How to Make a Short Film with SAG Actors (and not kill yourself)
NB: this post was written before SAG created the Short Project Agreement in August 2018. The Short Project Agreement replaces the old Short Film Agreement. You can read about the differences here.
This post is based on my personal experience dealing with SAG-AFTRA’s Chicago local. Most of the information I got from attending a seminar for producers, run by Kathy Byrne, Director of TV/Theatrical here in Chicago, and from actually going through the process while making The Deadline.
This is meant to be a primer for working with SAG under the Short Film Agreement to address the most common questions that come up and demystify the process.
It’s not a complete explanation of every detail of the contract1 Read the contract before you sign it!
Disclaimer: Some of this information has changed since 2016 when I originally wrote it. While I tried my best to get everything right, I may have misunderstood some things. This is not legal advice and is meant to give you an overview and a basic understanding of how things work.
The Short Film Agreement
This is the agreement I have experience with and I can’t speak for the others.
The short film agreement applies to films (not new media projects) that are:
- A maximum of 35 minutes in length.
- Have a budget under $50,000.
- No more than 30 days of principal photography.
- Shot entirely in the United States.
You become a signatory when you submit the SAG preliminary agreement and SAG approves your project. Indies have to apply to be a signatory on a film-by-film basis (big studios are different).
Actors must be paid $125/day at a minimum. The standard contract will have $125 as the daily rate written into the contract. You and the actor are free to negotiate a higher rate, and if you do, you have to attach a rider to the standard contract, indicating the higher rate.
You can download a sample of the short film agreement from the SAG website. You can request a real version from your SAG local when you want to apply to be a signatory.
Pay is deferrable (but NOT waivable).
This means that the pay can be 100% deferred (exception: overtime for more than 12 hours worked in a day, more on that later) until the film meets certain distribution criteria (see below).
To defer the payment, you must attach a rider (and get it signed by the actor) to the standard contract, indicating that a percentage of the $125/day will be deferred until certain conditions are met (see below).
You don’t have to chose between deferring 0% and 100%. You can defer as much as you and the actor agree upon.
You can’t waive the pay, even if the actor is your friend and really wants to do you a favor and work completely for free, NSA, BFF. If you’re working as a SAG signatory, you have to agree to play by their rules.
Actors do not have to agree to defer their pay. It’s a negotiation. If you are planning on on deferring all or a portion of it, I recommend telling them that up front or in the casting notice, to set expectations.
We had two SAG actors on The Deadline and we chose to defer a portion for one of them and pay the other one in full, based on experience and personal relationships. I prefer to pay all my actors at least a small amount up front because it attract a higher caliber of actor to the auditions and actors tend to act and prepare more professionally if they are getting paid and feel respected for the difficult work they do to practice their craft.
You can defer overtime from hours 8.01 to 12. After 12, you have to pay the overtime. In general, it’s better to not make actors work more than 12 hours in day anyway so they stay fresh. But if you do go beyond 12 hours, just know that you will be paying them double time and that will not be deferrable.
What Can’t be Deferred
From Section 7D of the short film agreement (as January 2016):
- Car mileage allowance reimbursement.
- Public transportation costs (due the day of work).
- Liquidated damages for meal period violations.
- Per diem.
- Reimbursement for expenditures made at request of Producer, for example, special hairdress, special make-up, or wardrobe.
- Liquidated damages for failure to timely deliver employment contracts.
- Salary for work by a performer in excess of twelve (12) hours on any day, in excess of five (5) days in any workweek, or in excess of the thirty (30) shooting days.
- Liquidated damages for rest period violations.
- Liquidated damages due SAG-AFTRA for contract violations.
- Stunt Coordinator rates for Daily, Weekly and “Flat Deal” Stunt Coordinators as specified in Schedule K-1, K-II or K-III of the Basic Agreement that is current at the time of photography.
It feels like a lot to worry about, but in my experience, it wasn’t a big deal. You try your best to do everything right and if you slip up or get confused, you call your local and ask them for help. My experience in Chicago is that the local genuinely wants to help and support indie producers. I never felt like they were out to get me.
Keep things simple on your first go-around and work with local actors on a relaxed shooting schedule to minimize the number of things your producer has to keep track of.
Where You Can Exhibit Your Film (without paying the deferred compensation)
From Section 5 of the short film agreement:
- At film festivals;
- Before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for possible Award consideration. (Note: In this regard, the Producer will be permitted, notwithstanding the exclusion in section 4(B) above, to exhibit the Short Film for one (1) week in a paying movie house to qualify for such consideration.);
- To non-paying, non-public, established entertainment industry members to showcase the talent of the producer, director, writer, performers or other members of the production or post-production team;
- On one (1) public access channel for not more than one (1) year from the first run date, provided neither the producer nor any of the principals in the production receive any compensation for such exhibition and provided further that SAG-AFTRA is advised of the first air date and the station on which the Short Film will run.
