Low-budget filmmakers try to make nice with labor issues

New York’s indie filmmakers and labor unions are like Democrats and Republicans: They need each other to get the work done, but they don’t always agree on how to complete it.

While Gotham-based indies benefit from the professionalism of topnotch union crews, and labor union members want the work (especially if Hollywood shoots are scarce), low-budget filmmakers complain that union rates bust their budgets, while crews don’t appreciate the lower wages.

The first efforts to make nice between unions and indies came about in 1990. After a local aborption of the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians by the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the East Coast Council was established to bring all the local unions together harmoniously and negotiate low-budget agreements for films with budgets up to $6 million. (It’s since risen to $8 million.)

From 1990 to 1991, during a seven-month studio boycott of New York after the merger, ECC low-budget productions were the only jobs in town.

“The original concept was that we’d address each picture and try to tailor agreements to make it possible for producers to make those movies union,” says Matthew Loeb, who became chairman of the East Coast Council in 1994. “We negotiated locations, lowered our wages and … benefits package in exchange for backend participation if the pictures were successful.”

In the early ’90s, films like Abel Ferrera’s “The Bad Lieutenant,” Ernest Dickerson’s “Juice” and Boaz Yakin’s “Fresh” enjoyed the ECC’s openness to producers’ needs. “I think that’s what really changed things,” says New York MOFTB topper Katherine Oliver. “The East Coast Council’s low-budget agreement offers more flexibility.”

But many of Gotham’s most famous renegade auteurs stayed away from unions throughout the ’90s. “We made ‘Kids’ and ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’ and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ all non-union,” says Killer Films’ Katie Roumel. “In those days, the unions had more of a Hollywood mentality, and they were less interested in certain material. But as those movies got more attention, they were considered worthy of getting involved.”

With independent films’ growth in the late ’90s and the rise of enduring independent production entities such as Killer, Good Machine, GreeneStreet Films and Spike Lee’s Forty Acres and a Mule, IATSE organizers formed the National Low Budget Theatrical Agreement, which, by all accounts, vastly improved upon the ECC contract.

One of the main advances was the elimination of the backend parameter, which complicated dealings with distributors when, after a movie was released, residuals had to be paid out. “It started to make the projects too expensive for what they were,” Roumel says.

The big advantage of the National Low Budget Agreement, says GreeneStreet production prexy Tim Williams, “is that it’s nationwide, you don’t have to renegotiate for every single project; you can budget multiple movies in multiple locations, and it standardizes rates and benefit contributions across the country.”

While established producers welcome the new agreement, a recent increase in pension and welfare benefits has some filmmakers crying foul.

“The national deal that we all signed was fantastic in facilitating lower-budget filmmaking on a regular basis,” says veteran producer Ted Hope. “But along the way, the stronger pension and welfare plan put the daily rates at such a level that it’s now prohibitive to make lower-budget movies.”

“If we don’t solve that problem,” Hope adds, “we will watch the next homegrown talents shooting in Austin, Texas, or Memphis, Tenn.”

When the National Agreement expires at the end of this year, both sides will undoubtedly return to the bargaining table once again. But as DGA Western exec director and former ECC head G. Bryan Unger admits, “We have a very stable and pretty deep relationship with independent producers now, but the way we deal with the contracts and cover these pictures is always subject to evaluations, based on market conditions.”

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