Often times when I’m talking with first or second time indie film directors, a question I often get is whether or not they should go SAG on their next project. To become a union signatory as an independent filmmaker is a tough choice, mainly because there are so many questions that, it seems, so many other filmmakers have different answers for. To top it all off there are also an enormous amount of “what ifs” that come along with becoming a union signatory, especially of the actor’s union: SAG-AFTRA. After decades and decades of horror stories, it’s no wonder the decision to hire union actors continues to weigh heavily on each new generation of independent filmmakers. In an effort to quell the noise that comes with asking such a question, I think it’s important that filmmakers have access to all the various experiences that their peers have had over the years – but especially more recently, since the merging of SAG and AFTRA; because its the question of becoming a signatory of this new organization, SAG-AFTRA, that now matters. But it isn’t just all experiences, there is a specific type of experience: that of the truly independent filmmaker – the person like you and me who doesn’t necessarily have the clerical resources that the big studios have, or the union itself for that matter. It’s OUR experiences that matters the most because it’s how they dealt with us that can best give a filmmaker insight into how they themselves might be dealt with.
My First Encounter
In 2008 when I founded my production company Norcross Media in New York, the goal was to specialize in YouTube videos for clients in addition to producing short and experimental films for my own entertainment. My LLC became a signatory of the union so that I could shoot one the first short films to be produced under the NM name. The actor I had in mind had recently joined the union and at the time was a good friend so I made an effort to do it “by the books”. Unfortunately my dealings with them were utterly scary and it had occurred to me that I really wasn’t ready to be dealing with a bunch of lawyers (which is essentially what they all are in that office) when I myself didn’t have lawyer. So I elected to cancel my signatory status. They punished me, of course, by forcing me into a three month hiatus from engaging in any production work under the NM name. I obliged (officially :oP) and moved on to create many short films as a non-signatory. I even continued working with the same actor (unofficially :oP). Some of the projects did well, as far as online hits go, all of the works you’ve probably never heard of and through it all I started to acquire client projects and things were off to a pretty good start and remained so for quite a few years. Eventually Norcross Media, with no thanks to the union, began producing commercials and PSA’s that found their way to broadcast on local and national television as well as theatrical. My work was everywhere (and still is). Last year one of my PSA’s ran on those little TV screens inside the NYC taxi cabs – that was a pretty cool project, if not unique.
My Second Encounter
Cut to last fall, when I began putting together the cast for one of my latest film projects. I had been talking with a certain actor of note for some time about taking on a supporting role in the film. We will call him Actor 1, and I will go as far to say that I had considered him a trustworthy friend and I thought that his genre-cred was something this film desperately needed. He had the fan base to help generate the first wave of what we hoped would be a kick-ass following. Actor 1 was updated every week with the production status and sent new revisions of the script every month or as it pertained to his character. He constantly sent me positive feedback and urged me to continue moving forward. As January rolled around I sent him the semi-final shooting script and asked him to re-read it in full and to give me a commitment ASAP. It was understood by the both of us that a commitment was needed, mainly because he is a union actor and we would have to produce the film under the SAG-AFTRA umbrella if he were to be involved. He read the script and told me to move forward with the union paperwork. I talked with one of my producers on the project, who insisted that I Immediately begin the paperwork for signing our little movie to SAG’s Ultra-Low Budget contract. My fellow producer helped me to understand it and it all seemed well and good – in fact the ULB contract seemed much more concise than the new media/internet video contract I had with them back in 2008. The only restriction with this agreement was that it didn’t include home video, rental or internet – it is strictly for theatrical. But that is okay, I thought, because we could always upgrade the contract later when we sign a distribution agreement for home video/rental.
Flash forward to a week before production – paperwork has been submitted to SAG-AFTRA, I’ve personally e-signed all the forms and now have all of my attention on the creative part of the production. I get an e-mail from Actor 1 informing me that he’s backing out. He’s no longer interested. I was peeved (the understatement of the year) – in fact, I’ll just leave it at that: I was PEEVED. I called our SAG-AFTRA contact to ask them if it was too late to back out and the woman who had been assigned to our production was on vacation. We were six days from the first day of principle photography and our union rep is away on vacation. My fellow producer suggested we move ahead anyway and in her own usual way, seemed cool about it – made me feel like it was okay. “We’ll deal with it when it’s time to deal with it”. She also reminded me that we had to beat the spring before the big bloom came (to maintain the gloomy look of the film). Whatever, we’ll deal with the paperwork shit later, after all, we had our signatory ID number and they gave us our contracts for the talents to sign – we must be on the right track! In an emergency re-casting we picked up Actor 2 – not notable at all but right for the role in that he was fucking crazy as a circus seal. We signed him the same day that he auditioned. We had him fill out the ULB contract and now I wish I had kept an eye on what he was writing because my lack of attention will come to bite me in the ass a little later.
