To Union or Non-Union? That is the Question

By on Sep 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

With all this tech talk you might have thought that I forgot we were still making a feature film. Well we are and haven’t -forgot. In fact one of the hot topics being thrown around here is whether or not to use union (aka SAG/AFTRA) or non-union actors in the film. I’m of two minds on the subject; on one hand many of my good friends in the industry are SAG/AFTRA actors and I’m always interested in finding ways to work with them. On the other hand, I like working outside the system and get excited by the prospect of finding new, talented individuals who need a shot. Obviously this is a bit of an oversimplification as there is more to “going union” than making the simple decision to do so. Let’s weigh some of the pros and cons of hiring SAG/AFTRA versus non-union talent shall we?

For starters, being an actor is hard. It is. I’m not saying this to win favor with actors, I’m saying it because it’s true. While most people think of the word actor and picture either Will Smith, Glen Close or some other A-Lister, the reality is that 99.99-percent of the actors out there are folks you’ve never heard of. This doesn’t make them bad, it merely means they have not captured someone’s attention, typically an agent or producer, for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s the actor’s fault, and sometimes it comes down to the difference between having blonde hair or brown. Being five foot six versus five foot eight.

The point is SAG/AFTRA is largely comprised of talented men and women who are no more recognizable than your local convenience store clerk. It’s rough. But going with a SAG/AFTRA actor does tell you a few things. For starters, it’s not easy getting into SAG/AFTRA, it’s not like a gym membership where you can simply pay your way into the system. For lack of a better descriptor you have to be invited; meaning you have to be good enough to get yourself booked on a union shoot (or a few), which is difficult to do considering you’re a non-union actor. If you do manage to book a role(s) on a SAG/AFTRA shoot you then have to pay to join. From there you have to book enough union work while also paying dues (i.e. more money) in order to stay in good standing with the union. What does this tell a director? That you give a damn about your craft because, if you didn’t, why go to all the trouble?

But that’s actors. Dealing with SAG/AFTRA itself is an entirely different beast.

In recent years SAG/AFTRA has done their best to keep with the times and give their members a legitimate shot at making a living in what is the crazy business of acting in Hollywood. They have altered their production requirements and re-worked their contracts in an attempt to keep their members working -even if it means at $100 per day. It’s true (a lot of actors remind me of this fact when I speak to them) you can have Tom Cruise in your movie for the paltry sum of $100 per day. Of course you have to get Tom Cruise to AGREE to work for that fee, for just because SAG/AFTRA says it’s okay doesn’t mean the actor has to agree to it. On top of that, SAG/AFTRA still requires that a deposit be made for a portion of the total performer budget plus a percentage on top of that to go towards the union’s pension or whatever fund (I can’t remember exactly what the fund is). This deposit is refundable, but only after the film is finished and all your union paperwork has been completed and approved. Any violations are deducted from your deposit. This deposit is said to exist in order to protect the union performers should the production go belly up or the producers decide to skip town in the middle of the night -hey, it happens. But, it also means that you essentially have to pay for your talent twice, or at least say one and a half times. For a low budget film this can break a budget. For example, let’s say you have 10 SAG/AFTRA performers who have all agreed to work for the minimum of $100 a day. Let’s say your shoot is scheduled to last 14 days. That’s $14,000. Well before you yell action you would need to give SAG/AFTRA a deposit of 40 percent of that total amount plus 16.8 percent, which equals $7,952. So in reality your performer budget isn’t $14,000, it’s closer to $22,000 -that’s a HUGE difference to an indie film. Again, you’re entitled to get your deposit back but how and when is largely at SAG/AFTRA’s discretion. By the way the $100 a day rule only applies to productions who’s budgets are below $200,000. Above $200,000 you fall into a different tier and will have to pay performers more.

