Independent Films Unblocked: SAG-AFTRA Waivers Would Let Some Productions Work Through A Strike

EXCLUSIVE: Independent films that found it impossible to get bonded or financed this spring and summer with a potential SAG-AFTRA strike looming — as well as new projects that were looking to start after June 30 — now have a shot at moving ahead as the union proceeds with interim agreements.

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The agreements, which essentially are non-work waivers in the case of a strike, would make it possible to bond new indie films heading into a potential work stoppage, something that hasn’t been the case for months.

“There are many, many dozens of projects that have been put in mothballs or fallen apart,” one leading insurance broker told Deadline. The broker requested anonymity given the sensitivities of the labor situation, as did other sources.

SAG granted waivers during its last strike in 2000, “and this one is following a lot of the same characteristics,” the broker said. “So where you see an independent film that does not have studio distribution yet, and that will lose its opportunity to get made, SAG will want to help.”

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Details are starting to trickle out, noted one producer, who said he’s heard that SAG “will give waivers if you agree to their terms.” What exactly those terms are, in dollars and cents, is not totally clear to him.

The actors’ contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expires June 30. Its membership approved a strike authorization on June 5. Executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland called the overwhelming “yes” vote “a clear statement that it’s time for an evolution in this contract.” He called this negotiation one of the most consequential in the union’s history, as dwindling residuals, generative AI and other issues threaten actors’ ability to earn a livelihood – some of the same issues that are front-and-center for writers in their ongoing strike. 

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SAG-AFTRA declined to comment on waivers, noting that the union is in negotiations under a mutually agreed-upon news blackout. A rep directed queries to the website, which gives some general guidelines for waivers. It reads:

“With respect to non-AMPTP, independently produced content that comes within the scope of a strike order, SAG-AFTRA anticipates offering an ‘Interim Agreement’ that would allow such productions to continue working during a strike provided that the producer agrees to abide by the terms that SAG-AFTRA is seeking from the AMPTP. In that case, the ‘Interim Agreement’ would largely be conformed to the AMPTP agreement on a going-forward basis once the membership ratifies successor agreements with the AMPTP.

“The foregoing is subject to the discretion of the National Board and the Negotiating Committee, which must retain the ability to adjust strike rules as necessary to achieve a successful result.” 

It remains to be seen whether SAG-AFTRA will issue additional public guidelines. Sources indicate that producers have been reaching out individually to request information and apply for waivers.

The first hurdle is to qualify as an independent production. “There can be no connection with any AMPTP company. No distribution. No connection at all,” said one completion bond executive. “If you are an indie movie and you had even one presale to any territory [involving a studio], that would preclude you from a waiver. But if there is no connection to any AMPTP member, they will grant these interim agreements.”

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It Ends With Us, the Justin Baldoni film in which he stars with Blake Lively, recently had to halt production less than halfway through until there is a resolution to the WGA strike, Deadline exclusively reported Friday. The production couldn’t convince the Writers Guild that the co-financing status of Wayfarer Studios was enough for it to be considered within WGA guidelines, even though the film will be a negative pickup for signatory Sony Pictures. 

As per the SAG-AFTRA website, productions must agree to terms that reflect increases in the union’s latest negotiating position and the terms it’s seeking. Waivers will require signatories to agree to whatever terms SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP eventually agree on. Many actors earn more than the minimum, and those who don’t could cost a production an additional 1% to 2%. Payments for health and other benefits would also be higher — by perhaps another 5%. The terms of the eventual contract of course will determine the numbers going forward. 

“As far as I understand, you will get the waiver before the strike,” said the producer. “But as far as I know, you have to agree to whatever the terms are, sight unseen.”

Not all productions might be able to afford the higher costs (though some increase likely is coming in any case). But in most cases, “Producers will agree to anything to get their movie made. An independent film will say, ‘Yeah, sure, where do I sign?’” — and then figure it out later, said the insurance broker.

“Producers urgently want to get their movies going,” a producer agreed.

There doesn’t appear to be a budget cap. “If there is some equity financier who wants to write a $50 million check, they can do so,” said an executive an one completion bond firm.

Waivers will be available to indie projects that started, or tried to, before the SAG-AFTRA contract expired as well as for those with a later start date. It’s not clear if they are being granted formally before the current union contract expires — because the existing agreement remains in place until then. Getting the agreements pre-emptively teed up ahead of June 30 makes sense since SAG would need to take a beat to study each application. Producers then could bring SAG assurances to completion bond companies and financiers. 

“The sooner the better for the unions and the indies in starting the process because no harm, no foul,” said Steve Mangel, president of completion bond firm UniFi. “If they don’t go on strike, it would just fall by the wayside. It would give more certainty for producers, financiers, distributors.”

Bonds vouch for a project being delivered on time and on budget, and the firms that issue them must eat the costs if that doesn’t happen. They haven’t been willing to secure productions that skirted too close to SAG-AFTRA’s June 30 contract expiration without waivers.

So a number of film productions have dissolved in the current climate, either disbanding completely or hoping to start later in the year or early in 2024. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Joaquin Phoenix-Rooney Mara pic The Island was a high-profile production that shut down in May on the eve of shooting in Spain. 

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The WGA strike began May 2, and its picket lines already have delayed and postponed a number of film and TV shoots. The DGA, whose contract also expires June 30, made a tentative deal with the studios and streamers earlier this month, though members have not yet voted to ratify it. 

SAG-AFTRA waivers don’t solve another problem: productions being shut down because actors don’t want to be seen crossing a picket line, even though they are contractually allowed to work. A formal waiver, or union imprimatur that a production is truly independent and can carry on, could help avoid that. 

One completion bond executive is even mulling the possibility of asking actors “to sign something, to confirm that, notwithstanding a strike, since this is an independent movie, you will work.”

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