Flash forward to the end of April – we’re four days from the end of principle photography and it has been a hellish shoot – on my day off I’m at the bank processing payroll when our SAG-AFTRA rep calls to inform me that they’ve received word that some of our actors have called in to report that they’ve been reporting to our set. Ah, yeah, we’re shooting! She leaves the following message in a voice mail: “yeah, we haven’t actually received some paperwork from your production so unless I hear from you by the end of the day today, we’re calling all of your actors and ordering them to not show up. You’ll still be required to pay them for each lost day until this matter is settled.” I went ballistic – I called her back, got her voice mail. I left a message. It wasn’t pretty. It was so bad in fact that my producer had to deal with it because I couldn’t handle myself dealing with these heartless, bureaucratic slime balls. She had all the paperwork into the union by the end of the day and we were fine… until one of our actors, Actor 3, complained that their check was late. Actor 3 was a day player who had shot his one scene on the first day of principle photography. This was a guy I thought was on our side, he seemed so pro-indie, understood what we were going through as indie film producers and was, up until this point, a true sport. This simple action of reporting us to his union gave me the feeling of betrayal… it hurt. Badly. He actually had the audacity to text me and ask me how things are going with the production. I hadn’t realized at that point that he was the one who had called into SAG so I confided in him. Little did I know that he was laughing at me from the other end of the line.
We responded by informing our union rep that we didn’t have administrative support to keep up on a day to day basis and were cutting checks on the next off-day (which was quite literally happening that day). The rep was very suspicious… sure, why shouldn’t she be? “YES, We’re getting that money out right NOW.” Well, it didn’t matter, the actor received his check within a week from his complaint and all went fine… until he started calling around to the other actors and eventually some of the crew to push them to file complaints against us. “Is your check late? Report them to the union, don’t let these evil producers get away with…” blah blah blah – basically our best isn’t good enough mentality: money talks, fuck you pay me, no excuses, fuck you pay me, more excuses? Fuck you pay me… If they’d bothered to actually listen to me, while also having a heart, they would actually understand what was happening. It still baffles me to this day that this one day player had made a valiant effort to shut our production down because his lousy hundred bucks was a few days “late”. Out of a cast of 40 people he only got one bite – Actor 2, the crazy as fuck beans replacement who took the roll originally earmarked for Actor 1 during our emergency recasting had called into SAG to complain that he should be paid for certain days that he did not work because he had been “guaranteed” those days. We tried to argue it but SAG wouldn’t hear it – with all the cock-ups we’ve made, why should they believe us over someone who understands the system a lot better? Why should they believe a couple of ignorant producers over an actor who has figured out how to weasel out every cent from these ridiculous contracts? Yeah, we paid the fucker for days he didn’t even work and eventually paid him for overtime he didn’t earn because his union decided he was more important than the very people who were employing him. Oh and because we didn’t supervise him when he was filling out the ULB contract and the bastard wrote in a number in the “guaranteed days” section, without asking me whether or not I was willing to pay him for a gauranteed number of days. Why ask when the answers will obviously be “NO!”?
So what is my suggestion? Let me put it this way: I decided to never go union again – at least, not if I’m legally responsible for the financials of the picture. The union and the people they “protect” aren’t worth the headache. Unless you’re producing a studio picture with other people’s money (meaning corporate money, not friend or family money), avoid SAG-AFTRA at ALL COSTS. They do not exist for the truly independent filmmaker – they want money productions and essentially punish producers for not having enough of it. They’re not good people and here’s the worst part (which they didn’t disclose to me until it was too late) – all the union actors have to sign a new agreement to modify the contract should we get distribution beyond theatrical. With all the bad blood between us and Actors 2 and 3, I doubt they’ll play ball which means we may have the best indie sci-fi film that will never be seen. Not a fun scenario, esp. considered the amount of money paid out to all these people and the organization itself.
It’s more likely though we’ll run the festival circuit and if we’re lucky get theatrical, leak the film to fans to generate a demand and then hire an entertainment lawyer to deal with the bullshit. I figure we’re looking at a good ten years before the film is actually available, especially since I’m now on my own with it. At this point SAG-AFTRA has yet to list this particular film as a union film in their database, regardless of the massive amounts of money we’ve sent them and their actors. All the paperwork is complete, all the pay has been issued, all the deposits have been made and the pension contribution too. You figure these guys could at least make the effort to gives us the stamp of fucking approval!
KEEP IN MIND
If you decide not to heed my warning and go union anyway, beware of a certain group of actors who have made their careers off taking advantage of new indie producers who are ignorant of the SAG-AFTRA contracts, or union laws in general. Do NOT let them fill out their own paperwork unsupervised and watch them like hawks when they sign in and out on set each day. It was our trusting of some of these actors that forced us into a position where we had to pay money we didn’t actually have the budget for.
Other things to keep in mind: aside from paying your actors, you’ll also need to report to the union… constantly. You’ll need to pay in a deposit, which is several hundred to several thousands of dollars in addition to contributing a substantial amount to the union’s pension fund. You’re looking at a few thousand dollars of money you’ll never see again. The union rep we were dealing with did not disclose this to us until we were signed on and I’m telling you: a lot more money is involved that they don’t openly tell you about until you’ve signed your film… it’s all fine print bullshit and it is a huge part of the reason as to why this particular film has stalled in the post-production stage. SAG-AFTRA’s dishonesty and lack of appreciation for what we do (or at least, are trying to do) is the reason we’ve been scrambling for more money that we didn’t think we’d need. Because they’re crooks and not designed to work with truly independent filmmakers.
Shooting union doesn’t necessarily make you a professional, in fact, it made me the most unprofessional I’ve ever been on a film shoot – mainly because of their manipulative craziness. In final, all I can suggest is this: if you don’t have the budget to hire a union crew, then it’s likely you don’t have the resources to hire union actors. In the grand scheme of indie filmmaking, you really don’t need either.
-Eric Norcross 11/20/13