How to Become SAG-Eligible

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Any actor just starting their career is likely wondering about joining a union —particularly one as influential as SAG-AFTRA. For those interested in learning more about what SAG is and what it offers working actors—from how to become eligible, to the pros and cons of joining—we’ve got you covered.

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What is SAG-AFTRA?

SAG-AFTRA

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SAG-AFTRA is the most comprehensive union for performing artists, advocating for its members’ rights within the entertainment industry. SAG stands for the Screen Actors Guild labor union, which merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) in 2012 to create SAG-AFTRA. The actors’ union now represents approximately 160,000 media professionals working in  film, television, radio, commercials, video games, music videos, and more.

What does “SAG-eligible” mean?

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SAG-eligible (or SAG-E) means that a performer has already met the eligibility requirements to become a member of SAG-AFTRA, but has yet to join. Once you achieve SAG-E status, your eligibility does not expire.

How to become SAG-eligible

SAG-AFTRA

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There are several ways to become SAG-eligible.

  • Get hired on a project already covered by a SAG-AFTRA (or SAG or AFTRA) collective bargaining agreement
  • Become a paid member of an affiliated performers union, such as the theatrical Actors’ Equity Association, for at least one year
  • Create your own content. SAG-AFTRA’s website makes note that “Ultra Low Budget, Student, or Short Films do not qualify towards SAG-AFTRA eligibility;” however, if you’re creating your own work within one of these categories, SAG-AFTRA does offer an avenue for membership as a producer.

For those interested in joining SAG-AFTRA, Backstage can help you achieve your goal.

Can you remain SAG-eligible without joining SAG?

Actor filming

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What if you meet the eligibility requirements, but aren’t ready to cough up the $3,000 initiation fee? Is there a benefit to having that SAG-E status without the membership card?  

It depends. There are both benefits and drawbacks to gaining SAG-E status without joining SAG-AFTRA.

The benefits of remaining SAG-eligible without joining SAG-AFTRA 

Although some may want to join the union the instant they meet the eligibility requirements, there is one benefit to holding out—especially for performers who don’t live in major filming cities. 

J.R. Robles, a SAG-E actor based in Nashville, Tennessee, says that keeping his non-union status has helped keep opportunities open to him in cities without a lot of union jobs. “Since there’s not as much union work here as there is in cities like L.A., New York, Chicago, or Atlanta, [waiting to join SAG] was advantageous because I could be considered for more roles,” Robles says. “And that was so helpful as I got started as a professional actor, because I could work on corporate videos, commercials, music videos, and indies pretty easily.” 

SAG-AFTRA member Jon Root (“Snowfall,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) adds, “In my opinion, it’s mostly advantageous for people who are early in their careers that need credits, connections, and footage for their reels. Being able to still work non-union opens up the possibilities of getting just that.”

The drawbacks of remaining SAG-eligible without joining SAG-AFTRA

SAG-AFTRA member Cody Vaughan (“Lucifer,” “Coercion”) cautions that, although SAG-E actors can technically book both union and non-union work, it may be harder to do in practice.  

“Since you aren’t officially already in the union, it can limit which producers would be willing to cast you over another actor who is already a paid-up SAG member,” says Vaughan. “It can prove more difficult to actually book a SAG job.”

In addition to potential difficulties booking work on SAG projects, Root points to an issue that SAG-E actors might face on non-union projects. “The obvious drawback to those non-union gigs is that you, the actor, will have absolutely no protection during the filming process,” Root warns. “You may encounter very difficult working conditions, zero consideration for the amount of time you’ve been on set, unprofessional intimate scenes, and many others. SAG has a litany of rules in place for on-set conditions for precisely that reason.”

How beginners can become SAG-E

SAG-AFTRA

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For those just starting their careers and working towards that elusive SAG-E (and eventual SAG-AFTRA) status, there are a few things you can do to help move the process along. 

Work, work, work 

Before becoming SAG-eligible, take on as much non-union work as you can and start building your résumé and your network. “Just keep auditioning and acting as much as you can,” advises Root. “Get in front of eyeballs and be seen doing the work.” 

Vaughan says to start small, suggesting that early-career performers do background work to get their foot in the door. “This is a classic way many become eligible for SAG: by working enough SAG productions to earn the required vouchers,” Vaughan says. “Also, keep an eye out for SAG productions looking for unique skills, talents, characteristics that are more difficult for producers to find. This could give you a special opportunity to bump up to SAG eligibility as you can offer what a lot of other actors can’t.” 

Robles agrees that starting small is the right approach, advising beginners to “work on student films and low- or no-budget films to get experience on film sets, gain reel footage, and just [do] the work.”

Find your tribe 

Working steadily can do more than just tick SAG eligibility boxes; it can foster relationships that can lead to new opportunities. “The more you start to work, the more connections you can make, which could potentially lead to SAG projects,” Vaughan says. “Be professional and a joy for people to work with—build relationships and it can lead to a lot more work.”  

Robles agrees that working is key, but in between projects, he recommends taking classes as another way to meet more established folks in your acting community while also building your skills. “If you can do those in-person, that is ideal. However, there are so many excellent classes available online now,” he says.

Find representation

Actors at any stage of their career can sign with an agent, and having professional representation can be the key to opening doors for a performer. “Generally SAG projects and casting directors go to agents for their talent,” Robles says. “Without an agent, it’s exceedingly more difficult.”

Save up for the initiation fee 

Once you’re ready to join SAG-AFTRA, the initiation fee is $3,000, plus a percentage of future earnings. While $3,000 may be pocket change to some, for most working actors it’s a sizeable sum, so Root suggests planning ahead, saying “Make sure you sock away that membership fee for the day you become a ‘must-join.’”  

Be patient 

While some folks may land an amazing job that makes them SAG-eligible right out of the gate, that’s not the typical experience. “More often than not, it can take years to become eligible, so hang in there,” Vaughan says. 

Even when you do become SAG-E, it may still not be the right time for you to cross that membership threshold. “My agent recently told me what she tells every actor who becomes SAG-E, ‘You’ll know when the right time is to join,’ “ Robles says. “Joining the union is a personal choice that everyone has to make for themselves.”

Celebrate your achievement

Whether or not you decide to join SAG-AFTRA, becoming eligible is a major accomplishment, and it’s worth taking a moment to pat yourself on the back. “It has always been a major goal for me to become eligible,” Robles says of his SAG-E status. “And I’m looking forward to joining when the time is right.”

Vaughan agrees, saying, “It’s quite a milestone to achieve [SAG eligibility], so celebrate it once you do!”

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