crunching the numbers

horrorconThe basic premise of HorrorCon – a young female vendor rapidly losing the will to live learns to survive from a blood-sucking author in a similar state – bakes in an indelible setting. You either shoot this thing at a make-believe horror convention or you shoot it at the real thing. That I chose the latter was an idea born of both budget and marketing concerns. To cover the scope of my original story (poster, left) I needed a lot of people, merchandise and space; things I wasn’t in any position to pay for. But the conceit was always thus: if I pull it off and it doesn’t look “forced”, I’ve got a very marketable behind-the-scenes story to tell on the back of an epic, character-driven thriller that unfolds right in front of your lying eyes.

And you know what? I did. I pulled it off. We pulled it off. We stole this motherfucker right out from under their noses and I’d say for the most part you don’t feel the trick. I know I’m not the only micro-budget filmmaker in the world who’s tried something like this but I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who’s done it this way, this immersively, all within the restrictions of one entity that is structured to make what I’ve done strictly impossible. Or at the very least, ill-advised. For that I feel a little like Orville or Wilbur Wright – take your pick – who put something in the air against a set of laws at once established, material, and punitive. And they did so on a wing and no prayer, because prayers take precious seconds and in general are thieves of effective action. Indeed, we flew with a drag so absolute on our tails that only borrowing against it would keep us aloft. But how can you borrow against gravity without eventually falling flat? Read on.

If my comparing the Screen Actors Guild to the earth’s gravitational pull seems a bit over-the-top it’s because few really understand the Screen Actors Guild, or SAG-AFTRA as they are now known. Without digging too deeply into their history, suffice it to say that at one time, actors were a pretty disorganized bunch. The profession of acting itself dates back to the ancient Greeks and probably even earlier if we’re to believe that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession – plenty of performances there. But it’s been a profession that is both revered and mistrusted. It’s among the most unpopular professions among parental recommendations for their children, and actors have even been murdered for coming too close to a devout society’s concept of demonic possession. Resisting the actor stereotype would mean avoiding terms like “neurotic”, “vain” and “flaky” to describe them so I won’t fall into that trap (oops). Still, one of the world’s most mysterious and ethereal professions has come a long, long way. Which is to say, there’s a more predictive and gainful living to be made with the craft, and likewise, in the employment of actors. Which is really to say, there are a lot of people getting very wealthy from acting who are not actors.

If one were to conduct even the most casual of private surveys, one would likely come to the conclusion that there are far more hours of entertainment to watch these days than there are hours to watch it, which could give the illusion that there is more than enough work to be had for the working actor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s take, for example, the pool of professional actors now plying their trade in Los Angeles. According to the “anthropological” entertainment industry website Hollywood Sapien, if you take into account last years SAG membership figures (122,000), added them to AFTRA’s figures minus non-actors and guild overlaps (13,000) there are approximately 135,000 vested actors duking it out for part-time and steady jobs. If you factor in the rough estimate that 80% of all acting jobs are to be found in Los Angeles, you arrive at a curvy 108,640 monologues taken, hopefully at regular intervals, from Glengarry Glen Ross. If you now consider that roughly 80% of those actors are out of work at any given time, our number is now a more angular and photogenic 21,728. That’s a working 17%. Add tens of thousands of non-union talent country-wide to the equation and congratulations acting profession, you’re now the entertainment industry’s equivalent of the Republic of Nauru (90% unemployment), which is also called Pleasant Island, so at least you’ve got that going for you.

And here’s what should be obvious: unions require dues. In return, members get healthcare and retirement benefits, but to do that, they need to work. In order to work, they need to find employers who are willing to pay them union salaries, or at least match one of SAG’s various low-budget employment contracts which include minimal working conditions (okay, you can have a granola bar every eight hours and we won’t use a real tiger), paying into the union’s pension and health plan, and my personal favorite, paying half of what their members will receive in wages for the entire project up front. Since productions like mine (I have to assume) often involve a rolling number of days depending on what can be accomplished and afforded, I had no way of determining the exact number of days any one of our union actors would be needed. No problem, right? Surely SAG-AFTRA, in their efforts to alleviate the infrequent employment of their “lesser earners”, would recognize our project as one that could help and work with us on their deposit demands. No chance. SAG-AFTRA sticks to the script, and operates entirely within the suitably dramatic auspices of what they call Global Rule One.

