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Low budget and independent theatrical film or television productions face many obstacles to success due to their limited funding and lack of big studio support. However, there are steps that independent filmmakers can take to ensure they are in the most advantageous position possible as creators. One of these steps is using a signatory for access to IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada) National Term Agreements. Southern Gateway Production Services—The Bowen Law Group’s separate but related company—offers a crucial service to independent filmmakers by providing access to IATSE’s Low Budget Theatrical Agreement, also known as the National Low Budget (NLB) Agreement, or Tiered Agreement. 

IATSE Union Agreements

Before diving into the National Low Budget Agreement specifically, it is helpful to have a general understanding of union agreements as a whole and their impact on your production. The IATSE typically negotiates an agreement with filmmakers on behalf of its union members for every production, including the NLB Agreement. The goal of the IATSE in negotiating these agreements is simple: protecting crew on set and guaranteeing favorable working conditions and compensation. These agreements address a variety of issues such as wages, raises, working conditions, shift turnaround times, schedules, pensions, diversity, grievances, and other concerns that affect crew members on a film set. The IATSE union negotiates these agreements directly with many different filmmakers of all production sizes, from the major production companies to the smaller, low budget productions and independent film creators. These agreements are important for filmmakers to understand since they are essential in understanding all of the terms that will apply when hiring crew members to work on a production. 

The National Low Budget Agreement was originally negotiated between the IATSE and the major studios. Since the large studios have a great deal of bargaining power, they were able to negotiate significantly lower rates and terms than those that typically apply to smaller independent productions. Non-studio productions that do not have access to the National Low Budget Agreement ordinarily have to negotiate a Single Production Deal (also called a “one-off”). However, there is another option for low budget, independent filmmakers that wish to operate under the National Low Budget Agreement: utilize the services of a signatory. A signatory can help ensure that creators with limited funding still have equal opportunities to create quality projects with highly-skilled crew members without paying significantly higher rates.

So, what is the National Low Budget Agreement? 

The National Low Budget Agreement, also referred to as the NLB Agreement, was created to guarantee favorable working conditions for crew members while still offering the big studios the ability to save money due to the fact that they provide many more working opportunities for union members. Though the NLB Agreement has historically only been offered to major studios, in recent years, low budget and independent productions have had the opportunity to gain access to the desirable terms and conditions of the NLB Agreement through the use of a signatory, such as Southern Gateway Production Services. 

The NLB Agreement was originally created and negotiated by the IATSE to set forth uniform guidelines for low budget films. The agreement balances the need for the budget flexibility necessary in low budget films with the importance of safe working conditions and proper wages for the crew members working on these films. While maximizing the number of productions that qualify for low budget treatment through a tiered format, the NLB Agreement sets forth budget requirements for paying appropriate wages, awarding proper benefits, and providing favorable working conditions for the crew. 

Each of the tiered requirements set forth in the NLB Agreement is determined by the estimated overall budget of the film. For example, an ultra-low tiered film budget requires at least fifteen days of scheduled principal photography and production costs budgeted at less than $2,750,000.00. Tier Three, which is the highest tier covered by the NLB Agreement, includes those productions with costs budgeted over $11,000,000.00 but less than $15,000,000.00. Anything over $15,000,000.00 is covered by a separate agreement. If your estimated production costs are below the $15,000,000.00 threshold, however, using a signatory to gain access to the NLB Agreement will undoubtedly be extremely beneficial. 

The NLB Agreement is considered a negotiated collective bargaining agreement. IATSE, acting on behalf of film production crews, negotiated with the major production studios in order to set terms favorable to both parties regarding terms of employment including pay, benefits, and conditions of employment. For a low budget film production, having the opportunity to operate under the NLB can be extremely beneficial because it provides access to the same favorable terms that the major studios are allowed to offer when hiring crew members. This has the potential of significant positive financial and economic impact. 

