In my last post, I wrote the many reasons that, up until now, I have made many more movies as non-union productions than movies that involve unions such as SAG-AFTRA and all of the paperwork and regulations that come with that. You may be wondering yourself why you should make a SAG-Signatory movie when it is so much easier to keep everything non-union, including the actors.
While in the past I have not used SAG actors in my productions, I have come to see that there are a number of advantages to making a production SAG-Signatory and I am going to show you why it may be worth it for you to put in a little more time and effort into making your movie with SAG actors.
In a blanket statement, it is simply more professional to make your project a SAG Signatory project. But what does “professional” mean? In this article, we will explore the details of why you would want to put the effort in to make a union film project.
(I go into depth in my previous post about why I am the right person to write an article about this, having been both a non-union and union actor, and a producer that has been forced to consider my union status when I cast myself, leading to the choice to refuse official SAG status and the incumbencies that come with that status as an actor (and as a producer). Please refer to that article to learn more.)
1. Better and Easier SAG Contract For Producers
When I attended the SAG-INDIE meeting in Los Angeles about 10 years ago, a lot of things were different. SAG and AFTRA were still separate unions, the Internet was just emerging as a distribution channel for movies and web series and union agreements and contracts were confusing and frequently changing to attempt to keep up with the rapid growth of the Internet.
Before the SAG-AFTRA merger, it seemed to me that SAG was still operating from the traditional aspects of filmmaking, mainly that if one had the budget to make a FILM (and I mean old-school film, NOT DIGITAL) which is outrageously expensive to shoot on, then you have the money to pay actors well. There was a lot less work for actors before the digital revolution, but if you did get a union acting gig, it paid well.
Here’s an article from Backstage that was printed right after the merger that will explain some of the changes in contracts that occurred.
Ten years ago, SAG had this thing called a New Media Contract and they still do, but in my opinion, it is beyond what is necessary for most short movies. There is another SAG contract that used to exist called the “experimental” contract and it was also way more complicated than it needed to be for the average indie short filmmaker.
Today, there are a number of contract options for an independent producer making a movie, whether it be a short or a feature film, and regardless of whether it be documentary, live action or animated project.
Some of these are still cumbersome, like the impression I got from the animated contract. As someone who has produced and directed animated projects, I wouldn’t want to deal with such a contract because it presumes (again, erroneously) a huge budget for the project which is not always the case.
But when you get into short movie contracts with SAG-AFTRA, things have become a lot more simple and clear-cut. Basic rules like, “Your budget must be under $40,000,” offers clarity and a “line in the sand” that most short film producers don’t even come close to reaching.
SAG-INDIE has also improved its website. A decade ago it was full of video presentations on how to finish all of the paperwork. Today it is just a checklist of the paperwork and those forms have become a lot easier.
2. Bankable Actors
In the post I mentioned earlier about NOT going with SAG actors, I said that most non-union actors might not know the ins and outs of being on a set, but they will know the craft of acting because that is what acting schools teach. The basics of set behavior and techniques can be taught while they are on set with you and I have observed that actors often learn this quickly.
But there are some advantages to casting SAG Signatory actors in your movie, the main one being that they have a name and a following.
If your budget is such that you can afford an actor with even a modest following, you are likely to get a bit of buzz to your movie once it is done.
Taking this one step further, if you are considering distributing your movie to foreign locations, it might be advantageous to do some research on what actors are popular in these foreign territories.
One of my friends is an actor and he is really popular in Spain. If you were planning on getting a distribution deal in Spain, you might want to research the actors that are popular there. You might get a deal on hiring them if they are not so popular in the United States but huge overseas.
This technique usually is more oriented toward feature films, but if you think about it, the Internet offers global distribution (except for censored countries) and you could promote a short movie or web series in a country that loves your lead actor. Or if you apply to film festivals in that country where your actor is loved, you could let movie lovers and fans of your star actor know when your movie will be screening at local film festivals.
In addition to this main reason to use union actors, I must say that it is nice when professional actors come to set and know what’s what without asking a million questions. Even though I mentioned earlier that it is not a big deal, it CAN make the production go faster.
Professional actors can do a shot in one or two takes rather than resetting and rolling the three or four takes for each shot you may need with a non-union actor.
