SAG-AFTRA Slams Kickstarter-Bought Movie Roles: Could James Franco And Zach Braff Run Into Union Hassles?

on June 21 2013 4:59 PM

Franco This week, James Franco joined the ranks of big-name celebrities asking for money from everyday people to fund their pet projects via crowd-funding.  Reuters/Lucas Jackson

This week, James Franco joined the ranks of big-name celebrities asking for money from everyday people to fund their pet projects via crowd-funding.

The ubiquitous actor-director-author-artist, who starred in the Disney blockbuster “Oz the Great and Powerful” a few months ago, is seeking to raise $500,000 on Indiegogo to make three films based on his high school experiences in Palo Alto, Calif. As of Friday afternoon, “Palo Alto Stories by James Franco” has raised more than $55,000, with 27 days left to go.

One noteworthy aspect of the product is how non-noteworthy it is. While it has attracted its share of eye-rolls, it hasn’t garnered nearly the polarized uproar of Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here,” the $3.1 million Kickstarter indie movie that some commentators said violated the spirit of crowd-funding.

That Franco has failed to provoke the same response could indicate that the public is becoming desensitized to the notion of movie-star crowd-funding, but even if such projects are the new normal for the indie film industry, the proper etiquette surrounding them is far from settled.

In fact, there’s one aspect of the trend that is particularly troubling to SAG-AFTRA, the entertainment union that covers actors in the film and television industry. Both Braff and Franco have offered extra roles to funders who kick in a certain amount of money. In the case of Braff’s project, backers who donate $3,000 or more can be an extra, while Franco is offering speaking roles to donors of $5,000 or more. The “Veronica Mars” Kickstarter movie, which is credited with kicking off the Kickstarter movie craze, offered a speaking role to one backer who donated $10,000.

But according to Ray Rodriguez, SAG-AFTRA’s assistant national executive director of contracts, such offers could lead to a slew of legal hassles.

“We believe the practice of selling any employment, including movie roles, is a violation of California state law and possibly other states’ laws as well,” he said in a statement to the International Business Times. “It certainly violates the union’s contracts.”

SAG-AFTRA has various contracts, depending on a film’s budget. It’s unclear what type of contracts Braff’s and Franco’s projects will shoot under (neither responded a request for comment), but, as members of SAG-AFTRA themselves, they are presumably planning union shoots. Not only are SAG-AFTRA members prohibited from working as actors in non-union projects, doing so violates the union’s Global Rule One -- the foundation of SAG-AFTRA’s mission as an organization that protects the interests of actors.

It’s not exactly surprising that SAG-AFTRA would frown upon a situation in which money exchanges hands for acting roles. Pay-to-play audition schemes -- events that offer industry exposure for a fee -- have long plagued the acting world. In 2009, SAG (which had not yet merged with AFTRA) helped successfully push for a new California law that made it illegal for third parties to charge advance fees for talent-representation services. The law was meant to clamp down on talent services that charge thousands of dollars to struggling actors desperate to break through the impenetrable walls of show business.

In that respect, it’s hard not to see an almost predatory aspect to celebrities dangling extra roles like carrots. (Rub elbows with Zach Braff for 10 grand? Not a bad career investment.) Consider Franco’s pitch to prospective donors of $5,000:  

“Have you always dreamt of being on camera? We will invite you to set for a day and give you a cast credit role in the movie and even a line if you would like! You will receive the star treatment -- makeup, hair, wardrobe!”

What Franco just described is what a professional actor would get paid to do, and it’s worth noting that the vast majority of SAG-AFTRA’s 165,000 card-carrying members would jump at the chance to get paid to do it.

SAG-AFTRA said it is not opposed to the idea of crowd-funded movies, but future celebrity-backed projects (and there are certain to be more of them) should perhaps more closely examine what they intend to offer in exchange for those crowd-funded dollars.   

“We understand that producers are looking for creative ways to finance independent films, and as a general matter we applaud their efforts and wish them success,” Rodriguez said. “Converting what should be a paying role for a professional performer into something that can simply be purchased, however, sends a terrible message about the importance of professional performers to a film and creates legal complications that producers are better off without.”

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