What is Global Rule One? Global Rule One states that “no member shall work as a performer or make an agreement to work as a performer for any producer who has not executed a basic minimum agreement with the Guild which is in full force and effect.” Meaning, in essence, that once you’re a member, you can only work with those productions contributing to the union till. You can’t waive your rights for a little pet project, nor can you go to another country and act your hump off in the shadow of Notre Dame. Since their humble beginnings back in 1933, SAG-AFTRA have grown very powerful and have been kicking the asses and taking the names of those members weak enough to work with the far more ubiquitous members of the low-budget filmmaking community in order to put food on their table, or at the very least, add something to their reel besides being the first person to die in an episode of “Law & Order”. Luckily for SAG-AFTRA, the great majority of its members aren’t weak in that way. Most of them fold so completely under union pressure that they’ll cut you off with the curtest of emails the instant you mention you’re not an affiliated production. In fact, it happened more than once to me before I accepted my signatory fate. One minute you’re indulging in the kinds of exciting conversations that made you want to make a film in the first place, the next you’re a member of the Communist Party back in Old Hollywood who’s just devoured an adorable puppy and is crapping it all over the inside of your pants.

Click.

Silence.

Now, before you think I’m about to go into a union-busting rant, I recognize that most of them exist for good reason. And back in 1997, having apparently acknowledged that a larger pool of working members was good for both the union and not that intimidating to the cash-cow big studios who, ever since the increased democratization of film production technology have had to compete with “little movies that could”, SAG-AFTRA actually climbed into bed with flea-bitten, low-budgie folk like myself and birthed an underweight whelp known as SAGIndie. Thanks to this little runt, cash-strapped signatories are able to hire vested actors at the low, low price of $100 a day. Sounds terrific, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so. Hell, who cares about the “half up front” deposit? Just lie, man. Make up an amount of affordable days and send them their damn deposit. As long as your actors are okay with it and the union doesn’t find out and threaten to, or actually manage to, shut down your production and forever blacklist your name, what’s the worse that can happen? Well, taking a page from the script of actors everywhere and not wanting to make waves that might destroy my career, I decided to tell them the truth – or, let’s say, as much of the truth as I knew.

It went like this: I would need my union talent for at least the four days surrounding the first convention, a filming date I couldn’t miss or postpone. Was it possible to shoot all of their scenes in that single weekend? About as possible as it is to lick your elbow, but hey, this was my first rodeo and the bulls wanted answers. So I filled out my final cast list to include only those four days, tallied up the salaries, and sent it off. A few days later, I got an email with the deposit amount that I owed them. An amount, I might add, I could just about afford. I hadn’t lied or cheated, I simply put into effect my Global Rule: get it done. Several months of updated time sheets that reflected their actual salaries later, production on HorrorCon was complete. I turned in every piece of financial information I had, paid them the 15.something percent for P&H that they asked for, and set about post-production. Soon, I thought, I’d be told the film’s account was closed and be given that nerve settling pat on the head I thought I thoroughly deserved.

