The Producer's Guide To The SAG-AFTRA Basic Agreement

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The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), formed when two American labor unions, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA) merged. Both unions were created during the tumult of the Great Depression in the 1930s with the shared mission to fight for and secure the strongest protections for media artists.

When they combined in 2012, the list of SAG-AFTRA media artists grew to include: actors, dancers, program hosts, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voice-over artists, and other media professionals.

Now, almost one hundred years later, SAG-AFTRA is still committed to organizing all work done under their jurisdictions, negotiating the best wages, working conditions, health and pension benefits, generating work opportunities, enforcing contracts, and protecting SAG-AFTRA members from unauthorized use of their work. However, the Union’s work is not possible without the cooperation of those within the industry who are not part of the union - mainly studios and production companies. Thanks to collective bargaining agreements and the subsequent contracts put in place, SAG-AFTRA can govern and protect those working within a performance role within the entertainment industry.

So what exactly is a collective bargaining agreement? Collective bargaining is a type of negotiation process between employers and a group of employees with the mutual goal of defining terms and coming to an agreement to regulate working salaries, working conditions, benefits, and other aspects of workers' compensation and rights for workers.

For example, before any of their members can be hired, the SAG-AFTRA negotiated contracts (ex. Basic Agreements) that set base standards around topics such as wages, hours of work, and terms and conditions of employment must be signed, agree and adhere to by all those wishing to employ a SAG-AFTRA member at any point in the future.

Once those points are decided, a collective bargaining agreement is reached, and both the employer and the union are required to abide by that agreement. Hence the system the industry has in place for working with SAG-AFTRA members.

 

Who is part of the SAG-AFTRA Bargaining Agreement?

Due to the size and influence of the union, most major media firms have a collective bargaining agreement with SAG-AFTRA through the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). This includes studios, production companies, commercial production houses, and even individual producers. Producers and companies who sign a contract or letter of agreement with the Union in their jurisdiction are called "Signatories."

When an entity becomes a signatory, they are agreeing to the working terms for the professionals represented, protected, and hirable under the basic agreement contracts. These include:

  • Performers
  • Professional singers
  • Stunt performers
  • Airplane and helicopter pilots
  • Dancers
  • Stunt coordinators
  • Puppeteers
  • Body doubles
  • Background Actors*

* Background Actors' terms are only covered by SAG-AFTER for specific zones, including Hawaii, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, and Sacramento.

 SAG-AFTRA Union Members

 

How To Become A “Signatory”

If you are looking to hire SAG-AFTRA members for your project, and you have not done so already, you (or your company) are required to become signatories of SAG-AFTRA.

When undergoing the process of becoming a signatory for the first time, you must start by determining what classification your production falls under. There are a total of twelve categories, the three most common categories begin: Theatrical, New Media, and Television. Within each of these categories there are subcategories, which will be discussed in further detail farther down in this post.

Once you have determined the classification of your production, you will need to submit a preliminary information form to SAG-AFTRA providing detailed information on your project.

For example, for a projected classified under the New Media banner the following deliverables are required when submitting initial production information to SAG-AFTRA:

  • Name of casting director or casting company for both principal and background
  • Payroll house for both principal and background
  • Financier’s information
  • Copyright holder information
  • Distribution agreement information
  • Licensing agreement information
  • Intended revenue source
  • Intended distribution beyond TV/New Media
  • Insurance carrier
  • Performer information (i.e. pre-production cast list)

The following additional information is also required:

  • Completed Preliminary Project Sheet
  • Line-item budget for the production
  • A copy of the script
  • A copy of formation documents (if signing as a business) or Driver’s License (if signing as an individual)

Submissions should be made at least 3 weeks before the start of production and take around 2-3 days to review.

A SAG-AFTRA representative will then reach out to complete the process. Until your project is granted clearance by a SAG-AFTRA business representative, no work with the performer (including table reads) can begin until you become a signatory to one of the SAG-AFTRA Agreements and 

If you think your company may have already applied to be a signatory, or are looking for signatory companies to work with, you can search for approved signatories via SAG’s signatory database.

 

What Happens If The Agreement Is Violated?

Simply put, a SAG-AFTRA member must always work under a union contract around the globe. Violating any section of the contract - including operating without a signed contract in place - can result in disciplinary action ranging from reprimands to fines to expulsion.

