WRITERS ON THE WEB: The Real Deal About the New SAG-AFTRA New Media Agreement

Rebecca Norris is a writer and filmmaker with her production company Freebird Entertainment. Her award-winning self-produced feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is currently on the festival circuit. Rebecca writes the columns Writers on the Web and True Indie for ScriptMag where she explores the production process of creating web series and independent films. She also teaches screenwriting classes and webinars through Screenwriters University and The Writers Store. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo!

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WRITERS ON THE WEB: The Real Deal About the New SAG-AFTRA New Media Agreement by Rebecca Norris | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Source: FreeImages.com/Thomas Romer

Hello Writers on the Web readers!

I apologize for my absence from this column over the past few months. I’ve been focusing on getting my new Scriptmag column, True Indie, off the ground. I haven’t forgotten about you!

In fact, I’ve been doing some investigative journalism on your behalf.

Yes, I did a little sleuthing because of an article I read in a recent SAG-AFTRA magazine.

SAG-AFTRA has recently updated their new media policies and it affects web series producers in a big way. Like to the tune of several thousand dollars.

The SAG-AFTRA New Media Agreement is now requiring new media producers to show proof of insurance prior to becoming a signatory. This means that if you want to use union actors, you have to have multiple policies in place before you start casting, which means a sizable layout of cash.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. After all, I have been an active SAG-AFTRA member and I believe in protecting actors. Of course actors should be safe and covered by insurance on set. The problem is with the information being put out there about it.

In the spring issue of SAG-AFTRA Magazine, in the article “New Media Agreement Gets an Upgrade,” it states, “Ensuring shoots are safe is one of the reasons the unions were formed, and the new agreement now includes the full safety provisions of the basic agreement – including requiring producers to have liability insurance – to ensure all performers are protected from the moment they step on set.”

There’s one problem with this.

Liability insurance doesn’t protect the safety of actors on set. At all.

Liability insurance covers third-party people and places that are not involved in the production. Bystanders. Buildings or other property next to your shooting location. That sort of thing. It doesn’t even cover your shooting location. Only third-party people and property.

The only way it really benefits the actors is if an actor inadvertently injures someone who isn’t part of the cast or crew, or causes property damage to something that isn’t part of the production. So unless there’s some third-party lawsuit from the public in connection to an actor’s performance, or actors are going out and about accidentally injuring the public (bad acting aside), this is unlikely.

The personal safety of actors is actually covered by Workers’ Compensation insurance, which is a separate (and often pricey) policy that producers must purchase. Worker’s Compensation covers applicable medical bills and a partial wage reimbursement should a cast or crew member experience bodily injury on set. As discussed in my article Covering Your Ass-ets with Production Insurance, you can take out a worker’s comp policy with an insurance company or via a State Fund if your state offers one.

When I read this article in the magazine, I was immediately alarmed at what I felt was potentially misleading information about liability insurance. After all, if a producer were to purchase wrong or insufficient insurance, he or she could potentially be financially ruined if an actor were injured on set. It’s a big deal.

I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t misinterpreting what I read. So I called the SAG-AFTRA new media contracts department and spoke to a representative. I stated that I had learned about the updated new media contracts and wanted to see if liability insurance protects the safety of actors on set. The rep said that it in fact did. I pressed, stating what I knew to be true, that liability insurance does not cover the safety of actors or crew and it’s for third party damages only. The rep put me on hold to ask his director. When he came back on the line, he said that the director said that liability insurance does cover actors’ safety on set.

Obviously, this was distressing. After all, if a union is requiring producers to have certain (very expensive) policies, that union should know what those policies are and what they cover.

So I read off to him the definition of General Liability Insurance from my go-to production insurance site, Film Emporium, which states that “Bodily Injury to Cast and Crew members is not covered here and should be covered by a Workers’ Compensation policy.”

I told the rep that his office is giving people wrong information and that the article in SAG-AFTRA Magazine is misleading. He backtracked and then said that the new media agreement would actually require a workers’ compensation policy.

It turns out, the truth is, that the new media agreements require both a General Liability Insurance policy and a Workers’ Compensation policy. But it’s the Worker’s Comp one that truly protects the actors’ personal safety.

Source: Freeimages.com/Mike Coombes

Source: Freeimages.com/Mike Coombes

There’s another kicker. General Liability Insurance and Workers’ Comp isn’t enough for your production to be covered. Remember, general liability covers what’s not a part of the production. But what about what is? Like your shooting location?

You will need to get a third policy: Location Insurance (also called third-party property damage insurance, which is confusing). Location insurance will cover your shooting location but only if you don’t own it.

If you own the location, you technically have a financial interest in it if it becomes damaged or if you claim it’s damaged. Since location insurance policies have apparently been abused in the past, insurance companies no longer cover filmmakers’ personal residences as shooting locations.

So if you’re planning, like so many indie filmmakers do, on shooting in your own living room or backyard, you’re S.O.L. if something goes wrong. Film at your own risk.

According to my contact at Film Emporium, General Liability, Location Insurance, and Workers’ Comp for a simple web series with only dialogue scenes (no stunts or pyrotechnics) will set a producer back more than $2,000 at the least. Obviously the cost goes up if there are any stunts, chase scenes, weapons, or the like. This isn’t counting additional equipment insurance, rental insurance, or any other policies your particular production might need.

It’s important to know all this at the get-go so that producers can budget correctly and raise the proper amount of financing for their web series. And as important as it is to protect actors, it’s also important to protect producers. After all, it’s our asses on the line if anything goes wrong on set.

So let’s make sure that proper and accurate information is out there so that everyone involved in a production can be safe and protected.

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