Written By Shaan Sharma —
Every time you have ever auditioned for a union film or TV show under our main TV/Theatrical Contract you were owed a half-day’s pay if you didn’t book it. That’s every audition for a SAG-AFTRA TV show, studio feature, or high budget indie film.
Oh yeah, you read that right. It’s been in our contract since the very first one back in 1937. For those of you who know how our contract is laid out, it’s Schedule A 15(B) and Schedule B 19(B). Here’s a link to the PDF of the contract to look at the language now.
What does that mean? The current scale day rate is $1,082, so for every audition you have but where you didn’t book the job, you’re owed $541. Your agent gets a 10% commission on that ($54.10), and those earnings also help you qualify for health insurance and retirement income.
Imagine qualifying for health insurance off your unbooked auditions alone. All you’d need is 48 TV/Theatrical auditions a year to qualify, or 4 TV/Theatrical auditions a month.
In 2021, over 400 films and over 500 TV shows were produced. Employers are auditioning dozens, sometimes hundreds, of performers via in-person, live-remote, and self-tape for every role. If our contract was actually followed by our employers, this amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars of additional earnings in performers’ pockets every single year, including all the nonunion performers who audition for a union project.
So why didn’t you know about this and what are we going to do about it?
First, why you didn’t know about it:
LACK OF MEMBER EDUCATION AND PROPER ONBOARDING WHEN YOU JOIN
SAG, AFTRA, and the merged union SAG-AFTRA have never had high-quality orientations, nor have they been mandatory, nor have they been standardized across the country, nor have they all been vetted by union staff, so you’re getting different information, and sometimes misinformation, based on where you are and who’s doing it.
As a result, most members have never learned how our union works or read our contracts. Have you, or do you personally know anyone who has, read the entire 814-page Theatrical Codified Basic Agreement (CBA) or the 396-page Television Agreement (TVA)? Probably not.
According to Wikipedia: The “bystander effect” states that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are other people present. We all assumed someone else MUST have read these contracts, right? Or at least our union staff?
But no. I’ve found that is not true. Even some members on the negotiating committee that negotiate these contracts have not read them. Some top union staff have not read them. Everyone was just assuming someone else was on it, but no one was on it.
Until recently. Enter my friend Charlie Bodin, who built this incredible Google spreadsheet where he’s input every version of our contract going back to 1937 and compared each version clause by clause so you can see how it has evolved over time. He’s the one who discovered this pay for auditions language, among many other things, that are not being followed by our employers, our members, or our staff.
So to recap: you didn’t know that you were supposed to be paid for your auditions because either no one properly onboarded you into our union, or told you that you needed to read your contract, or why it’s so important, or made it easy to read, or all the above.
All those members who paid all this money to join the union but now wonder what the union is and what they’re getting for their money? Yeah, you were never taught what you needed to know to understand just how powerful we are right in this moment if we know what we have and use it.
FEAR OF RETALIATION
A separate issue that you're probably aware of is when we are at an audition for a union job, we are owed money if the audition keeps us waiting over an hour from your appointment time. In order to get that pay, we have sign-ins sheets where we should be signing in and out so that casting and the union can see that you were kept for over an hour and are therefore owed money.
But almost no one does. Why?
Because of fear of retaliation. No one wants to sign in and out because they’re afraid the casting director or employer will not call them in again.
In the early days of the Screen Actors Guild, there was what was known as the studio “star system” where performers were employed under contract with specific film studios, who would pay them a salary, train them, and put them in their movies. Those performers were not entitled to pay for their auditions because they were already under contract and getting a weekly salary.
Over time, the stars began to fight back against the studios until it was gone by the 1970s. At that point, almost all performers became independent performers, and would have to individually ask for that pay for their auditions after the audition and the role went to someone else. But if they did know the contract and were entitled to pay for their auditions, they were too afraid to file claims for it.
And so, my entire life, I just thought that’s the way things worked. You only get paid if you book the job. The idea that my audition itself had value regardless of whether I booked the job never occurred to me, but it always has, since the founding of our union.
So, what are we going to do about it?
