In Features, Issues

FREEWAY FILMMAKING: NO-BUDGET PRODUCING, L.A. STYLE

By Andrea Sperling. Introduction by James Schamus.

If New York has been the traditional home of no-budget production, there’s no doubt that la-la land has fast caught up with an astonishing slate of penny-pinching auteurs – from Gregg Araki to Chris Münch, Nina Menkes to Caveh Zahedi, not to mention Britta Sjogren and Everett Lewis – all of whom have emerged over the past few years. In a town dominated by "the industry," a radically other cinema, feeding off the industrial wastage (if not waste) of Hollywood production and narrative has arrived. Is there such a thing as an L.A. no-budget movement to speak of? In fact, there is. Defining features: a taste for black and white, a predilection for the long take if not the outtake, a cast of characters underwhelmingly alienated, and a brilliantly rough-around-the-edges camera style (or rather, variety of styles) that transforms documentary clichés into fictional truths.

In the following, producer Andrea Sperling gives an L.A.—oriented rundown on some of the big practical issues facing no-budget producers on the fault lines, covering such vital areas as equipment, actors, transportation and crews. Articles covering other no-budget issues will appear in future issues of Filmmaker. Much of the following material is boilerplate to no-budgers everywhere, while a good portion gives a window on a new production community whose vitality and talent can be matched no where else. Hang five.

 

ACTORS and SAG

In order to use Screen Actors Guild (SAG) actors for no-budget productions shooting in Los Angeles, one must become a Guild signatory under the SAG 1989 Codified Basic Agreement for Independent Producers. To become a SAG signatory, you must sign either one of two contracts: the Letter Agreement for Low-Budget Theatrical Pictures or the Letter Agreement for Low-Budget Affirmative Action Theatrical Pictures.

The Low-Budget Theatrical Picture Agreement is applicable only to productions whose total production costs do not exceed $1.2 million ("total production costs" meaning all "above" and "below the line" costs, including any deferred compensation). Under this agreement, you reap certain benefits not available to those productions with budgets above 1.2 million. For instance, you may hire a day player for $398 a day (a savings of $50 off the normal rates) or a five-day weekly player for $1,385 a week (a savings of $173 off the normal rates).

The Low-Budget Affirmative Action Agreement is essentially the same agreement as the Agreement for Low-Budget Theatrical Pictures except that, in an effort to support the use of minority actors (defined by SAG as people of color, women, seniors and the disabled), you’re entitled to use the reduced rates as stated above, for total production costs not exceeding $2 million when utilizing minority actors in combinations totaling not less than 20 percent of the total days of employment. (For example: a motion picture with a cast of ten shall have at least five performers from any or all of the protected groups, two of whom shall be performers of color).

The Affirmative Action Agreement is often under-used by producers; either they don’t realize that they qualify or they neglect to apply. If your budget exceeds $1.2 million, I recommend that you consider reviewing this contract, as well as your intended cast, to see if you qualify, or to make an extra effort to qualify.

In working with Guild regulations, realize that there are certain requirements that can become costly to no-budget producers. Some hidden expenses that you may not be aware of include: a hefty security deposit (a total of 40% of your estimated cast allowances, the minimum financial security being $10,000) to be paid ten working days prior to your start date. Although the deposit is returned to you (with interest accrued) upon completion of the production, this amount of money to be paid in full and up-front previous to production start could be detrimental to the no-budget producer, especially if your total budget is only $20,000. In addition to the security deposit, SAG also requires you to pay pension and health plans totaling 12.5 percent of gross compensation (7.75 percent of the contribution paid to the Health Plan and 4.75 percent of the contribution paid to the Pension Plan). When budgeting for a union movie, do not forget to add these expenses. They, too, are required and could push your planned budget over the top.

Also, be aware that when signing this contract you are agreeing to pay the first 35 extras of each shooting day at Guild rates. Though this rule is stated on the contract, it is known to be one of the more easily negotiable. Also, keep in mind that the Guild has strict overtime provisions and insurance requirements that when neglected, or provided for, prove to be quite costly to the producer.

