By Chris Hood
(This is Part Nine of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmakers on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com)
As I have been racked with guilt over the past week for not imparting every last nugget of my extensive casting knowledge, I’ve decided to pull out more of my tricks on the topic to share with you, my hungry pupils. I’m regularly asked about union vs non-union casting and know that most producers don’t really know the options available to them in this area. Most indy filmmakers think it’s an “either/or” proposition, but that’s actually not the case.
For the benefit of those who have never done a film before, a little background on the Screen Actors Guild which in many cases proves to be the bane of the production. SAG is an actor’s union. Practically all the big name actors you know are members of SAG. That means, they only work (are only allowed to work) shows that are operating under an agreement with SAG (the exception will be explained later). So, a production company that wants to hire “name” actors, or even unknowns who are members of the union, must have a SAG contract in place to do so. However, there are several complications that can and do arise from this.
First, the SAG requirements can be complex to the point of being paralyzing and, to many, unreasonable. When I first starting working in film, before the internet, SAG had a handbook they provided to producers and production companies. It pretty much laid out all the rules and regulations for working with SAG and SAG actors on your production. The book was nearly 500 pages long. By comparison, the State of New York has a document for rules of conduct for licensed lawyers practicing in their state. That’s 80 pages. I don’t know of a single book out there that teaches the art of acting that runs 500 pages, but it apparently takes that many to explain how to handle actors.
As a producer, you’re expected to be familiar with everything in that book. If you’re not, be prepared for fines…and lots of them. First, foremost and likely most important, SAG will tell you the minimum you can pay your actors. It doesn’t matter if your budget can afford it – that’s for them to decide. It doesn’t matter if the actors are willing to work for less – SAG is the authority on this and they get the final say. They will tell you if you can use any non-union actors as all (though the answer is almost always “no” unless you’re talking about non-speaking roles). So, if you’re making a movie with SAG and want your mom to be the cashier in the grocery store, too bad. SAG will let you do that, but you’ll need to “Taft Hartley” your mom which gives her 30 days to work union gigs, but after that, she needs to join the union or can’t work union shows any more after that. Sound like a lot of hassle? It is, but don’t forget the fees you have to pay to SAG in addition to the B.S. you’ll be dealing with. The same applies to any non-union actor you want in your film. Sure, you can get them in…but it’s gonna cost you…
Now let’s consider one of the other ways going the SAG route sucks – penalties. It seems every violation of a SAG rule results in a penalty of some kind and it’s usually financial. Meals have to be at a certain time after an actor is called to set (or after their last meal). Now, it’s good form and the decent thing to do to take care of your cast and crew, but there are times when a lunch break needs to be delayed. It just happens some time and SAG is going to penalize you for it. There is a grace period, but consider this – the first half hour will cost you $25 per actor and you’re looking at $50 per actor for the next half hour. So, if you break for lunch 35 minutes late, that’s $75 per actor. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fabulous producer and your cast loves you and they understand that you simply have to delay lunch for a few minutes and no one seems to mind – SAG says “no”. Period.
And that’s just the penalty for feeding people late. There are penalties for not having enough of a turnaround between wrap and call, penalties for traveling beyond a certain distance, penalties for an actor getting wet or being around smoke, penalties if you pay an actor late, and the list goes on and on.
On top of all this, as a producer working with SAG, you’ll have to give SAG a considerable deposit. In theory, this is so that SAG can pay your actors if you run out of money or abscond without paying them at all. In reality, it’s a tremendous burden for filmmakers, especially those on a tight budget. It can be a chore to get that deposit back even if all the actors have been paid. That money is usually needed quickly for post-production and other expenses, but SAG doesn’t seem to feel any sense of immediacy in getting it back in the production company coffers. There are plenty more hoops to jump through before they cut you your check and give you your money back. So be advised.
So why would you work with SAG? Because in some cases you have to. Most of the big “name” actors you want to hire will only work SAG so the union has you by the balls, so to speak. If you’re not working with big actors, there is no good reason to go the SAG route. I’ve heard “Yeah, but my buddy is SAG and he’s going to be the lead so it HAS to be a SAG deal.” Actually, it doesn’t. And here is the ray of light in the hell of union filmmaking – Fi-core.
Fi-core is short for “financial core” and it’s a status that SAG has to, by law, allow to their members. Now fi-core dates back several decades as a result of a union actor that worked a non-union show and was kicked out of the union when they were discovered. This actor sued arguing that acting was too unreliable and inconsistent of an occupation for SAG to restrict other acting opportunities outside of the union. She won, so now SAG has to allow a “fi-core” option to all members. SAG is not happy about this and very much wishes actors didn’t know about it.
Here’s how it works. A SAG actor informs the union that they want to change their status to “fi-core” so they can work non-union as well as union jobs. Now, I regularly hear how SAG tries to talk members out of this decision. I’ve heard that rudeness and outright scare tactics are employed. Phone calls and emails addressing fi-core are sometimes ignored, presumably with the hopes that the actor will lose interest in and no longer pursue this course of action. The simple fact is that it doesn’t matter if the actor decides that fi-core is good for them, SAG has determined it’s not good for SAG.
Now here is where fi-core gets interesting. There are actually some pretty big name actors who are fi-core and/or willing to work non-union shows. People like Danny Trejo, Michael Madsen and Eric Roberts work non-union shows. Dennis Hopper worked non-union. The rumor is that some or all of these more established actors are not even fi-core, but SAG looks the other way because they know if the actor is pushed they will choose fi-core status. There’s a story of an A-list actor called out by SAG for working a non-union film. When the actor replied, “Fine, make me fi-core,” the union quickly shifted gears and took the position, “Well, there’s no need to do that, but please don’t do it anymore. It’s bad for the union.” It might be bad for the union, but it was obviously good for the actor and the producers and they’re the ones out there actually making the films.
Jon Voight is fi-core because SAG made a project he was working on too difficult to move forward. More information about fi-core can be found at the website Fi-core.com. That site is actually considering an update which would include a database of fi-core actors for producers and directors. In general, SAG actors are stronger than non-union ones, though there are obviously some amazing non-union actors out there. To be able to pull from what would otherwise be an unavailable SAG pool of fi-core actors would be a great resource for indy filmmakers trying to keep their costs down with a non-union shoot.
Now, I hope for your sake there will be times when you have to shoot SAG. I hope your budget is so big that you have a lot of big name actors and non-union isn’t a viable option. I do hope that happens because it means you’ve probably realized the dream. But, before you get to that point, if you have to “pay your dues” like the rest of us schleps and make smaller films, think long and hard about which way to go with your film because this decision will affect everything – most notably your bottom line.
Next article, I’ll close out my advice on casting with the actual dynamics of the auditioning and selecting process.
Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as “Counterpunch” starring Danny Trejo and “Dirty Dealing 3D” with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell. He is also owner of Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com. He’s also dead sexy. (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)