Advice and Tips for Actors Helpful thoughts on acting from someone who wasn't the least successful actor of all time.

March 1, 2010

SAG Should be an Open Union

I usually stay away from hot topic political issues but today I feel like being difficult.

A little history lesson for all of you (modern history):  SAG is the Screen Actors Guild it is far and away the stronger of the two “TV/Film/Commercial” unions in the United States.  SAG is currently a “closed union” that means if you want to join SAG you can’t simply walk in and plunk down the $2100 or whatever the entry fee is these days and join, you have to “earn” your way in.
Yes, I mean to use quotes around “earn.”  You see, there are several ways to join SAG and only two of which involve any sort of acting talent and that’s in an ideal world.  Here’s a short list of ways to get into SAG: get a speaking part in a SAG project, earn 3 vouchers for working background as SAG talent and work a principal contract and be a member of another one of the “entertainment unions” for one year.  The reality is more complicated but I’d seek out answers from the unions directly on this issue as they’re subject to a little interpretation and there are lots of specifics.

I got to join SAG because I was cast in a SAG commercial for Barclay’s Bank.  They did the paperwork to get me in and I was in.  I also could have joined AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) which IS an open union and joined after a year since I worked one of their contracts soon after “going pro.”

Recently news has started getting around that there is an easy way to get into SAG: produce your own internet project under SAG’s New Media agreement and “Taft Hartley” yourself (that is, do the paperwork to make yourself a member).  This means all you need to do to join SAG these days is fill out some paperwork and convince SAG you’re shooting a web series.

There are some very militant people in the unions who think SAG should remain closed because it guarantees that only “serious actors” with “talent” become members.  They are those people who believe having SAG on your resume guarantees them auditions.  The best kept secret about joining SAG is this:  when you join, you get less auditions not more.  That’s because there are a tens of thousands of SAG members who look like you and have more credits than you (when you first join).  When auditioning for non-union roles no one has particularly “good credits” and the playing field is much more level and there’s less competition for each part.  Now SAG jobs pay better on average and in their ranks is the “real work” like TV shows and big movies, but there’s something to be said for working all the time even if it is for less money.

Since the invention of the three background voucher system the system has become overtly corrupt.  It used to be that you could only get into SAG with a speaking part in a SAG project.  That meant even if your friend wanted to get you in they had to shoot you saying something and pay you a day rate.  Now all they have to do is have you sign in three days in a row as a SAG background performer and pay you half as much.  Hollywood is full of pretty ladies with big dreams and they’ve been known to do whatever they need to get ahead, and that includes getting their SAG card.

Another reason?  I honestly believe that most non-union projects are non-union because the producers don’t want to have to pay people a lot of money.  People love to talk about non-union commercials that pay $10,000 but in reality, if they were SAG commercials, they’d probably pay a lot more.  I’ve seen some non-union commercials airing on TV for the last 10 years and I am sure the actor who shot them got paid no more than $500.

So what would be the benefit of SAG being an open union?  First it would cut down on the snootyness that some SAG actors like to carry around, second it would eliminate a lot of the corruption in this business and third it would limit the amount of non-union work in this town that only looks to take advantage of actors.  Since it’s so easy to join SAG these days anyway this would be a mere formality and would open the doors of SAG to lots of people who’ve been trying for years to join but don’t want to sleep with or pay someone for the privilege.

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