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Stock and Trade

Dear Jack:

I am a director who is in the process of casting actors for 35mm stock footage I am going to shoot. I listed the breakdown on both and in Back Stage West. I specifically stated in the breakdown that the roles were nonunion and nonpaying (copy and meals only). Still, I have received a lot of submissions from SAG and AFTRA actors.

I am confused. Why are so many union actors submitting to this? Can I use them if they submit and say they are OK working nonunion? I am not in the union, so I'm not the one breaking the rules. Can I get in trouble if I use union actors in a nonunion project? What if they claim to be nonunion at the audition but their resumes say they are union? Am I supposed to check up on them or something? I am not trying to get away with anything, but it seems like I am in the middle of a weird union thing, and I don't want to be.

One more thing: As I call these actors to tell them about the audition, some of them tell me they aren't interested because it's nonpaying. But that information was clearly in the breakdown. Why would they submit to something that they didn't want to do?


via the Internet

Dear E.N.:

The second part of your question is a mystery to me. I am not sure why actors would waste their time submitting to jobs they didn't want. Maybe they were in some sort of "get myself out there" frenzy. I know actors who go through spurts, submitting to everything for a while and then to nothing for weeks at a time. It could be that they just didn't read your breakdown thoroughly, which is just laziness. Or perhaps they've had a change of heart or of mood. That must be frustrating, but you are doing the right thing in reiterating the terms as you make your calls. It is better to lose a few people early on than to fill your time slots with actors who will complain about the deal later.

As for the union issue, this is also an unfortunate situation. You would think that an actor who wanted to go incognito and do nonunion work would at least have a nonunion resume. Why flaunt it? But that's not the point. These actors are submitting to you because although union work is scant they want to work--to flex their acting muscles, to do something on film. Most of them are probably trying to improve their demo reels. Some nicely shot stock footage would be great for beefing up a reel laden with video. The chances that an actor would be found out and disciplined for doing something as small and low profile as your project are slim. These actors are willing to risk it.

Suppose you cast one of these union actors and SAG or AFTRA found out about it. First, neither has any jurisdiction over you, a nonsignatory production entity. You can cast whomever you choose. The actors, however, are violating the core union (or Guild) principle: never work nonunion. They could incur fines, be disciplined in some other way, or even lose their membership privileges. It's true that it is not very likely that an actor would be caught, which is what these folks are counting on, but you never know. If your stock footage ended up in a national commercial, an actor could be recognized.

A SAG representative commented on your question as follows: "While SAG cannot take any action against producers who are not signatories, it is not in the interests of a producer to hire anyone who is not honest about work credits or union affiliation, as it does not promote the trust that needs to exist between the director and the actor." That's something to consider.

There is another possibility here. Some of the "union-nonunioners" could simply be pretending to be SAG or AFTRA. When I was SAG-eligible, but not a member, I remember being urged to put SAG on my resume because I could "join at any time anyway." Maybe some of the actors just want to look as if they are union but in actuality have no union responsibilities. When I asked the SAG rep about this, the rep suggested that you call SAG to verify an actor's status if you have any doubts. (A warning to actors: The rep also pointed out that SAG would investigate anyone falsely claiming to be a member.) I'm not sure whether you'll want to do that much work, though. Checking up on actors is not really your job. You are responsible for their meals and for getting them timely copies of the footage, not for their relationship with their union.

For what it's worth, the SAG rep also pointed out that the Guild has several agreements available to producers working within "any budget." In my experience, however, those agreements--although certainly appropriate in some cases--probably wouldn't work for the zero-budget stock footage project you are working on. You'll want blanket rights to be able to sell that stuff to anyone for as long as you can. That's the nature of stock footage. But that is decidedly not the way SAG is going to want to do things. They will want rights and protections and compensation for their members, of course. That's what they're there for. So I suggest you go nonunion. There are plenty of nonunion actors out there looking to get some film footage under their belts and onto their reels.

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