A guide to SAG for indie film producers

I wrote a detailed guide for indie producers on how to navigate the SAG process from application to post-production. There’s a lot of practical information in it, gleaned from my own experience dealing with SAG contracts. And it lays out everything you need to do, in the correct order.

The SAG process is actually pretty easy to navigate once you understand it and have gone through it once. The goal of the guide is to take away the anxiety and uncertainty for people new to the process so they don’t have to fear working with the union.

I’m selling it rather than giving it away for free because, well, it was a lot of work to put together. At only $25, it’s an absolute steal if it saves you ten hours and a few headaches.

If you’re working on a short film or an ultra low budget feature (under $250k budget) and you’re dealing with SAG for the first time, then check it out.

The SAG short film agreement is now the short project agreement

The SAG Short Film Agreement is now the Short Project Agreement.

As of August 1, 2018, the SAG Short Film Agreement and the Low Budget New Media Agreement have been deprecated. Short films are now covered by the Short Project Agreement and they still have to have a budget under $50k, have a runtime under 40 minutes, and be filmed in the U.S.

The Short Project agreement does NOT cover episodic projects like web series, so those will still have to use the New Media Agreement.

The big change is the way that distribution is covered. Under the previous Short Film Agreement, any deferred salary had to be paid before a short film was distributed online, even if it was to a free streaming service like Vimeo or YouTube. Most people didn’t really follow this rule, but it’s good that they changed it to keep up with the times.

Need help producing an indie low-budget project with SAG? I wrote a comprehensive guide to SAG for indie producers, with an explanation of the new SAG short project agreement, plus a detailed checklist for keeping track of the entire SAG process. 

Better ugly than dull

One of the big takeaways from making this first feature film was that everything about budget and production can be questioned. I think that everyone knows this. That you can just say fuck it and do it low-budget, but then when you try to do it and get people on board, a lot of people get scared that they won’t have enough resources.

I found that a lot of the cinematographers we talked to, all of them excellent, were approaching the low-budget film from the starting place of a high- or medium-budget indie film. For instance, they were thinking that you just do a scaled-down version of stuff and we wanted someone to come at it from a completely different approach. We kind of had to figure this out along the way and realized that we were framing and positioning the value proposition of working on this film in the wrong way.

We wanted someone to look at it as an opportunity to experiment and use the camera in interesting ways, to create a different kind of beauty. Not the kind of beauty of just beautiful images, but the beauty of using the camera poetically or creatively in new ways.

For me it was about this: that making something dull would be tragic, but making something ugly would be acceptable. And the choice between making it purely beautiful in an aesthetic sense would mean more time, more crew, and of course more money. In other words, it was a choice between making the film now or waiting months or even a year to make it, while we raised more money.

I was in part inspired by The Celebration, which I watched for the first time in the months before production. Visually you could say that it’s ugly. It’s shot on video and it’s very grainy, especially at night when the ISO is ramped up. They used only practical lighting, no outside lighting equipment. And it shows. But, it’s also one of the most intense, grab-you-by-the-throat films I’ve seen in the past few years. The camera is wild and maniacal and the story is incredibly emotional and gut wrenching (and hilarious at times). I would much rather watch something emotionally powerful than sterile and pretty.

In the end, we did end up with some gorgeous shots. But more importantly for me, we got some emotionally charged pictures. One of the final images of the film, which I can’t talk about yet, is one of the best shots I’ve ever captured. If it works the way I intended, then it will be the kind of image that resonates and stays with the audience long after they’ve watched the film.

I haven’t started editing yet, so I don’t really have a good sense of how well the film will come together, but I’m confident that it will not be boring.

The weekend before production

We start filming on Monday. It’s a 10-day production, over the next two weeks, with the weekend off.

This week has been a whirlwind of last-minute prop pick-ups, phone calls, meetings, waiting to hear back from rental houses and friends about what we can use and how much it will cost. Yesterday I spent the afternoon finalizing the shot list and our approach with the cinematographer, Zoe.