Key elements of the current NLB Agreement include: 

  1. Establishing minimum terms and conditions for which productions must follow.
  2. Scheduling guidelines for work days, work week, and minimum calls for crew members.
  3. Provisions for subcontracting, overtime pay, and travel.
  4. Requirements for rest periods, meals, safety, and sick leave.
  5. Holidays which must be taken off by all crew members .
  6. Crew member benefits to be determined by the budget tier of the production.
  7. Wage rates and payments, which are determined annually by classification of the union employee.

The most recent NLB Agreement negotiations, effective January 1, 2020, resulted in a 3% wage increase year-by-year, determined by tier and crew member position. The tiered budgets for production costs, which determine the amount that film makers must pay crew members, was also adjusted and the minimum qualifying dollar amount for each tier increased. Additionally, positions were added to the compensation schedule, some positional rates changed, and benefits for persons hired within the jurisdiction of the IATSE and production cities were altered. The NLB Agreement is frequently renegotiated between the IATSE and the studios, so hiring an attorney to help keep you up to speed on all of the changes that impact your production may be beneficial. 

What is a Signatory? 

A signatory is an individual, company, or other entity that has been vetted by IATSE and allowed to execute an agreement signifying its compliance with the guidelines outlined in the NLB Agreement. In its simplest terms, a signatory is essentially anyone that signs a contract and is bound to its contents. A union signatory is a little bit more complicated. To become a union signatory, an individual, company, or entity must not only sign a union agreement but must also enter into direct negotiations with the union via a representative. Additionally, the signatory must agree to comply with the detailed guidelines in each union agreement, which often focus on fair pay and working conditions. 

Companies signed to union agreements are also referred to as Signatory Producers. Signatory Producers are obligated to abide by all terms of the NLB Agreement but also has the ability to allow independent producers to operate under their agreement. When hiring a third-party Signatory Producer, such as Southern Gateway Production Services, the third-party signatory assists in facilitating the hiring of crew for the project to ensure compliance with the union agreement. As a result, there are many advantages for using a signatory in this capacity for your production. 

Five Key Advantages of Using a Signatory

  1. First and foremost, in order to gain access to the favorable terms and conditions of the NLB Agreement, you must either become a signatory yourself or use an existing union signatory to the NLB Agreement. 
  2. Since the process in becoming a signatory can be lengthy and complicated, it is typically much more efficient for a production to use a signatory rather than going through the time and effort of becoming one itself. 
  3. Additionally, when using a signatory for the NLB Agreement for your production, the production has access to the same terms the major studios offer when hiring crew. This allows for independent and low budget filmmakers to access the most positive terms available in the film industry. 
  4. There are also significant economic advantages to using a signatory. For example, by using Southern Gateway Production as a signatory to the NLB Agreement, production companies can expect to save approximately $100,000.00 to $200,000.00 per every $1,000,000.00 spent. The financial impact is tremendous. 
  5. Using a signatory, more specifically a third-party signatory like Southern Gateway Productions, will help to guarantee your compliance with the union agreement so you can focus on creating the production rather than the tedious legalities. 

Why Your Production Needs a Signatory 

If the advantages of using a signatory were not obvious enough, your production needs a signatory simply because it is required in employing unionized individuals under the NLB Agreement. This means if you wish to reap the guaranteedeconomic benefits of the NLB Agreement itself, you simply must have a signatory. The good news is that Bo Bowen at Southern Gateway Production Services has already gone through this arduous process for you and is ready to assist and answer any questions you may have.  

If you are ready to take the next step as an independent filmmaker to ensure access to all IATSE Term Agreements, specifically the NLB Agreement, The Bowen Law Group is here to help. Having an attorney involved in your production allows you to focus on the creative efforts of your work while ensuring legal compliance with the many agreements to which your production will inevitably be a party. Southern Gateway Production Services, founded by attorney Bo Bowen, is a signatory to all IATSE National Term Agreements and can offer the best negotiated collective bargaining agreements for your production. 

Contact Bo Bowen
(912) 544-2050