Sunday, February 19, 2006

SAG Follow Up

I'd like to follow up on Blake's comment about SAG. First let me say that if I have enough money to be a SAG signatory on my next film, I will make that choice because there are advantages, but there are definite disadvantages for the smaller budget producer. A few months back I was at a similar panel discussion to the one Blake mentioned at the AFM, but this one was at the IFC conference. I am impressed with the new agreements which are listed here on the SAG Indie website. They include the Ultra-Low Budget Agreement, the Modified Low Budget Agreement, and the Low Budget Agreement, but they still have yet to form the Ultra-Micro I'm Selling My Blood For Production Financing agreement.

If the budget of your film is less than $200,000 in cash (although it may be as much as $500,000 if you include deferrals) then the best deal you can get is the Ultra Low Budget agreement. But let's assume you have a 25 day shooting schedule and you have on average five actors per day. (I think that's a fairly average scenario.) It will cost $12,500 under the Ultra Low Budget Agreement. That's a lot of money for a low budget film especially if deferrals are making up a significant portion of the film.

Let's say for instance your budget is $100,000 and $50,000 of that is deferrals. That means you just spent 25% of your cash on actors, while at the same time you've told your crew that they're working on deferrals, not to mention that you as writer/producer/director/editor and whatever else may spend a couple years of your life bringing this thing to the screen before earning a dime. I read a story recently about the California gold rush. Apparently the gold miners on average made very little, but the saloons and suppliers in the area made a fortune off of them. That sort of seems to be the way it is with independent film.

Unless you have at least $200,000 in cash at the beginning of production, then the only reasonable solution is to avoid SAG, and even then it's debatable - depending upon the level of talent your non-SAG actors are bringing to the table. And that brings up a whole other issue. If you're working outside of New York or Los Angeles, where are you going to have to look to find good SAG actors? I have a stack of headshots of SAG actors and almost all of them live in Los Angeles. The rest live in New York. (I live in South Carolina.) So even if I can afford to pay them the SAG indie minimum (and they're willing to work for that amount) can I afford to pay their travel and lodging? And let's be honest, there are a lot of SAG members who aren't exactly Lawrence Olivier so is the expense worth it?

It seems to me (and this is only my opinion and not meant to detract from Blake's experience) that if your cash budget is $500,000 or more, then and only then does becoming a SAG signatory begin to make sense. Of course I suppose it also depends on where you're making the film. If there are no decent actors in the area, then perhaps collaborating with SAG has some other distinct advantages. For instance, they help with casting and allow you to post character breakdowns on their site. I think there's also a psychological advantage when it comes to raising money and finding a decent crew. Being labeled a SAG signatory film lends creditability. It's for those reasons that I'd choose that route if I had a larger budget, but not on a budget less than 500K.

Although SAG has made a strong leap forward, it seems to me that they need to adjust the Ultra Low Budget Agreement to work better with ultra low budgets by allowing SAG actors to work for deferrals which are dependent upon the production company breaking even.



Blake Calhoun said...

Nicely written piece Eric. I especially like your "gold rush" analogy. But, I would have to disagree with your $500K budget limit to work with SAG.

First reason... how many indie filmmakers are really ever going to have $500K to make a movie? Not many.

Second, most people would be VERY surprised at how many well-known "Hollywood" actors are willing to work in low-budget indies - and if it's not a SAG film you're very unlikely to attract those type folks.

And lastly, your limiting yourself by doing that for the above reasons, and because the vast majority of really good actors are in SAG. If it's not a SAG film your less likely to get headshots from SAG actors during casting.

One last thing too. With the Ultra Low Budget Agreement you don't have to include your entire cast in the SAG contract. You can have only one actor (like your lead) and that could be affordable.

In Texas we have tons of SAG actors (all returned from Hollywood :)), so finding them is not a problem in this market (not sure about other places though).

I'm by no means trying to "sell" or promote SAG. I was against them in the beginning. But after using them on my last film I think it is a good thing.

IMHO, I would consider SAG at any budget level if you want to make a professional, marketable film. Just get the best actors you can for the money you have to spend.


Josh Boelter said...

Good comments Eric and Blake. I just found this blog and am digging it.

Blake, to follow up, if you don't have $500,000 to make your film, you're likely an industry outsider. So how do you get well-known "Hollywood" actors in your film, even if they're willing to work in low-budget indies? It's not as if they're listed in the phone book, and their agents certainly won't be of any help.



Blake Calhoun said...

Well, in my case I just sent their agent a script! And, low and behold I got a positive answer that they would do my film.

Of course in a lot of cases, the agents, managers, etc. will want to "protect" their talent AND also make them money - so they might not even give them the script.

But, it's not impossible. The two best ways I know are either to "know someone who knows someone" that can get them a script (if you have no money especially) OR if you have some money hire a reputable LA (or similar) casting director. They can get your stuff to basically anyone. A good casting director for an indie project might cost $20K (but you can get them for a lot less if they're interested in the project). In the end though, if they land you some name talent it will all pay for itelf.


Stacy said...

We used the Ultra Low SAG agreement for our film, jumping off bridges. We limited our number of SAG actors, decided that the ones we used, including our stunt coordinator (had to be SAG), were necessary.
My advice is to be aware and ready for other SAG related costs: 13.2% for P&H, and the tax money you'll owe the IRS and your state. In additoin, note that you have to pay SAG 40% of the expected rate for SAG actors, upfront, when you sign the agreement. YOu won't get it back until your final paperwork is in to SAG and accepted by them and all departments have completely signed off on it.
Those costs have to be factored into the budget, or they'll get ya later.
producer, jumping off bridges