Many actors work hard and long hours on non-union projects for little or no pay to earn the privilege to join the actors union only to find out it isn’t nicknamed the “Starving Actors Guild” for no reason.
Making a living as an actor is tough, the percentage of true full time actors with no other work is under 15% of the entire union membership. Many actors are part time on purpose. They love the work and because they understand the business, keep a “day job” and act as their “hobby job”. They pay union dues to work on union projects. When you don’t need the work to eat, you only want to work on the “good” jobs.
As a veteran with over 20 years of combined service in the Active Duty Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves, I’ll start by saying I understand the importance of being dedicated to the greater good. Everyone that ever spent time in the military sacrificed time at home and with their family to make sure we enjoy the lifestyle and freedoms that make us unique here in the states.
As an actor who is a member of SAG-AFTRA, I also understand that I wouldn’t have the opportunities to work on the projects that I work on if it hadn’t been for those before me sacrificing for the greater good of all actors. If all union actors worked non-union projects, the union would cease to exist and those “good” jobs would go away. It really is that simple.
More than one person who is Fi-Core told me to consider declaring Fi-Core to get more “credits” and speed up my career. After all, I am now over 40 and reentering the entertainment business at the very bottom, I need all the help I can get. More than one producer has offered me a role with what looked like a nice paycheck on a non-union project. All I had to do was declare Fi-Core. Services for background actors have a checkbox right on the page asking “Will you work non-union” for the union members as if it was an everyday thing.
Another producer who himself is a former union member and is now Fi-Core told me something similar. He basically said the credits are the key to success, not the union status. It is an interesting perspective. What he doesn’t answer is why he feels the need to do non-union work to get those credits when there are ultra low budget, short and student films that he can do for low or no pay (free) and get credit for them while not working against the unions efforts.
If being Fi-Core is such a great deal, how come so few Actors do it? It is less than 5% according to SAG-AFTRA. After all, aren’t all actors totally selfish and only looking out for themselves?
I’ll share with you the three basic reasons I have heard people use to justify their decision to declare Fi-Core after making it into the Union. 1. More credits and/or 2. More money. or 3. Political differences. Ok, I don’t actually know anyone who chose 3, but that is the reason that Fi-Core exists.
SAG-AFTRA has come up with a solution for the “more credits” problem with projects that allow for deferred payments. Basically the actor works for free to get the job and the “credit”. Recently a Casting Director or CD for a major studio said to me, “I don’t care if you were paid or not, all I care is that you did the work so you learned.”
Generally speaking, the producers have the discretion to credit you even in a principle role. You never know if you shot makes it or not. Even then, if production doesn’t upload the information, I wouldn’t upload it myself. Just ask them to do it. Yes my resume is thinner this way, but everything on it is easily verifiable.
Why would a Union Actor, work for free?
I spent the weekend working on a “Short Film” and did it for free. If the producers don’t ever sell it, I never get a dime. The producers, directors and creator of the project were quite clear that the project wasn’t intended to ever be sold so I shouldn’t expect anything but what I could eat while I was there. The project was a sort of commercial for investors to consider a larger project of similar “tone”. With any luck I made a good enough impression that I can audition for a small role in the feature if it gets picked up.
Now those all important “Credits” can be earned by Union members without declaring Fi-Core and without having to land those paid spots that are so hard to get. As part of these unpaid Union jobs, you also get practice, camera time, and direction that is better than most acting classes without having to pay for it.
Since the Producers signed a SAG-AFTRA short film agreement, I knew the ground rules walking in. I didn’t have to worry about a bathroom, or having water or a chair, or that my photo would be plastered all over the internet promoting male enhancement products or dating sites. Non-Union projects don’t have any of these protections. Even though there are some good non-union projects, there are more horror stories on non-union projects than I have time to type.
The second reason I have heard an actor use after declaring Fi-Core is to get paid. Acting is a very tough business, and paid gigs that can help pay the rent are tough to land. Having a “day job” makes it very hard to make auditions. I have missed out on some good auditions and a couple of good gigs because my other work got in the way. I am very fortunate that I don’t need to live on my acting income, but I still feel the pain of missing an opportunity.
SAG-AFTRA has yet to address this, and here is where I think there is room for improvement.
Every TV Show, Movie and Commercial that signs a contract with the Union has a fixed minimum number of Union Actors. When a scene calls for more people, the producers can then use lower cost “non-union” background, as long as they follow the minimum rules of safety, sanitation and just plain treating people decently as outlined in the SAG-AFTRA contract.
The problem is SAG-AFTRA members are technically prohibited from working on these jobs, meaning that some actors have a choice to make, get a day job, skip the rent, or cross the line. Sadly, many do work non-union hoping not to get caught.
The pro Fi-Core group might be right that it is better to be Fi-Core than it is to be caught and kicked out of the Actors Union. The good news is the Union hasn’t been booting first time offenders on background jobs as far as I know, and there is always audience work.
The first part of the answer is simple. Union members should be allowed work on any union job even in a position that isn’t required to be union. That will help a few. If a person in a Union position can’t make it, then the next union member in line can be “Bumped Up” to insure the minimum numbers are met. Why they don’t do that is anyones guess.
Since non-union commercials can pay quite well, and a good agent can get the individual actor most of the provisions of the Union contract, a few Actors will declare Fi-Core so they don’t miss out on this opportunity. A better actor would land the job and get the producers to sign a SAG-AFTRA contract. Yes, I apply for and audition for non-union commercials. When they call for a call-back, I ask if the will consider making it a SAG-AFTRA commercial.
At the end of the day, there is a third reason for declaring Fi-Core, and that is that you don’t want your dues money supporting any political cause. Spoiler Alert, yes, SAG-AFTRA has a political agenda just like every other Union does.
For anyone considering Fi-Core, consider the worst non-union work you did, and imagine if that is all you could get because everyone declared Fi-Core and the studios simply let the Union die. Is that really the acting life you want to live? If it is, then why did you join in the first place? You don’t have to be a Union Member to be an actor or get in the movies or on TV.
Keep in mind that most directors are also members of a union too. A few pay attention to their actors status.
Put the greater good of all actors ahead of yourself, and you will enjoy better benefits and become a better actor.
Even though I didn’t get paid for my work over the weekend, the quality of the other actors, the crew, directors and producers was head and shoulders above the non-union sets I worked on before I earned my way into the Union. It is a way better system for earning credits, and I still have the opportunity to get paid if the project sells.
I haven’t yet been offered a role on a Non-Union project that I took, or was able to turn into a Union project so I could take it, and I am not giving up on that challenge because I am not giving up my duty as an actor to the greater good of all actors.
As a country, working together makes it a better place for everyone, as an actor, working together creates better work for everyone. I’m just saying……