Then along came SAG. One of our lead actors absolutely wouldn’t do the show unless it was a union gig. And we really wanted this actor. My initial reaction was “hell no”. I had heard horror stories over the years from producers who had to deal with SAG rules and crazy amounts of paperwork. Jess decided to check it out anyway and was shocked at the terms of the low budget agreement, which gave SAG complete ownership of the film if the producer failed to meet every criteria of their 725 page document.
But then I began researching Ed Burns, who had produced several feature films under 20K with a SAG New Media contract. The contract and paperwork was infinitely easier to understand and allowed us to negotiate our own terms with the actors. What’s more, we could make non-union members SAG eligible, and not have to worry about the rest of our SAG actors getting into trouble. It sounded almost too good to be true, and against my better judgement, we went for it.
It was a risky move since I was putting my entire non-union webseries on SAG radar, and anyone who had shot an episode for us over the past ten years, even if they didn’t get paid, could potentially get hassled by SAG. Fortunately, I knew one of the reps in the New Media department, and as long as we could get him to walk the project in personally, we should be okay. Unfortunately, the only way to submit for New Media status these days is online, which gives you no choice who your SAG rep will be. And of course, we inherited the SAG rep from hell.
Just four days before shooting, our wonderful new SAG rep changed our status from “New Media” to “Theatrical”, completely changing the terms of our contract to a deal we couldn’t afford, effectively shutting us down. We had heard stories of SAG doing this – waiting until the last minute to leverage their authority and force production companies to pay for a “completion bond”. But we weren’t about to give in to SAG, and when Jess asked why our status had been changed, our rep became elusive, vague, and downright crazy.
They said there was a problem with our running length, even though there is no mention of running length in any of the contracts. When we asked how long the running length should be, they said they couldn’t tell us. Whaaat? Apparently, there are a whole series of red flags and hidden qualifiers for New Media that SAG doesn’t tell you about. Presumably, SAG fears that unscrupulous producers would take unfair advantage of this contract, and for some reason our rep believed we were as unscrupulous as they come.
They said they had a problem with us wanting to go to film festivals, even though we found out that SAG had sponsored a New Media film festival in San Francisco. Action films were also a red flag, as well as the words “Feature Film”, which was splashed all over our website. I figured this was a simple fix and changed all occurrences of “Feature Film” on our website to “Internet Epic”. Done.
I finally got an insider tip that the main thing they were looking for was initial internet distribution. But again, they wouldn’t tell us what kind of distribution we needed – Netflix, Hulu, Youtube? At one point they said that they only way the could approve us was to cut the film up into bite-sized webisodes. I almost conceded, but then I realized no – I already had a webseries, and I didn’t need to ask them permission to do that. I had told our Kickstarter audience that we were going to make a feature. And that’s what we were going to do.
But the harder we fought, the harder our rep dug in their heels, literally screaming at us and threatening that if we didn’t sign the theatrical contact, they would make sure we never got approved. What’s more, they threatened to report us for breaking the law – not paying our actors for years of shooting our no-budget internet series.
They crossed the line. I finally told SAG that our only option left was to shoot the film non-union or go “financial core”, which caused them to truly go ballistic. They actually called each of our cast members and told them not to work on our show. What they didn’t count on was that all of the actors were also our friends, and they gave SAG an earful for giving us a hard time saying that they would go financial core if they had to.
But there was no fighting it. This had become personal. Jess was in tears and we had no idea what to do next.
I then came up with an idea to crowdsource the problem. If we could crowdsource financing, props and locations, why not legal advice? We turned to our friends who eventually put us in touch with just the right person (and I’m glad he’s on our side). All we know is that this guy may or may not have been a linebacker for the New York Jets and is simply referred to as a “SAG negotiator”.
Jess told him our situation and all he said was “I’ll take care of it”. We had been battling this thing with everything we had for two weeks, and the next day we got a call from him saying “it’s done”. Jess was shocked and asked him what he did. He simply told SAG “I do not like what it is you’re doing to these nice people” and that he was not a “happy camper”. Jess replied “and that worked?” He replied, “they know what I mean by that”.
An hour later we get a call from the president of SAG personally apologizing for how we had been treated. In my mind, I imagined he was being suspended by his heels from the roof of a tall building with our buddy in the background saying “make me believe you!” Immediately aftewards we got a call from our new SAG rep, who was astoundingly nice, saying that we would be reinstated right away as a New Media project.
Who the hell WAS that guy? Do we owe him a favor someday? Are we going to go down to the SAG office and find a bunch of people in crutches?
We called to thank our “negotiator” and ask what we owed him. He said that he saw our budget and knew we couldn’t afford him, so he gave us a very reasonable price. We told him how thankful we were and that we’d love to put his name in the credits. He simply said “no, I prefer to remain anonymous.”
It was over. And the victory (and the story) was almost worth the battle.
The irony of all this is that the actor who had originally requested SAG status had to leave the show due to a family emergency. The actor who replaced him left shortly after the altercation with SAG. Other actors and crew, unsure of the fate of the show, took work on other shows. So even though we were finally approved, the issues with SAG completely killed our momentum, forcing us to postpone the show yet again.
I felt it was a mixed blessing. We weren’t ready. Locations weren’t locked, fights weren’t rehearsed, storyboards weren’t finished, we still had missing crew, equipment, props, and I still hadn’t memorized all my lines yet. And one of my biggest fears wasn’t jumping off a building or getting hit with a sword, it was forgetting my lines.
And yes, directing my first feature scared the crap out of me. So I was secretly relieved when I thought the film wasn’t going to happen. I was actually hoping for a meteor or some other cataclysmic event, but SAG did the trick. Apparently, one of my lead actors felt the same way – secretly hoping the show would be canceled. It was a big role, and he wasn’t sure he could pull it off.
But this was the “year of scary” for me, and Jess knew we had to keep going. My money wasn’t going to last forever, so we rescheduled for the end of August when Monique was scheduled to return from Iron Man, even though that meant starting the same week that Jess started teaching her class at Pepperdine.
Film production is hard enough in itself without your own union trying to screw you. But we went into this knowing this was gonna be rough. Our only consolation was that one way or another, it was going to be done in 18 days. I was also empowered by this saying I came across, “Stop being afraid of what could go wrong and start being positive about what could go right.” Jess also made me a bracelet with the acronym “WWEBD”, which stood for “What Would Ed Burns Do?” You can see me wearing it in a few scenes in the movie.