5 Risks of Acting in Non-Union Commercials

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Let’s start off by clearly defining some terms: commercials produced under union contracts are required to provide actors with clearly laid out protections and compensation. Everything not produced under a union contract is “non-union,” which means there are no established rules. Non-union projects are the unregulated, wild west of acting and actors have to beware.

Here are five ways non-union commercial work can pose a risk to your health, wealth, and well-being:

1. Safety
Union productions are required to provide certain protections for the safety of actors, including having insurance, restrictions on time spent on set (especially for children), breaks for meals, privacy, chairs, and much more. Non-union productions aren’t required to do any of that. If you get hurt on a non-union set, they may not be insured to cover it. They could make you work long hours without breaking for a meal or a rest, not provide safe transportation from base camp to set, and others threats to life and limb.

2. Usage
For union commercial projects, there’s no such thing as signing away the rights to your likeness forever, or what non-union contracts call “in perpetuity.” Every union project has a maximum period of use, after which your likeness can not be used without negotiating a new deal. The client has to stop airing your spots, or else they owe you more money. Non-union projects can do whatever actors will agree to in their contract, if there even is a contract.

On top of that, usage in union projects is broken down into various categories, like online, TV, cable, in theaters, etc. Union actors are paid differently for each category. It’s not uncommon for non-union project contracts to ask for a buyout for a set term or in perpetuity: a flat fee for the rights to use the project any way, anywhere, and for as long as they want to.

READ: 14 Reasons Extra Work Won’t Jumpstart Your Career

3. Rates
Union actors get paid four different fees:

Session fees are for each day of work plus any overtime, use of your own wardrobe or props, meal penalties for not breaking on time, recutting footage into additional spots, etc.

Holding fees are paid for every 13-week cycle the production wishes to have the exclusive rights to your likeness within certain commercial categories and to air their commercials you’re in for a pre-negotiated maximum period of use, at which point they need to renegotiate. It’s called holding a “conflict.” It protects the client from you working for a competitor when you’ve just done a campaign for them, but a company can’t just keep paying you holding fees for the rest of your life—they have to fairly compensate you for continuing to hold conflicts. For example, one of my spots ran for the full 4 cycles agreed to, earning me over 30k in residuals. The client decided they wanted the rights to continue to air my spot for another two years. My agents negotiated 35k for each year, so I got paid another 70k just so they could have the rights to air it more.

Residuals are the payments you get for the reuse of your commercials on various platforms. Depending on the spot and platform, union commercials can generate a lot of residual income—crucial income actors and reps count on for stability and sustenance.

Finally, for every dollar the production pays you, they also contribute roughly 18 cents to your union pension and health plan to help provide for your health care and retirement.

Non-union projects usually offer much lower pay for the session, and buyouts often limit your earning to a tiny fraction of what you would have earned in a union production. No residuals, pension or health benefits. And, unless offered or negotiated, no additional compensation for all the other things that add up, like using shot footage for one spot you did in others, overtime, travel, using your own stuff, etc.

4. Conflicts
This one’s a doozy. Conflicts due to non-union spots that are still airing or available online can literally screw your future ability to make a living as an actor. If you sign your rights away in perpetuity, or to a disorganized or shady production for even a limited term, it can prevent you from working for certain clients in the future, maybe even the rest of your life. If National Beer Brand X wanted to hire you today as their new national spokesperson for a campaign that could make you millions, you could lose it all if they find out you did a non-union spot years ago for National Beer Brand Y because it’s still airing or available online. Stick to union spots and you’ll never have that danger. Which brings us to the last risk...

READ: 5 Ways Actors Can Use Their Skills to Earn Money

5. Enforcement
If a non-union production or client violates their agreement with you and continues to air the commercial after the agreed term or in places you never agreed to, how are you going to enforce the terms of your agreement? Are you going to hire a lawyer and take them to court? Whereas with any union job, if a producer violates the agreement, the union will fight for you with powerful tools at its disposal, including legal remedies.

I wish I knew what I know now about the risks of doing non-union commercial projects. It may seem tempting to do them, especially early on when you’re building your experience as an actor or trying to make a living, but you have to carefully weigh the risks vs rewards. If you choose to do a non-union commercial, read the contract carefully and don’t agree to anything that could harm your health or your future ability to earn as an actor. In many cases, it’s just not worth it.

I’m not saying that all non-union production is bad. There are professional non-union commercial productions out there that pay a reasonable rate for a reasonable term of use, take great care of the talent on set, and honor their agreements.

But remember that the union exists to protect your ability to make a living as an actor and actually have a career doing what you love. Most of the union rules are meant to create an environment for the actor to be able to do their job safely and well, and for their role in the production to be respected. Amongst all the important artists and production crew involved in a commercial shoot, only the actor’s likeness will be publicly and inextricably linked to a brand, restricting his or her ability to work for others.

If none of us were willing to act in non-union commercial jobs, producers would have to produce under union contracts and hire union talent, providing all the protections and benefits that entails. There would be more union casting, with more opportunities for non-union actors to audition for and book a union job, earning eligibility and membership. If we do non-union work out of desperation for money or booking, we encourage and reward productions that want to save money at our expense.

That is a real cost that takes a real toll on our artistic community. Be careful out there.

Now check out our commercial audition listings!

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Shaan Sharma
Shaan Sharma is a session director, on-camera acting teacher, and author of “A Session Director’s Guide to Commercial Acting in L.A.”
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