A nuanced look at Hollywood unions’ role

April 21st, 2011 by Jeanny Tsoi

Jonathan Handel

Co-edited by Jeanny Tsoi and Leo Young

While national attention has focused on governments’ attempts to dismantle organized labor’s role in public employment, Hollywood remains an unabashed union town with complicated, contentious relations between creative-intellectual workers and owners-management, entertainment attorney Jonathan Handel noted in his recent appearaance in the Biederman Institute’s “A Conversation With…” speaker series at Southwestern Law School.

Asked what makes unions in the entertainment industry different than their counterparts in other sectors, Handel — the author of a recent book on the topic –  explained Hollywood’s organized labor remains strong and powerful because of the concentration and consolidation of pertinent work in this metropolis. Owners and management, in contrast to trends among Midwestern governments at the state and local levels, are loath to disrupt production and incur losses, especially by interrupting any flow of product, by taking any steps to break unions, he said.

Handel noted, however, that the Hollywood unions live with considerable legal and practical complexity in their dealings, such as the conflicts over residuals that he said caused the strike in the industry in 2008. That labor action was triggered by a breakdown in  negotiations over pay to talent for new media such as the Internet. As new forms of distribution and performances appear, both owners and management and unions struggle to define and share in new income.

Many problems, he said, can be traced to the way lawyers draft contracts in Hollywood. He likened negotiations over complex accords to “management and labor spending time trying to jam round pegs into square holes or triangular hole, depending on whichever makes the best argument.”

Hollywood contracts, he quipped, are “like roach motels, contract clauses check in, but don’t check out.” The agreements, for example, have built-in references to historic situations and individuals, referring to the “Hitchcock” or “Sanchez” formulas; some pacts refer to defunct companies.

And to get an idea of just how byzantine business affairs can be in the entertainment business, Handel has created a chart just showing residual payment formulas.

Handel wrote Hollywood on Strike: An Industry at War in the Internet Age. He is  “of counsel” at the TroyGould law firm where “he practices in the areas of digital media, entertainment, technology and intellectual property transactions.” He is a contributing editor at The Hollywood Reporter and blogs at jhandel.com.

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This site is an academic activity of law students at the Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute. Founded in 2000, the Institute takes full educational advantage of Southwestern Law School's location in Los Angeles and its long history with and deep connections to the entertainment industry.