As you can see, whether producing a $10,000 feature or a $1.2-million feature, the salaries for Guild actors remain the same. Unfortunately, SAG does not differentiate between no-budget features and low-budget features. Waivers are a fallacy, either you adhere to their agreements or you do not use their actors. For those of us wanting to use SAG actors in feature films with budgets less than $150,000, we have neither the money nor the people power to fulfill all of SAG’s requirements (if you didn’t already know, there is immense and tedious paper work involved when dealing with SAG, paperwork a producer of no-budget films will have neither the time or the staff to fill out properly every day).

Ironically, despite the rules, many no-budget productions utilize SAG actors without becoming a signatory to the Guild. The SAG actor who agrees to act in a non-union film is liable for his or her own penalties and/or fines. Many actors (because they want the part regardless of the pay offered or the terms or conditions of the shoot) will tell you they are non-union when, in fact, they actually are. Be clear that they accept the part at their own risk. Some try to protect themselves by changing their name in the credits or by signing a contract with a producer that states, if the actor gets caught, penalized, and/or fined by SAG, the producer agrees to pay their fees. Still others take a chance, leave their name the same without signing any "secret" contract, and pray that they don’t get spotted by SAG spies. I don’t recommend signing any "secret" contracts. The legalities of such an endeavor can become a producer’s worst nightmare. There are lots of talented actors in Los Angeles who are not members of the Screen Actors Guild and would love to star in the next no-budget blockbuster. Try scouting theaters (though make sure that the actor in consideration does not gesture just as wildly on film as she does on stage), pre-schools, kindergartens, grade schools, junior highs, high schools, or college plays (depending on the age range you are looking to cast), or acting classes. You may also come across new talent in student films, short films, or film festival films. Ask around to see if anyone knows of a film or an actor in a film that might be appropriate for the role you are looking to cast.

If you’re interested in receiving a mass of headshots and résumés, you can place a free casting notice that runs for three weeks in Dramalogue. Many starving actors with or without agents, union or non-union, read this publication hoping to find the perfect part for themselves. In Los Angeles, there is also Breakdown Services. It costs money and, unless you are incorporated or hire a casting director, you cannot use it. But if you can find a way to pay for the service and scam a way to utilize it, I highly recommend it. It sends out (on one day only) all the vital casting information for your production to all the vital agents and managers within the industry, who then send you headshots of their clients based on age, character type and project description. You can also try auditioning your friends, family members, and/or lovers – you never know who has the natural ability to act. And don’t forget, for anyone appearing before the cameras, you need to have a release form filled out and signed – without it, your film could be withheld from distribution.

 

TRANSPORTATION IN L.A.

Because there is virtually no source of public transportation for those of us residing in Los Angeles, an owned automobile is of utmost importance to any no-budget production. Films made for no money cannot afford to rent vehicles or provide transportation to and from the set for those cast or crew members without cars. Generally, this is not a problem in L.A. Most people in Los Angeles do either own, rent or lease their own vehicles and if they don’t, they’re usually not in the film business. A no-budget producer would just as soon hire a less experienced crew member with a car, than an expert without one. Producers with no money depend on crew members with cars or, if you’re lucky, those with trucks or vans, to help with the various and sundry runs, pick-ups and deliveries.

If none of your crew members own a truck or a van, or do own one but feel queasy at the thought of using it to haul equipment around, try to find a rental place willing to donate a cube truck or van. Promise them a "special thanks to" credit at the end of the film and a mention in the press releases. They also like to have stills of their donated vehicle taken on the set with the cast and crew milling around it, so offer them a slew of these as well. Or best of all, if you can squeeze their vehicle into a shot, promising them some type of promotional tie-in this way, your chances of receiving a truck or van as a donation triple. Keep in mind that whether you get a vehicle for free or not, you still need to pay the minimum insurance fees for auto theft, collision, and liability, though usually these costs are fairly reasonable.

