So you and a few of your friends decide it would be cool write a short screenplay and make a movie. It is a fun idea that you guys feel you can get together in a few weeks. But as you start to research all that goes into making a movie, you find out that casting professional actors that are part of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) require a written agreement between the producers of the movie and the guild, even for a very low budget short film.
Suddenly your zippy idea to make a movie feels a lot more cumbersome. It looks like a lot of paperwork and jumping through a lot of hoops… Why should I do this? How does this benefit me and my movie? And how do I do this?
I am here to say that there are pros and cons to making a SAG-Signatory project and this article is here to be your guide, if you should chose to go forth with a SAG-Signatory agreement for your project.
Why I Am The Best Person To Write This Article
Before we get started in the nitty-gritty pros and cons of making a SAG-Signatory project, I want to tell you why I feel that I am in a unique position to provide a balanced answer to this position for the independent movie producer.
Before I was a director/producer, I started as an actor and have worked in the industry as a non-union actor.
Currently, I am a union actor who has requested I NOT be in proper standing with the union.
I have chosen this because I produce little projects all the time and am always on camera and I don’t want to restrict that.
I put myself on camera all of the time and post it to YouTube and other places on the Internet.
These are all quickly produced projects where I am the solo producer, director, actor, cinematographer, editor, VFX artist, etc and if I returned to being in proper standing with SAG and wanted to be legit with all of these impromptu projects, I would have to make a contract every time I make a video about a cool permaculture park I found or how I like to wear organic clothes.
Many of these projects were made on the fly and to block that because of union regulations seems like a terrible shame.
Even worse, what if I made a bunch of little YouTube videos about travel or environmentalism and started making money through Patron or sold it as an educational course on my website? I would be forced to hire a payroll company and pay them to pay me.
How stupid is that?
If you listen to advice from actors about this topic, they will likely tell you their opinion based on their status with the union and will push you toward whatever status they hold.
But as someone who has been acting and producing for years, and on the fence, weighing the pros and cons of whether to become a proper-standing member of SAG, I feel that I have spent a long time looking at both the upside and downside, not just as an actor, but as a producer as well.
Additionally, I have lived in a lot of places, from the entertainment industry centers of New York and Los Angeles, to the rural desert of Arizona, and have produced movies in all of these places.
The location has a lot to do with this decision. The budget has a lot to do with this decision.
Currently, I am producing a movie in New York and we are going with SAG-Signatory actors, and I will explain why later in my next post, but we are going to start with why, for most of my career, I have chosen to make non-union projects.
First, looking at the timeline of my career, I went from making a few short projects that inspired me, to being a student, to producing solo projects (mostly animation and documentary).
As I have mentioned many times on this site, my first project was produced because I was in a one-month class called Flash Forward in Los Angeles and was meant to be a big leap in my career, which it was, In addition to being in front of the camera as an actor, I also started working behind the camera as a director and producer.
I ended up casting a lot of my friends in the project, none of whom were SAG at the time.
Also, I wouldn’t have been able to finish up my paperwork in 1 month at that time because back then the SAG agreements were much more cumbersome.
I should also note that I started directing and producing before everyone and their brother was a filmmaker so EVERYTHING was a lot more cumbersome at the time…
From the filmmaking technology to the costs of that technology, to finding the equipment, to video editing and file storage, to applying to film festivals…
All of it sucked. Seriously. It is so much easier now than even 10 years ago.
So it didn’t make sense to add that extra layer of time and complication to my little 1-day or 2-day movie shoot.
After my first project, I did a few more additional projects while I crewed on professional movie sets. This is when I let go of my participation in SAG (actually, I was with AFTRA but the unions merged in 2011)..
Then I went back to school and did radio and live broadcast news and VFX and was on the radio every week and on camera frequently. To this day I have no idea if I had been an up-to-date member of SAG-AFTRA if I would have been breaking some rules, but I am pretty sure I would have been, even as a student with student productions.
After all of this schooling, I returned to the stage as an actor, and have been doing voiceover for my animation and documentary movies, and for other people’s video games.
I attended a SAG signatory meeting in Los Angeles years ago, after I made my first movie. I got overwhelmed by the cumbersome complexity of it and decided not to go that route, even though I lived in Los Angeles which is like the center of the entertainment industry.
Since then, the SAG-Signatory regulations have become a lot less complicated and time-consuming.
Even though most of my career I have avoided making my projects SAG-Signatory, I attended another SAG-Indie meeting this month in New York and want to share what I learned and the legwork I have done to make my next project with SAG actors.
But before we get to that, I want to talk about the advantages to staying non-union because this website is oriented toward beginner indie filmmakers (if that’s you, check out my course!) and I feel that this is the information that is the most relevant to you.
Why You Should Make Your Movie With Non-Union Actors
Reason 1: Less Paperwork
The main resistance I have had to make SAG-Signatory projects is the mountain of paperwork that seems to go with the process.
It always seemed very complicated, and just 5 years ago it was. I attended my first SAG-INDIE meeting in Los Angeles over a decade ago, thinking that I wanted one of my little projects to be official, and after that meeting, I immediately changed my mind because it seemed like I would be spending all of my time filling out forms that made me “official”.
Plus, I didn’t need the affiliation because I had so many friends who were fantastic actors and not in the union.
Reason 2: Less Time or Not Enough Time
I have always been a producer that works fast and I like it that way. There is a lot of waiting that is required for SAG-Signatory. It is not outrageous, but if I want to shoot a movie in two weeks and I already have my usual crew and cast, I still do not have time to get my Signatory paperwork back before we shoot. And if you are not in compliance before your first shoot day, you cannot use the SAG actors you cast.
