What Every Independent Film Producer Should Know About SAG-AFTRA

What Every Independent Film Producer Should Know About SAG-AFTRA

“There is this perception in the independent film community that working with SAG-AFTRA is either too expensive or there is too much paperwork. I believe that once a filmmaker takes the time to speak with us about their project and signs one of our Agreements for the first time – they find that neither of those bits of information are true.” ~ Kathy Byrne, Director of TV/Theatrical, SAG-AFTRA Chicago Local

Since the dawn of time (meaning 1776), Americans have opposed organized labor. I’m not sure why. It’s one of those vexing questions that only a few really knowledgeable labor activists understand. As I see it, a union is nothing more than an organization that helps employers figure out how much to pay their employees without breaking the law. And at its core, that’s what SAG-AFTRA is all about.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) were independently established in the 1930s to improve wages and working conditions for their members. In 2012, they merged to form SAG-AFTRA, an American labor union representing over 160,000 actors, announcers, broadcast journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers, news editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists and other media professionals.

In my career, I, like Kathy, have also found that independent film producers have the following misconceptions about SAG-AFTRA: (1) it’s expensive and (2) it’s confusing. This article will help to dissuade you of both of these notions.

If you’ve never interacted with SAG-AFTRA before today, follow these steps:

STEP 1: Choose a script and distribution format for your project.

SAG-AFTRA has different contracts for different kinds of distribution. For example, if you intend to distribute your project theatrically, you’ll want to use one of SAG-AFTRA’s theatrical agreements. If you are instead producing a television series, you’ll want to use one of the SAG-AFTRA television agreements. There are also separate agreements for commercials, corporate, educational, and non-broadcast works, as well as new media.

For now, let’s say you intend to theatrical release your project.

STEP 2: Create a shooting schedule and budget.

This is where I destroy the misconception that SAG-AFTRA is expensive. SAG-AFTRA understands that you are broke, but so are some of its members. In order to provide an opportunity for both the independent film producer and the starving artist to simultaneously pay bills and go after their dreams, SAG-AFTRA created six (6) categories of union fees based on the film’s budget, length, and/or “student” status.

Those categories are: (1) basic codified agreement, (2) low budget agreement, (3) modified low budget agreement, (4) ultra low budget agreement, (5) short film agreement, and (6) student film agreement.

Let’s say, for example, your budget is less than $200K. SAG-AFTRA’s Ultra Low Budget Agreement (for films with budgets less than $200K) says you can pay your lead actors as low as $100 ($125 as of July 1, 2015) per 8-hour workday (plus pension and healthcare contributions) rather than the $880 rate for day performers under the Basic Codified Agreement.

If these rates still seem unreasonable, then perhaps you should make a short film (which has deferred rates) or choose a different career path.

STEP 3: Fill out a Preliminary Information Sheet.

The Preliminary Information Sheet is, again, divided by category. So, for example, if your budget is less than $200K, you will want to fill out the “Ultra Low Budget Preliminary Information Sheet.”

NOTE: This Preliminary Information Sheet needs to be submitted at least three (3) weeks prior to production.

STEP 4: Call SAG-AFTRA Chicago Local or SAGindie or both.

SAGindie is, and I quote straight from the horse’s mouth, “a gentle and loving union between the hard working thespians of the world and the passionate filmmaking mavericks who buck the system.” In other words, they, along with the Chicago Local, will help break down the second misconception that SAG-AFTRA is a complex, confusing world of bureaucracy and headache.

“SAG-AFTRA has always been very supportive of the independent film community, says Kathy Byrne. “We have extremely easy and affordable Agreements that independent filmmakers can sign in order to use professional actors in their Student, Short or low budget feature length films.”

If you’ve never made a film before, and you’ve made it to Step 4, then call someone to help you through the next steps. Don’t be the guy that doesn’t stop and ask for directions because you want to “learn by doing.” Why don’t you learn by talking to someone that has all the answers?

The SAG-AFTRA Chicago Local represents members in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin. They can be reached at: (312) 573-8081.

For a particularly humorous-yet-informative read, check out SAGindie’s FAQ page.

Katherine (Kate) Imp is an entertainment attorney at Ramo Law PC and Chicago native. She specializes in film finance, production and distribution for clients in Illinois and across the country. Contact Kate at @KatherineImp or kate@ramolaw.com.

Disclaimer: The information in this column is intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.