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Non-Union Know How, How Much?

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Dear Jack:

I am a SAG member and have recently submitted myself for several non-union roles. I know SAG rule No. 1 is to never take non-union work.

However, I feel it is warranted in this instance, not because I want or need the money but because I need the roles to create a reel for myself. Also I have requested that they not use my name in any of the credits.

Is this OK? I am just trying to get together a reel that will show my emotional range, as I currently have no reel and am new to the area.

Theo

via the Internet

Dear Theo:

Your letter perfectly illustrates why actors should not join SAG, or another performance union, until they are ready. Young performers rush to join up, to prove to themselves and others that they are legitimate actors. But this can have real drawbacks, as you are finding out. Better to wait until you have a thorough resumé and reel before taking the union plunge.

I know there are sometimes circumstances that hurry up the process, like booking a couple commercials—and If you are in that situation, congratulations—but often actors join out of enthusiasm, not obligation.

Whatever circumstances led you to your current predicament, you shouldn't flout the first rule of SAG to make up for lost opportunities. You are union now, and it is not OK to do non-union work, even if you make up a pseudonym. While it's unlikely that anyone at SAG will ever see those projects, you are risking disciplinary action if any of them do get out.

Especially dangerous are non-union commercials, which, if they do run, have a tendency to run a lot and for a long, long time. If the projects are non-union films, who's to say they won't be the next Blair Witch Project? Unlikely yes, but it can happen. But these are just the possible repercussions of your actions, not the real reason you shouldn't be doing what you're doing.

SAG rule No. 1 is there to uphold the promise of better work for all through the joining up of forces. It's an all-for-one, one-for-all kind of thing. In hitching your wagon with the thousands of the rest of us union members, you are saying that we are all a team, bound by common goals and obligations. You receive the same benefits, so you gotta play by the same rules. When union members work non-union it's in direct contravention of the agreement you made when you joined. It weakens all of us.

I know the business is frustrating, and it's next to impossible to see the big picture when the odds are stacked against you. I know how hard it is to get started. I understand what a Catch-22 getting union membership can be. But take a minute before you shrug off your obligation to the only real power that this, or any union, has: the power of unity. See if you can do what you need to do without breaking the rules.

Here are some other options for getting that much needed tape. SAG-friendly, independent movies are being shot out there, many of which put casting listings in this very paper. You don't have to be in the next Jennifer Lopez vehicle to work union. SAG allows select small productions to work under modified low-budget contracts, giving the filmmakers, and you, a chance to work.

Another great option is to submit to student films and scene work with SAG agreements. Many of the bigger local film schools have these agreements, which will be indicated on their casting breakdown. You may get a chance to work with some up-and-comers, just like yourself.

Another option, which you can do without auditioning, is to take one of the acting classes out there that offer the opportunity to get tape. Finally you can put together the reel yourself. There are companies that can help you with the production side, or you can do it yourself or with video-savvy friends. While this option is more labor-intensive and possibly expensive, it may look as professional as the tape you might get from a randomly chosen non-union gig.

One benefit of doing only SAG work in student or low-budget films is that you will be protected through the union rules—the very reason you joined up to begin with. If a group is working with SAG, you can feel more assured that it is legitimate. Not to slam non-union work, which can be terrific. But let's leave it to the non-union actors.

Dear Jack:

I am currently a non-union voiceover artist based in New York. I have a few big projects coming up with an audio-book company and with an animated video series. Payment for both jobs has not yet been discussed.

What are the union rates as opposed to non-union rates for hourly voiceover jobs and for individual character roles for voice-over jobs? Also I am not sure what to charge. I have been mainly working with companies that specifically quote a price for each job, and then I decide whether I would like to take it.

I'm now put in a situation where the ball is in my court, and I'm not sure what to charge regardless of what the client's budget is. I do not have an entertainment lawyer at present. I am not at that stage of my career yet, nor do I want to spend the extra money.

Jeanne Intile

New York, NY

Dear Jeanne:

The situation with non-union acting work of any kind is that there is no standard non-union rate. Non-union means unregulated, independent, and open to discussion. Producers want to pay you as little as possible—that's their job—and of course you want the most you can get. So you've got to negotiate.

