Two of the major acting unions – the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) are moving toward a merger, and it’s prompting much debate among those in the business over the benefits of union membership vs. non-union.
Payment for an actor’s time and talent is certainly one of those benefits, along with covering an actor’s costs – mileage, meals, drycleaning if you’re asked to provide a costume, and insurance in case you’re injured on the set. Payment can be scale or adjusted according to the size of the production, but actors typically get paid something when they’re union – and money is an obvious good thing.
To begin with, advertising paid roles turns out a larger and often better selection of actors, which makes it more likely that exactly the right fit will be found for each role being cast. Even with a multimillion-dollar budget, bad casting can ruin an otherwise good story.
A producer/director who is paying the cast - who has invested in the cast as part of his investment in the film - is going to make sure he gets his money's worth and will demand a lot from the performance. That works to the benefit of both the actor and the film. Actors want a director who's going to demand a lot from them, not one who feels he can’t because he isn’t paying them anything.
On the other side, an actor being paid knows he has to earn it, that there's a heightened level of professionalism involved. And that sense goes up with every assist that is provided to enable him or her to turn in a good performance - from professional lighting and makeup to dancing lessons and dialect coach. For the actor who's simply donating his time, talent, gas, costume, makeup, you name it, it's a far different mindset.
I’ve worked on films being produced by students at Columbia University and other respected film schools and was paid. And I think that one reason I was paid is that the instructors at those schools understand this concept, that the more money a filmmaker has invested in a project up front, and the more he or she understands that they are working in a business with required costs, the more effort they are going to put into making it a success. And actors want every film they are in to be a success.
Every new actor starts out working for a credit and, if film, a DVD. You often get bigger roles in small, low-budget productions and if the script shows originality and the production values are reasonably high, it can be worth the tradeoff.
But as quickly as possible - which is as soon as they think they're ready - actors need to move into paid roles and union membership. It pays off in the quality of your performance, the quality of the film, and the respect you get as a professional.