For SAG-AFTRA Background Actors, this can be tricky as the contract only applies in certain areas, as stated above. Both producers and Background Actors should be extra vigilant when casting or accepting a job as both could be at risk of violating the contract by providing and accepting non-covered work.

 SAG-AFTRA Cards

 

Types of SAG-AFTRA Agreements

All Union members are covered on all projects where SAG-AFTRA members are being employed across film, TV, or otherwise under the SAG-AFTRA Basic Agreement and the SAG-AFTRA Television Agreement. However, there are subsequent project classifications that require additional contracts. When signing these contracts the signatory is also signing the Basic Agreement by default, and is still subject to the terms and guidelines laid out in that document.

 

Theatrical Agreements

There are 6 types of theatrical agreements. All of which are determined by the budget level:

  1. Theatrical 
  2. Low Budget Theatrical
  3. Moderate Low Budget Project (MPA)
  4. Ultra Low Budget Project (UPA)
  5. Short Project
  6. Student Film
Theatrical

Applies to films shooting with a total budget greater than $2,000,000 and are intended for the initial exhibition via a theatrical release.

Principal Performer rates can be difficult to calculate and vary based on an actor’s prestige, contract negotiations, experience, and on the type of role that is played. For Background Actor rates, it is more straightforward, but still requires careful consideration when budget planning as bumps, wardrobe changes, and props can add to a background actor’s fee.

Under this particular theatrical agreement, you may only hire SAG-AFTRA actors as principal performers and the first 57 Background Actors hired must be union members as well. If your production requires more than 57 Background Actors, the 58th hire and beyond do not need to be union and are thereby not covered by the terms and conditions of the Theatrical Agreement. If you plan on hiring a Principal Performer or Background Actor (and do not have 57 other background actors employed) who is not yet a SAG-AFTRA member, you have 30 days from the signing of the contract to submit the applicable Taft-Hartley Report to your Business Representative, along with a headshot and resume, to grant union status and comply with the contract rules.

Residuals are based on formulas that take into account such things as the contract in place during the specific year, time spent on the production, the production type, and the market where the product appears. All performers hired under or upgraded to a principal performer agreement whose performance remains in the final product are entitled to residuals. Background Actors do not receive and are not entitled to residuals unless they are upgraded to principal performers.

For film work that falls under the Theatrical Agreement, residuals begin once the movie appears on video/DVD, basic cable and free or pay television, or new media.

 
Low Budget Agreement

The Low Budget Agreement applies to films shooting entirely within the United States with a total budget of less than $2,000,000 but greater than $700,000, and intended for initial theatrical release. The agreement must be executed at least three weeks before any work by performers.

Under this agreement, a diversity in casting incentive is available. SAG-AFTRA offers a casting incentive to Low Budget filmmakers that may increase the total production cost maximum and thereby bump it up into the Theatrical Agreement range, which would increase rates, and other payments a Low Budget film may be unable to afford. To see what qualifies under the diversity hire, see Section 3(a) of the Low Budget Agreement.

Rates for daily and weekly principal performers under this agreement is set at 65% of the basic agreement scale. While principal actors are generally paid far above the SAG minimum, the lowest you can pay principal actors under this agreement is:

  • SAG Day Rate: $630 per Day
  • SAG Weekly Rate: $2,267 per Week

Under this agreement signatories are contractually obligated to work with SAG-AFTRA principal performers and up to a maximum of 30 for background. 

This agreement also requires that residuals are paid according to the guidelines and subsequent rate calculations stipulated in Basic Agreement once residual requirements are met and payment is scheduled to begin.

 

Moderate Low Budget Project Agreement

The Moderate Low Budget Project Agreement (MPA) covers non-episodic content productions budgeted between $300,000 and $700,000 filmed entirely within the United States. The agreement must be executed at least 1 week before any work by performers. The MPA applies to films that are initially released in one of the following, but an initial release in one of the following is not required:

  • At Film Festivals
  • On new media free-to-consumer platforms (where the consumer does not pay for access to the Project) for thirteen (13) consecutive weeks
  • Before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for possible Academy Award consideration (The Signatory may exhibit the Project for one week in a paying movie theater to qualify for Academy Award consideration)
  • To non-paying, non-public, established entertainment industry members and/or prospective financiers to showcase the talent of the producer, director, writer, performers or other members of the production or post-production team
  • On one public access television channel for not more than ten exhibitions within one year from the first run date, if neither the Signatory nor any of its principals in the production receive any compensation for the exhibition. The Signatory must advise SAG-AFTRA of the first air date and the station on which the Project will run.