And of course, Costco:

We spent $406 on crafty and supplies and hopefully that lasts the whole two weeks. Most people understand that working on a micro-budget indie film means that they’re not going to get paid a lot and I am dearly grateful for their contributions. But you have to feed them! I try to get healthier options but the producer reminded me that some people like to eat gluten and sugar.

We got to the coffee section at Costco and were severely disappointed. I’ve never had Kirkland-brand coffee1 but I’m incredibly skeptical.

I found reviews online and it’s well-reviewed on Amazon but I started reading the reviews and they were all people saying “I used to drink Maxwell House and switched to Kirkland and it’s just as good!!!” So, no. Besides, I believe that even if Kirkland coffee was just as good as, I don’t know, Metric, it wouldn’t matter. The branding does affect the flavor.

But it doesn’t matter because we lucked out — the producer, Josh, emailed all of the local Chicago roasters and one of them finally got back to us — Metropolis is donating a 5lb bag to the production! That’s some seriously good coffee and I’m really overjoyed.

Part of making a movie, in my mind, is about the culture you create on set. Little things like having good coffee ready for people in the morning, they go a long way. Movie making is hard work. It’s really hard. But it’s not some crazy ritual of suffering — it’s a lot of fucking fun, or at least should be. Yeah, there are a lot of down times and yes, there are painful compromises at every turn (when you don’t have money), but there’s a real joy to working incredibly hard with a tight group of 10-15 people for two weeks straight. But, you better have some good coffee.

One compromise we made was not having a full-time makeup person on set, which led me to my first purchase of makeup, a jar of Laura Mercier translucent powder. The makeup person recommended it. Basically, you need to keep the actors’ faces from looking shiny on camera and this creates a matte look on their faces.

I was re-reading my dog-eared pages in Werner Herzog’s book and he said that he likes to carry a small makeup kit with him whenever he directs so that he can touch up an actor before a take if he feels like the actor needs a little more time to get ready, not unlike a baseball umpire dusting off the plate as a courtesy to a catcher after taking a foul ball to the body.

Besides saving money, going the DIY route with makeup saves time.

We’re taking the approach that if this film succeeds, it will succeed on story, performance, and interesting visual storytelling. It will not succeed because of breathtaking-ly beautiful imagery, incredibly meticulous set design, or high production value. Not that we don’t want it to look good. And I think we are going to deliver some truly striking images, but my goal is to move the audience with emotion, not abstract beauty.

My living room has been transformed into a holding pen for all of our props, crafty, and some lighting and grip equipment.

OK, I gotta make some last-minute rewrites and then load all that stuff into my car and drop it off at the location. We’re setting up the location house today and tomorrow, and maybe even stealing a few establishing or non-talent shots, then a table read tomorrow afternoon, and hopefully a few free hours to do my laundry and cook some food for the week.

Bang on, as my English friend says.

And thank you to all the people who have offered material and emotional support, lent us gear, gave us honest feedback and good advice, encouraged us, and said “yes” when others said “no.”


  1. the Costco store brand 

Back pocket notes

Another busy couple of weeks as pre-production intensifies on the feature film. Every time I feel like I’m on top of things, new things come up. The schedule, shot lists, finalizing the DP, food planning, contracts, etc. Sometimes it seems like there’s hardly any time to deal with the actual work of directing — thinking about and planning how to shoot the actual film, how to talk to the actors, etc.

Today I took a bit of a break. I try to keep some semblance of a day off on Sundays, with a leisurely morning and only some basic writing (i.e. journaling).

In the afternoon, I went up to 2112 to participate on a panel about pre-production for a group of female comedy filmmakers. The program is run by WiCo (Women in Comedy) and they asked for volunteers to talk about pre-production and other aspects of filmmaking.

