This Wisdom Wednesday, producer Randy Bobbitt (It’s Gawd) shares invaluable lessons he’s learned about the SAG signatory process. Engaging SAG can be a tricky process, but here, Bobbitt provides the necessary nuts and bolts.
“I don’t know the name of the document! There are too many documents! I can’t deal with this anymore. I have to go, bye,” screamed my SAG rep at 11 a.m., the Friday before we were going to start principal photography.
I had an hour to send over the correct Security Agreement (not the one she emailed the day before, but the one she emailed that morning); otherwise, our film would not be cleared and our entire production would shut down.
I’ve been a member of two unions. I believe they are the backbone of all labor laws in this country, and that without them, producers and studios would grossly take advantage of an already overworked desperate labor force. However, the process of becoming a SAG signatory will bring out the inner Rand Paul in even the most pro-union liberal.
After taking our independent feature film, It’s Gawd, to SAG, I learned a few things that, hopefully, may make your experience with SAG a little more pleasant.
Here are my ten most important lessons:
1. You cannot get started too early
Due to talent availability and financing challenges, many independent productions have a short window of time to shoot. SAG requires the bulk of your paperwork to be in at least three weeks before the start of principal photography. During our production, we easily made the three week deadline, but only officially became a SAG signatory an hour before they closed for the weekend, prior to our first shoot day.
FYI: SAG closes at 12:30 p.m. on the Friday before three day weekends. This little tip will not be in any of the dozens of documents or emails they send you. They will generously mention this on the morning of the deadline, leaving you to wonder if there are any lasting effects from panic attacks.
Needless to say, if possible, start the paperwork process at least six weeks before your first day of principal photography.
2. Have your corporate structure set before you fill out any paperwork
The first decision you will have to make is whether an individual (director, producer, or financier) or a company will act as the SAG signatory.
What SAG will not tell you is that this should be the same entity that your entire production will run through. The same entity will sign the checks, obtain the insurance and contract with the payroll company. This is a crucial decision because once you start this process with SAG, it will be very difficult to change the company or individual names without having to restart the process all over again. A restart not only will risk delaying your SAG status, it will also frustrate an already overworked SAG rep whose good side is taxed to the brink by other, more established production companies.
We created an LLC specifically for this production. Now, if anything catastrophic occurs during production or even after the film is released, our liability is limited and we (producers, directors, and investors) are shielded by the company.
3. One misplaced comma can jeopardize your entire production
One comma, a tiny hiccup of ink, appeared between our company name and the abbreviation “LLC” almost shut down our entire production. I don’t know where the comma came from. I guess it’s a habit to put a comma after your company name and LLC.
All of our documents had our company name, a comma, and then, LLC. The company was created by the director. It was the name of our film with the name ‘movie’ added after it. The lawyer who generated all the paperwork put a comma after the company and before the LLC. After turning in dozens of documents, SAG informed us we had to white out the comma in every piece of paperwork that was turned in. Not only did we have to white out and resubmit the paperwork, we had to write a letter, mail, and email it to SAG, stating that we put white out on the comma between the name of the company and the LLC.
SAG checks with the state to confirm the exact spelling and punctuation of your company name. You should probably do the same before turning in any paperwork.
4. Your SAG rep is a lawyer
Even if you were pre-law in college or have a really good friend that’s a lawyer who swears they’ll do it for free because they think it will be “fun” to work on a film, it’s worth the money to hire an entertainment lawyer. Your SAG rep will study your paperwork with the glaring eye of a Marine sergeant during inspection. If you are like me and do not know the difference between a quit claim and short form assignment, an entertainment lawyer will help you generate not only these documents for SAG and the copyright office, but all of your necessary production documents.
5. They will not return your calls
Here is a transcript of an actual phone call I had with an assistant at SAG:
Me: “I’ve already left several messages and sent several emails over the last three days; is there anyone else I can speak with regarding this matter?”
SAG Receptionist: “No.”
Me: ”It’s a pretty simple question I have about the deposit that I’m sure other reps could answer, but since we shoot in two days, the answer could affect whether we have to shut down or not. What would you do if you were me?”
SAG Receptionist: “Leave a message.”
Don’t get me wrong. They will call you and they will talk to you when they are available, but they won’t return your calls. Clear and concise emails are your best option. You might have to wait a few days for them to respond, but most of the time, if your email is specific enough, they will respond.
