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The Fine Print

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As we said in our last column, "Talk to any actor and you'll find someone with a dream of making his or her own film." But let's now append "or low-cost digital project."

While both the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have low-budget agreements for digital projects, they differ in important ways. One major difference is that AFTRA does not offer a film agreement. If someone wants to make a film, "we send them over to our sister union," says AFTRA's David Salvadore, who is in charge of this contract in New York. Asked why SAG doesn't in turn send digital projects to AFTRA, Salvadore replies, "No comment." AFTRA apparently doesn't want to offend its sister union; the digital realm is one in which the unions compete.

The AFTRA Experimental Agreement, which is Attachment 3 to the AFTRA Independent Producers' Digital Production Agreement, caps your project's budget, which includes all "above and below the line" costs, at $100,000. The finished product can be of any length, but the entire shoot, including rehearsal, cannot exceed 30 days over six consecutive weeks. There is a penalty for going over budget: Actors' salaries are retroactively increased to the rates contained in the Network Code (or "Net Code"), which is the contract covering network television.

AFTRA's agreement requires that there be no distribution plan in place at the time of the shoot, though it does allow for certain nonpaying screenings, such as at film festivals or for Academy Award consideration. Any subsequent distribution deal requires that actors' salaries be immediately upgraded to the Net Code rate. Internet broadcasts require that you bargain with AFTRA; the rates will depend on where the project will be seen, and you could owe as much as 80 percent of the Net Code rate. And don't forget, any negotiated union rate is a minimum; an individual actor's agent can always negotiate a higher rate.

1. AFTRA's agreement is for digital projects only. SAG's is for film or digital.

2. AFTRA has no limit on the project's running time. SAG's maximum length is 35 minutes.

3. AFTRA restricts your budget to $100,000. SAG's limit is $50,000.

4. Both AFTRA and SAG mandate no more than 30 shooting days, but AFTRA requires those days be over the course of six consecutive weeks, while SAG has no requirement for the length of the shoot.

5. Both require the film to be shot entirely in the United States.

6. Both severely limit where the project can be shown, with the limits comparable.

7. Both allow deferred payment of actors' salaries, but daily expenses, meals, transportation, overtime, and penalties must be paid during production.

As Karen Borell, SAG's national director of entertainment contracts, said of SAG's Short Film Letter Agreement in our last column, "It's primarily for the purpose of a learning experience for the producer [and] director, and an opportunity to work with professional performers," which is why the contract doesn't require initial compensation. The same goes for AFTRA's agreement. Both unions offer other low-budget agreements useful for other types of projects.

So identify your options, choose your union contract, hire your cast, and shoot your script. Oh, and don't forget to raise the money. Hey, all you need is some dollars and a dream.

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