Can you give me some help with SAG Ultra Low Budget casting issues? I decided to go with SAG because there was an actress that my exec producer had a contact with, and now I am one month out without any cast deals signed. Can you review some deal letters and get these agents to realize I’m not shooting Star Wars! With this budget, I am lucky to have props, much less trailers, LOL.
Answer by Brandon Blake, Entertainment Lawyer:
Thanks for bringing up some great points about the casting and negotiation with actors and their agents. First off, working with cast takes time. I am struck by the number of times independent producers get our firm involved in a film or series that is “fully prepped” for production, but has no cast! Cast cannot be an afterthought, even for a SAG Ultra Low Budget project. Casting unknown actors carefully is just as important as casting A-list names. Don’t forget both Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger got their first starring roles in the same “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” film. Please also see my Entertainment Lawyer Question and Answer Forum at www.filmtvlaw.com, for more in depth and money saving advice that I publish twice a month.
When it comes to working with actors in a project, here are some guidelines to making the process go as smoothly as possible. More than one producer has come back later and thanked me for each of these pieces of advice over the years:
1) Be Careful on the SAG Budget Level Choice – The casting and distribution process really starts right from the very first choice you make with the Screen Actors Guild on the choice of Agreement for the film or series. Remember, there are some very big costs to the SAG Ultra Low Budget Agreement down the line when you go to try to distribute the project. Getting our firm involved at this stage can help save a lot of money and trouble down the line.
2) Never Use the SAG “Standard” Performer Agreement Template – There is not a major feature film made today that ever used the SAG “Standard” Performer Agreement Template. Even many actors’ agents are surprised when a producer uses one of the template agreements provided by SAG for the engagement. I have reviewed the SAG template Performer Agreement and it is missing about 75% of the provisions that a producer needs for even a low budget production. It makes sense, if you use somebody else’s form, you are going to be playing by their rules.
3) The Initial Cast Deal Letter Needs More Detail – I have never reviewed a cast deal letter from a producer, casting director or agency that has enough detail. More detail benefits everyone. The fact is, actors want to work in film and television series, and producers need great cast. Ultimately everyone is on the same side and wants to make a great project. Needlessly getting in fights over deal points can ruin the creative process, and a little foresight early on prevents both conflict and litigation later.
4) Keep Your Casting Director Involved in Negotiations – I really respect the work casting directors do, and producers need to make sure that casting directors stay involved in the negotiations along with the entertainment lawyer.
5) Get Long Form Agreements Signed Before the Start of Production – I am not sure why it seems like a good idea to many producers to not have long form agreements signed before the start of production. Believe me, the last thing anyone wants to do is get an actor to sign a contract the first day on set. In fact, SAG really discourages it. I talked about the creative process before, and this is one of those things that can damage the creative process. Those agreements need to be signed early. Although it is not always possible to sign before the start of production, producers need to try harder. The backup is the initial cast deal in point #3 above, which is why that deal letter needs more detail.
6) There Are No Flat Deals for $20K! This one deserves its own special section, because of the number of producers who think that they can hire cast for a “flat” $10K, $20K, $30K, etc. No such deal exists under SAG rules! There is a SAG flat deal at a much higher compensation level, but even that is not really flat the way that producers think about the word “flat.” SAG work rules are always going to prevail over any kind of flat deal arrangement.
7) Don’t Treat Cast Like Crew – I have worked on some low budget projects where producers tell me, “Hey, the crew is all eating pizza and hanging out in the rec room, so why can’t the cast?” Sorry to say, but you just must get out of that mentality when dealing with cast. There are practical reasons for this too. For example, you can’t have your cast sweating it out before their scene, because it is going to ruin their makeup and clothes, etc. There is a reason for A/C and private dressing rooms. So, don’t just knee-jerk against every request by agents. The cast has probably been on more shoots than the producer and director combined.
8) Recognize the Friendly Yet Adversarial Position of the Talent Agent and Producer – This is difficult, because talent agents are doing difficult work, for low pay, and want to see productions succeed, but also have a legal duty to represent their client to the maximum. Just as the entertainment lawyer is required to get the best possible deal for the producer, the talent agent is required to get the best possible deal for the actor. So, the producer needs to both avoid needless conflict, but also realize that, just like SAG, the talent agent is actually going to be advocating and working on behalf of the cast.
As with any entertainment matter, please do not make a decision about complex issues without consulting an experienced entertainment lawyer first. Feel free to contact my office at www.filmtvlaw.com about a quote.
- By Brandon Blake, Entertainment Lawyer