Here at Wrapbook, one of our biggest value adds for our clients is ensuring compliance in what’s become a rapidly changing landscape. A variety of competing interests drive contract negotiations.
The crux of labor relations is to find balance in these varied interests and apply that balance reasonably. But what exactly are labor relations? And how might they affect your ongoing work in the industry?
To answer these critical questions, we pivoted to our own contract and compliance expert: Wrapbook Senior Director of Labor Relations, Paul Schoeman.
Paul Schoeman is a veteran of the entertainment industry who has enjoyed a stellar career spanning several decades.
Not only has Paul served as the Vice President of Contract Administration for the AMPTP, but also he’s also worked on the other side of the table as the Director of Media and Labor Economics at SAG-AFTRA.
However, Paul’s experience isn’t limited to labor relations and contract administration. He’s also worked as Director of Video Operations at Spelling Entertainment, recorded animation voice-overs, and performed as an actor. In fact, Paul’s first big break came before the age of one when he was hired to star in a baby food commercial.
*Note: Some dialogue has been condensed for clarity.
Labor relations in the entertainment field refers to the complex relationship between employers and employees in the industry. This relationship can be challenging to manage.
When it comes to labor relations and negotiations, Paul defines what’s usually the common thread.
“Both sides look at the other side and think that there’s a master plan and that everything is running smoothly. But each side is just as confused as the other. Both sides have the same problems. Frequently. Yet, they are different. Often, both sides don't ponder how difficult it will be to administer or track the desired changes.”
It’s uncommon to have both been in a major Hollywood union and worked for the AMPTP. Paul’s experience places him in a unique position to analyze the ongoing challenges of labor relations across the board, as well as to find solutions.
“The benefit I have is having worked on a set and in production. And also, having worked on exactly the opposite side. When I was working with the union folks on the management side, I was able to garner a lot more traction with them in any discussion because I had actually done some of these jobs. And then it ended up being the opposite when I went to the other side. I had so many years being an executive that I was able to translate that.”
Unlike some types of economic and contractual work, labor relations is not a position that thrives only within the theoretical. It has a very practical application that benefits from hands-on experience.
“The time I spent working within a payroll company gave me time to study the practical application of those agreements. It’s given me an interesting perspective that’s helped solve some of these problems on an administrative level.”
In a field that sometimes has conflicting views of exactly what the job entails, Paul is a wealth of knowledge in explaining what labor relations is, what it does, and why it’s important. If you want to gain a clearer understanding of a complex job not even the professionals always understand, continue reading below.
Labor relations is not a term limited to the entertainment industry. However, it does have a very specific application in this field, which Paul was happy to clarify and explain.
“The term labor relations is thrown around frequently, but very few people actually know what it means. To some, it becomes a synonymous thing with ‘the bad guys on the other side’ so I’m happy to actually explain a little of what we do. The unions (IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, Teamsters, etc.) have representatives that are specialists that understand their union’s agreements and terms. That’s who a producer calls to ask, ‘Why do I have to pay this, or do that?’"
If we’re thinking of this scenario as a dinner table, think of the above representatives as sitting on one side of the table. They represent the various unions and journeymen who work on the production. Their goal? Contract compliance. But who sits on the other side?
"On the management side, there are labor relations people employed by the major studios and the payroll companies. There’s approximately 80 odd agreements we deal with. They vary in complexity. Some are 30 pages in length, others are 800 pages. The labor relations people are tasked with having familiarity with all of those agreements.”
On that management side, studios and payroll companies are looking to help clients stay in compliance using the most favorable terms possible. But at the end of the day, everyone is at the table to break bread. So how does having a labor relations team make that happen?
“Labor relations is very important for a payroll company such as Wrapbook. Clients come in and want to know why they have to pay something a certain way. They need answers quickly and definitively. And if you get it wrong, it blows the budget.”
To sum up the above, labor relations on the union side helps unions uphold their contracts. Meanwhile, on the studio/payroll side, labor relations helps productions stay in compliance with those contracts, while also looking out for the production’s own interests. The most frequent interests of studios are scheduling and budgets.
Ideally, the two sides can amicably come to swift agreements. Which begs the question, if you’re thinking of handling any of this yourself...
Obviously, blowing your film’s budget skyward is one reason understanding labor relations (or hiring experts who do!) is very important. But as Paul explains, that’s not the only concern.
