Working with SAG as a Biola Film Student
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Hey KCMedia Fam!
Recently, I have had the opportunity of working with SAG for two different Biola projects: A Brief Silence by Josiah Solis and Scripted by John Knight (by the way, you should totally check out both of those films!)
This is my first time working with SAG, so as you can imagine, there have been quite a few faux pas and rabbit trails along the way. If you're like me and are hopping into working with SAG as a Biola student for the first time, here's a little breakdown of what you can expect!
As a note: There is a LOT of information in this post. If you have never looked into SAG before (or even if you've already done some research into SAG) and understand all of this the first time through without being overwhelmed at all, you'll have to teach me your secrets. This comes from a month or so of slow learning on my part, so feel free to read through it a couple of times or use it as a how-to guide, referencing different sections as they become relevant to your project.
Obligatory disclaimer: this information is correct to my knowledge as of the publication date of this post but the information may change by the time you read this. Please double-check the information contained in this post with each party before making official production decisions.
What does it mean to work with SAG?
SAG•AFTRA (The Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, SAG for short) is a union for film, television, and radio actors. They work to ensure that their actors are treated fairly on all sorts of productions. Because of this, they set up certain measures that we as filmmakers need to abide by. These include minimum pay rates, sufficient meal breaks, COVID-19 regulations, and more. While these can be a lot to keep track of, it's a great opportunity to learn how to care for your actors AND it's a small price to pay for the sort of talent that you find within SAG's ranks.
How do I work with a SAG actor?
In order to have a SAG actor in one of your pieces, your production needs to be signatory—meaning you have agreed to abide by SAG's policies and plan to execute them fully on that particular project. (One note: these policies apply to almost all of your actors on set. For example, if you have to pay a certain minimum rate for your SAG actor, you also have to pay that same minimum rate for your other non-SAG speaking actors. The one exception is that only a certain number of background actors are covered in certain agreements).
There are a number of different signatory agreements that you can choose from according to the type of project you are making. When selecting your signatory agreement, make sure your production meets every single criteria mentioned on SAG's website. (You can find details on each signatory agreement under SAG's Production Center webpage). If your project does not meet every single criteria of the agreement you apply for, SAG will switch you to a different agreement, meaning you may have to account for new policies and higher rates than you had initially planned for.
For the sake of this post, I'll be focusing on the Student Film Theatrical Agreement and the Micro-Budget Theatrical Agreement, as these are the two that I have the most experience with (and are likely the two agreements you would be most interested in as a film student).
Which agreement is right for me?
The Student Film Agreement (SFA for short; a type of SAG theatrical agreement) is a great agreement that gives film students the chance to work with top-tier talent on a student-level budget. Take a peek at the list below to see if it's right for your production.
Is this film for a course at an accredited educational institution?
Will the film be shot entirely in the United States?
Is your entire budget (including pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution) less than $35,000?
Will your film's run time be less than 35 minutes?
Do you personally own the right to the project (rather than your school owning the right to the project)?
Do you plan to only screen the final project in class, at film festivals, before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (how cool would that be?!), and as part of a visual resume shown only to established members of the industry? (NOTE: Screening the film online or on any type of mobile device is not included in this list)
If you answered yes to every question above, the SFA may be right for you! Fill out and submit the Preliminary Information form and submit it to SAG at least 4-6 weeks before the first date of travel, rehearsal, or production (whichever happens first).
***Note for Biola students: Biola University prefers to be the signatory for SAG productions. This is a complication for #5 above, so it may be best to opt for the Micro-Budget Agreement (below) instead if your project is micro-compliant.
The Micro-Budget Agreement (affectionately referred to as "micro;" a type of SAG theatrical agreement) is a fantastic agreement that was created at the end of 2020 and is designed for fast-moving projects with SAG actors attached. Take a peek at the list below to see if it's right for your production.
Will your project begin on December 1, 2020 or later? (Most likely yes, since I'm writing this midway through 2021 😂)
Will the film be shot entirely in the United States?
Is your entire budget (including pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution) less than $20,000? If you're filming a series, is each episode's budget under $20,000?
Would your project otherwise be covered under the Short Project Agreement, the Ultra Low Budget Project Agreement, the Student Film Agreement, the Agreement for Independent Producers of Dramatic New Media, or the New Media Agreement for Non-Dramatic Programs?
Is your project any of the following?
A corporate or educational video
A music video
A video game
Does your project contain either of the following?
Nudity or simulated sex
If you answered yes to questions 1-4 and no to questions 5-6, Micro might be right for you! Fill out the Preliminary Information form (different link than the info form for the SFA) as late as the morning of travel, rehearsal, or production (whichever comes first). Micro projects are typically approved or denied within a few minutes.