Basically, you’re all clear to screen your short film at festivals without paying the deferred compensation.
Note: trailers or demos for the purposes of fundraising (e.g. a Kickstarter video) do not qualify for deferred compensation.
Triggering the Deferred Compensation
What do you have to pay the portion that you deferred? When one of these circumstances are met:
- You distribute the film online for the public (e.g. uploading it to Vimeo).
- You screen it in theaters for the public.
- You sell your film.2
Wait, Does this Mean I can’t Work with Non-union Actors?
No. The short film agreement is a mixed cast agreement! That means that SAG an non-union actors can both work on the project.
The terms of the SAG agreement ONLY govern your relationship with the SAG actors in the production. They do not apply to or protect the non-union actors. You can ask your non-union actors to work 16-hour days without overtime and SAG won’t penalize you. I don’t recommend doing that, but you technically could.3
You can pay your non-union actors whatever you want (as long as they agree to it).
For non-union actors on The Deadline, we drew up a contract similar to the SAG short film contract but without the deferred payment. That’s all negotiable of course.
Pension & Health
Any time you pay an actor, you pay an additional 18.5% for Pension and Health (P&H). P&H payments cover the actor’s pension and health insurance. They are paid by check to the SAG local.
Here’s an example:
- An actor works for the daily minimum of $125. They work a single day on your shoot and you agree to not defer any of the compensation.
- You owe them $125 and you owe $21.63 to SAG (17.3% of $125).
If the actors defers payment, then you pay P&H when the deferred payment is triggered. Basically, whenever you pay a SAG actor, whether it’s deferred or not, you’re going to write a separate check to SAG for 17.3% of whatever you paid the actor.
All of this can be complicated to calculate so I’m sharing the spreadsheet that I use in Google Doc.
Social Security, Taxes, Disability Insurance, and Unemployment Insurance
What!? I have to worry about this too!? Don’t freak out yet and keep reading.
From Section 6.a.IV of the short film agreement:
Producer agrees that prior to exhibition of the Short Film beyond the scope of Section 5, above, it must:
All compensation paid to Performer under the terms of this Agreement constitute wages and is subject to deductions for Social Security, Taxes and Disability Insurance. Producer must make the required payments, reports and Withholding Deductions with respect to such taxes and premium. Producer must also provide Unemployment Insurance for Performers it employs.
OK, so basically it’s saying that since you’re paying someone a wage, you have to follow the rules that govern all employers in the U.S. (and/or your local state or city) by deducting Social Security, and Federal Taxes, and Disability Insurance from the checks and send those to the IRS or appropriate state authority. And you have to pay unemployment insurance as well.
Again, I’m not a lawyer or an accountant and I’m certainly not advocating that you don’t pay what the IRS demands.
What I can tell you, and this is not from anyone at SAG, it’s from talking to other filmmakers, is this: the reality is that most short film producers just pay the $125 and don’t worry about all of the above. That doesn’t mean they’re correct or following the law or that I am in any way recommending or condoning the practice.
The other reality is that you’re probably not going to this on your own. If you’re deducting and handling these taxes and insurance (insurances?), then you’re going to hire a payroll company to do it for you. The payroll company will collect all the salary up front, then make the payments on your behalf when the production is finished.
In my anecdotal experience, people don’t do this until they’re up around the $50,000 budget range.
Taft-Hartley was a law passed in 1947. You don’t have to know the history but you can read up on it if you want to. In the world of SAG, it refers to a situation that occurs when an actor works on their first qualifying SAG project.
I’m summarizing here because as you’ll see, it won’t affect you on the short film agreement. But basically, when an actor does their first SAG project, they have 30 days to join the union. In those 30 days, they can work on SAG projects without joining the union. After 30 days, they have to be a SAG member to do another SAG project (if the actor gets caught doing this, they may be fined by the union).
Taft-Hartley does not apply for a mixed-cast agreement (shorts and ULB features)
OK so if it doesn’t apply, why should you care about it?
Because actors might not understand the short film agreement and will ask you questions. There are two basic misconceptions that actors will have:
- “Great, this is a SAG project! It will make me Taft-Hartley and qualify me to join the union!”
- “I don’t want to do your film because I’m Taft-Hartley right now. If I do your film then I’ll be required to join the union and I would rather wait for a higher-paying project because the fee to join the union is around $2,000.”
Both of these statements are wrong. A short film agreement film won’t help the actor get into the union and it won’t force them to join the union if they’re on Taft Hartley. Tell them to contact the union to confirm.
“I’m in SAG but I’m also the Producer”
If you’re a SAG member and want to act in your own film, the film has to be a SAG project, even if you’re the only SAG actor in the film. Sorry.