Rates for daily and weekly principal performers under this agreement is set at 35% of the basic agreement scale. 

  • SAG Day Rate: $352 per Day
  • SAG Weekly Rate: $1,221 per Week

SAG-AFTRA offers two casting incentives to Moderate Low Budget Project filmmakers that may increase the total production cost maximum. One is the Diversity-in-Casting Incentive we mentioned in the Low Budget Agreement section, and the other is a Background Actor Incentive, which allows increases to total production cost up to a maximum of $112,000.

Producers are contractually obligated to work with SAG-AFTRA principal performers but are not required to hire union background actors. This is where the Background Actor Incentive comes in.

Under the MPA residuals are not required to be paid unless the project is initially exhibited outside any of the initial release markets listed above. In situations where such an initial exhibition does occur, rates will be determined by the appropriate residuals provisions contained in the SAG-AFTRA Basic Agreement and the SAG-AFTRA Television Agreement.

 

Ultra-Low Budget Project Agreement

The Ultra Low Budget Project Agreement (UPA) covers non-episodic content productions budgeted under $300,000 filmed entirely within the United States. The agreement must be executed at least 1 week before any work by performers. The UPA applies to films that are initially released in one of the following, but an initial release in one of the following is not required:

  • At Film Festivals
  • On new media free-to-consumer platforms (where the consumer does not pay for access to the Project) for thirteen (13) consecutive weeks
  • Before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for possible Academy Award consideration (The Signatory may exhibit the Project for one week in a paying movie theater to qualify for Academy Award consideration)
  • To non-paying, non-public, established entertainment industry members and/or prospective financiers to showcase the talent of the producer, director, writer, performers or other members of the production or post-production team
  • On one public access television channel for not more than ten exhibitions within one year from the first run date, if neither the Signatory nor any of its principals in the production receive any compensation for the exhibition. The Signatory must advise SAG-AFTRA of the first air date and the station on which the Project will run.

Rates for daily and weekly principal performers under this agreement is set at 20% of the basic agreement scale. 

  • SAG Day Rate: $201 per Day

The UPA is not exclusive, and allows for the casting of both union, non-union actors, and non-professional actors. This also means that Union performers have the right to accept other professional employment during the production of a particular project. However, contracts are still required and must be provided for execution by the first day of work by the performer on the project. If the performer does not receive the contract by the end of their first day of employment, the performer is entitled to liquidated damages for $10.00 per day until the performer receives the fully-executed employment contract. Additionally, if the Signatory on the project fails to deliver any employment contracts to SAG-AFTRA, the Union is entitled to charge an additional fee of $10.00 per day per contract until employment contracts are received.

Under the UPA residuals are not required to be paid unless the project is initially exhibited outside any of the initial release markets listed above. 

 
Short Projects

The Short Project Agreement applies to those projects shooting entirely in the United States with a maximum total budget of $50,000 and a maximum total run time of 40 minutes. This does not apply to episodic nor animated projects. 

 

Student Films 

The Student Film Agreement applies to student films that satisfy course requirements at an accredited educational institution shooting entirely in the United States with a budget of less than $35,000 and a run time of less than 35 minutes.

 

NOTE: Regardless of the project's budget, contributions to the SAG Pension and Health or AFTRA Health and Retirement plan are set at a standard percentage of 19% for performers and 18.5% for Background Actors.

 SAG-AFTRA Basic Agreement Summary

 

Television

The SAG-AFTRA Television Agreements are based on the type of content, medium, and in some cases budget. For example, shows that go straight to a streaming service (like Netflix) and have a budget under one million, may fall under the new media agreement, but for all shows over that budget - even if they go straight to streaming - the SAG-AFTRA Television Agreement applies. SAG-AFTRA break down TV contracts into four categories:

  • Live-action
  • Basic Cable live action
  • Animation
  • Basic cable animation

All categories are subject to the existing Basic Agreement and Television Agreement. Under the Television Agreement, Performers and Background Actors are covered for their work on shows that are signatories of the SAG-AFTRA television agreement. Under the Television Agreement there is a required quota of 21 background actors, and for all non-union principal performers hired and the 22nd and up background actor productions should submit the applicable Taft-Hartley Report, along with a headshot and resume. 