One of the questions was “what went wrong on one of your projects?” and I told a story about the first time I directed anything (Words Fail Me). A few minutes into the improvisation on the first take in the first episode, I realized that I didn’t know what to say after saying “cut” and I was so nervous that I let the actors go on for about eight minutes while I thought of notes to give them.

After that I learned to keep a note in my back pocket at all times, so at the beginning of the day, I know what to say when I don’t know what to say. Sometimes you just watch a scene and think “hm” and don’t really know what to do and it takes a few takes to figure out why it’s not working the way you imagined it would work.

The Americans is over. It’s the only TV drama I’ve been able to get into in a long time and it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was an intense, heart-wrenching episode with some really nice surprises. Excellent writing.

The stress of the big 3

Last night we looked at another location. I’m not going to post photos of it because the owners lives there (as opposed to just renting it out on AirBnB). It’s a promising option. I’m hoping that we lock down the location this week.

We’re working with Compass Casting for… casting. Auditions start and (with luck) finish next week. Two of the big three are close to complete. We’re still talking to DPs, which is the last of the big three things that you need to make a movie. Or that we need at least. I’m breathing a little bit easier now.

The most stressful time is when all three of those are complete unknowns and you’re talking to people but you can never really talk to them because you don’t know that you’ll have one of the other things in place, which means you can’t really be sure of your dates. I prefer to work linearly. It’s easier for me to hunker down and work through something. It’s very unnerving to work on three things that are all uncertain and all rely on each other.

I think that after the first time, it will be easier and I will be confident. My first short film felt like this, only 10x worse.

Tonight I’m going to see Hinds at Lincoln Hall with some friends so I can check out and relax a bit until it starts again tomorrow.

Wisconsin bird magic

Up to Appleton, WI today with the producer and a non-film friend to see about another house.

The movie takes place almost entirely in a single home, so getting the right house is important. It’s so much easier finding one location instead of 30 or 40 (like insanely easier), but it’s still a bit difficult to find a house that we can use for two weeks with our limited budget.

 

 

We’ve been mostly talking to people on AirBnB and they’ve been much more amenable to letting us use their houses, because they’re already letting people stay in them. Finding a homeowner willing to vacate his or her house for two weeks is almost impossible on our budget. An apartment would’ve been much easier.

That has set us further afield than Chicago, where rental rates are lower. On the one hand, this is more difficult because it means it takes an entire day to scout a single location and there are logistical challenges with production. Will the cast and crew be willing to go away for two weeks? And if we go outside the city, we need a second house to lodge the cast and crew.1

We’re treating it a bit like going away to summer camp. Yes, you’re working all day, but in the evenings you are sharing meals and drinks in the warm summer air, outside of the city and away from your day-to-day life. For some that will be too inconvenient, but for the people that join us, we’re hoping to create an unforgettable experience and forge friendships for life.

A conversation with friends on a summer evening is better than going home to Netflix.

And I really want the making of this film to be a special experience. It’s a low-budget affair and in a perfect world, it serves as a calling card for myself and the others involved, furthering our careers. Maybe on the next one, it’s a little easier to raise money…

But beyond that — beyond making a good film (which is nearly impossible) — I want it to be a fun, joyful experience. Something that people look back on and remember fondly. The best possible outcome is a good film and great memories, with the people we bring together forming bonds for life.

 

 

Appleton is a small city in northern Wisconsin, about 190 miles north of Chicago and 100 miles north of Milwaukee. About 70,000 people live there. The main street is thriving with shops, cafes, and a performing arts center. Away from the main drag are streets with colorful houses and big front porches. People don’t lock their doors there and the air is crisp and fresh.

 

 

 

We visited an occult bookstore with an in-house psychic and the book selection was wonderfully eccentric. Where else can you find a book on bird magic?