MAKE SURE OUR MEMBERS UNDERSTAND OUR UNION AND CONTRACTS
The first step is educating our 170,000+ members about the union and what’s in our contracts, which include many awesome protections that you probably didn’t know about. For example:
CASTING - Section 47(C)
requires every Casting Director (not Associate or Assistant) to attend jointly sponsored showcases put on by SAG-AFTRA and the Casting Society of America (CSA) or spend a comparable amount of time conducting general interviews; meeting with our members to get to know them. Thousands of our members should be meeting with working Casting Directors for free every single month if our employers followed the terms of our contract.
PREFERENCE OF EMPLOYMENT - Section 14
requires employers to look for and hire suitable “qualified professional performers” within a 50-300 mile range (depending on the city) of their production before they can go outside it looking for and hiring others, or be penalized $500-800 per violation.
These contract provisions exist to make sure that union members are regularly given access to working casting directors and are given preference of employment when it comes to union jobs that are in their area. How cool is that? Did you know either of those things? Now you do.
AUTOMATE PAY FOR AUDITIONS SO MEMBERS DON’T HAVE TO ASK FOR IT
In the pre-COVID days, when we auditioned in person we had sign-in sheets. It would have been really easy to just send that sign in sheet to the union and pay everyone who didn’t book the role automatically after it had been cast. Now everything is done using the for-profit online casting platforms like Breakdown Services/Actors Access and Talent System’s CastingNetworks, CastingFrontier, etc.
Casting Directors put out breakdowns, receive submissions from talent and their representatives, choose who to invite to audition, and track who actually made the audition or sent in a self tape. As long as SAG-AFTRA gets that data, we can automate the process of paying everyone who auditioned who didn’t book the role.
We need the online casting services to provide that data to us and we need our employers to automatically pay their contractual obligations to us, just like they do with our employment pay and residuals.
CREATE AND USE OUR OWN, FREE ONLINE CASTING PLATFORM
It was a serious failure of leadership for SAG, AFTRA, and SAG-AFTRA to allow third-party, for-profit companies to charge our members for access to our own union work. It costs our union and nonunion performer community hundreds of millions of dollars every year, completely unnecessarily. And now many of these platforms are owned by wall street investment firms who are going to squeeze us for as much profit as possible.
SAG-AFTRA’s 2021 Convention Delegation voted to approve my resolution to develop our own free, online casting platform, but the national board still has to approve it too. The earliest I can imagine having something developed and ready to go is sometime in 2024, and that’s being optimistic, but, God-willing, it is coming to the rescue, eventually. Then we’ll have complete control over our data, be able to better enforce our contracts, and ensure the casting and employment process is being done properly, all while saving our members hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
TAKEAWAY - LIFE SHOULD BE SO MUCH BETTER
Our lives as performers should be so much better than they currently are. We just didn’t know what we were entitled to; what has already been fought for and achieved by those who came before us. It’s our fault for not doing our due diligence, but it’s really more our union’s fault for not having a proper onboarding process that values high quality member education about what it means to be a union and how everything works.
That is all changing thanks to the hard work of so many, including myself, to reform our onboarding and orientation process here in Los Angeles, study every aspect of our union, and create educational resources to help get everyone up to speed and on board, like this Union Literacy Guide that I spent the last six months of 2020 making while isolated in my apartment. Read through this and use it as a reference manual for all things SAG-AFTRA. And get it to people who aren’t SAG-AFTRA members yet so they know what they’re getting into before they join.
Only then can we truly realize our power and potential as artists. Never forget that when the whole world fell apart, everyone turned to our art. What we do is in more demand than ever, which means we should feel our value more than ever.
So let’s make it happen.
Love, and In Solidarity,
SAG-AFTRA LA Local Board Member & National Board Alternate 2017-Present
Co-Chair, LA Conservatory Committee
Chair, LA Member Orientations Subcommittee
Chair, LA Table Reads Subcommittee
Co-Founder, SOLIDARITY.us, a grassroots SAG-AFTRA education group Founder, The Storytellers Conservatory, an LA-based on-camera acting studio Working Actor/Series Regular - Currently appearing as Shmuel on the hit show “The Chosen” Former top Casting Session Director, worked with over 45 Casting Directors on 400+ projects.