As far as driving rules and regulations go, as well as parking terms and conditions, most people, because they regularly drive in L.A., do not need to be informed or reminded of the laws. In cases where someone receives a parking ticket, gets towed away, or into an auto accident while working on a production for little or no pay, and without any insurance coverage, it’s nice to offer to pay for their ticket or tow fees or to help out with their deductible.

If you need to provide parking for the cast and crew on city streets, contact the Motion Picture Coordination Office in L.A. and they will tell you what you need to know about purchasing parking permits and/or barricading off certain sectors of the city for your filmic use.

 

INSURANCE

It’s difficult, though definitely not impossible, to shoot in L.A. without insurance. Most equipment houses require the standard one-million dollar loss-and-damage liability coverage, along with being named additionally insured, in order to rent from their facility. Only one, maybe two rental houses in L.A. offer "in-house" insurance to productions without it. Sometimes you can persuade them to accept a large deposit in place of insurance, but this rarely happens. In fact, most rental houses require both insurance and a deposit, so consider yourself lucky if you can get away with just one or the other.

The best way to avoid purchasing loss-and-damage liability insurance is to hire crew members who own their own equipment and do not ask to be insured for its use. Remember that nothing is ever entirely free even when receiving donated materials, as many generous companies will still require insurance. Also, when using SAG actors, you must provide them with worker’s compensation insurance – a very reasonable thing to provide your entire cast and crew, and a legal requirement, too. The cost for worker’s comp is pro-rated by salary; the minimum amount you will spend is $400. Even if you don’t hire union workers, I recommend that you purchase worker’s comp anyway. It’s the least you can do to protect those people volunteering their time to your production, or working for little pay.

Without insurance, it may also be difficult to shot at the locations you desire. Many property owners will allow you to shoot on their property without permits, but not without third-party liability insurance. This type of coverage protects them from liability against all losses or damages your production accrued while shooting at their place. It’s a fair request on their part and one that you should be prepared to fulfill. Film crews are notorious for their lack of consideration and sloppiness while on location. This person living in the aftermath of the hurricane should be compensated for any or all discomfort experienced, especially if they allowed you access to their property for free. Don’t forget to have them sign a location release form – ideally before you begin shooting.

Other types of insurance such as negative and faulty stock, Errors and Omissions, etc. should also be looked into before beginning production. Often times it’s cheaper to purchase all your insurance at once.

If you can’t afford to buy your own insurance, try buying into someone else’s (make sure they don’t take your money without placing you on their policy first) or see if they’ll let you "borrow" their certificate for one or two rentals. This is very tricky legal ground, so make sure you know what you’re doing. They will have to write the deposit checks and even payment checks from their own accounts to cover rented equipment, so make sure they understand this part of the deal before you get involved. You could also try rounding up a few of your friends who are all shooting around the same time and cut a deal with an insurance broker that way. Another way to cut corners is to get covered by a non-profit organization whose insurance you could buy into on a day-to-day basis.

 

PERMITS

In Los Angeles, it’s quite easy to shoot without permits due to the expanse of its terrain and the general greediness of its property owners. Depending on the size of your production, the locations you choose, and the effects you try to muster, you can get away without using your permits fairly easily. Obviously, if your production has a crew of 250 and a transportation department utilizing five massive trucks and two plush honeywagons and you want to shoot a scene during the day in rush-hour traffic on Hollywood Boulevard that requires the Mann’s Chinese Theatre to be blown up by Nazi terrorists, you will probably need a permit. But productions within reason can easily avoid this extra expense by keeping crew to a minimum, equipment and vehicles hidden or disguised, and shooting in less populated areas.

If a police officer should visit your set, offer him or her some bread and water and assure him that you are student filmmakers. If you are not creating havoc in the surrounding area and the neighbors are not complaining loudly, they will usually leave you alone. Though beware: many productions have been shut down due to lack of proper shooting permits. If you’re not sure you can get away shooting without a permit, then buy one. It’s not worth losing a day of shooting if you are shut down.