This saved time on shooting saves money because might be able to get more scenes shot in a day, which will ultimately save you money if, for example, a five-day shoot with non-union actors turns into a four-day shoot with union actors.
3. Your Production Looks And Feels Professional (And So Do You)
Going with SAG actors for your short movie automatically bumps you above a number of producers who are going with non-union actors.
Creating a SAG Signatory project is brag-worthy, whether your project is a feature film or a short movie.
As I have stepped into the sometimes cumbersome and frustrating process of creating a Signatory project, I have asked myself, “Why am I doing this? I know a ton of fantastic non-union actors.”
But then I notice when I take a successful step toward making the project SAG signatory, I feel happy about the direction the project is going.
I feel a bit proud and a lot more professional making a movie “by the book”, at least in regards to the actors I bring on to the project.
FYI, when I say “by the book” it is literally a huge War And Peace size book that is the covers all the SAG regulations.
It has been added to with every contract re-negotiation for 80 years and was waved around for a few seconds in the New York SAG-AFTRA meeting I attended this month, but also presented as something that has rules that were relevant to actors of decades past, like how SAG actors should receive telegrams when on set, so it’s not really something to read front to back or to be intimidated about.
Regarding the circumstances under which I have produced movies for the last decade, it did not make sense to create a SAG Signatory project (like producing for a couple of years in a “right to work” state) and it would have severely limited the pool of actors from which we could cast our movie, but now that I am in a more metropolitan area, it feels like the right choice.
New York and Los Angeles have a huge amount of both non-union and union actors and making a SAG-Signatory project gives us access to all of the ones that are interested.
And you will find that many SAG actors will want to do your project if only to keep working their craft.
And many of these SAG actors have been in the entertainment industry for a very, very long time. Longer than I have been in the industry (which is also a very, very long time.)
I have also found that when I work with people who have been in the entertainment industry longer than I have I always learn a thing or two from them, which is always delightful.
While actors stay pretty quiet in the midst of a shooting set because they are expected to only comment on things relevant to the acting, they are often observing the challenges that the crew is experiencing and they are observing the solutions to these challenges.
So a SAG actor that has been in the business for 20 years will have had enough set days and seen enough production setbacks to give often give relevant advice if asked.
This is one of my most favorite aspects of working with union actors that have been in the business for a long time. They really embody a huge wealth of knowledge that goes well beyond acting and can often act in an advisory role (in addition to the acting role) if they are willing to participate that way.
So often my own professional capacity and understanding as a director and producer goes up by hiring SAG actors when they share wisdom acquired from other set experiences.
I mentioned a bit about foreign distribution earlier, but let’s get a little bit more into distribution in general right now.
This might not be relevant to short film producers, but when you are creating a feature film with plans of distribution, in traditional (old-school) distribution circumstances that require you to sign a contract with a distribution company that is agreeing to distribute your movie for you, you must provide a number of things to that distributor before the agreement is solidified.
In other words, they will ask you for a list of “deliverables”.
“Deliverables” is usually a huge checklist of things that a distributor requires before they agree to distribute your movie.
From the distributor point of view, fulfilling this checklist is required because they do not want to be sued or any other number of things that can happen during the distribution phase, especially if the project makes money.
This distribution list is the “C.Y.A. List” (Cover Your Ass List) for the distributor (or distributor’s ass) so that nothing they need is left out and they can’t get sued.
Part of this list is focused on making sure all of the actors you used in the project were legit and hired properly, and that you have the right to use their image in your movie and to promote the movie.
Part of the proof of showing you have this right to use the actor’s image is showing the signatory agreement you have with SAG actor.
And while this article is oriented toward indie short film producers who usually find their audience through self-distribution, online venues, and film festivals, it is always good to keep doors open should a distributor be interested in your project.
Also, even if you are self-distributing, you need to get an actor’s release to use his or her image, even if it is just at a film festival or online.
This is true for anyone in your movie, not just union actors, by the way. But a typical union contract will stipulate how the actor’s image can be used based on union regulations. In a non-union situation, it is based on a contract that is drawn up by a lawyer for a producer making a non-union movie.
5. Better Acting (Maybe)
I mentioned earlier that actors know how to act before they know all the other stuff that goes along with being an actor (like the business stuff and the set etiquette stuff), but there is something to be said for actors who have spent hours and hours of time on camera acting.