Paperwork and Applying
To apply to be a signatory, find your SAG local and call them or email them for an application. They will send you an application packet that you fill out and send back.
They generally recommend applying at least three weeks in advance of production. If this is your first time, I recommend applying as far in advance as possible. You don’t have to know the answer to every question on the application to be accepted — you can say “TBD” for example, or for your budget you can write down an estimate.4
If you have enough time between casting and production, then you can wait to apply after casting because you may not end up casting any SAG actors. This is dangerous because if you need a last-minute replacement, you will be forced to use a non-union actor.
You could also run into the fun situation where one of your actors decides to join the union between casting and production and not tell you until the night before. My layman’s understanding is that it’s illegal to strangle an actor, even under these circumstances.
If you do get the short film agreement and then choose not to cast any SAG actors, you’re fine, because those actors aren’t governed under the short film agreement.
Once you are granted signatory status, the local will send you another packet with documents that have to be filled out:
- A final cast list information sheet
- Performer confirmation of receipt of contract
- Production Time Report (Exhibit G)
These forms are best handled by someone other than the director as the director will be way too busy on set to keep track of arrival times, hours worked, breaks taken, etc. while on set.
After photography is complete and the performers have signed off on the documents, you send them back to your local.
- Diversity incentives do not apply to the short film agreement. They only kick in at the modified low-budget level and they allow you to expand your budget range beyond modified low-budget when you qualify for the incentives.
- International performers are treated the same as locals under a mixed-cast contract (assuming the international performer isn’t in the union).
- “French hours” or rolling meal times are not permitted under this agreement. See the agreement for specific rules on meals.
- The short film agreement has several provisions for travel, depending on how far the actor has to travel to work on the production. You should read and understand those provisions because they require you to pay for overnight travel, per diem, and other things. Whether or not those items would be enforced for a very small budget film is another question, but you should know what you’re signing on for. When in doubt, keep it simple on your first union production and work with local actors.
OH MY GOD THIS IS INSANE HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO DEAL WITH ALL OF THIS IT’S HARD ENOUGH TO MAKE A FILM ALREADY
I know, I know. It seems overwhelming at first. But now that I’ve gone through it once, it seems easy to me and completely worth it if you want to work with SAG actors.
The Chicago SAG office was so helpful and friendly that I was able to talk to them as questions and issues came up. In other words, you don’t have to memorize all of this before starting. If this paperwork is enough to prevent you from making a film, then you weren’t going to cut it anyway.
I don’t recommend going SAG if you’re working on your very first film because there’s too much other stuff you have to think about and learn the first time around. Once you get the hang of things, you can move up a level and go SAG.
I don’t recommend making a feature for your first SAG project because if you mess up, you could find yourself owing a lot of overtime or tempted to fudge the numbers on your time sheets, which is wrong and stupid.5
I DO recommend finding a producer that will handle this stuff for you so you can focus on the creative stuff. If you don’t have the password to the secret club where all the producers hang out in your city, then find a friend that wants to be in “showbiz” and has good administrative and people skills and see if they want to be your producer.
And if you’re in Chicago and are interested in hiring the producer I work with, send me a message.
One final note…
You’ll probably make some mistakes your first time going through this. I believe that if you are acting in good faith, a minor violation here and there will be OK. There won’t be a SAG rep on set most likely. If you mess something up, call them and explain.
My impression based purely on personal and albeit limited experience is that SAG genuinely wants its actors to work and be in productions and they’re not out to get producers of low-budget stuff for every little violation. What they want is to prevent abuse of actors AND to get their actors more work.
If your actors have a good experience, get paid on time, and enjoy working with you, they’re not going to call SAG and report that their meal break started 5 minutes late.
Treat your people well, try to stick to the rules, and ask for help when you get lost.
- SAG-AFTRA Website
- Maps of SAG Locals
- Sample Short Film Agreement
- SAG Compensation Worksheet
- More background and explanation of Taft-Hartley
For example, I’m not going to talk about how you’re not allowed to require an actor to be completely nude at an audition and that you must permit them to wear pasties or a G-string. ↩
I can’t remember if a sale alone is enough to trigger the payment or if the sale must generate a profit for the film. I never expected to sell my short film nor make a profit on it because I’m not insane. ↩
You could also insult them after every take, or any number of legal but asshole-ish behaviors that will ruin your reputation and make nobody want to work with you again. ↩
Anecdotally, the flexibility granted depends on what local you’re working with. If you’re in NY or LA, then the union reps will probably be more strict about paperwork and the like. ↩
I’ve heard anecdotes of PAs being asked by producers to lie on time sheets to avoid paying overtime. Don’t be that person. SAG actors are perfectly affordable on a low-budget agreement with deferrals and besides being extremely unethical to cheat actors out of the obligation you made to them, it could get you in trouble with the union and prevent you from working with SAG in the future. ↩