Saturday, August 4, 2007

There are always (at least) two sides to every story; The Non-Union issue, Part 2

I received a lot of correspondence in response to my last Blog regarding the downside of non-union work. Many of those who wrote pointed out that in several places in The Business of Acting book, I talk about the value of being a non-union actor. I was asked point blank, by Michael, a young actor in Manhattan, “Aren’t you being hypercritical?”

Fair question, Michael.

Let me clarify my position.

An actor must first and foremost by a smart, responsible businessperson; an actor must also always be pro-active in the pursuit, growth and maintenance of their career. To do this right, the bigger picture is always the key factor.

I have seen terrific work by non-union (and even some union actors) in non-union productions. But I have also heard first-hand stories of real non-union nightmares: actors having trouble getting the money for their work; long hours, unprofessional crews; other actors who are unprofessional.

In fact, a client of mine just the other day called to tell me that she submitted herself on a non-union film project through – and she got called in to audition.

An actor is the CEO of their business; managers and agents work for actors. It’s not the other way around, as many ego-challenged talent representatives would like to believe. As managers, we are charged with keeping a clear, strategic overview of the client’s career and offering advice and counsel on career matters.

My client asked me if I thought she should go on the audition. I responded, “What do you want to do?” She replied, “I’d like to see what it’s all about – and any opportunity to audition was even better than a class learning how to prepare for one.” Good point.

So, she went, being given the assignment of reporting back when she was done.

The next afternoon, an urgent e-mail arrived from this client. “I would never work for these people!” She continued, “They were so unprofessional at the audition, I can’t imagine what they would be like on a set.”

It’s all a learning process.

Just because a project is listed on a legitimate self-submission casting service doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t perform due diligence every step of the way.

About a year ago, a young man contacted me about an audition experience he had for a non-union project that he self-submitted on through Back Stage West.

He arrived at the designated appointment location (the back booth of a Chinese restaurant in a seedy part of town) where he met three men and a woman. The woman was supposedly the “casting director” he had sent his head shot to. She looked him up and down, then whispered something to the three men. They whispered something back to her and then she turned to this young actor and said, “We don’t need to audition you. You have the right look. We’d like you to star in all three films we have planned.”

She then handed him a paper and said, “Here’s our contract. Sign it now.”

Being a smart actor, the young man said, “I’d like to read it first. Can I take it home with me and send it back to you tomorrow?” “Absolutely not,” he was told. “Either sign it now or come back tomorrow and sign it in person, but we can’t give you an unsigned copy to take with you.”

The actor, fortunately, didn’t sign anything. He told them that he would think about it and call them. Instead, he thought about it and called me.

We had a long talk about this.

The casting ad in Back Stage West seemed legitimate enough. Were these people casting for something more “provocative” than what their ad stated? Who knows. The point is that is must always be “actor beware.”

As in my client’s audition the other day, if you find yourself in any situation that doesn’t feel right, leave – and never, ever sign any document that you haven’t first taken the time to read and understand thoroughly. Then have someone else you trust read it, too, if you can.

I was concerned about the other actors who saw and responded to the Back Stage West ad, so I called my friends at the paper to discuss the situation.

I like the west coast based-Back Stage West and their sister publication in New York Back Stage. They have both long been respected sources of news and information for actors – and they remain so. I have done a lot of business with them over the years.

I was pleased to learn that there is a system in place to weed out fraudulent casting ads. A part of this system is rooted in reports directly from actors who have answered ads in the paper and later found out (at an audition or on a job) that the ad wasn’t truthful or was anout-and-out lie.

A report was filed on this so-called casting director and the so-called production company. An investigation was launched that uncovered that every actor who answered this ad and got an audition (and most did) was never actually auditioned, but was nonetheless offered a starring role with a three-picture deal.

This company and these people have been barred from ever placing an ad in Back Stage West. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t seek (and find) other avenues to get to actors who are simply looking to work.

The young actor was smart enough to never get back to these people – and he learned an important lesson in the process: The opportunity to work is not a good enough reason to do any job. It has to be a safe, comfortable environment in which to work.

Union productions have many safeguards built into them because, as union productions, they have agreed to abide by certain standards and conditions that the union requires of them. This is not the case with non-union productions.

However, many non-union sets are just as safe and just as professional as union sets. But many are not. It’s similar to the bad manager scenario.

Since managers remain unregulated, there isn’t a code of ethics or set of standards we are (legally) obliged to adhere to. As a result, in an environment where anyone can call themselves a manager (and many who are unethical and unqualified do so), it’s not uncommon to hear a story of the evil manager who ran away with the client’s money or the manager who took advantage of the desperate actor by charging a ridiculously high commission.

There are others.

But, suffice it to say that when a story about unscrupulous managers gets out, it’s a quick and easy jump for a lot of people to think that all managers are like this, which, of course, is not the case.

The same is true in the world of non-union work. There are the horror stories, but there are also the glory stories. Learning how to size up any situation you are faced with and then taking the time to make a smart decision on how to proceed is the mark of the empowered actor.

I am a firm believer that a new-to-the-business actor should not rush getting into the union. Building your resume is the ticket to securing great representation because your resume clearly states what kind of actor you are and what your potential in the future is.

For a non-union actor, the only way (generally speaking) to begin this process is by working in non-union and student productions. As my friend talent agent Marc Chancer says, “Nobody is born with a SAG card.” So, go out and earn it by first doing the work to get the experience that will be required to make this happen.

The upshot of all of this is, as I discuss in chapter 7 in the book (“The Art of An Actor’s Resume and Bio”), when you list your credits on your resume, you never list whether the project you worked on was union or non-union, or even whether you were paid for it. Who cares? Certainly not an agent, manager or casting director who is assessing what you have already achieved on your way to working actor status.

In brief, always be a smart actor, always evaluate a potential opportunity as objectively as you can and make every business decision as if your career depends on it, because it does.

My thanks to all of you who shared your stories with me. Comments and questions are always welcome by posting through the Blog or by e-mail to


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