Casting: To Union or Not

Thoroughly evaluate your decision.

If you are in this for the long haul, and plan to make movies as a career, you will have to learn to handle union contracts and the pre-production paperwork necessary to become a union-approved project. You hope to someday work with known actors, and most television/film actors are members of the performers’ unions. Jump in and learn the ropes.

Let us agree your story is good to excellent with high production values; you are confident you will get it into festivals. Your team has other feature and festival credits and you are looking at the budget, wondering if you can afford union actors. You notice that it’s complicated and expensive to go union. Perhaps this actor with a marketable name has said “Yes” to your script. A marketable name means the actor has a body of work: films that have played festivals and have nation and international distribution. It is likely this hypothetical actor is a union member.

Professional acting unions

AEA: Actors Equity Association. Stage productions, Broadway (touring and in NYC), regional repertory theaters, and casino shows.

AFTRA: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Game shows, daytime dramas, broadcast news, television commercials, corporate industrials, radio, and some primetime television.

SAG: Screen Actors’ Guild. Television movies, feature films, and some television shows.

Before the digital revolution, which union had jurisdiction over a project was determined by whether you were shooting film (super 8mm, 16mm, or 70mm) or a three-camera videotaped studio shoot like a sitcom with a live audience. A three-camera “live to tape” studio television show, however, was done under an AFTRA contract. Camera technology has changed all that; new distribution venues, direct video sales, and marketing are reshaping jurisdiction even more.

One member makes a union shoot.

If one prospective actor is a member of AFTRA or SAG, you will need to arrange a union contract. You will be able to hire non-union actors on a union shoot provided they are not a must join.

This means they have already worked on union film sets and are no longer eligible to work as non-union actors; therefore, they must join the union to work. On the flip side, if your production’s cast of characters is limited, and you don’t require a marketable name in the cast, you may decide to work non-union. If the cost of a union actor is too high, SAG has a deferred pay contract among others. Many union actors will decline deferred pay, but other options from SAG include: low-budget, ultra low-budget, limited exhibition, experimental, student, etc.

In general, union actors tend to have more experience. Remember this when casting a leading role. Avoid considering actors who lack sufficient experience for a supporting role or lead. This is not to say you won’t find excellent non-union actors, but when you use inexperienced actors it will take more time. Very experienced directors have the communication skills to work with new talent, how to coax better performances out of actors, and how to direct them. If you don’t have a lot of experience with actors, extend your shooting schedule. Be patient. You will improve.

Questions to consider

  • Seriously look at your budget, goals, and priorities before coming to a decision on whether to choose union or non-union. Discuss these questions with your producers and do the best you can to make the right decision for your production.
  • Can you get the return on your investment without a name actor in the lead? Do you have a longer shooting schedule to accommodate less experienced actors?
  • Do you have enough experience to work with union actors?
  • Are you confident with your communications skills in getting results from actors?
  • How large is your cast?
  • What is your expectation for distribution after a film festival?
  • What is your true budget?
  • In any case, check reels and your actors’ other films. Hiring the wrong actor will ruin your project. Hiring an inexperienced actor for a leading role can kill your project. The perfect actor physically may not have the experience yet for a lead and would be better off in a supporting role. As in any employment environment, check references and get feedback from other directors who have worked with your actors. You don’t want a pretty face; you want performances that really make a difference.  You want a professional.

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