I had an acting teacher who used to say that that was one of the keys to being a proficient camera actor. He felt that just by spending hours and hours acting on camera, one could improve one’s technique dramatically (pun intended), and so he had us get a lot of camera acting time every class that we got to record and take home and review to improve our technique.
So now, with hundreds of hours of camera acting under my belt, both in real movie productions and in classes, I am aware it has changed and improved my presence on camera and helped me to understand how my movements and non-movements read in different frames and camera angles. (I talk about this a lot in my directing class.)
You will find that most SAG actors have this presence, too, and it is often the distinguishing factor between union and non-union actors.
I recommend that if you are doing live auditions that you have a camera in the room and review the auditions at home after the casting call if you are on the fence about hiring any of your actors. Camera presence and experience can count for a lot more than you would think.
6. Not Too Expensive For The Short Film Low Budget Level
If you have a limited budget and must defer payment to your actors (“defer payment” basically means that you will pay them if the movie makes money later, which you should do but also know that short films rarely make money and actors and crew know that), that will save your budget some money while still allowing you to use SAG actors.
Ideally, we would be able to pay everyone on set a fair rate, including ourselves.
But the truth is that most of the time the budget for short movies come out of our own pocket.
For example, if I worked extra hours doing something other than making my movies (for example, editing video for someone else) that money is already mine. I have earned it already and it is going toward the movie I am producing.
To pay myself as the director or producer on the project is to honor my work, but feels redundant.
To pay others is to honor their work, but that can tilt the budget so that the project doesn’t even get made at all.
Here’s another story…
Before I knew how to edit, I posted on a job board or maybe craigslist that I needed someone to edit some footage that I had shot for a short movie and I was requesting help in exchange for a piece to add to their reel.
I got back a few offers but in addition to that, I got a ton of editors full of rage saying that I was an awful person because I was not paying.
But I could not pay. I didn’t have the money at the time. And I certainly wasn’t going to hire someone that was sending angry emails to me.
I decided to learn to edit because the reaction from those people made me feel bad about not paying for an editor.
They didn’t help their cause by being pissy. They just added one more editor (me) to the industry, potentially losing them additional work.
I tell this story because I always end a project feeling grateful for the help that the crew and cast have provided me, regardless of whether I was paying them. Sometimes that gratitude is expressed with money, sometimes in other ways when my budget for the project is too small.
So deferring pay to your actors to keep your budget smaller is not the worst thing in the world.
If you are self-funding your movie, you are paying for a whole bunch of stuff that they would need to pay for if they were making the movie to acquire more reel. You are organizing the project. You are feeding those that assist you. That counts for something.
Also, a friend in Los Angeles and I were talking years ago about this topic and he said, “When people agree to do a project, they have their reasons for doing it. Sometimes it is pay. Sometimes it is something else. But they have their reasons or else they would not agree to do it. They wouldn’t do it if they weren’t getting something out of it.”
What you should learn from this comment is that the payment and benefits of working a project come in many forms (I cover this a lot in my producing course) and as long as you were upfront about payment situation (or deferred payment situation), I feel you are in the clear in terms of maintaining moral high ground.
Deferring payment will also save you the cost of a payroll company, pension and health which is a percentage of the actor’s daily wage, and additional taxes which is also a percentage.
Again, ideally you will be able to pay your actors and crew, but if not, deferring payment is an option.
You MUST still have workman’s compensation insurance for your actors. That is definitely part of the agreement and non-negotiable and will cost you a bit of money. And probably a good idea to have anyway. Your local SAG-INDIE office can guide you toward a suitable source for workman’s compensation in your area for your project, even if it is a short movie.
There are many different circumstances under which a movie is made, and all of these details play a factor in whether to put in the extra money, effort and time to make your production a SAG Signatory project.
Much of it depends on your movie’s budget, where you are making the movie, your own experience level and where you intend your movie to end up when it is done.
And while it seems easier to stay at the non-union level of indie filmmaking, there are benefits to putting the extra effort in with the unions. I hope this article has helped you as you debate that choice.
And if you have not done so yet, don’t forget to read my previous article about why, in many circumstances in the past, I have decided to go non-union instead of SAG signatory.
These two articles should help you to weigh your decision when it comes to your own project.