When buying a permit or thinking about purchasing one, recognize that with it may come with additional expenses such as the hiring of a police officer, medic, or fireperson. In order to buy a permit, you will need insurance. You cannot, under any circumstances, obtain a permit from the city without it. Again, contact the L.A. Motion Picture Coordination Office and they will give you all the necessary information regarding the city’s permit and insurance requirements.

 

EQUIPMENT

Whenever possible, try to get all your equipment donated or heavily discounted (40 percent to 50 percent is a good deal). A helpful hint: it’s not who you approach, but how you approach them. In L.A., there are so many movies in production on any given day (because weather is rarely, if ever, a hindrance, no month of the year qualifies as a slow production period) that unless you can ideologically, politically, socially, historically, and/or aesthetically differentiate your film from those productions that can afford to pay those very companies that you can’t afford to pay (or pay only minutely), then forget it! You’re not going to get any help or sympathy from them. It’s up to you as producer of a no-budget film to prove your project worthy of aid and to convince others of its worthiness too.

For instance, never tell an equipment rental house to donate a camera package to shoot your latest t & a movie, but do tell them that you got a grant for your new documentary, thus letting them feel their superiority over their competitors. If you didn’t get grants and your project is a t&a movie, don’t lie and misrepresent your project, just figure out a way to pitch it that makes it sound worthy of a donation. This type of approach is truly the only way in L.A. to get free equipment, goods and/or services. Also, as with any potential donor, offer them a "special thanks to" credit on the end titles and in press kits, as well as stills and product placement if possible and/or necessary. If, after all that exposition, you still do not get a freebie, try to get them to at least supplement your loss of savings with an enormous discount.

Panavision in Tarzana is especially generous to independent filmmakers. They have a special department set up specifically for the purposes of facilitating donations. Called The New Filmmakers Program, it was created as a way to offer to those without money free camera packages for the duration of their shoot. I highly recommend looking into this program before renting a camera elsewhere.

One benefit of shooting in L.A. are the number of people here who, in an effort to make themselves more attractive for producers to hire, own their own equipment and allow you to either use it for free when hiring them, or rent it out to you in exchange for a salary, with them attached. The best people to look for in these cases are d.p.’s with their own camera packages, gaffers with their own lights and gels, sound recordists with their own Nagra or DAT machine and editors with their own flatbed and accessories. For additional savings in post, try sneaking into university facilities; almost every school in L.A. has a film production department and more often than not the editing room doors are left unlocked overnight. You can also try befriending a film student at one of these schools to swindle a sound mix out of them or their contacts.

 

BOOKS AND REFERENCES

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has the comprehensive film library in L.A. They have books, photos, reviews, and articles on everything ranging from Muybridge’s trotting horses to HDTV and anything else in between or above and beyond. They also have a phone number you can call to get immediate information (each call is limited to five minutes per person, but you can call back as often as you like). You may call them to find out such things as: who someone’s agent or manager is, who directed what feature when and with what kind of financing, or to get a contact number and/or list of production credits for creative crew personnel such as a production designer or composer.

In terms of physical production, the bible for all production services, and something you cannot film in L.A. without, (outside of the Thomas Guide) is an L.A. 411. This book lists all the resources available to productions in L.A. as well as the phone numbers and addresses of each place. If you cannot afford to buy one of these, pick-up Bension’s Producer’s Masterguide as a substitute. It is less comprehensive than the 411, but still quite useful. If all else fails, check the Yellow Pages. It too contains valuable information that can be vital to a production, and it’s free! For office and strips, release forms etc., try Enterprise Stationary. They also have useful books and references to glance through, as does Booksoup further west.

 

TEAMSTERS AND UNIONS

The chances of being shut down in L.A. for not hiring teamsters or union members on no-budget productions are slim to non-existent. Due to the high volume of productions out here, the unions only seem to hassle the mini-majors or studio pix that try to avoid unions through lies and deceit. No-budget productions are not worth their time or money to spend a day attacking us, especially when right around the corner, a larger production that probably could afford to pay them, is shooting without them. One rarely hears of a no-budget shoot that has been hassled by a teamster or union member. So if your production is small enough, don’t worry about them.

