Ah, the union. You need to be a union member to work on almost any professional project. But the only way to work on a professional project is to be in the union.
Confusing, right? Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it seems.
SAG (The Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (The American Federation Of Television And Radio Artists) used to be two separate unions. A few years ago, everyone worried about getting their SAG card. (AFTRA, on the other hand, you could join simply by paying the initiation fee.)
Then AFTRA started undercutting SAG on television contracts and…well, it’s a long and boring story. Suffice it to say, there were a lot of heated debates and everyone decided it would be best to merge the unions.
So how do you join SAG-AFTRA?
1) Do Extra Work
This is the most popular and by far the most tedious way to get your SAG-AFTRA Card. If you work as an extra (or as it’s called on set, a “background actor”), you’ll have an opportunity to get a union voucher. Once you get THREE union vouchers, you are now eligible to join SAG-AFTRA.
This isn’t something you get automatically. Basically, if they don’t have enough union background actors, you can get bumped up with a voucher. It pays to be nice to the PAs (production assistants) and ADs (Assistant Directors) on set.
How to do it:
Simply sign up at Central Casting. You pay a fee and they take your picture. Then you’re in the database. You have to call in every day to see if they need “your type” (i.e. a tall man who owns a business suit, a heavyset woman with a mohawk, etc).
If they pick you, then you’re all set. Just show up to work and hope you get lucky with a voucher.
Pros: It’s a fairly straightforward way to get your union card.
Cons: You might have to do a lot more than three extra gigs to get those vouchers. And it’s not the easiest thing in the world to book those gigs.
2) Book A Union Commercial
Now we’re talking. Doing a union commercial is probably the best way to get your SAG-AFTRA card.
When a union production books a non-union actor, they can Taft-Hartley the actor. Long story short, you’ll get a union card because the producers need YOU and your special traits.
The other good thing is that union commercials pay incredibly well. You can get $30,000 dollars (and up) for a single spot. So when you get a commercial gig, paying the $3000 initiation fee to SAG-AFTRA is not a big deal.
How to do it: Get signed with a great commercial agent. Audition for a union commercial. Book the commercial. Collect your checks.
Pros: You get freaking $30,000 for a day’s work.
Cons: Everyone wants to get $30,000 for a day’s work, so it’s very tough to get.
3) Do a New Media project
This is what I did and what I recommend doing. You don’t need to wait to get booked on a gig or slog through weeks of extra work
Basically, if you make a project for the internet (Youtube, Funny or Die, etc), you can designate your project as a SAG New Media project. SAG defines the projects as anything:
- Independently produced
- Original content and Derivative
- Intended for initial exhibition via the Internet, mobile devices or any other platform now known or which may be adopted excluding motion pictures, video games, commercials or any type of production or medium otherwise covered by any other SAG, AFTRA, or SAG-AFTRA agreement including but not limited to:
- The Producer-SAG Codified Basic Agreement,
- SAG Television Agreement
- AFTRA Net Code
- Producers-SAG Codified Corporate/Non-Educational and Non-Broadcast Contract
- SAG Infomercials Agreement
- AFTRA Infomercials Agreement
- SAG Interactive Media Agreement
- The AFTRA Interactive Media Agreement
- SAG Commercials contract
- AFTRA Commercials Contract.
So basically, if you created it and it’s on the internet, congratulations! It’s a New Media project.
How to do it:
You’ll file the paperwork, pay your registration, and jump through a couple of hoops. It’s a pretty easy process. On the Taft-Hartley form, they’ll ask why the production is using you vs. a union actor. Well, if you wrote the project for yourself, you’re crucial to the project.
This is a great way for you and a few friends to get your union cards at the same time.
Pros: You have complete control over your union status.
Cons: You have to do some paperwork and actually make the new media project.
“But the initiation fee is $3000. Do I have to pay it right away?”
No. And that’s the great part. Doing the new media project, getting your vouchers, or booking the commercial spot makes you SAG-AFTRA eligible. But you’re not obligated to join right away. That means you can work some non-union gigs or just wait until you have the cash to join.
After you work another SAG-AFTRA gig, you’ll become what’s called a “must-join”. That means that you will need to pay your initiation fee before you can work your NEXT gig. So even then, you’ve got time before you have to pay.
SAG-AFTRA also has payment plans available, if you need them.