One of the questions I receive from parents most often is: What is the difference between union (SAG-AFTRA) jobs and non-union projects and when should my child join the union? The differences between these types of projects can be confusing, so here are a few general tips of the trade.
Union projects protect the actor. A SAG-AFTRA commercial that a child books, for instance, is under the jurisdiction of a long-standing guide of policies, rates, and conduct. Within union guidelines, a child can only work for a certain amount of time and must be given a certain number of breaks within a day. If a child works on a film or a television show for a consecutive number of days, a tutor must be provided on set. If there is anything of concern regarding policy during the shoot, agents and managers are able to involve the union who works to solve problems and answer questions. Additionally, monies must be paid within a certain amount of time and rates are dictated by the union. Residuals must be paid in a timely manner, and there are certain rates based on how the commercial runs. Union projects often hold a conflict, where an actor is legally bound not to accept work in a competing product.
A non-union commercial is usually a buyout, and can be used consistently for a set amount of time. Keep in mind that if a child books a job not under union jurisdiction, the session rates are usually lower and the length of usage is usually longer. For example, a small cereal company decides to produce a commercial that they want to run on cable, and wants to pay the actors $750 for the shoot day and the ability to run the spot for two years on-and-off or even longer. Be aware of the pay scale and length of usage time the company is requesting. These non-union projects often take liberties in terms of work hours and tutoring. Additionally, the talent doesn’t often get paid before 60 days.
It is not necessary to join the union until the child has to. It is relatively expensive for an adult performer to join the union let alone a five-year-old. (As of press time, an initiation fee of $3,000.) Because of this, youth agents recommend that our talent don’t join until we advise them that they should: a production alerts representation when an actor becomes a “must join,” i.e. when a talent cannot work unless they are a union member. Always assume that if you are going out on big auditions, you should be prepared—mentally and financially—for membership.
Sometimes it is easier to book non-union projects first before you find an agent, so don’t rule them out. When a child is waiting to get an agent and manager, parents often have access to websites like Backstage.com, where you can self-submit for projects. This is a great way to get involved in professional auditions and get in front of major casting directors. It also allows your child to build their resume and make sure that they are able to work on a set for nine hours, take direction, and handle material. It is a good starting point for someone wanting to get their foot in the door.
For more information regarding child performers and SAG-AFTRA, there is a young performer’s handbook available for download at youngperformers.sagaftra.org.
Pamela Goldman is an agent in the commercial department at Don Buchwald and Associates, Inc. a prestigious, full-service bicoastal talent agency. Pamela has worked in the east coast office since 2003, starting as an intern during her senior year of college. She represents young actors, ages 4-20, for on-camera, voiceover, print, industrial, and animation work.