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Low-Budget Pacts Eyed

In recent weeks, we've asked SAGIndie -- the Screen Actors Guild's educational and outreach program for independent film producers -- about the union's newly modified low-budget contracts. We've also talked with Film Independent, an association for independent filmmakers in Los Angeles. Both have stated that the revised pacts are good for both filmmakers and actors.

But what about the actor's view? Are the contracts a plus, a minus, or somewhere in between?

SAG implemented the contract modifications at the beginning of July. Changes to the Modified Low Budget and Low Budget pacts included budget cap increases of 25% and salary increases of 8%. The contract revisions also included cancellation of the Experimental Agreement, which covered short films and features with budgets of less than $75,000, and the addition of two new contracts, the Short Film Agreement and the Ultra Low Budget Agreement.

The new Short Film pact covers films with a total budget of less than $50,000 and allows producers to defer actor salaries until the film receives distribution. The Ultra Low Budget contract covers films with a total budget of less than $200,000; actors receive a minimum payment of $100 a day. Both pacts allow for the use of both union and nonunion performers. Background actors are not covered under either contract.

View of an Actor-Attorney

We decided to contact two people who have played a leadership role in SAG and who also know the law. One was Eugene Boggs, a lawyer and former board member of SAG's Hollywood division who recently filed for re-election to the board. He turned us down, saying he was not up to date on the recent changes.

The other is Julie Hyman, a former SAG New York division board member and a practicing attorney. She agreed to look at the new contracts and comment. Here's her view:

"[The new contracts] suggest that SAG, via the latest SAGIndie agreements, is attempting to attract/create relationships (i.e., signatories) with film producers that ordinarily make nonunion films, use nonunion talent, and do not contribute to SAG Pension & Health," Hyman explained in an email, noting that the effort is similar to SAG's fight against runaway production. "Those union actors who have chosen to participate in these previously nonunion films have not had the protection of the Guild. For instance, a performer who agrees to defer 100% of their salaries might never reap the benefit of the agreement if the production declares bankruptcy even if the film is distributed. The Guild, on the other hand, provides certain protections for performers, such as demanding adequate security or having the claims and/or legal department available to handle contractual violations."

But Hyman noted that her "review of the actual agreements does raise one concern to me. Why is it possible for the Guild to insure that producers contribute to Pension & Health at the rate of 14.8% for principal performers (Ultra Low Budget, Modified Low Budget, and Low Budget) and 14.5% for background actors (Modified Low Budget and Low Budget), yet is unable to maintain the same contractual rights for performers (both principal and background)? For example, the Ultra Low Budget Agreement provides for no background performers covered. The Modified Low Budget Agreement provides for three SAG background actors per day (with incentive). The Low Budget Agreement provides for a reduced number of SAG performers (I believe 30 per day)."

While she understands the reasoning for the new and revised low-budget pacts, Hyman also expressed worry that they might lead feature producers, who work under SAG's lucrative TV-theatrical contract, to seek similar gains.

"If producers of feature films and independent films were to request the same 'privileges' as the independent filmmakers or were to somehow opt to work under these lower-budget agreements as opposed to making a feature film or independent feature film, I would be deeply concerned," she stressed. "These contracts chip away at the essence of our feature film agreement by offering reduced rates, reduced overtime, six-day workweek with no premium, reduced number of background, no consecutive employment, and other related attractions. But I believe that the Guild's intentions are to bring more work to Guild members. It also appears to be the Guild's intention to offer diversity casting incentives and background actor incentives to improve conditions for these groups within the Guild."

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