Labor unions and guilds have been organized in film industries in many countries. Typically, these organizations have focused on specific types of workers, such as actors, directors, and technical workers—for example, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, TV and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the Directors Guild of Great Britain (DGGB), and the Australian Theatrical & Amusement Employees' Association (ATAEA).
In the early history of film, workers often were organized by trade unions from related industries, such as the theater and the electrical industry. Eventually unions and guilds were formed specifically to organize film workers, and most of these labor groups are still active in film and television industries. Like other labor unions, film labor organizations represent their members in negotiations for wages, benefits, and working conditions, in addition to providing a variety of other services. Some guilds also become involved in negotiating royalty payments, conditions for screen credit, and other issues. Unions and guilds also engage in political activities through lobbying or election campaigning.
Also like other labor organizations, film unions and guilds continue to be challenged by political and economic developments in society in general and film industries in particular. For instance, the global expansion of the film industry during the last few decades of the twentieth century had an impact on film workers in various ways. While film labor organizations around the world have developed and are organized similarly, the focus of this article is on US unions and guilds both as an exemplar and because of the current global prominence of Hollywood films and companies.
While unions and guilds were active in the US film industry early in the twentieth century, the more specialized labor organizations, such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA), emerged in the 1930s during an especially intense period of labor organizing. Although film labor groups in the US were challenged in various ways by the anticommunism of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the groups survived and expanded to include television workers in the 1950s and 1960s. Trade unions and guilds continue to play major roles in the current US entertainment industry.
Film workers in the US represent a highly skilled and specialized labor force, but unemployment is high. For instance, it has been estimated that 85 percent of actors are out of work most of the time. There are some unusual or unique characteristics of film work, as well. Some workers, such as writers, directors and actors, share in the profits of films through profit participation deals. Others may become employers themselves through their own independent production companies or in projects where they serve as producer or director. For example, Billy Crystal worked as an actor in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold (1994), but also was the film's producer. There also are keen differences between above-the-line and below-the-line workers, with consequent differences between the labor organizations that represent these different types of labor. Above-the-line labor organizations involve "creative" workers (writer, director, actors), while below-the-line labor refers more to "technical" laborers (camera operators, editors, gaffers, etc.). The organization of entertainment unions along craft lines rather than as a vertical, industrial structure has tended to inhibit labor unity within the industry.
Generally, motion picture production is labor-intensive, meaning the largest part of the budget is spent on labor. The cost of key talent (especially actors and actresses) is a significant part of the budget for a typical Hollywood film. Above-the-line talent can often represent 50 percent of a production budget, and has been identified as one of the key reasons why the costs of Hollywood films have skyrocketed.