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TBA Online: News & Features: March 2013

The Business of Show Biz: SAG/AFTRA Must Join

Monday, March 25, 2013   (0 Comments)
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By Velina Brown

Q: I'm SAG/AFTRA must join, and I've been going along on the idea that it's better to wait as long as possible to join the union, but I see quite a few submission requests for extra work only for SAG members. As a freelancer my daily schedule is flexible, so I've been considering joining the union to get that work. Any opinions on whether it's worth it to join the union for extra work?

Actor and career consultant Velina Brown. 

A: Years ago, when I was champing at the bit to join Screen Actors Guild, I talked with my agent about possibly going ahead and paying the dues and joining, since I was already in the sister unions American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Actors' Equity. He told me to wait. "Keep your money in the bank earning interest until you have to join." I thought this sounded good but wondered if not having a SAG card was keeping me from getting called in for SAG auditions. He said, "Nah, when the time is right you'll join." He was right. There really was no reason to part with the approximately $1,200 initiation fee (I don't remember exactly what it was back then) just so that I could say I was in SAG when I hadn't yet booked that "must join" job.

You didn't say in which market you are working. Currently the initiation fee is $1,708 for the San Francisco/Northern California market. In New York and Los Angeles it's $3,000. Why the difference? SAG/AFTRA business representative Barry Schimmel explains, "The difference in the fees is an acknowledgement of the difference in the amount of work available in the Northern California market compared to larger New York or Los Angeles markets." At any rate, the question is, could you make your $1,708 or $3,000 back in a timely manner from the number of extra jobs you feel you could be getting? If yes, then I guess it would be worth it. If not, I think the early advice I received from my first agent still stands.

I know things have changed since I joined several years ago, but honestly, it never would've occurred to me to join the union for work as an extra. The only reason in my mind to join was to do union principal work. Not only is a principal's session fee (the pay for the days of filming) much higher than an extra's session fee, but you can also earn residuals (pay for repeated usage, and usage in different markets) as a principal, not as an extra. Therefore, the opportunity to earn your money back immediately is much greater when you join as the result of booking a principal role. For example, let's look at the pay for a regular feature film or network television contract. I specify these two situations because there are many different contracts for new media, student film, short film, low-budget, ultralow-budget, corporate/educational and nonbroadcast agreements and more. But for the sake of this discussion, let's just look at the pay scales for principals versus extras on feature film and network television projects. Let's say you are in the Northern California market and your initiation fee is $1,708. Scale (minimum pay) for extras is $145 a day. If you book two days as an extra on a film, you will need to work 10 more days to make back your initiation fee. Scale for principals is $842 a day. If you book two days as a principal on a film, you've already earned back your initiation fee. Plus, you will likely earn residuals as well.

I, personally, would not advise paying the initiation fee now to access union extra work unless you know you'll have the opportunity to work at least 13 days as an extra within the year you joined. Otherwise, you will spend the year or longer in the red financially and won't really make any money until that 13th day of work.

Schimmel reminded me that there are other reasons to join right away, such as access to iActor, SAG/AFTRA's free online casting directory, an opportunity to receive films in the mail for your consideration to vote on for the SAG Awards and an opportunity to participate in exclusive career seminars and workshops. Plus, you can avoid the scramble to get your fee paid on time if it's a tight turnaround between when you've booked the "must join" job and when you have to report to the job.

For more information on all the various contracts, benefits and services of SAG/AFTRA, visit

And whatever you decide, once you do become a SAG/AFTRA member, congratulations are in order. Enjoy the union status that you have earned. Cheers!

Velina Brown is an actor and acting career consultant. Send her your questions at