OK well I just found it on Amazon, but you get the point. And hey, it’s actually well-reviewed there, with 4.2 out of 5 stars, although one person did have this to say:

Sigh. As usual, a magical book with no balanced perspective on masculine/feminine energies. I really do not like metaphysical books that claim to be about balance and harmony while ignoring half of the energetic balance of nature. I was excited to get this book from both a naturalist and Pagan perspective but if a book gets such a crucial thing wrong, it makes the whole book suspect that to me

This was my favorite title:

 

I opened to a random page and found a chapter called something like “how to know if the spirit you’re talking to is really your loved one,” which yeah, of course, once you start to consider this seriously, there are some practicalities that have to be worked out, like ID verification.

Soon enough, all spirits will be given unique public keys on the blockchain and we’ll all look back and laugh at our archaic analog methods of spirit-ID-verification like giving your loved one a secret passcode that only they know before they die.

Fun fact I learned from Futility Closet last week: Houdini, who spent much of his career disproving psychic mediums, actually gave his wife a secret code, just in case he came back as a spirit (he didn’t). I don’t remember the episode, but it’s a great podcast.

 

 

After touring the town and calling our mothers for Mother’s Day, we went to a restaurant overlooking the Fox River, then drove back down to Chicago (after a stop for ice cream from Culver’s).

 


  1. We’re aiming for a combined total of about 11-14 people, depending on the day, which is a very small production. 

Breakfast, Windshield Wipers, Kinko’s

Yesterdays travels were long and we returned home at night. No rest though, we had to meet up with a friend to talk about our plan for casting the film (after a jaunt to Costco for a windshield wiper blade and sundries).

Had a few drinks while we talked about casting which had me just exhausted, so I woke up in a bit of a haze this morning and had to run out to meet some old friends for breakfast at my friend’s new apartment. He’s going to Barcelona next week for 10 weeks and the thought of that, I envy it.

The film has a weight and sometimes I wish I could toss off that weight and go to Barcelona and forget about it. But of course, I wouldn’t forget about it and how would I live with myself after such a cowardly decision?

These are good friends and we can only get together about once every two months, because of our busy schedules. I always feel energized after talking to them and I think about how much better life would be if we all lived within a few blocks of our best friends and could get together without planning.

After breakfast I emailed for about 4 hours, following up on yet more leads for a possible location (we’re looking for a single family home in Chicago or within a 3-hour drive) and putting together a table read for Wednesday to see how it plays on its feet.

I went to Fedex Office (formerly Fedex Kinko’s, formerly Kinko’s)1 to print out eight copies of the script.

The print job was messed up so I had to wait for 15 minutes while new copies were printed.

The very nice man who helped me filled the time with his thoughts on Avengers Infinity War, about which he had many detailed opinions and I tried to smile and nod along because I haven’t seen it.

 

 

 

Then I picked up snacks and drinks for the reading, put air in my car tires for another road trip tomorrow (this time to Appleton, WI), replaced the frayed wiper blade, and emailed invites to actors for the table read.

I love road trips.


  1. What a bad name for a store, Kinko’s. 

Can SAG-AFTRA actors work on non-union projects?

SAG-AFTRA has this rule, it’s called Global Rule One:

Global Rule One states: No member shall render any services or make an agreement to perform services for any employer who has not executed a basic minimum agreement with the union, which is in full force and effect, in any jurisdiction in which there is a SAG-AFTRA national collective bargaining agreement in place. This provision applies worldwide.

From the union’s perspective, there’s no gray area here: if you’re in the union, you can only work on union projects.

In practice, SAG actors do work on non-union projects. In some cases they don’t know the rules or may think that “just helping out a friend with a video” won’t be an issue.

And sometimes they just try to skirt the rules and hope to not be found out. This does work sometimes, although it’s risky to the actor. Getting caught can lead to expulsion. And it’s hard to feign ignorance to anything called GLOBAL RULE ONE (!!!).

OK, but what about producers? Well, this rule doesn’t apply directly to you (unless you’re also an actor in the union).

But it’s important to know about it for two reason:

  1. You could inadvertently lead an actor to break the rule and jeopardize their career.
  2. You’re not going to score any points with the union by encouraging/abetting actors in breaking their rules.

