Cinematographers Guild Celebrates Drone Victory Over Warner Bros. in Arbitration

Five individuals working on a TV show should have been covered under an agreement between cinematographers and producers, an arbitrator ruled April 21.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Thanks to COVID-19, many are losing their jobs while others are now worried about maintaining health insurance. But one group in Hollywood may have just taken a step toward realizing employee benefits. That would be Hollywood's drone operators, who were the subject of a lengthy fight in arbitration over classification and jurisdiction.

After Warner Bros. hired drone technicians in 2015 for Rush Hour, a TV series based on the film franchise, the International Cinematographers Guild initiated arbitration in an attempt to get them health and pension benefits afforded to employees under its collectively bargained agreement with producers.

On Friday, near the end of a virtual meeting with its members about COVID-19, the guild shared "good news," that the arbitrator had largely ruled in its favor.

ICG insisted its labor agreement covered those who worked in "all phases of motion and still picture photography,” including members of a drone crew, who they asserted should be afforded the same treatment as aerial directors of photography, camera operators and camera technicians. They argued that drone technicians make similar creative decisions regarding camera placement and shot execution.

Warner Bros. saw these individuals closer to helicopter pilots who haven't been traditionally covered under the ICG agreement. The studio further told the arbitrator that drone technicians were really subcontractors, and any decision holding otherwise could mean WB is acting as an unlicensed drone operator. That could raise trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration.

According to ICG, the arbitrator found April 21 that Warner Bros. should have covered five members of the drone crews working on Rush Hour under the terms of the guild's basic agreement. One drone pilot was not covered, the arbitrator ruled, because he piloted the drone while an operator worked the camera and, unlike another drone pilot, did not exercise artistic skill in operating the drone.   

ICG further shared with its members, "The arbitrator found that the employer had the burden to prove that it was subcontracting for work that was not covered by the Local 600 Basic Agreement, and that Warner Bros. did not meet that standard. "

The arbitrator's award is said to not be final with damages still yet to be determined.

Because the Rush Hour case was in arbitration and given the fact-dependent nature of these types of disputes, the legal precedent may be limited for now. Nevertheless, with the possibility of settlement and more claims against studios to come, the ranks of people calling themselves cinematographers could be one of the few occupations growing at this difficult economic time.