It’s been a little while since I covered any film business-type stuff on the blog. So I thought I’d talk about the gotchas that can occur when dealing with the one guild you’re likely to deal with even on a short film: the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). I’m actually happy that SAG exists, because without them, actors would be completely at the mercy of producers. Having said that, I think there is room for improvement in the way that SAG treats its members and producers. So rather than make this into an extended bitch session, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how the “SAG process” could be improved upon.
SAG has gotten better about putting more of its paperwork online, but even so, much of it still has to be filled out by hand (many of the PDFs are locked or scans). Also, there is tremendous data duplication – I have to fill out the same name, company, address, contact info, etc. on about a half-dozen forms just to get started. This can’t be good for anyone, including the poor guys at SAG who have to key all this stuff into their computers. The NYC Mayor’s Office has fill-in PDF forms. Other municipalities don’t even require you to walk in – just fill everything out online and print out your permit once it’s been approved. Even the U.S. Copyright office has gotten into the act. So why not SAG?
The complaint about the paperwork is, in the scheme of things, not that big a deal. The bond (or deposit), however, can be a real nutbuster. Your SAG rep, in consultation with his/her boss, figures out your SAG bond as either 40% of the payroll plus SAG’s 14.8% fringe, or two weeks’ worth of payroll plus 14.8%. However, I’ve had deposit requests come back for more than the entire cast salary. This is very common on ultra-low budget films, and it makes no sense.
I understand the point of the bond – it’s to ensure that the production company doesn’t fold and leave the actors without any pay. You get the bond back when the film is wrapped and all the paperwork is handed in. This all sounds great in theory, but in fact there are some problems with the way it works out for ultra-low budget films.
Firstly, it puts a serious crimp in the cashflow. It’s an expense that can slow down postproduction (which is where the money is usually coming from), or even production.
Secondly, it makes no sense for the bond to be such a large percentage of the cast payroll. Thirdly, I’ve sometimes had it take many months before receiving the bond back. I’ve had SAG hold onto a bond for six months, long after all the final paperwork was submitted. The excuses varied with each phone call to the rep. Threatening them with legal action brought no response. It was worse than dealing with a cellphone provider or a cable company.
One solution would be to institute an “as negotiated” clause for ultra-low budget films. Another would be to deduct, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, amounts deposited to an actor’s agency’s escrow account. SAG DOES does something like this now, but it’s not on a dollar-for-dollar basis. A third option would be to require the deposit but then allow producer’s to withdraw from it for the last pay period (something that IATSE will sometimes do).
Do you have to have a tutor for your child actor for every school day missed, or only after two consecutive days have been missed? Does the ceiling for the modified low budget contract include postproduction? Is the copyright assignment always necessary? I’ve gotten a different answer to these and other questions depending on what office I’ve called, what department I’ve spoken with, and sometimes even who I’ve spoken with within a given department. The above-mentioned SAG exception, where you can deposit money into a the actor’s agency escrow account? That was presented in a workshop headed by a SAG rep as follows – “if you pay the actor ahead of time, you can deduct their salary from the bond”. The rep failed to mention the escrow clause. The producer went ahead and paid her cast ahead of time, then told SAG this. Their response: sorry, you still owe us the bond. “But your rep said”…
Staff Anger Management
Believe it or not, I have sympathy for SAG reps. I can tell they’re overworked and have too many projects to juggle. I can tell that they’re fighting against a tidal wave of paperwork. I’m guessing that they’re dealing with outdated software and computers and a constituency that may not be the most appreciative in the world. (NOTE: I temped at SAG a long, long time ago.) But don’t take that out on me. As a line producer, I’m in the same boat on the other side of the glass. I’m not trying to screw anyone. In fact, my reputation – my very next job possibly – is dependant on keeping the producers, director, vendors, crew, unions, cast, and SAG reasonably happy. Or if not happy, at least not feeling used. Now I’ve worked with really terrifically nice, well-adjusted, articulate SAG reps; but I’ve also worked with monsters who tried to fine me for everything, lost my paperwork, yelled at me or the producer over the phone for asking simple questions, etc. If I did that on a consistent basis, no one would work with me for more than one project. (I do yell, but I usually save it for when someone’s safety is at risk. If you have to yell at someone all the time to get them to do something, it’s better to fire them). Maybe the latter group should be in the back office somewhere where they don’t have to deal with people.
Why oh why are there TWO guilds for actors? With competing contracts and overlapping memberships and agendas? Why has this gone on so long? I usually end up steering the producers towards SAG for features because the actors’ agents feel more comfortable about it. But I’ve known a few indie features that have shot under AFTRA contracts. As long as this competition exists, I can’t see it benefitting anyone except the producers. Certainly not the actors, who may go from one pay scale to another, for doing essentially the same job. And not the guilds, who lose money from their pension funds. The whole point of collective bargaining is to create a united front. Now that the Internet is about to become the BIG platform, swallowing film and TV and everything in between, more could be gained than lost by merging, no?
Low Budget Agreement Limits
Every few years, SAG revises its contracts and sets new limits for its low budget agreements – IE Ultra Low Budget Films are $200K or less, Modified Low Budget is $625K or less, etc. The problem is that these limits are static for the duration of the agreement. The IA National agreements actually include percentage increases in the ceilings for each “Budget Tier”. In other words, you qualify for Tier 1 in 2004 if your film is $4Million or less, in 2005 if your film is $4.1 million or less, etc. The wages and fringes for the crew also go up every year, by approximately the same percentage. This is a good thing overall. First, it means that the crew is not losing money over time (since the cost of living generally goes up every year, $1 you make this year is worth less next year). Secondly, it recognizes that the cost to producers of making a film also goes up.
SAG, on the other hand, thinks that $625K will buy you the same level of movie and talent as it did five years ago. This is simply not the case. Gear rental, transportation, location fees, food, and everything else goes up every year. Even non-union crew rates have risen (albeit very slowly). I would recommend that the next SAG contract (if it ever comes out) include some kind of step-wise increase each year.
I don’t have a lot of broad conclusions to draw here. Just become as familiar with the process and the contracts as possible. SAGIndie, SAG’s “indie-friendly” site, does have some very good information, as well as copies of the various low budget contracts, and a summary of the paperwork you need to stay on top of. But also go to SAG.org, look up the phone number for the LA office, and have them mail you the basic agreement and supplements. It’s a huge tome, but all the low-budget agreements reference it, so get familiar with it. I also recommend getting an updated copy of Entertainment Partners’ Paymaster, which has the rates, fringes and basic guidelines for all the guilds and unions. It’s invaluable when building a budget anyway. If any of you readers are SAG reps, please consider this article as a sincere attempt at communication, and not as an attack.