Reason #1

Actors should know about the rule (remember, it’s called GLOBAL FUCKING RULE ONE) but they might not or they might assume that their are exceptions to it.

So if you have a friend, for example, that wants to help you out on your short or web video or whatever, they might just do it as a favor. They trust you, you’re friends, they’re doing it for free as a favor, it’s only going to take two hours anyway, etc.

This is the kind of situation where the union rules can be maddening because the rules say to the actor: “hey, if you want to help your friend out, they have to fill out a ton of paperwork six weeks in advance and then a bunch more during and after production.”

All of this is to say, if you’re going to ask your actor friends for a favor, you should at least make them aware of the risks and let them decide based on their risk profile..

Reason #2

The other reason relates directly to you as a producer. If you plan on working with SAG in the future, then you probably don’t want to piss them off.

Need help producing an indie low-budget project with SAG? I wrote a comprehensive guide to SAG for indie producers, with an explanation of the new SAG short project agreement, plus a detailed checklist for keeping track of the entire SAG process.

Can non-union actors work on a SAG film?

Yes, but not on all the SAG Agreements.

There are three “mixed cast” agreements:

  • Student Film Agreement
  • Short Project Agreement
  • Ultra Low Budget Agreement (features)

The first two are for short films, either a student short film or non-student short film.

Conspicuously missing from this list is the New Media agreement. I don’t know why they don’t allow mixed casts on New Media, since that seems most likely to be a low-budget affair, but the rules don’t always make sense.

Working with a Mixed Cast Agreement

If you’re working on one of the contracts that allows for union and non-union performers, then the process is pretty straightforward. You apply to be a SAG signatory and then have all of the SAG actors sign the standard SAG contracts.

Non-union actors are not governed by any of the SAG rules, although it’s easier to just treat all the actors the same and give them their proper meal breaks and all that.

If you don’t know in advance what the union status will be, you can wait until you’ve completed casting before applying for SAG. The risk here is that you wait too long to lock down your actors and you want to cast a SAG actor at the last minute and haven’t started the paperwork (which should be started 4-6 weeks before shooting). So, applying for SAG gives you some optionality in the casting process.

What about “SAG credits”?

To get into SAG, non-union actors have to work on union projects.

This process is referred to as Taft-Hartley. Basically, Taft-Hartley says that when you can’t find anyone in the union who can perform a role, you can get an exception for someone not in the union.

Once the actor has worked that first union job, they’re “Taft-Hartley’d” and are eligible to join the union.

Sometimes actors think that they can get into SAG by working on a SAG short film. This is not true. They don’t get a “credit” or Taft-Hartley’d since it’s a mixed cast agreement. They would just work as a non-union actor.

If you’re working on a Taft-Hartley Agreement

If you’re using one of the SAG agreements that doesn’t allow a mixed cast (e.g. the New Media Agreement) and you want to use a non-union actor, you have to submit a Taft-Hartley report within 15 days of the non-union actor working. To qualify for a Taft-Hartley exception (remember, the union really wants you to hire someone in the union), there must be something unique about the performer that you’re bringing on.

These include:

  • A child under age 18
  • Special skill
  • Unique physical appearance
  • A famous person portraying themself

There are more (see a sample Taft-Hartley report for the full list of qualifications). The restrictions seem onerous at first, but there’s a catch-all one that just says “First employment of a person who has training/experience as a professional performer and intends to pursue a career as a motion picture performer.”

So basically someone that’s taken an acting class and wants a career in showbiz. Who doesn’t?

Except wait, not if you’re New Media and deferring pay:

According to the note at the top of this PDF, they’re not accepting Taft-Hartley reports for New Media contracts if pay is deferred.

Need help producing an indie low-budget project with SAG? I wrote a comprehensive guide to SAG for indie producers, with an explanation of the new SAG short project agreement, plus a detailed checklist for keeping track of the entire SAG process.





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