Working under a union contract—whether AFTRA, SAG, or Equity—provides an actor with many built-in protections, including preferential working hours and conditions; pension, health, and welfare benefits; minimum guaranteed fees; and additional compensation for the producer's continued exploitation of the actor's recorded performance. These protections are part of the collective bargaining agreement that the applicable union has negotiated with producers on behalf of performers. Of course, these protections represent minimum terms; the actor is free to negotiate for even better terms.
Actors not working under a union agreement, however, must negotiate for even these minimum safeguards. The following—some of the key protections of a collective bargaining agreement—are items that actors should aim to include in a nonunion deal.
Collective bargaining agreements (or CBAs) establish a minimum salary (known as "scale") for the actor's services. That salary will vary based on the nature of the services. For example, under the Screen Actors Guild's TV-theatrical contract, weekly performers must be paid a minimum of $2,921 for a five-day workweek (as of July 1, 2012). Most CBAs also offer other fee-related protections, such as a late penalty if salaries aren't paid within a certain period after services have been rendered and extra pay for additional duties (such as looping). Actors should try to tie their compensation to at least union scale when working nonunion.
CBAs also limit the number of work hours in a day and set standards for acceptable work conditions, such as requiring meal breaks and days off. For example, SAG's TV-theatrical contract mandates a 12-hour rest period between the end of one call and the start of the next and requires overtime payments after 10 hours if certain salary levels aren't met. It also limits the workweek to five out of seven consecutive days (with certain exceptions on location). The sixth and seventh days require additional compensation: time-and-a-half and double-time, respectively. Actors' Equity Association also has provisions guarding work hours and rest periods, which vary based on the type of production (cabaret, dinner theater, and so on). Actors working nonunion should negotiate similar protections.
CBAs also require that the producer cover the performer's travel expenses, as well as providing a daily meal allowance (currently $60 under SAG's TV-theatrical pact), accommodations, and small items such as parking costs. SAG and AFTRA require at least business-class air travel (or first class if business class is not available), except for direct domestic flights under 1,000 miles, which can be coach. Again, these perquisites must be negotiated if working nonunion.
Pension, Health, and Welfare
CBAs require that producers make contributions to the union's pension and health plans. SAG mandates a contribution of 14.5 percent of compensation (9.25 percent to health and 5.25 percent to pension); Equity requires 8 percent of compensation (with certain caps). These contributions are on top of the performer's salary.
CBAs include various provisions protecting performers' physical safety, including restrictions on the amount of smoke and the number of firearms used on a set and the requirement that the producer have workers' compensation insurance to cover performers who are injured. Under SAG's TV-theatrical contract, for example, stunts must be planned, set up, and/or performed by a qualified specialist, and a stunt coordinator must inform the union whenever nonstunt performers are used. Producers must always obtain a performer's consent to perform a stunt, and performers have the right to refuse and request a double. A qualified first-aid person is required on set whenever hazardous work is planned.
Billing and Credits
CBAs also set forth certain credit requirements. For example, on a feature film with a cast of 50 or fewer, SAG requires that all performers receive a credit. If a producer fails to give credit (and the facts aren't disputed), certain liquidated damages must be paid. For an Equity production, performer credits (including understudies) must be listed in the program, with cast changes noted on a slip of paper in the program, in an announcement prior to the performance, and on a sign posted at the entrance.
Reuse of Photography and Residuals
Under SAG and AFTRA contracts, a performer's work (photographic or soundtrack) cannot be used in another project or in another medium unless the performer agrees to it beforehand. SAG and AFTRA also require additional payments to the actor (residuals) when a performance is exploited in different media or markets, such as foreign exhibition.
As important as the protections provided by CBAs is the fact that the unions enforce these numerous terms for the actor and also have provisions for dispute resolution. On a nonunion project, on the other hand, if the producer breaches the contract, the actor (at his or her own cost) may have to take the producer to court rather than having the union bring the matter to arbitration on the actor's behalf. When working nonunion, it may be wise to include an arbitration clause, as arbitration is usually quicker and cheaper than court.
The list above is not comprehensive. For more specifics, go to the applicable union's website or call the union directly. It is always advisable to consult with an attorney before entering into a contract.
Dina Appleton is senior vice president of business and legal affairs at Entertainment One Television and co-author of "Hollywood Dealmaking."