What is SAG?
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SAG is the acronym for the Screen Actors Guild, a powerful union in the United States that represented film and TV principal and background performers worldwide. It was founded in 1933 to combat the exploitation of Hollywood actors. It did this by negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements on how much actors were paid, the benefits they were entitled to and the working conditions they could be subject to. SAG also established payments for usage of recorded performance (i.e. residuals) and did away with open ended contracts that didn’t allow the actor to exit the contract.
In March of 2012, SAG merged with AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to form SAG-AFTRA and extended union membership to radio personalities, program hosts, dancers, stunt performers, recording artists, singers, voiceover artists and journalists, news writers and editors. SAG-AFTRA is a member of the AFL-CIO, which is the largest federation of labor unions in the U.S.
SAG-AFTRA has established minimum pay rates for its members depending on a production’s budget, generated a compensation metric for re-broadcasts or playbacks of recorded work for its members, created working condition protections for its members, and established pension and retirement benefit programs for qualified members. One example of how this benefited performers is the original Star Trek TV series that was created prior to these protections being in place. None of the actors in the series ever received a residual check, even though the series went on to become one of the most syndicated programs in TV history.
For the independent film producer SAG-AFTRA rules can be a challenge if they hope to have a name Hollywood actor as part of their cast. Your first step is to sign a SAG-AFTRA Signatory Contract, which determines the minimum pay rates you must pay your actors based on your film’s budget and script. In addition, you will need to provide meals for your cast and crew, pay your actors as employees (with all the FICA deductions and contributions) as well as pay pension and health benefits (roughly 19% of an actor’s wages). Additionally, SAG-AFTRA has a myriad of actor protection rules in place—for instance, if you require an actor to show up for an hour of rehearsal you still have to pay them the day rate; if you have meetings with the actor to discuss the film you still have to pay them the day rate; etc.
The good news is that the minimum wages for actors is determined by the film’s budget, and for low-budget films SAG-AFTRA minimum are reasonable. For films slated for theatrical release, the minimum SAG day rate is as low as $125 per day (for films whose budget is $250,000 or less.)
If you, as an independent film producer, are hoping for your film to be picked up for theatrical distribution and you have SAG-AFTRA members in your cast, it is essential that you have a valid SAG-AFTRA Signatory Contract in place—if you don’t you may not be able to obtain a distribution agreement.
Additionally, it is sometimes possible for non-SAG-AFTRA signatories to get SAG-AFTRA talent to appear in their film. As long as the independent film producer has clearly stated in writing that the film is non-union. In this case, it is the actor who is liable, not the producer. However, if you do go this route and book a union actor on a non-union film, they won’t want to do any promotion for the film (as it will expose the fact they worked on a non-union film). It can even get your production company “blackballed” with a “do not work” order from SAG-AFTRA to their members.
Dealing with SAG-AFTRA as an independent filmmaker is probably outside of your wheelhouse, and definitely going to require effort on your part to not run afoul of them. An excellent resource to get started is https://www.sagindie.org/–they likely have answers to questions you haven’t even thought of. As an alternative, think about hiring, or at least picking the brain of an accomplished producer—one with Hollywood credits to their name if you plan on hiring a SAG-AFTRA member to star in your indie film.
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