Studio News from John, Part 3

Before I get on with another update on the production of "My Love Affair With Marriage", I wanted to take some time and describe the process of using SAG actors in an independent animated feature.  I mentioned this in passing last time, but I think the topic deserves a full examination, because it's something of a complicated process with a lot of intricate rules. 

I happen to have a history with the Screen Actors Guild where independent animation is concerned.  I was an associate producer on Bill Plympton's film "Hair High", released in 2004, which was quite possibly the first-ever animated feature that qualified as a low-budget feature according to the rules of what was then SAG (now SAG-AFTRA).  What does this mean?  The union obviously exists to protect the actors, and works to ensure that they are paid what they deserve, but it also allows for high-profile actors to work on smaller independent films if they want, as long as they agree to a smaller salary.  So if Tom Cruise wants to waive his usual $20 million paycheck and go appear in a small indie film, he could do that, assuming that SAG-AFTRA would grant the production a waiver. 

For "Hair High", Bill wanted to hire a number of well-known union actors (Sarah Silverman, Dermot Mulroney, Keith Carradine) but also pay them as cheaply as possible, to keep his overall production costs down. Even though the SAG rules typically allow for low-budget live-action features to use union actors, they seem to have something of a blind spot when it comes to animation.  

I remember my first phone call to inquire about this, and I was told by the Screen Actors Guild that there was no such thing as a low-budget animated feature.  This didn't make sense to me, as I knew Bill had made several of them before ("I Married a Strange Person", "Mutant Aliens").  I realized that SAG was used to dealing with Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar, with production budgets in the millions, and Bill's usual total budget for a feature was more like $200,000.  After some time on the phone explaining Bill's process, my contact at SAG finally agreed that it WAS possible to make an animated feature for six figures and not seven.  

But in order to afford that cast, we needed two things - a waiver from the SAG Advisory Board, and signed statements from the actors stating that they understood that the project was low-budget and therefore they would not be receiving their typical day rates.  The waiver from the board was crucial to this, because it turned out that SAG's production agreement for low-budget films specifically states that it does NOT apply to animated films - unless, of course, the board decides to issue this waiver.  Once we got the waiver, and all of the actors signed their documents agreeing to the lower rate, we could proceed.  

(Bill ended up paying the actors more than he was required to, but I think for most of the cast of "Hair High", it wasn't about the money.  They were either eager to work with Bill Plympton, or perhaps just looking to gain some experience in the world of animation voice-overs.  I know some actors from that cast went on to do more animation work, like Sarah Silverman voiced characters in "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Bob's Burgers", and Justin Long became the voice of Alvin in the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies. Also, Dermot Mulroney provided the voice of Green Lantern in the Batman animated series just a couple years later.)  

Time went by, and Bill didn't have a reason to work with union actors on another feature until recently, with his new film "Revengeance".  With actors like Matthew Modine and Dave Foley interested in doing voices, Bill's studio applied for another waiver in 2015, only to be turned down.  The paperwork was re-submitted with a more detailed request, and it was turned down again.  It seems that in the time since 2004, SAG had merged with AFTRA, and a different set of board members was in place, one that was more likely to stick to the letter of the law and less likely to issue this waiver to allow an animated feature to follow the terms of the low-budget agreement. 

Bill's solution to this problem was to make "Revengeance" without any union actors officially involved, and the film's talented co-director, Jim Lujan, provided most of the character voices, with non-union actors completing the other roles.  (I even did the voice for one character in "Revengeance", a DJ named "E-Money", so I may get my 15 minutes of fame yet...)

A year or so later, Signe and Sturgis started casting the voices for "My Love Affair With Marriage", and though I wasn't part of this casting process, I know that Sturgis called on some contacts he had in the theater world, plus other connections put them in touch with Matthew Modine. Other actors, like Emma Kenney and Cameron Monaghan, signed on during the Kickstarter campaign.  Since these actors are all registered members of SAG, going the non-union route was never a possibility for "My Love Affair With Marriage", in order to use the best voice talent available. 


But, we also knew that SAG-AFTRA would be very unlikely to issue a waiver to allow the film to follow the terms of the low-budget or modified-budget agreement - and we were right, they flatly refused to even consider it. So the only recourse was to follow the same rules as any Hollywood film and pay the actors full scale, which they no doubt deserved for their talents, even though the union rules dictated that an hour in the sound studio would equal a full day's pay.  Besides being more expensive in the long run, what else did working with the union entail?  

For starters, this meant that the actors legally became employees working for The Marriage Project, LLC, even though each actor may only have worked for an hour or two.  (The days of the "freelance actor" are a thing of the past.) All federal, state and local taxes needed to be withheld from their checks, and deposited to the proper government accounts.  The production also needed to make contributions to each actor's health and pension funds, as per the terms of the SAG-AFTRA agreement.  And even though their voice-over work would be performed in the relative safety of a sound studio, the production needed to get a workers compensation policy, just in case an actor got injured on the job.  You never know when someone could get hurt by a falling microphone, I guess. 

Now, some of the actors were recorded in New York, while others were based in California.  So for those on the West Coast, the LLC needed to be registered as a California employer, since that's where the work was being performed. Then we had to calculate withholding and make deposits for California state taxes and also disability insurance in that state.  (Again, falling microphones, you never know...)


An interesting side note is that while all of the actors were treated as employees, some of the actors were also incorporated, which made calculating the withholding taxes much easier in those cases.  Remember those weird government laws everyone was talking about a couple of years ago, where according to the law some companies have the same rights as people?  Well, it turns out that works both ways, and some people are also companies.  Some actors have incorporated themselves, so that meant we could pay them their full rate and their "company" would be responsible for all of the taxes and also the contributions to Social Security and Medicare.  I guess that makes financial sense for some actors, who can work on many different films and TV shows over the course of a year.  

I won't bore you with the details of filing quarterly payroll reports, because that's certainly not one of the more glamorous parts of my job - still, it needs to be done.  And then at the end of the year, we'll have to send out those pesky W-2 forms (and 1099 forms to the people who are also companies) but then the process will be complete.  In the end it's kind of satisfying to know that all the paperwork is being filled out properly, and that the states of New York and California are happy, the union is happy, and the actors are happy.  Now Signe just has to animate a film with these voices that will make the audience happy!