“The role becomes very important when you are paying attention to all those details. Studios and productions can lean on labor relations departments. That’s why payroll companies maintain positions such as mine.”
However, labor relations departments working within payroll companies and studios have different mandates as well as metrics for successful outcomes. As Paul describes below:
“In the case of a payroll company, we really view ourselves as Switzerland. We don’t view ourselves as on the side of the studios or unions. We’re supposed to tell you exactly what the contract says. Whatever they wish to do is ultimately the client’s decision. We can advise you on potential issues or problems. That is the type of advice we bring."
Displaying his knack for practical application, Paul provided the following example.
“If someone, for example, said they wanted to take a truck full of camera equipment from Los Angeles to Louisiana, I could walk you through all the problems you will hit. And why you really don’t want to do that if you are on a shoot of a certain size.
I could also walk you through the history on where all those arbitrations were lost. I’m not just going to tell you, ‘Oh gosh, that’s a mistake.’ Producers want to know exactly why and not just be told they have to spend money.”
Flagging possible issues for clients is one of the most important duties of labor relations. However, that’s only half of the battle. Having the knowledge to explain the ‘why’ and impart practical solutions is one of the many benefits in having a solid labor relations team.
In such a highly specialized and specific field, Paul has faced many challenges in his career.
“Challenges vary in degree. We work very heavily with accountants, which on the surface doesn’t sound like much. But I’ve had many accountants say they are doing a budget for a film that’s a 150 million dollars that’s filming during this specific date range, and to gather all that contract and compliance information and make sure it’s appropriate to the time and location is extremely challenging.”
The specificities involved in this field are one of the biggest challenges even for experienced producers. It’s tough for any one person to know all of the rules. This is why payroll companies such as Wrapbook and studios employ various experts in the field who can collect and organize data, as well as speak to contract nuances.
“Another bigger one I’ve had are major films going into major cities with massive street closures. I had one filming in a federal building that was only closed Sundays and Wednesdays. I worked heavily with the union to come up with a schedule where the producer didn’t have to pay endless amounts for the crew on all these unused days. Thankfully, we were able to come to an agreement.”
Coming to an agreement is one of the most rewarding parts of a career in labor relations. Successful agreements save time, money, and foster a positive morale for the production and crew. You might think of the well-known proverb, “good fences make good neighbors.”
It's easy for outsiders to dismiss the impact of labor relations in the entertainment industry, but strikes can have a ripple effect on the country and global economy.
Thus, it’s important to see the bigger picture beyond film and television. To learn more about the ongoing strikes, see Wrapbook’s articles What the 2023 SAG Strike Means for You and How Will the WGA and SAG Strikes Impact Unscripted TV.
“I find it fascinating when people ask me, 'What type of impact does the WGA strike have now on the industry?' Because the question really is, 'What does that really do to the economy?' I love working on these problems because there’s so many moving parts.
It’s not just for example, Jane or Joe the lighting technician is not getting paid this week because there’s a strike going on. If they’re not getting paid, they’re not taking their family out to dinner or replacing the tires on their car. It starts to trickle down.”
While he was unable to go into specific details, Paul continues to review and analyze the ongoing research into the effects the strikes will have on the industry and the economy. This data can become a powerful tool in understanding the benefits of positive labor relations, as well as calculating the fallout of industry disruption.
In a position that is both challenging and rewarding, Paul had the following advice for anyone interested in learning more about labor relations or for those considering a career in this specialized field.
“If you have a doubt on a union question, lean into your labor team. If you’re with a payroll company, lean into them. This is what we do for a living. We know a lot of the pitfalls.
Regarding labor relations as a career, it’s not an arena I would recommend for someone who is not willing to put in some obscenely long hours. It’s also not a field for anyone with a thin skin. For those who are successful, it’s a combination of intellect and temperament.”
While most in the field of labor relations do possess a law degree, it’s not a must. Paul himself relies on his expertise and experience in the industry. That said, the road to obtaining this level of knowledge is a long one and recommended for those dedicated to pursuing a lengthy career in the field.
If you’re curious to know more about Paul’s work with Wrapbook, check out his explanation on Understanding SAG-AFTRA Agreements and also this page on Wrapbook’s in-house Union Experts who support our clients on their payroll, compliance, and production needs.
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Wrapbook's newest resource is our podcast, "On Production," which features experts in the field and tips on how to navigate the production world. Check it out!