Introduction to Working with SAG-AFTRA

Casting is one of the most crucial elements of your film-casting the right actor to play the role can make your film, and casting the wrong actor can break it. It is easy enough to get actors interested in your film, and you don't have to be limited to friends and family unless that is the aesthetic you are pursuing. There are lots of actors, and lots of people who want to be actors, and want to work on your next project. Placing a casting notice will most likely get you deluged with headshots from actors.

As you go through the headshots searching for the actor with just the right look, you should be aware of two things: 1) Don't expect that the actors you call in for auditions will more than vaguely resemble their headshot, and 2) You will occasionally see the term SAG-AFTRA listed on the back of the headshot where their resume is printed. This means that the actor is in the union (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). It also means that there are some conditions under which that actor will work on your project, but don't just turn them away thinking it is too much work for you, because it isn't-and the benefits of working with union actors can be great.

The Backstory

In case you don't know, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) merged in 2012 with AFTRA (American Federation of Television Radio Actors); however, SAG-AFTRA is a mouthful, so for the rest of the article I'll simply refer to the merged organization as "the union." It is important to know that the actor's union is different and unrelated to the union for film and television crew and, in general, one does not affect the other.

Obviously, the union developed to protect its members from predatory hiring practices and poor work conditions but, at some point, the members of the union realized that many of its members were faced with a hard choice-either lose out on roles in low-budget productions that were unable to hire union actors, or work on non-union productions in violation of union rules. Because so many of its members faced this conflict, the union created new classifications of productions with different rules and requirements, depending on the scope and budget of the project.

The Why

While I feel it important to go into the benefits of working with union actors, remember that it is most important to choose the actor who is right for the role. Cast the right actor and they will inhabit the role, whether they are in the union or not. Here are three distinct advantages that make working with union actors worthwhile.

1. Professionalism Union actors know that it is part of their job to be on time, prepared for the day's shooting, know how to hit their marks, do multiple takes, and to keep the drama on the screen and out of the production. This doesn't mean that non-union actors aren't professional-for the most part, they are. However, if your friend is acting in your film, they may not have the commitment you are expecting. Hiring union actors doesn't mean that life won't intrude and problems won't pop up, but it does mean that the actor knows that this isn't a party, it is a job and there is a limited time to get the shots you need. After being right for the role, professionalism is the most important reason to hire an actor.

2. Name Power There are many well-known actors in the union who can bring credibility and interest to your film. This can help with fundraising efforts, getting more "name" actors attached to your project, and help you expand your network. Having a name can also help with distribution. If you are fortunate enough to know or have a name actor interested in your film, consider yourself lucky.

3. Breakthrough You may also end up casting an actor who is about to "blow up," maybe they land a TV show or a high-profile movie after working on your film. That isn't going to hurt your film.

So, as you see, there are some compelling reasons to work with union actors, if they are right for the role.

The How

If you are thinking of working with union actors, be aware of a few things. The union has a variety of contracts designed to make using, not abusing, union actors relatively easy. Most of the contracts are for feature-length films and are based on budget levels; however, there are provisions for a few for short films, as well. These are all legally binding contracts that apply to you, as well as the actors. By signing these contracts, you become a "union signatory," but don't worry-most of the lower-budget contracts allow you to mix union and non-union talent, and it doesn't affect the crew you hire. So, you can hire your friends, non-union, or even union crew if you wish. Most importantly, becoming a union signatory is on a picture-by-picture basis and not for life, so if for your next film, you don't cast any union actors, then you don't have to sign a contract with the union.

The three most flexible contracts are the student film, short film, and new media contract.

The Student Film Contract

Starting out, there is a Student Film agreement. You are going to have to be registered at a film program to qualify for this, and the union will make the final determination if it is acceptable and you can use the student film contract. But even if you can't use the student film contract, there are two other contracts that can be extremely useful.

The Short Film Contract

The short film contract is like the student film agreement, so you really aren't missing out if you aren't a film student; you can still hire union actors. The thing with both the student film and short film agreement is that they are geared to festival runs and, as such, any payments you may owe the actors are deferred while exhibiting your film at festivals. However, once you find a distributor, screen the film outside of a festival setting, or put the film up on the Web, payments to the actors come due.

The New Media Contract

This brings us to the New Media Contract, which is a more recent innovation and has, in some way, superseded the popularity of the short film agreement. This is because the short film agreement is very specific about where and how the finished film can be screened and when you must pay your actors; however, the new media agreement allows you to negotiate the financial terms of the agreement with the actors. Perhaps more significantly, the new media contract isn't concerned with the festival circuit, but it is designed to allow you to make your film and get it up on the Web.


I was unaware of the New Media contract when I shot my last short in which I had union actors working, so I used the short film contract, and now I wish I had known about and opted for the new media contract instead-it would make getting my short film out there so much easier. If you are planning your next film and are interested in casting union actors, then I recommend checking out SAG Indie to get started. They are there to simplify the process.

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