What is SAG-AFTRA?

Still from “The Fallen” a short film by Film Connection graduate Ananth Agastya

SAG-AFTRA in an American union created to protect and benefit movie and TV performers, radio announcers, singers, dancers and journalists. SAG-AFTRA is a combination of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) that was formed when they merged in 2012. It is part of the AFL-CIO.

Becoming a member of SAG-AFTRA is often the holy grail of the struggling actor. It guarantees a minimum day rate with overtime rules; workplace standards; and unemployment, pension, retirement and health benefits.

Auditions for feature films, most TV shows, and even some commercials are open to SAG-AFTRA members only so it’s understandable that struggling actors are determined to become members.
There are essentially four ways to become a member:

1. Via Taft-Hartley.

The famous example of this route to membership concerns an actor who is hired as an extra or background non-union actor in a feature film. In the middle of shooting a scene, the director comes up with an inspiration and asks this background actor to say something as the star walks by where they are standing. Because they now have a speaking role in the film, they are SAG-AFTRA eligible (SAG-AFTRA E). For the next 30 days they can work in any SAG-AFTRA union jobs as if they were a SAG member before they “must join” SAG-AFTRA (and pay a substantial fee to do so) before they can work another SAG-AFTRA job.

2. Via Three Background Vouchers.

Occasionally a non-union background actor is “upgraded” to a union background actor during production and granted a union voucher for the day. This could happen because the filming conditions were harsh, there were only a few actors in the scene, they required a certain number of union background actors in the scene, or even that the AD liked you. As long as your pay stub says SAG-AFTRA and you are paid the union rate it qualifies as a background voucher. Get three background vouchers and you are SAG-AFTRA eligible. Make sure you hang on to your pay stubs for proof that you qualify for membership.

3. Via Sister Union.

If you have been a member for least a year, and had one speaking role of any of the sister unions to SAG-AFTRA you are eligible. Sister unions include Actor’s Equity (live theatrical), ACTRA (Canadian union for film, TV, radio and recorded media), AGMA (opera, ballet and figure skating) or AGVA (Vegas acts, theme park performers, circus entertainers, comedy showcases, etc.)

4. Via New Media Project.

If you appear on an original content Web series or Internet video that is not intended for TV, cable or theatrical release note that SAG-AFTRA requires all principal performers and the first ten background actors to be members. This sets you up to get into SAF-AFTRA via Taft-Hartley. It also has created a nice loophole approach for the more entrepreneurial actors who create their own new media project that involves at least one current SAG-AFTRA member.

Of course, for the struggling actor, the reality is tougher than it might appear—there’s a strong Catch 22 to it all. You can’t audition for a feature film unless you are a SAG-AFTRA member, but you can’t be a SAG-AFTRA member unless you’ve appeared in a principal role in a feature film.

The other reality is the nature of the business (and life). The top 1% of members make a lot of money. However, roughly 85% of SAG-AFTRA members make less than $20,000 per year. The remaining 16% make somewhat more decent money. Clearly, getting your “SAG card” is not a ticket to financial success. Instead, it’s a partially open door at the end of a long line on the path to success. What is less obvious, but very important, is that once a SAG-AFTRA member you are not allowed to work on non-union projects. If non-union projects have been a staple of your income, then you might actually grow poorer by joining the union.

In short, being an actor is a risky proposition. Crew members are compensated more than the average actor and are employed on a more regular basis. Actors need to hit it big, at least once, to have financial stability. One decent part in a big budget movie, requiring several weeks, or more on set, can give an actor financial security for a few years and result in a nice pension (generally better than Social Security) upon retirement. So, as you pursue your dream of acting, make sure you have a flexible day-job (Uber or Lyft driving comes to mind as does the traditional actor side-gig of being a waiter) to support you while you pursue your quest for that magical role.

Film Connection grad Katz Carter on meeting Spike Lee, working with SAG, and starting his own production company

Film Connection grad Ananth Agastya completes wartime short “The Fallen” (pictured above)

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