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Course Descriptions

Course Descriptions

Topics in Entertainment Law: Entertainment Unions and Guilds (Fall 2017)

Course Description

This course will help you solve practical problems in entertainment law and encourage you to think critically about some deeper issues. It’s an essential course for anyone contemplating a career in entertainment law. At one level, the most important entertainment law problem this course addresses is your own: finding a job as an entertainment lawyer. A law professor once told me that studio lawyers looking for prospective new attorneys ask him “do you have any students who understand the guild agreements?”

If that sounds like an odd question, it’s not. When striking screen and television writers marched down Hollywood Blvd. in 2007, their chants included “Hollywood’s a Union Town!” – and it’s true. Most scripted movies and television series, no matter how small, are produced under the jurisdiction of at least one of the entertainment unions. When it comes to major productions, virtually all are under the jurisdiction of at least four unions – Writers Guild (WGA), Directors Guild (DGA), the actors union SAG-AFTRA, and IATSE, representing crew members.

So, not surprisingly, union issues arise frequently in day-to-day practice. An entertainment lawyer can’t be effective without a solid understanding of the Hollywood guilds and unions, yet that information is hard to come by. There are no textbooks, Nutshells or continuing legal education (CLE) courses that explain the entertainment unions. And, sometimes, the issues are anything but day-to-day: witness the 2007-08 Writers Guild strike, which shut down the industry, and 2008-09 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) stalemate, which kept feature film production idled for an additional year. In both cases, the discord concerned residuals (royalties) for new media such as the Internet and mobile devices. Those technologies promise to complicate Hollywood labor relations for years to come, and may well lead to further strikes in the years ahead.

More recently, in 2012, SAG and AFTRA merged to form SAG-AFTRA. It’s one of the biggest changes in Hollywood labor in decades. But some aspects of the merger are not yet complete. Sometimes the issues are international: you’ll learn in this course what happened when a New Zealand union tried to unionize actors on The Hobbit. Clients – writers, directors, actors, producers, companies, even agents – are looking to lawyers to help guide them through turbulent waters.

But this course is not just about the practical; there are deeper issues as well. The union agreements add up to more than 2,000 pages – a complex and mysterious system of private law, of critical importance to entertainment attorneys, agents, and their clients. Does it have to be so complicated? Woven throughout the key agreements are an astonishing range of formulas describing the residuals that actors, writers, directors and some others receive when movies and TV shows are reused or rerun. (See // for more.) But why do they receive these payments – after all, the studios finance the movies and own the copyrights – and on the other hand, since some people get residuals, why doesn’t everyone? Again, too, a question about complexity – why are there so many different formulas, and is there a better way of accomplishing the same result?

Then there is Art. 16 of the Writers Guild agreement, which separates out and retains various rights for screen and television writers even though their option agreements and writing deals talk about “work for hire” and “assignment of all rights.” In other words, the WGA “separated rights” provisions (and the residuals provisions as well) challenge the regime of corporate authorship and copyright ownership that generally prevails in film and television.

More generally, what is the nature of work in an industry where so many workers would work for free if they could afford it? SAG-AFTRA represents everyone from the barely employed actor who makes his real living as a waiter to multi-millionaire superstars; the Writers and Directors Guilds memberships also encompass a dramatic range of incomes. That makes for some unusual unions. Nowhere else, other than sports, are there union members with such dramatic wage differentials, not to mention union members with agents and with individual signed deals that are over and above the union agreements.

Also peculiar: many of the entertainment unions represent people who are highly managerial (such as film directors or TV showrunners), and several represent workers who are effectively independent contractors (such as screenwriters) or who have an even more indirect relationship with their nominal employers. The studios accede to union representation of these workers even where not necessarily required by law – but then they cite the same legal principles when opposing unionization of other groups such as composers and lyricists.

Meanwhile, one of the most downtrodden groups, production assistants, is not even on the union radar screen at all. Now add to this crazy quilt an enormous downward pressure on wages, which results from the constant inflow of people desperate to work in the industry, the outflow of physical production and visual effects work to other states, countries or continents, and the price pressure the Internet has brought to bear on entertainment product. And, as private sector unionization continues to drop, Hollywood is more and more an exception that forces us to think about employment relations in a different way. The result: an industry that might seem to be all about movie stars and special effects turns out to raise hard questions about work, fairness, efficiency and regulation that apply to everyone.


Course Details

  • Unit Value: 1
  • Grading Options: Numerical Only
  • Schedule: Th Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26 2:00 pm - 5:30 pm
  • Room Number: Room 7
  • Exam: In-class, multiple choice exam
  • Writing Requirement: No
  • Skills/Experiential Unit Requirement: No