Double Dip, Hassle-Free

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Dear Jackie:

My new agent — at a well-known, established, SAG-franchised agency — recently sent me on an audition for a big-pay, nonunion commercial, which I subsequently booked. Although my agent was paid 20 percent from the sponsoring company on top of my fee, she took another 20 percent commission from my fee. Therefore, she was basically paid twice for the job. When I asked her about it, she said that is standard in the industry for nonunion jobs and it is an incentive for agents to handle nonunion actors and to submit them for nonunion jobs. Does this sound correct to you?

— Clueless

Los Angeles, Calif.

Dear Clueless:

Nope. Your agent should not have taken more than a 10 percent total commission. SAG-franchised agencies are prohibited from taking more than a 10 percent commission on any project in any medium under the guild's jurisdiction (commercials, films, Internet, etc.). That rule applies to nonunion projects and actors, as well as guild-signatory shows and performers. For areas in which the guild has no jurisdiction, such as print or live theatre, franchised agencies are held to a commission rate determined by the state labor commissioner's office. New York law caps all commissions at 10 percent; California pushes the cap up to 20 percent (a standard print commission). Franchised agencies are also prohibited from "double-dipping" — that is, taking the commission from the production company once and again from you.

Those represented by nonfranchised agencies, however, should know that their agents don't have to adhere to the same standards. Although agencies belonging to the Association of Talent Agents follow the commission caps set by the state, those in California have the flexibility to take the 20 percent commission in any medium. Nonfranchised agencies can also heed the letter of the law while violating its spirit by double-dipping, since the labor commission's caps apply only to monies commissioned from a performer and don't mention extra payments made by a production company to the agency.

So although the amount your agent received may be legal under certain circumstances, your agent is violating the regulations of her agency's franchise agreement in taking that much from your gig.

Here's the frustrating part: What are you going to do about it? You are entitled to file a complaint with SAG reporting your agent's actions, but considering that you were unwilling to even reveal the agency's name to me, I doubt you'll want to go that route. And even if you did, the timing isn't great. While SAG is struggling to smooth out relations with nonfranchised agencies, it may be more reluctant to stir up conflicts with its own franchisees.

You could handle this directly with your agent. Mention that you've researched the rules and, though you love working with her, you'd feel more comfortable paying her the standard 10 percent commission in the SAG-regulated arenas. Or just ask the nice folks in production on your next gig to send the check directly to your home address, and then promptly send your agent a copy of your pay stub with a check for 10 percent and a thank-you note. She can always call you and argue for more. If these suggestions sound unappealing, you may not have long to wait before they are also unnecessary. Once you join the guild, you won't have to navigate nonunion waters, which can be full of wonderful opportunity but are also ripe with this kind of frustration.

Dear Jackie:

I recently was Taft-Hartleyed and I am now SAG-eligible, which has been a goal of mine for about five years. I wanted to start putting "SAG-E" on my résumé, but I've heard lately that casting directors frown upon that. I've heard they find it confusing and see SAG-eligible actors as a hassle — it might be extra paperwork for them or something?

I'd like to upgrade my status on my Actors Access profile and my résumé as SAG-E, but not at the cost of casting directors seeing this as a hassle. I'm not planning on joining the union for another few months, until I've saved up money for the initiation fee. What would you recommend? What's the best way to take advantage of my SAG-E status?

— Mary

via the Internet

Dear Mary:

I am confused as to why casting directors would see SAG-eligible status as a hassle. Since you have already done a guild job and been Taft-Hartleyed, the paperwork is done. The only theoretical annoyance I can think of would be a scenario in which you couldn't join in time to shoot a project you booked — if, for example, you book a job Friday evening that shoots that weekend, while SAG membership offices are closed. There may be some way to get around that hurdle, but it's probably kind of a pain, aka "hassle." Still, the chances that my made-up situation is going to occur more than once in a blue moon are slim. Besides, you can work SAG gigs for 30 days after you are Taft-Hartleyed before you become a "must join." So if you plan to join in a couple of months, you're almost certainly not going to encounter that scenario.

If you book another SAG job after the grace period, the only hassle is for you to visit a SAG office, fill out the paperwork, choose your name — and hope it's available — and pay the fee (upward of $2,200) in a timely fashion. All of which might be fun if you've been looking forward to it.

"I think most casting directors are savvy enough to understand that if you're hired for a union job, all you have to do is go down and pay your dues," writes casting director Billy DaMota in an email. "Most CDs are more concerned with finding exceptional talent than fretting about your union status. But there are probably some CDs who don't understand the process or trust that you'll be able to pay if you're hired and might consider you a hassle.

"If you're really only a few months away from paying your initiation fees and officially joining the guild, my advice is that you hold off on putting anything regarding union status on your résumé until you join," he continues. "Once you've paid your fees, you can feel confident to display your union status proudly. If the subject of your union status arises before that time, you'll have the opportunity to address the issue at that time."

There are a lot of rumors out there about what CDs like and dislike, and though some may be sitting around trashing actors for attaching their photos to their résumés with staples instead of glue or for writing "SAG-E" on their résumés, most are reasonable and very busy people without time for such trivialities.

Finally, from DaMota and myself: Congratulations!