When you’re making an independent film every second counts. Ash Avildsen had six days of filming left on his low-budget biopic “Queen of the Ring” — including a climactic scene involving a majority of his cast — when the actors’ union went on strike on July 14.
The production, in Louisville, Ky., shut down immediately. If Mr. Avildsen could not receive an interim waiver from SAG-AFTRA, as the union is known, to continue filming, the project was likely to fall apart. The logistical and financial challenges of sending the cast and crew home and then trying to assemble them again after a strike would be too much for the shoestring production.
“It was maniacally stressful,” said Mr. Avildsen, who wrote and directed the film, about Mildred Burke, who became a dominating figure in women’s wrestling in the 1930s. “We could maybe have lasted another day waiting, but after two or three days it would have been a house of cards falling down.”
“Queen of the Ring” was granted the waiver, one of more than 160 the union has handed out in the past three weeks. To get one, projects must have no affiliation with the studios the actors are striking against and the companies involved must comply with the most recent contract demands the union presented to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios.
Recipients of the waivers have ranged from under-the-radar projects like Mr. Avildsen’s to higher-profile films like A24’s “Mother Mary,” starring Anne Hathaway, and Hammerstone’s “Flight Risk,” directed by Mel Gibson and featuring Mark Wahlberg.
For the union, granting the waivers serves three purposes: It allows companies not affiliated with the studio alliance to keep working; actors and other crew members to remain employed when so much of Hollywood has ground to a halt; and major studios to see examples of productions operating while acceding to the union’s latest demands, including higher pay for the actors and increased contributions to the union’s health and pension fund.
“Here are independent producers, who generally have less resources than the studios and streamers, who are saying, ‘Yeah, we can make productions under these terms, and we want to and we’re going to if you let us,’” Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s lead negotiator, said in an interview.
But the agreements are also causing confusion and consternation around Hollywood. Some wonder about the propriety of working on a production when so many in the industry — the writers have been on strike since May — are walking the picket lines. For instance, Viola Davis was granted an interim waiver for an upcoming film she was set to star in and produce. But she declined, saying in a statement, “I do not feel that it would be appropriate for this production to move forward during the strike.”
The actress and comedian Sarah Silverman criticized the interim agreements in an Instagram post. She said that she had declined to work on an independent movie because of the strike, and suggested that she found the waivers counterproductive to the union’s goals.
Ms. Silverman said she wasn’t sure if she should be “mad at these movie stars making these indie movies that are obviously going to go to streaming” or upset with “SAG for making this interim deal for these indie movies” during the strike.
After meeting with the union’s leadership, the actress said in a follow-up post that she was happy the waivers allowed some crews to continue working, but that she still questioned the validity of granting waivers to projects with big movie stars and loose affiliations with companies that are part of the studio alliance. The alliance declined to comment for this article.
One project that drew grumbles in some quarters when it received a waiver was the AppleTV+ show “Tehran.” The show, filming its third season, employs union actors, but an Israeli company oversees the production, which is shooting in Greece. That situation has created a gray zone, Mr. Crabtree-Ireland said, even though Apple, a member of the alliance, is financing the operation.
Mr. Crabtree-Ireland called the approval of “Tehran” “outside the norm.”
“We have to be mindful that not every country’s law lines up with labor law from the United States,” he said.
That has not helped clear up the matter for many in Hollywood. Even when the waivers are granted, there are some — like Ms. Davis — who wonder if accepting them is akin to crossing the picket line.
“What’s confusing to us is what should we be doing?” asked Paul Scanlan, chief executive of Legion M, an independent production company that crowdsources funding for many of its projects, some of which await word on interim agreements. “The messaging isn’t clear. There are some people saying, ‘Oh, these interim agreements are bad,’ but then SAG is saying: ‘No, they’re good. They’re part of our strategy.’
He added: “We’re sensitive to how we’re perceived in the marketplace, and we don’t want to be one of those companies that is perceived as doing an end run around the strike because that’s absolutely not our intention.”
Honoring the interim agreement does raise an independent production’s costs. According to one independent financier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the strikes have the industry on edge, production budgets can increase by 8 to 10 percent, significant for independent films that already count every penny.
There is also the question of timing. Interim agreements can, as in the case of Mr. Avildsen, help a film finish production. But they can also be granted to completed projects to allow actors to promote their films, including at festivals, where they might end up securing a distribution deal with a company that the union is striking against and that has not yet agreed to a new contract. And that could get complicated.
“Let’s say we sign an interim agreement,” Mr. Scanlan said. “I do think it makes it harder for Netflix to buy something that has already agreed to terms that maybe they haven’t agreed to yet.”
For Mr. Avildsen, he’s still basking in the relief that his movie was able to complete production. The idea that overcoming that hurdle may ultimately imperil “Queen of the Ring” from finding distribution is a scenario he’s not yet ready to grapple with.
“It’s a scary thing to think about,” he said. “If by this time next year, when we are ready to release it, if they’re still in their joust, that would be a big drag.”
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