It’s important to note that Television rates differ from Theatrical Rates, mainly in that they are determined by length and number of episodes a performer appears in as well as how long the actor consecutively employed by the show (day, three-day, weekly) and not solely on the project’s budget. Network, cable, and streaming differ as well. 

All are entitled to payment into the Health and Pension funds.

For TV work, residuals begin once a show starts re-airing or is released to video/DVD, pay television, broadcast TV, basic cable, or new media. Residuals are based upon a gross receipts formula for all episodes of free television series. Background Actors are not eligible for receiving residuals for work performed under the SAG-AFTRA Basic and Television Agreements unless the Background Actor is upgraded to the performer category. If upgraded yet he/she speaks five or fewer lines, the program fee for residual purposes shall be the five lines or less program fee. If the background actor is otherwise upgraded to the performer category, the program fee for residual purposes shall be the principal performer program fee.

 

New Media

SAG-AFTRA’s New Media contract is essentially the Union’s answer to online content. The New Media Agreement covers dramatic (scripted) and non-dramatic (non-scripted) entertainment productions that are intended for initial exhibition via the internet, mobile devices, or any other new media platform. Think webisodes, reality television shows, and motion pictures initially released online (yes, that means Netflix falls under New Media and not theatrical).

These days, it’s almost easier to define New Media by what it is NOT:

  • Motion pictures made for an initial theatrical release (including film festivals)
  • Programs made for an initial television or DVD release
  • Video games
  • Commercials and Public Service Announcements 
  • Any type of production or medium otherwise covered by any other SAG-AFTRA agreement

Unlike the other signatory agreements, the New Media Agreement does not require minimum compensation. Initial pay is completely negotiable under the SAG-AFTRA New Media Agreement for productions that do not meet the high budget threshold. While there are no minimums under the Agreement, there are local, state and federal minimum wage laws to keep in mind as they do still apply. Payment is due to the performer no later than five business days from the date worked. SAG Pension and Health or AFTRA Health and Retirement contributions are due on the negotiated initial compensation, at a rate of 17%.

You can defer payment to your performers under the SAG-AFTRA New Media Agreement if your performers agree to the deferral. Pension and Health or Health and Retirement contributions will also be deferred until payment is triggered.

Subject to certain guidelines, you may hire both SAG-AFTRA actors and non-union actors. The guidelines are as follows: all principal performers and the first ten background performers, per day, must be covered under a SAG-AFTRA contract. If, within reason, you need to hire a non-union member for any covered role you must submit a Taft-Hartley report within 15 days of the first date worked, stating your reason for hiring that performer over a union performer.

Residuals will be due for use in new media only if an original, Made for New Media program’s final total cost, as exhibited, is $25,000 or more per minute and it is exhibited on a consumer-pay-platform beyond 26 weeks. You may distribute your new media production beyond new media, after the initial new media release, without the prior consent of your performers or an upgrade in payment; however, residuals will be paid for the use of Made for New Media productions in traditional media based on the appropriate existing SAG, AFTRA or SAG-AFTRA Agreement formulas.

 

Conclusion

SAG-AFTRA (“Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists”) is a labor union that represents over 160,000 film and television performers, actors in radio, video games, announcers (in both radio and television), newspersons, singers and recording artists (both royalty artists and background singers), performers in commercials, and actors working as stunt persons and specialty acts. It is dedicated to protecting its members’ interests and improving wages, hours, and working conditions and does so through a series of contractual agreements (some of which are summarized above) that apply when any of its members are engaged in a production.

SAG-AFTRA members cannot work on a project unless the studio, production company, or producer is a signatory to the relevant SAG-AFTRA agreement. Not understanding the basics could result in hefty fines. While this article attempts to lay out the basics of the common contracts, this is by no mean a comprehensive summary or list of the SAG-AFTRA agreements. There are always grey areas by state and by project, and you should always read over and check your agreements carefully.

It is Castifi’s mission to provide a helping hand, especially when it comes to navigating the contractual complexities of the entertainment industry. If you found this post helpful, please share it with others and subscribe to our newsletter for more content like this, as well as upcoming events, product updates, and new product features.

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