The movie I am producing now was supposed to be shot this month but we pushed the date back BECAUSE we wanted SAG-Signatory. It is a really easy shoot but we want to be official and legit and that will take jumping through a few SAG hoops which is slowing us down.
Reason 3: Less Complicated
Aside from the forms being a little complicated, it adds layers of complication. It is not just the SAG Signatory form, but then the form to get payroll, or the form to get state insurance. And then there are restrictions on where the movie can be screened when it is done, especially as an ultra-low-budget short because it bumps into a more expensive class of movie (with higher pay rates) if we decide to screen the movie beyond the ways specified in the ultra-low-budget short film contract.
Then there are restrictions on the amount of time an actor can be on set because it can bump up the pay rate tremendously to go over 8 hours.
I understand why this rule is in place. As someone who has crewed productions that have gone well over 17 hours with one meal break, it is infuriating to be treated like that, but it also frustrates me because low budget filmmaking by its very nature requires longer hours than your typical 8 hour day.
My cast and crew always thanks me for treating them so well on set, with proper food and breaks, but for the non-union projects that I make, the crew and cast know that a 12 hour day is not unreasonable.
Also, having been an actor on both non-union and union sets, I can say that on most of them a large portion of my time is spent in actor’s holding waiting to be called in when the set is ready.
This is a piece of cake most of the time, compared to the +12 hours of being on a crew being on their feet, setting up heavy equipment (even craft service), and looking ahead to the next several shots strategically and with mental preparation, always watching the clock and hoping the rain holds off and the planes stop flying by every 20 minutes.
So, yes, it is 12 hours, but I would say that at least 50% of that time is spent hanging out, waiting to actually work, so it’s not as exhausting as it sounds.
Reason 4: Less Expensive
My first movie cost a lot because I didn’t know what I was doing, but my second movie was not expensive at all. Even with giving actors deferred pay, I would have had to add to my very, very low budget which might have made me not make the movie at all.
Again, at the ultra-low-budget short movie contract with SAG signatory actors it is not that bad in terms of cost, but it still can be expensive for a project with a very modest budget.
I am very sure that on some of the projects I have directed and someone else has produced, there is no way they would have had it in their budget to go with union actors, and so the project would have never been made.
Also, I have worked with a number of improvisation troupes who just want to get their improvs written, shot and placed on YouTube as promotional pieces for their actors.
Do you think they are going to pay a payroll company or even a state for insurance for a project that they are self-creating and not getting paid for anyway?
I don’t think so.
Reason 5: There Are A Lot Of Great Non-Union Actors
I have a dog.
I tell my dog, “Go back to your spot,” and the dog knows exactly where to go.
Sure it took a little training, but really not more than a day.
The main reason that SAG will tell you that you need to work with them is that their actors are professional. The woman at the meeting I attended last week said, “Pros know how to hit their mark and how to make things go smoothly on set.”
Framing it that way, it is absurd to deal with the union just to have someone know what it means to “Go back to 1”. If my dog knows what that means, I can train a non-union actor how to do that, too (and I have many times).
There are plenty of non-union actors who are fantastic at their craft.
This is because they teach ACTING at school. They may not teach proper movie production set etiquette or terminology, which IS a thing, but they know how to act. It is the skillset that actors learn first and actors enjoy the most.
The other stuff they learn because they have to. They learn it because they are on set for the first time and don’t want to look stupid. They learn it from observation and from other actors advising them.
They learn it because they are obeying the movie director that tells them to “cheat” their body a certain way even though it feels wrong physically, only to watch the scene later and see why the director told them to move their body in a seemingly incorrect and awkward way.
Reason 6: You Make Movies in “Work For Hire”/Right-To-Work States
SAG jurisdiction does not cover all locations and I learned a lot about this when I was making movies in Arizona.
We could hire SAG actors for our non-union shoots and these union could work on our non-union movies and still stay in good standing with the union.
The rules around this are a bit complicated so please research this on your own, but it basically has to do with where the deal is negotiated (in this case the deal is where the agreement of actor and production to work together happened) and how far away the set is from a designated signatory region like Los Angeles and New York.
I worked on a project in Castaic, California, on the outskirts of Los Angeles and just outside the region covered by SAG, which gave the producers a number of allowances with the SAG actors.
Again, research this thoroughly…
So if you are shooting a low-budget feature film and want professional SAG actors in your movie who want to do it because you have a fantastic script, but you don’t have it in your budget to do all the hoop-jumping of SAG-Signatory contracts, you negotiate the deal and shoot the movie in a work-for-hire/right-to-work state outside of SAG’s jurisdiction so that it works out for both you and the actor.
(Please check with the right-to-work rules in relation to SAG/AFTRA for more details).
If you are just starting out on the path of indie filmmaking, dealing with union regulations can be very overwhelming and tedious. You will hear many people in the entertainment industry say that half of “show business” is “business”, and keeping in line with union regulations and working with professional union actors is part of the business.
But if you are just starting off, you have to weigh the extra price and time of union affiliation with the value of having professional actors in your production or being able to show the SAG logo in the credits at the end of your film.
NEXT POST: WHY YOU SHOULD MAKE YOUR MOVIE SAG-SIGNATORY
Now that I have broken down why I have not made SAG-Signatory projects in the past, my next post (PART 2) will tell you why I am starting to think it is a good idea to start making most of my projects SAG-Signatory from now on.