You should start by acquainting yourself with union voiceover rates so you have a better idea of what to ask for. You can call SAG, even if you are not a member, or go to the SAG website, at www.sag.org, and look under SAG Basics. Click on Rate Information and select a type of media (theatrical, industrial, etc.) for detailed explanations specific to your situation. These rates are a good jumping-off point in your negotiations. If you ask for SAG minimum, you may just get it.

You don't need an entertainment lawyer this early in your career—although an agent would be nice. But the more you know, the better you will be at negotiating your own pay.

Without knowing more about the companies you are going to be working for or the budgets on these particular projects, I can't tell you much about the amount of pay you can hope to receive. Are these established companies or struggling upstarts? You've got to look at the company to get an idea of how much to ask for. You shouldn't underestimate yourself, but be aware that not every company is Miramax.

As far as audio books go, from what I hear those jobs are more labors of love than they are moneymakers. They are loads of work and a huge time commitment, but only celebrities can command much money for their time there. Original animation can be more lucrative, but, again, the company's track record will determine its generosity.

As far as pay per individual character voice, SAG allows you to do up to three voices for a single pay rate. Anything more than that, and you may be able to get a raise.

Although I can't be more helpful with your specific rate information, I can tell you a little bit about how to negotiate for yourself. Keep in mind, if you have worked with either of these companies before, and they haven't mentioned salary yet, that is because they are assuming you will work for the same amount you did last time. They see it as your rate. Until you ask for a higher rate, they will go ahead with this assumption.

If this is the case, and you feel you should be paid more, you can present your request by telling them you now have a new rate. If they balk, you can tell them you will do them a favor and work at your old rate this last time, but in the future you will have to charge them your new rate. If next time comes, and they are still unwilling to pay more, you will have to decide if the relationship is worth hanging onto or if you've graduated onto bigger things.

If these companies are new to you, a good general rule would be to ask them what they have in mind and ask for about 10 percent to 20 percent more. Non-union producers often, but by no means always, give themselves this leeway. But don't overdo it. If you ask for twice as much as they offer, you may talk yourself out of a job.

You will have to decide what your absolute minimum rate is before you begin these negotiations, and stick to it. Make sure it's a reasonable amount that you feel strongly about, so that you can follow through and walk away if the producers say No.

You need to weigh the pros and cons of each job before you begin talking money. If it's something you want for your reel, or a chance to meet a new director, it may be worthwhile for you to do, even if the pay is low. Or maybe you have done enough low-budget and need to move on. These considerations are part of maturing in the entertainment industry.

At a certain point you have to ask for what you feel is fair and decline to work for less. The downside of this? There are always younger, hungrier actors who will jump in and do the work for little or no money. The upside? If you keep up your training and continue gaining experience and expanding your contacts, your rate will grow along with you.

Dear Jack:

I was at a callback the other day and heard some people talking about the "411." It seemed like something that might be good to have. What exactly is this? Do I need one?

P.Q.

Hollywood, Calif.

Dear P.Q.:

The 411 is an information book used mainly by production staff to put together film or television shoots. Many cities offer these guides, pointing filmmakers toward production-friendly vendors and locations. For obvious reasons, L.A.'s 411 is the biggest and most extensive. Updated each year, it is the yellow pages of the entertainment industry. It contains listings for everything from ad agencies to wrap-party locations. Animal trainers, boat-stabilized camera mounts, Mariachi costumes, plastic food, and SWAT tactics advisors can all be found inside. Ice has its own section. In other words, anything you could need for a shoot you can find in here.

As to whether you need one of these books, I would say No. Most of the information in the 411 isn't really necessary for actors, and I would say save your $79 for other things. There are smaller guides targeted specifically to actors' needs, for example The Agency Book, at Samuel French or other actor-friendly bookstores. These can be great investments. But if you have money to burn and want to get a better idea of the industry big picture, the 411 can certainly be enthralling. You can go online and check out the website at www.la411.com, or www.ny411.com for New Yorkers. After all, where else can you find dolls and dollies on the same page?

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