***Note for Biola students: Biola's Purchasing department requires 20 business days to process contracts like these. Send the link to the information form, along with a PDF of all of your answers, to a CMA office employee at least four full weeks before your first day of travel, rehearsal, or production (whichever comes first).
The Short Project Agreement is great as well, but it unfortunately does not apply to student films.
How do these agreements differ?
If both agreements happen to work for your project, which one should you choose? Here are a few notes on both agreements that may help you decide:
Pension and Health Fringes
The SFA does not require you to pay P&H fringes UNLESS Section 6 in the Student Film Agreement is triggered. If it is triggered, you must pay 20.5% P&H fringes for all principal actors (that is, every actor with a speaking part, even if they are not SAG actors) and 20% P&H fringes for your first 10 background actors (even if they are not SAG actors). P&H fringes are required monetary contributions that help cover your actors' costs that would often be covered by a company for those working 9-5 jobs. To calculate the total P&H due to your actors, multiply your principal actors' pay by 0.205 and your first 10 background actors' pay by 0.20.
Micro does not require you to pay P&H fringes.
Both agreements require you to provide your actors with workers compensation. You can obtain this from a third party or from a payroll company like ABS Payroll, NPI Payroll, or Wrapbook if you use them for running your project's payroll. Biola students, more on worker's comp later.
Minimum Pay Rates, Deferral of Pay, and Overtime
Deferring pay: Withholding part of an actor's pay (with their explicit consent) until a certain circumstance (like the monetization of your film) triggers the payment.
Under the SFA, you can defer the first eight hours of each day that your actor works as long as your actor explicitly agrees to it. Any hours beyond the first eight hours may not be deferred and must be paid at time and a half for the next four hours and double time for all time worked beyond 12 hours (more on this in a moment). You may negotiate your pay rates with your actor as long as you meet minimum wage for your state but if you trigger Section 6 of the SFA you must pay your actors a minimum of $125/dy for the first eight hours of each day worked. For each additional 6 minutes up to the twelfth hour, you must pay ((125/8)*1.5)/10=$2.35. For each additional 6 minutes beyond the twelfth hour, you must pay ((125/8)*2)/10=$3.13. If you trigger Section 7.c of the SFA (by exceeding a 20 day shooting schedule, a 35 minute edited length, or a $35,000 budget), you must pay your actors a minimum of the Ultra Low Budget minimum rate (found here under "Rate Sheet - Ultra Low Budget Project Agreement"). As of this post, that rate is $211/dy. This means time and a half (after the eighth hour, up through the twelfth) is ((211/8)*1.5)/10=$3.96 for each additional 6 minutes and double time (after the twelfth hour) is ((211/8)*2)/10=$5.28
Under Micro you free to completely negotiate rates with your actors as long as you meet all labor laws (including minimum wage, time and a half pay after eight hours of work, and double time pay after twelve hours of work). This means you can even pay your principal actors an hourly rate if they agree to it (though keep in mind that they may have to say no to a fully-paying gig for that day if they accept your part-day gig. If you can swing it, pay full-day rates to show your appreciation for your actors' time.) You can also defer part or all of your actor's pay if they explicitly agree to it.
Neither agreement requires you to use a payroll company but both strongly recommend it to ensure you're correctly filing for your actors' work. You can find a list of SAG-compliant payroll companies here under Section 5, subsection "The complete list of SAG payroll companies." Please note that you MUST use a SAG-compliant payroll company to run payroll for SAG actors.
COVID-19 Procedures and Policies
Both agreements require you to comply with The Safe Way Forward and the Return to Work Agreement (RTW Agreement) as much as is feasible.
The SFA requires you to name a Health Safety Supervisor (HSS), share your COVID-19 testing plan, and certify that your indoor locations meet a certain ventilation requirement (minimum ACH of 6. If your location contact doesn't know your location's ACH, take a peek at this to help calculate the location's ACH).
Micro does not ask for this information but asks that you comply with The Safe Way Forward and Return to Work Agreement as much as is feasible. This includes bringing on an HSS, setting up a COVID-19 testing plan according to the RTW Agreement, and generally ensuring that there's adequate ventilation
If you're working under the SFA, you do not need to notify your actors of your agreement type. (You're welcome to if you would like but it is not a requirement).
If you're working under Micro, you must inform your actors that your project falls under the Micro-Budget Agreement and they must sign the "Micro-Budget Project Acknowledgement" that will be sent to you if / when SAG accepts your project based on your Preliminary Information form. You do not need to turn the signed forms into SAG but you must keep them for your own records.
When you work under the SFA, you're matched with a SAG business representative who can help answer any of your SAG-related questions.
