SAG: What’s the Deal and How to Actually Join (no, really)

Alright, people. Saddle up and get ready. This is probably the most valuable information I have ever put on this blog. Seriously, this $hit is priceless. Perfect for our 100th post (!)

What the hell is SAG anyway?

SAG stands for Screen Actors Guild, and is a collection of actors. It is often referred to as “the union,” and it many ways acts like a union, even though it’s technically a guild. Any “legitimate” projects (e.g. things you actually see on TV or in the movie theatre) have agreements with either SAG or AFTRA for every project. These agreements delineate things like how much actors are guaranteed to make, working conditions, the hours you can work people, etc.

Do I need to join?

Eventually, yes. To be a working actor in Los Angeles, you will absolutely have to join SAG at some point. Having SAG on your resume–rightfully or not–gives you a rather giant leap up in credibility. It indicates that you have been paid to act on a seriously professional level.

Know, however, that when you join SAG you are agreeing to no longer work any non-union jobs. Bonnie Gillespie has a phenomenal post on when to join the unions.

How do I join, and what’s all this ‘eligibility’ business?

The wonderful blog Brains of Minerva has a great post on the different ways to join. In short, they are as follows:
  • Principal Performer: As a non-union actor you book a union job as a principal performer. For SAG, this means you will get “Taft-Hartleyed,” meaning a Taft-Hartley form (see below) was filed for you as a principal performer. This makes you eligible for SAG.
  • Vouchers: As a non-union actor you must receive 3 Taft-Hartleys as a background performer to become eligible to join SAG. Basically, 1 principal role Taft-Hartley = 3 background role Taft-Hartleys
    • It seems to take people between 3 months and 5 years (I know) to obtain 3 vouchers
    • The younger, hotter, and more female you are, the better chance you have of getting a voucher
    • On a set, it is usually the 1st or 2nd AD (Assistant Director) who has the ability to give out vouchers (if they have any)
    • I have heard of a large number of people who paid someone roughly $100 per voucher. I personally hate the system that engenders this, but more on that later
  • Affiliated Unions: If you are a member of one of SAG’s sister unions (AEAAFTRAACTRAAGMA or AGVA) you are eligible to join SAG one year after working a principal part through the sister union

This is a very brief, not super thorough overview. Read the Brains of Minerva post for more in-depth coverage of this.

Once you are eligible, you are free to join SAG at any time. Simply pony up $2,335 at the time of this writing (that’s including the minimum $58 in your first year’s annual fees) and you’re a full-fledged SAG member. And yes, you can pay with Visa or Mastercard.

When do I have to join?

Ok, so I’ve been tracking down this answer for a long time and finally came to my senses and just called SAG for clarification. Here goes…

Once you receive a Taft-Hartley as a principle performer OR receive 3 Taft-Hartleys (vouchers) as a SAG background performer, you are eligible to join SAG and can pay at any time. If you choose not to join off the bat, it works as follows:

“SAG Eligible” Status: From the date you first become eligible, you then have 30 days to do as much SAG work as possible without having to join the union.
“OK 30″ Status: After that 30 days, if you book another SAG job and they call to clear you in time, you can be cleared for an additional 30 days to again do as much SAG work as possible without having to join. At this point you are considered to have “OK 30″ status.
“Must Pay” Status: After that 30 days, if and when you book another (ostensibly your third) SAG job, you then become a “must pay.” From the first work date of this (third) SAG job you have 5 business days to join.

Payment Plan: If you are an “OK 30″ or a “must pay” status, you are eligible for SAG’s payment plan. The payment plan is 40% down on the total ($2,335) , and then 3 equal monthly installments of the balance.

Note, if you are in the midst of your payment plan and book another SAG job, you must pay off the balance you owe in full before you can be cleared for another job.

Station 12 Promise to Pay. If you are “must pay” status and you book another job but don’t have the money, it is possible if you are represented by a SAG-franchised agent to have them call in with a promise to pay for you, which clears you for–and I didn’t receive exact clarification on this–like one more week to pay. However, that agent can only have ONE person in a “promise to pay” status at any given time.

Taft, who? Wasn’t he that fat President?

Wow, you really know your history. But I bet you didn’t know that President Taft had a specialty bathtub installed in the White House for him. So what does this have to do with SAG? Absolutely nothing.

“Taft-Hartley” refers to the Taft-Hartley Act which is a law passed by Congress in 1947 relating to labor unions. Without further boring you, what it means for an actor is that if you get a Taft-Hartley you are then eligible to join SAG as mentioned above.

Getting Taft-Hartleyed is rather difficult to accomplish, as a TV show or movie has to do a (minimal) paperwork and pay a (minimal…like a few hundred dollars) fine to Taft-Hartley you. Fortunately for you, you can get Taft-Hartleyed by doing your own web video or webseries, and pay no fine.

How to form a SAG signatory company for a web-based video project (and Taft-Hartley someone such as yourself)

First of all, know that SAG states you cannot use the following process simply to Taft-Hartley yourself or anyone else. You must actually do a legitimate web project. (There are no listed requirements for what that entails, nor is there any stated way of them checking on this, but that’s what they say.) What I explain below is how to create a SAG Signatory Company, which then produces your web video (or series). There is no cost to forming a Signatory Company through the New Media Agreement.

When doing a project through SAG you are agreeing to abide by their rules, and to hire union (SAG) actors for your project, unless for some reason you are unable to find a SAG actor for a specific role (see the actual Taft-Hartley info below). Brains of Minerva has another incredible article on what this all means when doing a web project. You might also look over the FAQs for New Media Projects provided by SAG.

