Bryan Caplan  

Sin City and the Bizarre World of Entertainers' Unions

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Sin City opens on April 1, I haven't been as enthuiastic about a movie trailer since The Return of the King. And it's got a cool backstory too. Director Robert Rodriguez dropped out of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) because union rules prevented him from naming graphic novelist Frank Miller as co-director.

DGA rules dictate that there be only one director assigned to direct a motion picture at any given time, although the guild occasionally grants a waiver to that policy.

On Thursday, a DGA spokesman said, "The guild regrets Mr. Rodriguez's resignation, however, we stand firmly behind the principle of one director-one film."

Rodriguez explains himself:

"I am making such a literal interpretation of his book that I'd have felt weird taking directing credit without him. It was easier for me to quietly resign before shooting because otherwise I'd have been forced to make compromises I was unwilling to make. Or set a precedent that might hurt the guild later on."

Rodriguez often agrees with the spirit of DGA policies, but they "make it very hard to do something that is exciting and different, which is exactly how I sold this project from the beginning," he added.

All this makes me wonder:

1. What's in it for the DGA?

Like all unions, they want to hold down the number of workers in their industry. Rodriguez gets the microeconomics exactly wrong when he says:

"Someone in my position doesn't need the protection of the guild as much as a newcomer who might get strong-armed by a film company."

Ha! It's the established directors who benefit from the unions' effort to curtail new entry - and the newcomers who would just love to be "strong-armed" - which is also known as getting their BIG BREAK.

On further thought, though, it hardly seems like refusing to co-credit Frank Miller is going to put money in the pockets of established directors. It's not like Miller is going to go solo. This seems more like bureaucratic inertia rather than a calculated shakedown to me. A little flexibility could have guarded the union's mystique.

2. How does the DGA make its rules stick?

Apparently the DGA has failed to make its rules stick. The worst consequence, seemingly, is that Rodriguez won't get to direct A Princess of Mars. But Sin City steamrolled ahead, and half of the stars of Hollywood appear in it. Not much of a secondary boycott. And it's hard to believe that Rodriguez will have trouble getting choice projects after this.

Even more puzzling, Rodriguez has dropped out of the DGA before! How can a union restrict labor supply if it lets you jump in and out at your convenience?

For decades economists have wondered about unions for entertainers. How do they manage to control the supply of such an elastic product? Perhaps the Rodriguez case shows that they have a lot less control than we thought. No problem, no solution.

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nathan writes:

Here's another example of union jackassery:

The unions frowned on George Lucas because he refused to use opening credits per union rules on Star Wars (instead he created the most memorable opening sequence ever on film). On Empire and Jedi the union went ahead and fined Lucas.

David Thomson writes:

Robert Rodriguez is living in an egalitarian make believe world. The very concept of co-director is downright goofy. Somebody has to have the final say. One of these individuals must take a back seat when a hard decision must be made.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

It takes understanding of Hollywood social structure. Writers are supposed to be the 'Hired Help', while Directors are the mini-Kings. Frank Miller rises in status named as a Director, and the Peons will all want to rise in rank. lgl

cameron mulder writes:

Although i agree that in this case, it appears that the union is totaly in the wrong. From what i understand Unions in entertainment have a important place becuase of the fact that most of the entertainment industry is out of work, most of the time. How many directors area a part of the union, and how many are actually directing a movie at any given time?
So i think, i'm not totaly sure i havn't researched entertainment unions in any real depth, but they seem to be usefull due to the fact that so many of the people in the entertainment bussiness are not employed all the time. So they can help prevent abuseive practices from the studios.

Now with the creation for so many non-hollywood movie operations in Canada, Australia, New Zeland, the UK and Europe. I would imagine we will see a decrease in the importance of these unions. But i would still argue that in a society that does not have perfect markets, where there are power structures in place, unions can have there place to help people. So the anti-union bias of the blog might be a little misplaced

Bernard Yomtov writes:

I suspect what the DGA is doing by its rule is protecting its members from having studio execs demand unjustified co-directing credits. It is indeed the newcomers who would be most susceptible to this.

You support this point yourself, when you say Rodriguez is not going to have trouble getting work. That's because he's established.

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