When you work under Micro, you do not have a SAG business representative. This expedites your paperwork but it also means you can only receive answers to your questions by asking an assistant at SAG's main phone number (found on the bottom of their website) or by sending them a question via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Obtaining workers compensation as a Biola student
In 2019, California passed the California Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5) which granted employee status to certain gig workers. Among these were many entertainment professionals, including actors. Because actors are now considered employees rather than independent contractors, those hiring them (that'd be us / Biola University) must provide them with Workers Compensation.
Initially, this posed a difficulty for Biola University, which requires all of their employees to sign a statement of faith. However, because of the nature of the hire and the length of the actors' employment, they were able to remove that requirement from the employee application form for actors.
Biola prefers that you receive Workers Compensation through them rather than through a third party, similar to how they prefer you use their insurance (thanks, Biola! <3). In order to use their Workers Compensation, reach out to the CMA office and the HR department. They will coordinate to send your actors the application form. From there, your actors simply need to fill out the form and then come to Biola in-person to show their personal identification and fill out their hiring paperwork. This process can be started digitally but your actors need to eventually go to Biola's HR department in-person to show their identification. This can be as late as the morning of the shoot, as long as they arrive at the office during the HR's office hours (found here).
Budgeting for SAG Actors
Now that you know all of the elements at play, I want to share with you one last thing: how to budget well for your talent.
Wrapbook gives some helpful information on this topic in their article "The Producer's Guide to SAG Payroll Companies" but there are a few things I want to point out for you in particular. When budgeting your talent, keep these eight things in mind: Minimum rate according to your agreement, overtime, agent's fee, P&H fringes, the SAG bond, payroll taxes, payroll or employer of record fees, and contingency.
As you've previously seen, the minimum rate due to your actors can drastically differ according to your project's signatory agreement. Take the time to choose your signatory agreement early on and make sure your project stays within the limits of that agreement all the way through the 'end' of distribution. Note that the budget requirements for each project are ongoing. If you go into production with a budget of $19,501 on a Micro agreement and then raise $500 after filming to help with film festival costs, you will be moved to a new agreement and will need to pay updated minimum rates.
Build an approximate schedule for each set day early on, including how many hours you plan for talent being on set. 12 hours per day used to be an industry standard of sorts, but recently some sets are pushing to move towards 10 hours per day. If you know how long you need talent on set each day early on, you can budget around how many overtime hours you will need to pay them.
Many SAG actors are likely to have an agent. Agents typically earn a commission of ~10% of most of the money made by the actors they represent (some payments to your actor are non-commissionable). One way you can care for your actors is by offering to cover their agent's fee, so instead of their agent taking $10 out of the $100 you pay your actor, you give the actor $100 and the agent an additional $10. To account for this in your budget, multiply the total amount to be paid to your actor by 1.1.
If your signatory agreement requires you to cover your actors' P&H fringes, account for them in your budget by multiplying the total due to your principal (speaking) actors by 1.205 and the total due to your background (non-speaking) actors by 1.20. (P&H fringe rates subject to change, check SAG's website for current fringe rates.)
The SAG Bond
If you're under the SFA or the Micro Agreement, you don't need to worry about this one. Under some other agreements, SAG requires you to pay a SAG bond (equal to 40-100% of the wages due to your actors) to the union before your actors begin work. They then hold onto this bond until all of your actors have been paid and SAG is satisfied with how you have paid and treated their actors. You will not receive this bond back in time to pay your actors, so you effectively need to plan to pay 2x your actors' wages. There is also a chance you will not get this bond back, so, if at all possible, do not bank on having this money for post-production or distribution.
When an individual receives wages from their employer, both they and their company pay taxes on that wage. Since you are the employer, you will need to plan to pay taxes on the wages you pay your actors. Consult your payroll company (or any local payroll company) for your tax rate, as it varies by location.
Payroll / Employer of Record Fees
Any payroll company you work with will charge you fees for the work they do for you. Some payroll companies opt for a flat rate while others opt for a rate per employee / payroll run. Shop around for quotes from SAG certified payroll companies ("The Producer's Guide to SAG Payroll Companies," Section 5) and account for them in your budget early on.
Contingency and more
As you know, productions rarely go according to plan. In case of a late meal, a forced call, or another SAG violation, add contingency into your budget for SAG.
Additional SAG-specific budgetary considerations (including travel days, hold days (which are not applicable in the SFA and can be avoided under Micro if agreed to by your actors), and wardrobe allowances) can be found here.
Wrapping it up
Working with SAG can include a lot of logistical challenges and paperwork, but if you have stellar SAG talent that you want to attach to your project, it's so worth it.
I hope this SAG as a Biola Film Student overview has been helpful to you. Please feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments below or reach out to me at Karen.email@example.com. You've got a journey ahead of you, but you've got this!!
Huge thanks to Holly Chang for being my sounding board for this article + all things SAG and John Knight for pointing out Micro's existence.