Getting your SAG-AFTRA membership card marks a step forward in your professional acting career, but joining a union too soon can also harm your career, so study the pros and cons before putting the money down for your initiation fees and SAG-AFTRA dues.
1) What SAG-AFTRA Membership Has to Offer
SAG-AFTRA is really there to protect actors, making sure you’re being paid a decent wage and have good working conditions where you get breaks, meal stipends and overtime pay. Like most unions, SAG-AFTRA negotiates contracts for its members so you’re paid at least the scale salary when you work on a SAG-AFTRA project (that doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate for more, of course, as most stars and recognizable actors do).
Unlike non-union actors, SAG-AFTRA actors usually get residuals for their screen work. That means that you get paid not only for the days you work, but also each time a film, TV show or commercial airs, which can add up to a lot more money than your initial paycheck. For example, if you shoot a successful national SAG commercial, you could make over $100,000 in residuals. On the other hand, a non-union actor will only get the original pay, which could be less than $1,000 (trust me, there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing your face all over TV and know you made nearly no money for it).
A SAG-AFTRA card can also open doors. For example, some agents don’t represent non-union actors and many casting directors screen out non-union submissions from SAG projects, so it can be hard sometimes to be considered for SAG films and commercials if you’re a non-union actor.
Another perk of SAG-AFTRA membership is the Health Plan for qualifying members and the Actor Federal Credit Union, which allows you to get preferred rates on savings account and loans.
Finally, the Actors Guild often sponsors special events to help actors’ careers, including Q&A’s with industry professionals, seminars and help with actor’s taxes.
2) The Price of a SAG-AFTRA Card
- Joining a union often means getting access to jobs, but that is not the case here. SAG-AFTRA members do not get help from their union to find acting agents, auditions and acting jobs. Moreover, once you are a SAG actor, the competition for each role is fiercer, as you are competing against professionals.
- The most important thing to consider is Global Rule One. This is the rule that says you cannot take any non-union work once you become a member of an actor union. That means you can’t work on non-union films, commercials, television shows or even internet videos.
- SAG-AFTRA membership also means you can’t accept a role in a non-union play even if you haven’t joined Actors Equity, the actors’ theater union.
- Actually, you can’t accept ANY NON-UNION WORK. If you’re starting an acting career, that prevents you from getting a lot of acting experience you need to build your resume. This includes many short films and student films that don’t have SAG waivers, off-off Broadway plays and non-union commercials.
- Actually, if your passion is film acting, one of the best things you can do is land a role in a good independent film that goes to film festivals. To be able to hire a SAG-AFTRA actor, independent producers need to become SAG-AFTRA signatories (that means that they must sign a contract with the union where they commit to abide by specific rules and pay specific minimum wages). Although acting unions have special low budget contracts, many independent filmmakers just can’t afford to do that.
- The last thing to consider is the actual cost of SAG-AFTRA membership. At the time of this writing, initiation fees are $2,277 and dues are $ 116 a year minimum, whether you get acting work or not. Many SAG-AFTRA actors don’t get a single screen acting job in a given year!
3) When to Join SAG
One of the best ways to look at this is probably: “If you have to join SAG-AFTRA, then you’re probably ready to get your actor union card.
Join when you have to.
If you are hired to act on a SAG-AFTRA project, you are free to work on it for 30 days without joining the union. Unless you got the lead in a SAG film (in which case it’s time to join SAG), your acting job will be completed long before you are required to get your membership card, so why not wait and just be SAGe (see box below)?
You will have to become a SAG-AFTRA member when you land your next union acting job. You may have to join quickly, depending on when your job starts, so prepare in advance the paperwork you’ll need and put the money for SAG-AFTRA initiation fees and first dues in a savings account for when you need it. Actually, a good way to have the money available is to put the check from your first SAG-AFTRA acting job straight into your membership saving fund.
Getting SAG-AFTRA Membership through Extra Work
Most actors who become eligible to join SAG-AFTRA through extra work are not ready for joining a union. If they were, they would have landed a Sag principal role, so the fact you CAN JOIN SAG doesn’t mean you SHOULD JOIN. In my opinion, the only exception is stand-in work. If you are picked to stand in for a lead actor in a movie, becoming SAG-AFTRA can be worthwhile, as it can be a great learning experience, as well as a networking opportunity. You will get to know the crew, possibly the director, and may be able to watch stars or great actors rehearse and work on their craft.
Everyone is different, of course, so deciding when to join SAG is a decision you should make alone, although you may want to get your agent’s take on it.
Ready to get your membership card? Here’s how to join SAG.