Winter 2006

70 Years of Milestones: 1990s
Support for Indie Films

By Rob Feld 

DGA Quarterly  Winter 2006 Indie Films 
Indie Voice: (left to right) Dan Algrant, Brad Anderson,
Steven Soderbergh, Mary Harron and Tom DiCillo.
(Credit: Scott Gries/Getty Images)


"There were three main reasons why the DGA developed low-budget agreements," says Western Executive Director G. Bryan Unger. "In the 1970s and early '80s several directors who had started in the independent low-budget world joined the Guild as a result of doing bigger, usually studio, projects. Those directors then continued to be offered independently financed (and generally lower budgeted) films, or they returned to developing their own personal films, more in the style and budget of their earlier work. Without a low-budget agreement contract that could accommodate the salary structures necessary for those pictures, directors were faced with either turning down the independently financed projects or resigning from the Guild. So the DGA got to work on solving that issue.

The second reason was to welcome independent directors like Spike Lee and John Sayles who mainly work outside of the studio system without DGA protection. The third reason was to increase employment and benefits for Guild production managers and assistant directors, who were not being used on lower budget films."

"I don't think it's overreaching to say we pioneered the concept of low-budget agreements, which have nurtured the production of independent films and helped our members do them flexibly under a Guild contract," says Assistant Executive Director Jon Larson. "It's led to similar agreements being promulgated by our sister guilds."

A whole new way of doing independent films, in fact, was made possible by the existence of the agreements. "The low-budget agreement was crucial for me being able to form InDigEnt in 1999," says IDC member Gary Winick of his New York-based production company. "I was going to get experienced, DGA directors to do these films for $400,000, and I had to make sure I could get deals with Sound One and Kodak. The DGA was the first to step up and see the value of their filmmakers doing films like this and getting gross participation. Once the DGA was in place, I was able to get other deals."

Since its inception in 1984, the agreement has been multitiered; in 1992 it changed its three tiers to allow for individual negotiations under $1.8 million, and then expanded to a four-tiered structure in 1998. Today's agreement, continually reviewed to keep up with trends and the ever changing effects of new technologies, covers films produced for up to $7 million. The agreement has four main tiers, with the bottom and top tiers divided into two sub-tiers, for purposes of determining the AD/UPM scale rates. "There's an open dialogue with the producers so everyone continues to view it as a win-win," says Larson. "The DGA is not just an organization for directors who do big studio films. We're much richer than that."

The Independent Directors Committee was created in Los Angeles in 1998, spearheaded by filmmakers like Michael Apted, who became the first IDC committee chair, Steven Soderbergh, Penelope Spheeris, Stephen Gyllenhaal and George Hickenlooper, to continue to address the needs of Guild members who work in the independent arena. One popular event is the Under the Influence screening series, where a younger filmmaker examines a classic film with its groundbreaking and indie-inspiring director such as the recent pairing of Warren Beatty and Bennett Miller. In 2002, a New York committee was created with the same mission of advising the Guild and organizing events for independent filmmakers.

"I think the committees have been valuable in bringing in young filmmakers and being flexible with the contracts," says director and the IDC West Coast Chairman Stephen Gyllenhaal. "You can make a film for nothing and still be a DGA film now, which allows neophyte filmmakers to begin working with Guild 1st ADs and production managers on tiny films. It makes those films better, which makes the filmmakers more powerful, which allows them to connect with more money and the studios, if they wish.

"The business has been experiencing a profound change," continues Gyllenhaal. "Everything from iPod to video projection systems to the Web is becoming a primary distribution system. Everyone has grown aware that the independent world has been rising in importance. I think the next series of negotiations with the studios and networks, with the shift away from DVDs to downloading systems, will make the IDC and DGA skew more toward an independent perspective. Thinking independently, which is where we've been able to move the Guild, will allow us to keep serious financial, political, but most importantly, creative power.

By all accounts, flexibility has been, and will continue to be, the key to surviving as an independent. "As new production techniques come into use, the roles of the director and the DGA team are also evolving, more so now than in the first 70 years of the DGA's existence," explains Unger. "Often we see the cutting-edge changes happen in the areas outside of the mainstream studio system, so we have to be vigilant to protect against erosion of the creative rights, stature and authority of the director and, at the same time, we have to be adaptable to change. The challenge is seeing the forest while running at full speed through the trees."

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