Then there is distribution, which potentially opens up a whole new can of worms when it comes to dealing with SAG/AFTRA -especially at these budget levels. I’m not pointing this out to disparage actors in any way for they can only work within the confines of the system. But the system, despite it’s apparent indie friendly moniker, is geared towards favoring itself and the larger players and NOT those in the indie world -especially when discussing distribution.

Before I break down non-union and Financial Core performers please note, it is never my intention to stiff or screw performers out of money. Whenever possible I do my best to compensate everyone fairly within the confines of the budget. I love that SAG/AFTRA has embraced the $100 per day rule for it does open some doors for filmmakers that simply didn’t exist a few years back, but it’s often what comes after principle photography wraps that scares me into wanting to use non-union talent.

To me non-union talent isn’t a kiss of death. If anything, in these hard economic times, it says to me, “I want to work”, and a true working man’s actor is what I’m always after. I don’t care much for actors that like being actors, I want actors that have to act -and yes there is a difference. While it is often a blessing to be able to cast even a C or D-List level SAG/AFTRA star in order to aide in distribution (mostly foreign), even those moves are proving less and less fruitful as time goes on. Again, it’s not about stiffing anyone financially, but it’s also not about unjustly rewarding someone after the fact because a piece of paper says so when everyone else on the crew doesn’t get to partake. For example, why should an actor who worked for a day be entitled to residuals, where as the grip who busted his or her ass for three weeks gets to walk away with nothing? I like non-union contracts because it allows for production to find its happy medium and work within a contract or contracts that work for everyone, not just a select few. Plus I feel that many non-union actors (and crew for that matter) know the score, and therefore participate in projects partially for the love of the craft but also because they understand they, like everyone else around them, are building towards something greater. For actors this may very well be SAG/AFTRA eligibility or status.

The other reason why I’m attracted to non-union actors is that I like the feeling that comes with working with someone who just wants a shot. All I ever wanted, or still want, is a shot and I feel this mentality is contagious and often results in wonderful things. For example, one of my favorite actresses right now is Rachel Lien. If you’re a fan of my work then you know who Rachel is, however, if you’ve haven’t seen my film then she may very well be an unknown. Rachel was someone my team and I found (along with many others including the great Bryan McClure) literally at an American Idol style audition in Omaha, Nebraska. Rachel is the epitome of what anyone could hope to find in a non-union actress. She’s technically SAG/AFTRA eligible but because she does what interests her she keeps her non-union status.

The stigma surrounding the term non-union simply doesn’t exist, at least not in the way it once did. Non-union used to mean non-professional; now I believe it stands for a different way of thinking. A non-union shoot can still have contracts and those contracts can still abide by rules set forth by unions -rules such as limits on hours worked in a day, turnaround time, meals etc. If everyone is adult about it and goes into the agreement knowing the score there’s no need to make the process more complicated than it has to be.

I still haven’t made up my mind as to what I’m going to do regarding Love In Training. Since I’m already well outside the box in terms of everything else I’m doing with the film I don’t necessarily feel pressured to make a decision one way or the other. At the same time, my unorthodox distribution strategies may force my hand towards using non-union performers for I’d hate to be placed in a position where my film was held in limbo due to SAG/AFTRA not being up to speed with the times and/or understanding of what’s possible technologically. I still have some time to decide as production won’t begin until Spring 2013, but the question of whether to go union or non-union with regards to actors is one that I do think about frequently.  Whatever my decision one thing I don’t like is that it will prevent me from working with some of my good friends and that makes me sad. Not to mention I just think it’s wrong. But that’s just me.

Regardless, to all the actors out there who may be reading this I really do wish you the very best. For the rest of you, I appreciate your continued support and hope you’ve enjoyed my posts -or rants -thus far. Until next time, take care and stay tuned…

Andrew

 

UPDATE: The romantic comedy, Love In Training, referenced in this post has been put on hold indefinitely. I apologize for the confusion. For more information please read my announcement detailing the change

Copyright © 2012, Andrew Robinson