union for directors, unit production managers, and assistant directors. Technically you won’t be able to hire a DGA union director and have a non-union production. As such, whether or not you choose to go with DGA depends on your choice of director, and a talented director will likely be part of a union. Luckily they have very reasonable budget tiers with their lowest covering budgets under $500,000. On the lowest end, they ask that the pay is no less than minimum wage and that pension/health care contributions are paid by the production company’s owners. So, it is possible to get a talented director on a low-budget film – you will just need to convince them that the project is worth their time. 


(Producers Guild of America)

The Producers Guild of America is for producers, line producers, coordinators, and various other producers’ team members. Unlike other unions, the PGA is classed as a guild and doesn’t have payment guidelines. In other words, what you pay members is negotiated between you and the individual. They offer health insurance, pensions, mentorship, and networking for union members – maybe you would be interested in joining the PGA.

Film Unions Explained

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In Conclusion

Film industry unions can sound scary to begin with. But as you advance in your career, you will start to work with union-size budgets and soon it will start to become more familiar. Ultimately it is your decision as a producer whether or not you will be making a union film. If you choose not to go union, you need to make sure you do all you can to avoid strikes and grievances. After all, a professional, well-run set that doesn’t exploit workers should always be your goal! 

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Amy Clarke

Amy is a film blogger based in Liverpool UK. She worked on numerous productions, working her way up from independents to major budget feature films. Amy now works as a blogger writing about the film industry. You can follow her work at

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