 

CREW

Los Angeles is swarming with people anxious to get into the business so it’s not difficult to find crew members willing to work for little or no pay. What is difficult, though, is finding talented and experienced crew members to work for little or no pay. The best way to crew up to a no-budget production is to offer those experienced in "lesser" positions an upgraded credit. For instance, find a skilled art director who wants to production design but has yet to do it, and offer her a production designing credit in exchange for little or no pay. More often than not, potential crew will agree. At this point in their career, an upgraded credit on a smaller film is more valuable to them than a lesser credit on a larger production. In this respect both you as producer and they as crew win. Just be sure that the person you offer this to is ready for an upgrade and will be able to handle the new found responsibilities it entails.

The best way to find appropriate creative personnel is to hire them based on their work on other films. Look in the credits of films you like, find out who did what, contact them, and offer them the opportunity to work on your film for a better credit. Personal referrals are also a preferred method of finding crew. Or you can place an add for free in Dramalogue (it runs for three weeks) and receive a slew of résumés. Take care to interview each candidate, carefully explaining the nature of your production and the unconventionality of its mode. Many people unfamiliar with no-budget production cannot handle working "guerrilla style" or have no interest in doing so, still others will commit and then drop out at the last minute if they are offered a paying job. Avoid these types at all costs; try to find people willing to commit and who believe in your cause. These are the most reliable, and prove to be the most dedicated.

You an also make fliers and tack them up at film schools or equipment houses. Students studying film production are anxious to work professionally, not only for the experience, but for the "connections" as well. Plus, they usually don’t need money as much as people working for a living do. They can be valuable to you as well: because they are studying film formally, they have some knowledge about the process of filmmaking, much more so than someone off the street wanting to break into the industry, but who knows little nothing about the craft. People working in equipment houses or labs often times are anxious to get on-set experience as well. This method of finding and hiring crew is most effective when looking for assistant camera people or grips and electricians. These people may also be beneficial to you by getting you deals or extra equipment through their place of employment. Note: The Most difficult crew person to hire for little or no money is the sound person. Be prepared; budget for salary in this area.

 

FILM AND MAGNETIC STOCK

Obviously film stock is a necessity for every production and one expense difficult to avoid. Studio Film and Tape and Film Stock Exchange in L.A. sell short ends, recanned film, and/or unopened stock at discounted rates. Both are accessible 24 hours a day and accept credit cards. The more stock you buy, the better the deal. Another way to get discounted stock is to buy it from films that have wrapped, or are just about to. Often times they have left over stock which they intend to sell back to a film exchange shop. If you catch them at the right time they may strike a deal with you instead, or you could go for the gusto and ask them for a donation first. They may surprise you and hand over their left-overs for free! You can also try calling commercial and/or music video production houses. They, too, sometimes have short ends or old, unused stock withering away in their vaults which, if you beg long and hard enough, they may sell or donate to you. Again, these methods of obtaining stock are very tedious and time consuming and sometimes very risky. Your chances of receiving faulty stock escalate; be sure to have your lab to a snip test for every roll you intend to use. They should conduct this test for you for free.

The most stock either Kodak or Fuji will give to feature films for free is 100 to 200 feet and this for camera tests only. Though each do offer student discounts. Kodak has a special deal for student filmmakers (at schools that qualify) which enables them to receive a 20-percent discount for orders equal to or exceeding $2,500. For magnetic stock, try FPC, a subsidiary of Kodak. They are very generous with their donations.

No-budget productions tend to have lower shooting ratios (defined as the amount of film used while shooting compared to the amount of film which is actually used in the final cut) than others, and for good reason. The more film you use, the more money you’ll spend in just about every capacity, especially post-production. If possible, try to keep your shooting ratio down to 3:1, though it’s best when budgeting to calculate the ratio at a higher rate for safety. A good way to offset higher ratios is through ample pre-production. Too much is never enough; the more time you spend organizing, preparing, and rehearsing, the less money you’ll spend both during production (i.e. on wasted film) and in fixing mistakes in post production (i.e. bad sound).

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