The Indienomics of Casting

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Photo Source: Fred Hayes
When SAGIndie was born in 1997, only about 23 percent of movies at the Sundance Film Festival were produced under the Screen Actors Guild's low-budget agreements. In 2011, that number was close to 97 percent. SAGIndie national director Darrien Michele Gipson is proud of that statistic, and it's easy to understand why. It's a good indicator of how well she's doing her job.

"Our function is strictly to educate independent filmmakers on how to hire professional talent for independent film and to explain to them how it can be done economically," Gipson said.

A nonprofit organization funded by SAG and producers—and independent from the guild—SAGIndie sponsors close to 60 film festivals every year and travels to about half that number to educate filmmakers on ways they can employ professional actors while working within a tight budget. A regular presence at Sundance, SAGIndie was in Utah again this year to host its annual actors-only and filmmakers-only brunches in Park City and a panel discussion for SAG's Utah branch in Salt Lake City.

Gipson describes the Sundance events as more "celebration" than representative of the role her organization typically plays at festivals. After all, Sundance filmmakers tend to already know how to play the game. But director Azazel Jacobs, whose film "Terri" premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition and who co-hosted the filmmakers brunch, talked up the importance of SAGIndie's mission.

"Of course every film's success is dependent on its cast, but 'Terri' was especially so, and to have the ability to cast professional actors through SAG's Low Budget Agreement made all the difference," Jacobs said. "We were able to find and hire the right actors for the part, and that, along with SAG's support, made it that much easier to shoot on a small budget."


The first SAG low-budget contract was signed in 1969. Since then, the guild has expanded the slate of such agreements, each tailored to films of a different size.

For features, the spectrum begins with the Ultra Low Budget Letter Agreement, which applies to films produced for $200,000 or less. That deal allows producers to hire professional actors—a category that includes not only SAG members but also, Gipson said, "anyone who can claim to be working their craft"—for $100 a day plus pension and health contributions.

The next tier, for films whose budgets are greater than $200,000 but less than $625,000, is Modified Low Budget. Under that contract, actors are paid a minimum of $268 a day plus pension and health.

The final tier is the Low Budget Agreement. It applies to films made for no more than $2.5 million and pays actors a little more than $500 a day plus pension and health—still less than the almost $800 a day required under the standard guild contract.

The low-budget agreements also provide incentives for diverse casting that can make it possible for filmmakers with slightly higher budgets to work under lower-tier contracts. For short films, actors can work gratis, but if the short's distribution rights are later sold, performers must be paid $100 per day worked.

For nonunion actors, working under a SAG low-budget contract does not contribute to SAG eligibility. But according to actor Amanda Plummer, who starred in the Sundance film "Vampire" and co-hosted SAGIndie's actors brunch, the agreements offer performers and filmmakers important opportunities.

"When I was younger, an actor worked for whatever he or she was given, and if it was work that was vital, the choice was theirs and no one else's to do it," Plummer said. "Somehow this has changed in the last 20 years or so, so the need for such a device as the low-budget contract is an important role, in that it allows actors and directors to reach each other and to do what they must."


For actors and filmmakers to do what they must, common business ground must be found. According to Gipson, that's where SAGIndie comes in. She and all of her staff members have worked as film producers.

"Sometimes the problem between filmmakers and Screen Actors Guild is that the understanding should be there but they don't always speak the exact same language," Gipson said. "Sometimes you need somebody to just interpret, as a producer, what the contract says."

That's what Gipson and her team—four full-time staff members and one part-timer—will do this year as they head to festivals from Dallas to Cannes, distributing literature and educating filmmakers. But with 97 percent of directors at a festival like Sundance already working with SAG, isn't SAGIndie's mission already accomplished?

"That's kind of the beauty of filmmaking," Gipson said. "A new filmmaker is born every 1.2 seconds, so we can go to the same place every year and not hit the same person twice all that often. There's a never-ending pool of people who need the information."