Social Media Influencers Rankle Union Pros With On-Set Photos for Studios

With many people getting most of their information via social media, publicists have started following the eyeballs online and turning to Instagram-famous personalities to snap on-set pics promoting movies and TV projects to their audience of followers. 

But the practice runs afoul of traditional set photographers, who are members of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, and who have long been the only people allowed to take publicity stills on set. Many in the union contend that hiring social media influencers to post behind-the-scenes photos to their followers jeopardizes their jobs by duplicating work, despite regulations put in place to protect them.

One union photographer, who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of career retribution, says that in practice, the work is completely unregulated. “There’s no definition of what the influencer’s job is,” says the photographer. “It has become totally fine for them to come on set and take pictures, when that’s a union position.”

In 2017, ICG recognized the growing phenomenon of influencers and tried to safeguard its members’ jobs during studio negotiations. The result was that social media influencers could be hired to work on set, with restrictions — they cannot be hired to work more than half the length of a production’s shooting schedule, and with the proviso that a union photographer must be present and on payroll concurrently.

Multiple union photographers also relate stories of encounters with influencers who don’t know or abide by set etiquette, sometimes pushing their way into small shooting spaces, using flashes in the middle of shooting, or worse.

Mark Willingham, who represents social media influencers as a CEO and co-founder of Agent Inc., says many influencers are unfamiliar with on-set rules. “Quite frankly, a lot of the people are younger, and they haven’t grown up in that environment, so they don’t know it,” he says. “There needs to be a better understanding, and production companies need to educate people. If they’re going to invite people onto the set, those people need to know what the do’s and don’ts are. … There need to be protocols in place, and those protocols should be come standardized.”

A second union photographer, also anonymous due to career considerations, draws parallels to other disciplines: “I can’t imagine the studio bringing in a guest costume designer for a scene, or a guest director of photography. What about having a 14-year-old YouTube sensation direct? Where does it end?”

Several union photogs report losing jobs to influencers when productions decide they don’t need two photographers. The union shooter speculates that violations of guild rules occur so frequently that the guild is “having a hard time getting a handle on it.”

The ICG did not respond to requests for comment other than to cite policy that prohibits reps from speaking on jurisdictional issues that could be the subject of claims.

While union members can file a grievance, the problem — as for all entertainment unionists — is a lack of anonymity in the process. When a production hires only a single still photographer, it’s all too easy to pinpoint the source of the complaint. Thus, photographers are forced to choose between remaining silent or speaking up and compromising their chances for future work.

A publicist for several productions, also commenting on condition of anonymity, said only that working with influencers is something they’re looking into.

Union photographers don’t discount the benefits of social media promotion but take issue with the way in which influencers are infringing on their jobs. When the two shoot side by side, there’s unnecessary overlap. The pros add that they could easily take more informal photos in the style typical of social media. 

The second union photographer points out that unionists don’t retain rights to their work, and toil under more creative restrictions than social-media photographers. “It feels gratuitous for us both to be on set,” says the photog. “It’s an awkward stipulation that feels like it’s satisfying a union requirement and not really fixing what is essentially a problem.”

One possible solution floated by the second photographer is letting union pros have more control of their images: “The social media person has the ability to craft something that might be outside the realm of a typical press kit. Much of what we do goes through so many channels.

“I applaud the studios for looking for different ways to reimagine the business,” adds the second photog, “but I wonder how all the moving parts can somehow come together.” 

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