6. SAG assumes you will not use a payroll company
Some of the confusion with the paperwork is a result of SAG assuming you will not use a payroll company. Without the help of a payroll company, it will be nearly impossible to navigate an already challenging path.
A payroll company that offers a payroll management system will pay SAG their fringe benefits directly, take out all necessary taxes, cut your checks, and provide you, your crew, and your cast with worker’s compensation coverage. They typically charge between .5 percent and 1 percent of your total payroll. They will also send some of your most tedious paperwork (e.g. how much each talent grossed and the benefits paid) to SAG directly.
However, the biggest advantage to using a payroll company is that they will be able to answer most of your questions regarding overtime, 6th day, fitting days, etc. much quicker than SAG. You’ll save money in ways you didn’t even think were possible. We were not aware that under the Low Budget Agreement you could pay a daily employee a prorated weekly salary rate after their first week of employment. This created a nice and very unexpected savings. Needless to say, they provide an invaluable service. CAPS, Cast & Crew, Media Services and Entertainment Partners are a few of the payroll companies that specialize in entertainment.
7. They can force you to change what you pay for your script
The reason we created a LLC instead of operating as an individual is because the LLC will protect the writer; however, we were not aware that SAG could force us to change the agreement we made with the writer. After reviewing all of our documents, including the deal we made with our writer, SAG forced us to change the fee the company paid for the script by one dollar. Even though the writer was selling the script to his own company, they forced us to change the fee to at least a $100,000 or 2.5 percent of the total budget.
8. SAG can ask for a deposit of at least 10 percent of your budget
Once your pre-production Cast List, Information Sheet, Adherence Letter, Chain of Title documents, Distribution Checklist, Budget, Schedule, Script, and the rest of your documents are submitted, SAG will notify you about the amount of your deposit.
Pre-submission, SAG only informs you that there will be a deposit. They do not give you any indication as to its size. I asked several other producers and accountants who worked on films with similar budgets (just over a million dollars) about their SAG Deposit (also called a SAG Bond). They said they paid between two and four percent of their overall budget.
So, let’s just say I was a tad shocked when I received an email from my SAG rep informing me that a deposit of 10 percent of our overall budget was required. After several days of pleading and verifying to SAG that we had already paid more than 50 percent of our talent fees upfront through escrow accounts, they finally dropped their deposit figure to about 7.5 percent. In our case, even with the reduction, we still had to scramble to find the money so that it did not affect our overall shooting budget. Our SAG rep couldn’t tell us how they calculated the bond, but she did mention it’s some combination of talent salary, fringe benefits and potential residual funds.
9. They will ask for the talent paychecks to be delivered to their office
“It’s 4:15 p.m. and we close at 5 p.m.” my SAG rep explained on the 2nd Friday into our shoot. She rarely called and when she did, it wasn’t to tell me I was her favorite producer. So, I was little perplexed when she called to tell me the hours of operation at the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood.
“Well, you have a nice weekend,” I responded.
“So, the checks will be here before 5 p.m.?” she ordered.
“Excuse me?” I squeaked.
“The checks have to be delivered by 5 p.m. today.” I swallowed my tongue!
It was a four-day week due to Labor Day, so processing payroll in a timely manner was even more challenging than usual. Our rep had called the day before to make sure we were going to make payroll, but she never mentioned anything about having to deliver paychecks directly to SAG. Our Production Assistant was driving with the checks from the payroll company in Burbank directly to our set in downtown Los Angeles. You know how sometimes when you get paychecks, you give them to the people that are working for the paychecks?
Unfortunately, despite our Production Assistant putting his and dozens of other people’s lives in danger, he didn’t make the 5 p.m. deadline. Apparently, the following Monday morning was acceptable. Awesome!
10. Be nice to your SAG rep
This is probably obvious, but as the start of principal photography nears, and you find yourself filling out a form for the third time or you find yourself leaving a message for the tenth time, you will eventually grow very frustrated with this process. Your rep will not be very responsive and when they are, they’ll sometimes be curt and annoyed. They are overworked, understaffed, and tired of answering the same questions over and over again. You will want to use terms that are typically four letters long. Do not do it.
Be nice. You have no choice.
Randy Bobbitt is a producer who just finished his third feature film, It’s Gawd, starring Tommy Chong and Luke Perry. In addition to working on features, Randy has worked as a production manager, producer, and executive producer on dozen of productions ranging from films to commercials to television shows to branded entertainment docu-series. He is currently shopping his web series, What She Wants.
All photos courtesy of Steven Feralio.
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