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The Screen Actors Guild


Back when I joined the guild in 1998 it was all the rage to get in, mostly for the insurance plan, the pension plan, and the status of being SAG.  I knew I was going to be acting for years and years and thought that the protection of the union and how seriously they took the craft would elevate me to a grander status in the acting world.  I was a serious actor and I wanted to be taken seriously.  Before I got into the union I had done a handful of student projects and been a lead in an independent SAG low budget feature.  After the feature I felt it was time to raise the bar I was ready to get paid for my work.  I needed to get into the union.


I wrote a letter to extras casting director Sande Alessi and told her what I had done and that I needed someone to throw me a bone so I could get into the union and take my career to the next level.  She gave me eight days on Fight Club (I had to shave my head).  I made about $150 per day, got my vouchers and waited to jump into the union at the next opportunity.  Nearly one hundred commercial auditions later that day came.  I booked a Mountain Dew Commercial and two lines on Sabrina the Teenage Witch on the same day. I went into the union with a cashiers check from my parents and joined.


Over the next two years I was a commercial king, working for Mitsubishi, Miller Light, Wrigleys Gum, Hasbro, Pepsi (three times), and American Express. Some people get lucky and make hundreds of thousands of dollars off of campaigns like these. Unfortunately I was not one of them.  Mountain Dew paid me around twenty-two thousand awesome I was riding high. Wrigleys paid me about eighteen wow, could this be happening to me? Hasbro grossed me a little less than ten I was still happy. The Mitsubishi spot started as a national campaign but became a wild spot - I only made four thousand.  Amex paid me three. Two of the Pepsis were for Japan only and were twelve hundred dollar buyouts.  I was cut out of the other Pepsi spot (I knew when we were shooting it that I wasnt going to make it into a thirty second spot). The Miller commercial never aired.


It seemed that the industry was changing before my eyes.  When I booked the first spots, callbacks consisted of twenty guys and the commercials all aired.  By the end of my commercial success, callbacks were a minimum of a hundred guys and you were lucky if a booking actually made it to the television. If it did and it actually aired more than once you felt like you won the lottery just to make a couple thousand dollars.


Most people would be happy with what I got. I was not. It was so hard to get those jobs and I got so excited to have the opportunity, that when they dumped a spot, or it got downgraded, it was heartbreaking. I had booked seven national commercials and two foreign spots and made less than sixty thousand dollars of which ten percent went to my agent, fifteen percent to my manager, two percent to the union and thirty percent to the government.  Over two years I netted about twenty-five grand at the end of the day.  How could I be working so much and be so broke?


Now many actors would be saying, Hey Dippy! At least youre working. And they would be right.  I was very blessed to have made money at all. But I am not a big commercial fan through my experience because I worked so hard to book those spots, going on hundreds of auditions and so many of them were dumped or downgraded by the ad companies because they have the expendable cash to just shoot another spot if they did not do their homework before going into production, or they decided that the commercial did not lend itself to the right market. So much of it has nothing to do with the actor, and the union never seemed to really get behind me if I had an issue with how I was getting paid, another fiasco you have to deal with when you start working.


When I saw my Mountain Dew Commercial airing in the previews of Charlies Angels all over America and I got a check for a mere $750 I was baffled (3500 screens, five screenings per day with an average of 250 viewers at each equals more than four million viewers per day).  I called the union.  Sorry Mr. Blake, that falls under the industrial usage category which is a strict $750 buyout. Theres nothing we can do.  Interesting.  Then I called when I heard that someone saw the commercial in the Caribbean.  That sounded like international usage to me.  Sorry Mr. Blake, they are receiving that signal via a U.S. satellite, which does not qualify for international usage. There is nothing we can do.    Very interesting.  Then I saw it was on several websites where thousands of people were viewing it every day. Those were not sanctioned by the advertiser, Mr. Blake. Theres nothing we can do.  Issues like this arose with most every commercial.


What I kept on hearing time after time was that the advertising community was faster at finding loopholes in the SAG contracts than SAG was, and therefore we were often getting the raw end of the deal. SAG has been so busy over the last few years dealing with internal struggle that they have not appeared to be focusing on the contracts.  We have lost much of our insurance plan to a bad economy and our pension plan will probably not survive.  If the union had a good image, I might at least think they were trying.  But in my opinion the leaders of SAG have always seemed to be spending more time trying to protect their jobs and their image than trying to really work for their actors.


Financial Core seems to me to be the best option.  I am only beginning to look into this now, but it allows a union actor to do non-union work as long as they are willing to forego their insurance and pension plans. Well, considering that I now pay $195 every three months for insurance with a hefty deductible on doctor visits and medication - who cares.  I also work from the understanding that the pension plan will probably be empty before I can collect on it. So why bother.


When I got into the union I was very proud of myself.  It is very difficult to get into.  But over the years I have not been impressed with the politics that go on within it, or the choices they continue to make.  Their inability to protect us has cost me as much as I have made and I find that tragic.  My advice is to not go union until you have to, and even then work to protect yourself. Dont expect the union to do it for you.  Build your experience and your demo reel by working on non-union projects like crazy first.  Once you get into the union it becomes much harder to network because you are competing with a whole new level of players.  Getting a tiny job can be very difficult and rarely does anyone care about your creative input, so its difficult to impress people.


My other advice; become a director/producer.  Ive acted in most of my projects and I put the power into my own hands.  Eventually I will be a member of either the Producers or Directors Guild.  They have far less members and most of them actually work. Now those guilds take care of their people.

Got Theater? Project * Syracuse, NY * Las Vegas, NV * "Raising funds for charity through theater!"