What You Need to Know about the Screen Actors Guild

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Is stepping up the ladder in the entertainment industry synonymous to joining SAG-AFTRA?

The Screen Actors Guild has merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to create SAG-AFTRA three years ago and it is an American labor union aiming to represent film and TV performers everywhere. Its mission statement includes negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements to form equity in regards to compensations, working conditions and benefits. SAG also collects compensation for performance exploitation and protects against authorized use. Last, but not least, the union preserves and expands work opportunities to those affiliated with the organization. Some talent agents only work with SAG-AFTRA performers for both leading and background roles. Getting inside the guild is not the easiest process an actor has to go through among his or her career, but it’s probably worthwhile.

Logo of the Screen Actors Guild Awards
Logo of the Screen Actors Guild Awards

What Was Going On Before SAG?

At the beginning of the past century, actors in Hollywood were exploited in manners almost unthinkable today, since we now see the entertainment industry positioning the performing and creative professions at the top of the ideal job hierarchy. Actors were forced into oppressive long term contracts with major film studios, ignoring decent work hours or rest periods. These sound like gruesome stories, but they are just some tens of years away. Some contracts were automatically renewed according to the studio’s decision and the agreements could also dictate the public and private lives of the actors who signed them. Back then, performers could barely end a deal if they decided they no longer want to pursue a contract. The mechanism of the guild was created to defend the professional rights of performers and to also establish equity among artists.

Where Is SAG Based?

Hollywood is the home address of the SAG-AFTRA main offices, but local branches are present in many cities along the US, like Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Philadelphia, NYC, San Francisco or Miami.

What Does SAG-AFTRA Do Today?

The SAG membership card offers a bunch of benefits to various types of performers. Among other advantages for actors, the guild offers every year an indicator of success at the Academy Awards, consisting in the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Most actors stepping on the red carpet as winners or nominees are members of the guild anyway. Their efforts, centred most frequently around film sets in Los Angeles, but also in many theaters, are backed by certain benefits. Some of the members can even get involved into the award voting process.

Performers who are part of the Guild only work for producers signed with SAG as well, which is sometimes the case of agents or talent agencies too. In order to have some responsibilities spelled out, like the work load evaluated in number of hours of performing, the frequency of meal breaks, minimum wages, scales for compensations, overtime pay, stunt pay, travel conditions and accommodations and many others, performers work with SAG producers only.

The benefit plan of SAG-AFTRA involves a health plan, medical insurance, dental and vision coverage and also life and disability coverage. The union also secured residuals payments for broadcast to its members.

Once a SAG-AFTRA member, a performer is eligible to benefit from the Actors Fund, which is a national nonprofit human service organization dedicated to support entertainment professionals with sideline work, affordable housing, emergency grants, health insurance or social services. Belonging to this organization is a certainty that performers have a sort of backup, the same way an employee gets from his employer and from the state.


Amy Adams at the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, January 2014.
Amy Adams at the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, January 2014.

Less Known Advantages from SAG-AFTRA

  • If you’re an actor interested in workshops taught by industry professionals where you want your skills assessed and enhanced, you can join the SAG-AFTRA Conservatory and also partake to casting workshops to improve your cold reading and scene showcases.
  • You can join iActor if you want to test a free members-only casting directory, which is an online based platform.
  • Even if you’re a member and are approached for a non-union project like low budget productions or student films, SAG-AFTRA has a type of contract to cover this situation.
  • The guild offers support to young performers too, by organizing orientation meetings, offering an online database of laws pertaining to young performers and plenty more resources.

The SAG Foundation

Guild members can enter the Casting Access Project in LA, NYC and Florida and find opportunities through educational panels to meet casting directors and do cold reading workshops. That’s for free!

The Foundation’s Life Raft program organizes seminars to help educate actors on everything from taxes to own project development, set etiquette and parenting young performers.


This is the difficult part. New members need an invitation and once selected, they have to pay to join. From that point on, an actor has to book enough “inside” work in order to remain in good standing with the union. Usually, indie actors tend to avoid joining the union because they consider it rather a complication. Some producers indicated that most of the SAG-AFTRA artists are actors no one has ever even heard of, so it’s an interesting standing point that raises plenty of questions: is joining the guild worth it? Is it going to upgrade the career of a developing actor? Is it only a mechanism dedicated to famous sought after actors? Does the membership to SAG influence the attitude of the actors? Did the perspective of non-union members change among the years?

Non-union was held for non-professionals some time ago, but with the developing of the independent film scene, some actors prefer to keep away and that doesn’t mean their contracts are like the ones before 1933 when SAG was formed. Some would simply rather not make their lives any more complicated – but that is acceptable only for some producers, agents and casting directors.

Joining the guild is a major step in any actor’s life, especially symbolically and professionally. Without any guarantee for the future or evolution of the performer, SAG-AFTRA probably provides an essential feeling: safety. In your journey to join the guild, you should consider taking the easier steps first and securing an audition (for example, through using the Actors Access site).

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