Step 1: Preliminary info sheet

You must first fill out the Preliminary Info Sheet found on SAG’s website. Along with that sheet, you must also turn in the following:

  • Copy of the driver’s license of the person submitting the form (whomever is going to be the Signatory company/primary contact)
  • A line-item budget for the project
  • A script for the project
  • Be sure to designate how much you plan on paying the actors
    • There are no actual requirements for this, and you can indeed “defer” pay to actors. However, you should know that SAG most assuredly would like to see that you plan to pay your actors something…even if it’s deferred payment
      • If you decide to pay, say, $100/day deferred that’s fine, you just need to stipulate when you would actually pay the actors
        • Ex: You say we would pay the actors 14 days after receiving any distribution money if you theoretically made money on the project at some point
  • You need to indicate whether we want an OPO (One Production Only) or Term Agreement
    • OPO means you are only doing one video, whereas a Term Agreement means you plan on doing more.
    • OPO only obligates to do this single project through SAG, whereas a Term Agreement means you agree to do all future productions through SAG until the next round of SAG contract negotiations (which generally happen every three years.
  • While there is no official requirement, SAG definitely wants to see that you plan on hiring at least some SAG actors for your project. Again, there is no actual requirement, but the more SAG actors you plan on using, the happier SAG will be.

It generally takes 3 weeks or so to process this form. After it is processed, SAG will send you a a packet with the various forms you’ll need to complete your Signatory status and carry out your production.

Step 2: The signatory packet

After you submit the preliminary info they will send you a large packet of information (that will also have the Taft-Hartley form) that you then fill out to officially form the SAG Signatory Company. Once that gets processed, you’re good to go to begin filming your project.

This packet is fairly self-explanatory. A couple notes:

  • It is not required that you form an LLC or separate entity to become a SAG Signatory Company. That is, an individual can effectively act as a SAG Signatory Company
  • If you do not have a separate bank account for your production company you can skip the “credit check” section (though you do need to fill out the rest of that page)
  • If this is a new project, you don’t need to fill out the “New Media Transfer of Rights” page

Once you submit this packet you will receive an email from SAG within a couple weeks with your SAG Signatory number as well as the SAG production number for your project.

Step 3: Film it!

Pretty self-explanatory. The best advice I can give you: find an amazing DP (Director of Photography) and pay your sound guy. Poor sound makes a project seem incredibly unprofessional.

Step 4: More paperwork

There is some paperwork included with your signatory packet that you are required to fill out during your shoot. Be as thorough as possible.

The Actual Taft-Hartley

If you are planning to hire a non-union actor (such as yourself), then you submit the Taft-Hartley within 15 days of the non-union performer working on the project.

Important Note: For the SAG New Media process outlined here, SAG does not have any fines for a Taft-Hartley, nor do they state anything that would keep one from having their Taft-Hartley go through.

Ever wondered what the actual Taft-Hartley looks like? Are you assuming it’s some monstrous 27-page packet? Well, look no further. Here is the actual Taft-Hartley form. You might notice the myriad ways one might qualify to be Taft-Hartleyed, including “first employment of a person who has training/experience as a professional performer and intends to pursue a career as a motion picture performer.” When filling out the “contract type” section on the Taft-Hartley, you might just write in “___ New Media.”

The performer who was Taft-Hartleyed will receive a letter in the mail from SAG in a few weeks indicating their eligibility to join SAG.

Legal Stuff

Please know that if and when you produce your own project, there are a number of legal ramifications that you need to be aware of. First of all, if you personally are listed as the SAG-Signatory producer when you fill out the paperwork explained above, then you personally are legally responsible for everything that happens on your set. Someone breaks a leg, dies, scratches a Ferrari…it’s all on you. As such, it might be wise to form an LLC or other legal entity that produces your project.

In addition, there are myriad state and federal legal requirements when you produce something. For example, you can only work children for a certain number of hours, you need a permit to film anywhere (even on private property), you have to pay any workers the federal minimum wage (or the CA minimum wage of $8/hour if you film in California), and it is California state law that you need to have workman’s comp insurance if you do a project. Entertainment Partners will actually provide you with workman’s comp insurance for everyone on set if you go through them as your payroll company. Contact them for pricing, but my understanding is that often it will only cost a couple hundred dollars, and then you’re protected if something horrible happens. Sure beats getting sued because Joe Actor decided to trip on the banana peel (he’s sooo cliche) and hit his head on the dalmatian statue.

Many people confuse these laws with annoying SAG requirements so they shoot non-union. The hoops and such that you must jump through with a SAG project are there to help you ensure that you are following all of the laws.

Loophole?

I’ve heard from a couple people that the process described here is a “loophole” that SAG is planning to close (they’ve also been saying they’re going to get rid of the voucher system for about a decade now). I don’t see how producing a new media project through SAG is a loophole, nor does it make sense to me that SAG would make it any more difficult to go through them for new media projects. Moving picture entertainment is moving more and more online, and I can only think that SAG wants to be as much a part of that as possible.

Questions

If you have any further questions on what is presented here, I suggest you call the appropriate SAG department (full list here).

New Media: (323) 549-6724
Membership: (323) 549-6757

Final thoughts

I hope this has been helpful. If you’re a rock star who is out there producing their own work, then you might as well take the next step and make it a legitimate SAG production. When you’re ready to upgrade from new media to actual film, Bonnie Gillespie has a great column on becoming a SAG signatory for non-New Media projects. Happy filming!


Ben Whitehair is the Los Angeles contingent of this blog. Find out more information and view his materials on his website, or read the rest of his blog posts.