Flash forward to today and my head is still waiting. The unions accountants, come to find, only look at the final cast list, not the umpteen time sheets (26, to be exact) that reflect their members’ actual salaries, so I was told I owed them a few hundred bucks. Whatever. Fair is fair. I signed my agreements, paid what I was told, and now I was being told to pay more. Hey, I’d already dropped a few Bennies on things like hair extensions, roller derby equipment, dead-eye contacts, and devil horns for a priest. What was another few hundred for a little healthcare? Of course, at the time I was at the height of frustration. I’d spent more than two cash-hemorrhaging years making this film and it just wouldn’t end. The stress raced back into my nervous system every time I saw another email from them, joining a waiting trove of stress built from dealing with subhuman condo associations, trying to sell my home, trying to buy a new one, navigating a business through a rocky economy as well as 40 minutes of traffic to and from it for my trouble. But to hell with all that, one more check and I’d finally be rid of my union obligations. How much more grief could they give me?

About another half-dozen emails worth, as it turns out. Among which, they wanted the exact dates one of my actors was paid. The range of dates on the time sheets that I supplied them in a timely fashion apparently wasn’t enough.

Fine. Here.

Then they wanted the amounts broken down to correspond with those exact dates.

Okay, okay. HERE.

They’re still waiting on those amounts.

I ALREADY SENT THEM! SEE?

Thanks, they say. Oh, and I owe them $61.20 for late payment.

Whuh? Let me get this straight: I sent them everything I could at every stage of the production, everything their ultra low-budget agreement asked for, they lose some of that information – some of which they never bother to look over – and then I’m required to resend it. Then, after all that, they charge me for the honor?

Fun fact: as per SAGIndie’s ultra low-budget agreement, unless a production company renegotiates to pay their actors more money, it cannot charge anyone to view their film outside of an officially sanctioned AMC movie theater.

What are the odds, do you think, of HorrorCon getting an AMC theatrical release? To be fair, I can’t say. Just like I can’t say what the odds are of me finding a winning lottery ticket on the bottom of my shoe. I mean, It could happen.

No business like show business, eh?

I realize everything I’ve written heretofore could easily sound like a lot of bitching over nothing. After all, the film got made, people got paid, and I am in many ways living the dream. But there’s more to the point here, and I want to be clear. I learned a lot in the process of making HorrorCon and one of the things I’ll take with me is that I love the actor-writer relationship. Directing them was a joy as well, but most of what they used from me was already on the page. When I was crouching in the corner trying to reduce our visibility in an attempt to avoid any possibly disruptive attention, my eyes were glued to Jimbo’s monitor marveling at the miracle of my words and characters coming to life. And nothing in this world sounds more attractive than working with the same brilliantly talented and brave people on my next project.

What worries me, however, is that more of them will think they need to join SAG-AFTRA in order to ascend to some golden industry standard where they will finally be able to tell their parents and friends that they’re officially an actor just because they’re paying a new set of dues. Of the dozen or more speaking roles in HorrorCon, only three were vested, yet I treated and paid all of them exactly the same. Had all of them been union members, I may have had to eliminate a few from my casting list due to the additional deposit/P&H expense. And I challenge anyone who sees this film to pick out the card-carriers. You won’t get it right, I assure you. All of them are magnificent, and cards or not, I’d hire all of them again in a second. But what of other jobs they’ll never be able to take? What if that breakout role doesn’t come with my film and they miss the next juicy chance at another? It’s heartbreaking to think about, it really is. Actors hang their asses out there to be kicked on a regular basis, and they deserve better from those who supposedly exist to protect them.

Numbers. There are plenty of them on my mind. There’s one that represents the cost of entering eighteen film festivals. There’s another that marks how many ants have crawled across my computer since beginning this entry. And there are still more counting up the days until I learn if and when my film will be seen by a festival crowd and judged, not by the numbers that went into making it, but by the number of minutes (133) it removes from their lives. Maybe it’ll be seen as just another film out there, “making up the numbers” as the saying goes. Maybe it’ll count for a little bit more.

This number I do know: $61.20. That’s all it cost to get this big bird off the ground.

Finally, for those who haven’t yet heard my interview with Jay K on the Horror Happens Radio Show, you can check it out below.

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About S. Norton

Writer, marketer, musician.
This entry was posted in career news, Cinema, HorrorCon. Bookmark the permalink.

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