Union vs. Non-union

I had a great conversation tonight with two casting directors. We were trying to figure out how the commercial business became so broken. I think the Screen Actors Guild strike in 2000 was the first huge step towards non-union work. I think that strike turned out to be a huge problem for SAG members. The union lost strength and momentum; then with cable and the Internet on the rise and budgets getting smaller, it gets easier to cast non-union. It’s nice to know that a lot of the issues that Beth Melsky Casting is experiencing are the same problems that many other casting directors are having.

It’s not the actors’ fault, though. It’s made it much harder for actors to have and want a commercial career. If you really want it, how do you make it happen? SAG actors used to be able to make a great living doing commercials. That is no longer the case. There are the rare exceptions of actors that get hot and book multiple network commercials, but then they become “overexposed” – a no win situation. Voice over actors can still land an account and earn a steady income. Other than voice over or maybe hosting, the opportunities have become so watered down – union, non-union, reality (“real people”), etc. Most actors choose to do commercials as a way to make extra money, doing what they love (acting) with the hope of moving onto bigger and better things.

Commercials are an art. Acting in commercials is different than acting in film, theater, and TV. It requires “commercial training.” New York is very much a serious acting city. I understand that dedicated, well-studied actors and actors that love their craft don’t want to just do commercials, but getting a commercial agent is just as difficult as getting a legit agent or manager. Legit agents handle TV, film, and theater.

Trying to get any kind of representation is very challenging. In New York, if you want to do commercials, you can work through multiple agents. You do not have to be signed to get auditions. You can have an agent that will submit you for SAG (union) auditions and a non-union agent that will submit you for non-union auditions. Once you become a member of SAG, you can no longer do non-union work.

There is more supply than demand, so you have to be diligent and hungry. It used to be that an actor’s goal was to become a SAG member. Now there is more non-union work than union, so joining the union could cut into your volume of auditions. Established SAG “commercial” actors are finding that there are fewer opportunities for them. There are so many things shot for digital or Internet only and those budgets are tight; production usually can’t afford union rates.

All actors start out non-union. SAG franchised agents have to meet new people all the time to keep their client lists fresh. You don’t have to be a SAG member in order to be signed or work with these agents. If you book three SAG jobs, then you must join SAG. At that point, you can no longer audition for non-union projects. Why join SAG sooner than you have to?!

I’d like to talk about commercial training. Auditioning for commercials is different than any other acting training. Having a strong acting foundation is great, but “knowing” how to audition for a commercial is very specific. I think all actors that want to do commercial should take an acting class. From my experience, taking a class from a casting director is the way to go. Casting directors aren’t teaching acting as much of a technique that we use everyday. We teach you terminology that is only used for commercial auditions. Talent agents usually sit in on the final classes taught by casting directors; therefore, you get to read for them in a small group. If they like you and think you have potential, it’s a win-win. This is an amazing way to get seen and read for top agents without having to wait months for a one on one appointment. As actors, you take classes for film and theater…why not commercials? It’s the agents’ job to always be looking great new talent and this is a great source for them and well worth your time.

Doing commercial does not lessen your status as an actor. Look at all the celebrities doing commercials now. Union or non-union, great auditions will lead to callbacks, then bookings, and then interest from agents. I have booked many actors in commercials that have gone on to huge careers.

What was once a fairly simple business has become very complex. Commercials are a great stepping-stone. If you work hard at it, it may also help pay the bills. There are no tricks, but putting the time into the craft and being very responsible to your agent puts you on the right track.

One last thought: if you are not sure what profession you want to go into, pick being a dentist. I did three casting sessions two days ago and I must have had 20 cancellations or actors asking for time changes because they all had to go to the dentist!

Next week I’ll give you some insight into casting directors and what “we” do.

Union vs. Non-union

5 thoughts on “Union vs. Non-union

  1. To play devil’s advocate a bit, I think some of the productions that ‘can’t afford union rates,’ are just plain cheap. The union exists for a reason, to protect all of us. To establish benefits, both health and financial to secure our well-being and our future. If people think dealing with the union is too much work, I question their commitment to serving actors in the best way possible honestly. I’ve done tons of non-union work, and I’ve worked with some wonderful people, but inevitably, if as an actor you take your career seriously, you’re going to go SAG at some point, and you will stay SAG. There is a reason all of our favorite plays, films and tv shows are union. I realize I’m posting this on the website of a very well-respected casting director, and I certainly don’t have the history in this business that some folks have including Beth, but that’s my 2 cents on it. But yes, it is a bit broken isn’t it. However the bottom line is that productions want the best actors for the cheapest price, and that’s a broken way of thinking. I’m tired of going to auditions with 50 other people for a commercial that won’t even pay a months rent. There are huge companies casting for extremely low-rate jobs that are not even worth the time to get on the train in the morning. So, it is what it is. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t do anything else for the world, that’s for sure. We just have to be go-getters, and make things happen the best we can.


    1. bethmelsky says:

      I agree. How’s it going . Casting has cut it rates . We are small business having to eat. We can’t hold out to fight with corporate America.There is a reality .


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