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Secret Agent Man

The Costs of Low-Budget Films

The Costs of Low-Budget Films
Photo Source: Pete McDonnell

Last week, I took a meeting with a young actor who was very excited about an indie he’d just booked. It was his first lead and the kid had a gut feeling the film was destined for Sundance glory. While he kept talking, I punched up the breakdown on my monitor, and within 20 seconds I knew the movie would never make it to Park City. 

Any decent agent can size up a low-budget film’s potential by looking at certain key elements. The first is the movie’s union status. I would never, ever work on a project that is nonunion. SAG-AFTRA has made it easy for producers with microbudgets to use union talent. So if a movie is nonunion, I have to ask, why? 

Sometimes, I’ll see a breakdown that says “Pending” under the film’s union status. That’s a warning sign, too. Producers should not solicit submissions until they’ve filed their paperwork with SAG-AFTRA. I’ve learned the hard way that these projects rarely move forward, and they’re a waste of everyone’s time. So unless I’m familiar with the casting director, I don’t even bother submitting on these films.

There are four budget categories for movies being produced under a SAG-AFTRA contract. Any film with a budget greater than $2.5 million uses the basic agreement. Smaller projects qualify for one of the following contracts:

Low Budget Agreement. The budget must be between $625,000 and $2,500,000. Actors are paid a weekly rate of $1,752 and a daily rate of $504.

Modified Low Budget Agreement. The budget must be between $200,000 and $625,000. Actors are paid a weekly rate of $933 and a daily rate of $268.

Ultra Low Budget Agreement. The budget must be under $200,000. Actors are paid a day rate of $100. 

Budget is always my first consideration, because money affects everything.

A film being produced under a Modified or Ultra Low Budget Agreement cannot afford certain basics, like a decent dressing room. Comfort is important when an actor is working 12-hour days, so my client needs to know that up front. The same is true for travel. Most out-of-town productions fly talent in on a business-class ticket. Small movies are forced to use coach. Again, my client needs to know that, especially if he’s 6’3” and used to more space.

I also have to consider if the budget is a good match for the script.

Some movies are written small so that they can be shot on a tight budget. A story that takes place in a few locations with no special effects can be produced under an Ultra Low Budget Agreement. A script with 40 locations and an alien invasion cannot. So the big question is: Can the movie be made with the money on hand? 

Moving on from budget, I also examine the director’s and producer’s backgrounds. Have they made a film before? Are they first-timers? What’s their background? These are important questions. I don’t mind if the director is a kid fresh out of film school if the producer has some experience.

Another big question is, who’s casting the movie? The casting director is the link between me and the producers, so I get nervous when I don’t recognize the person’s name. I’m more willing to trust a known casting assistant who’s working on their first movie for the credit than a complete stranger who doesn’t know the business.

I love putting my clients in all types of films, but I always proceed with caution when it’s a small production. Thanks to digital technology, almost anyone can make a movie these days. But that doesn’t mean they should.

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