Film, television and new media composers union

It seems that film, television and new media composers are one step closer to unionising.

This particular corner of the industry is something that’s pretty foreign to me, so I can’t even begin to assess or predict what the difficulties, opportunities or implications of such a thing might be, but my gut reaction is that anything that might add pressure to pay composers adequately is a Good Thing.

Having a couple of friends who are involved in the animation and visual effects side of things, I’m often left pondering the differences between our fields. Now, VFX is a comparatively young field, and isn’t unionised yet either, although in the wake of Avatar this open letter to James Cameron led to this podcast which prompted this online ‘Town Hall meeting’ to discuss VFX working conditions and unionisation. Again, I’m not aware of all of the issues here, but I applaud the fact that some form of public dialogue has been instigated on this. (Animators already have their own guild).

Now, the thing is, while working conditions and pay might suck for FX people, it would never occur to film producers – even of  low-budget commercial films – to practically not pay them at all. There appears to be at least some recognition that doing visual effects or animation is an incredibly time- and expertise-intensive job, and needs to be remunerated.

Compare and contrast with film composition, where if this is an industry you’re trying to break into, you pretty much need to work for free for a decade, hoping to get as many prominent credits as possible.

In some senses this comparison is false – beginner directors, screenwriters and actors do their fair share of working for free and self-subsidy, too. And, like with directors, screenwriters and actors, the dire financial prospects for film composers at the start of their careers are motivated by the fact that anybody with a computer and a software sequencer can theoretically produce a film score, while paradoxically there is very little work (one job per film, essentially, compared with the small army of VFX people that might be working on Prince Caspian). The simple economics of supply and demand mean that it’s possible to find people with little experience, wanting to break into the industry, who will work for practically nothing.

Furthermore, the fact that early-career, but moderately-credentialled composers are frequently working for such little financial reward means results in talented, but poorly-credentialled composers finding it even harder to get their foot in the door. Why would a producer take a risk in hiring a talented newcomer when you can get a composer with a far longer credit list to work for ‘beginner’ rates?

So one thing I’ll be really interested to see as the Composers Union story develops is exactly what kind of implications this is expected to have for composers who are earlier in their careers. Will collective bargaining work in a field where non-union composers are willing to undercut their competition in order to get a gig?

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