Indie Film Producers Frustrated By SAG-AFTRA’s Interim Agreement Process, Fear Early-Stage Projects Will Vanish If They Can’t Lock Casts

Indie Film Producers Frustrated By SAG-AFTRA’s Interim Agreement Process, Fear Early-Stage Projects Will Vanish If They Can’t Lock Casts

August 25, 2023

Fearing they won’t be able to set casts for film packages to sell at key festival markets, indie film producers are appealing to SAG-AFTRA to fast-track interim casting agreements that are holding things up.  

A number of projects have fallen away and others are at risk, a handful of producers told Deadline, for projects that would be shopped at the Toronto Film Festival in September and the American Film Market in late October.  

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SAG-AFTRA began offering interim casting agreements late last month, about 60 so far, allowing agents to send scripts to actors. But as the guild juggles many hundreds, maybe thousands, of requests, these producers fear an overly long process is landing them at the end of the line. The result could be a dearth of indie films in 2024 and beyond.

“If we are all slowed down packaging projects, it will have a ripple effect on production this fall and winter, and into early next year. If you can’t package, you can’t complete your financing. Independent film is all about who your cast is,” said Laura Lewis, founder and CEO of Rebelle Media. She said she’s had several projects topple this year due to the strikes.

The logjam, some say, is the guild wants them to apply for what’s called SAG signatory status before requesting an interim agreement. Clearing that hurdle is the only way they can cast their films.  

Signatory paperwork asks for details on cast, crew, budget, financing and shooting schedule, among other things. SAG-AFTRA assigns a rep to each project to work through the process, which also requires a film to be registered as a special-purpose vehicle like an LLC, another step. Under normal circumstances, signatory requests are not usually filed until four to six weeks before production is set to start.

“You don’t need to be a SAG signatory in a normal situation to send scripts to actors,” noted one producer. “The key to the indie business is getting actors interested in our projects. That is the lifeblood of our business – getting an actor to say, ‘I like your script. I am interested in it.’ It lets a producer put the financing together.” He and several others asked to speak on background given the sensitivity of the issues.  

“They check every dollar you are spending, every investor that is putting money in. They go through the organization with a microscope. It takes weeks. And you are sweating bullets, ” another producer said of the signatory vetting process.

Early-stage projects don’t have that information.  

“My lawyer basically said put ‘TBD’ for everything,” added yet another, who is seeking waivers for two projects. “A lot of us are in no-man’s land, just waiting.”    

Rob Paris, president of Rivulet Films (and former colleague of Lewis’ at CAA), said he risks losing a director on a film project that may fall by the wayside if he can’t assemble a cast.  

Paris has written to the guild, noting that he and dozens of “independent producing friends and associates have lost precious time to have actors read and consider our projects slated to shoot this year. My application is in the queue, but I have no idea when we may hear back. If I cannot finalize the cast that is required to green light my films, they will not happen this year. And in the case of one film, perhaps ever.”  

A SAG-AFTRA spokesperson said: “At this time, productions must submit a signatory application and sign an agreement before they can receive an Interim Agreement. In some cases, in order to facilitate casting, the full signatory process may not be completed prior to receiving an Interim Agreement for casting purposes only. The signatory process is completed later before the project is officially cleared for members to work.  We are aware of requests from projects that are in earlier stages and we are evaluating options for those projects.”

The producers say they fully support a rigorous signatory process to ensure all is in order before production starts. “We have done it many times and will continue to do so without hesitation,” Paris said. But meanwhile, speeding up the process for interim casting agreements is crucial to jump-start projects.

Here’s what he suggested as part of letter to the guild:

“Any independent Producers seeking reads from SAG members must promise:  

1) they are not affiliated with AMPTP  

2) they will not become affiliated with AMPTP until the strike is resolved to SAG’s satisfaction. 

3) they will become full signatory which includes signing the Interim Agreement.  

With this promise, memorialized in a simple document, the true indies should be approved for casting and negotiating terms.  

Then, once the cast signs on and the funds are committed, we go full speed on the Signatory process, as we have many many many times.  

Simple and protective.  

Please help us!”  

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the guild’s national executive director and chief negotiator, has spoken frequently about interim agreements for non-AMPTP productions. They provide jobs for performers and crews at a critical time. They show solidarity and demonstrate the industry can move forward without the Association of Motion Pictures and Television Producers.

But it’s been complicated. SAG-AFTRA several weeks ago altered its interim agreement policy going forward to exclude WGA-covered projects shot in the U.S., which is another headache for indie producers and will end some projects and push others to Canada or elsewhere. Also, distributors with interim agreements looking to acquire films at upcoming festivals will have to adhere to the agreement terms, which was probably always going to be the case but will complicate dealmaking.  

Several industry players (not producers) noted that SAG-AFTRA is under intense scrutiny over which projects are granted interim agreements, and when, and why. The backlash has been ferocious if something doesn’t sit right with the broader community. “They’ve got to tread carefully,” said one.  

And since 3 out of 4 film projects floating around any given year never even make it to the signatory phase, asking for the paperwork may be a bit of “a bullsh*t meter. How serious are you?” suggested another.  

But that’s kind of Paris’ point. Given SAG’s large backlog of requests, it seems many projects – those destined to fade away, alongside ones more likely to move ahead — are all in queue at the same time (along with productions that are ready to shoot, have a start date, or need talent for promotion). SAG-AFTRA would still hold all the cards, and the signatory process remain intact, with a faster process, he believes. “We should be able to have conversations with actors. Then, if they want to go to work, once we build [a project], we would bring it to SAG, like we always do,” Paris said..

“It’s very emotional. It feels like it’s a no-win situation,” said another producer. “What we do is finance our own development of projects outside of the system, package them, and then go down the studio route and the indie route and take the best offer, both creative and financial, for every project. Obviously, the studio outcome is basically off the table. The indie outcome isn’t. But you can’t even get to that point, where you can get to the indie route, because you can’t send your scripts to actors.”

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