Merger Advice

Listen. Everyone is talking about the merger. SAG and AFTRA are working together to create this new mega union (I really wish they would call it The Mega Union; has a certain ring to it, no?) and this week’s article will not be an overview of what to expect, as I think you should keep tabs on official sources of information for those details.

This week’s column is all about the one piece of advice that I’m giving now, which is the exact opposite of the advice I’ve given my whole advice-for-actors life: Get thee to AFTRA and plunk down your membership dollars, stat.

Now, I know, this is totally irresponsible advice when you measure it against the brilliant (if I do say so myself) advice I doled out in “Premature Moves.” Hey, if not for the pending merger, I’d stick by my guns and say that joining the union needs to be that thing you do when you’ve reached the very top tier of paid nonunion work, when you have a hearty demo reel filled with professional work, when you’ve built relationships with folks whose next tier jumps will take them into the land of union productions and they’ll be taking you with them if you’ve joined the union by then. I’m a huge fan of seeing actors do as much paid nonunion work as possible, earning their SAG eligibility, and then holding that status ’til they MUST join the unions, because they’re finally at that tier, and the work is right in front of them, at the union level.

Because joining the union too soon cuts OFF the flow of work, and until you’re ready for that — meaning, you can go in and compete with folks at the highest level of this profession and you have relationships that can even get you into the right rooms — locking yourself OUT of paid nonunion, relationship-building, demo-reel-packing work is a bad idea.

Until today.

What I’m now telling actors is — if you see yourself being a union member within the next year to 18 months — join AFTRA today. Be a part of this new mega union. Heck, I’m on honorable withdrawal (a status granted to those who wish to retain union membership but who have no intention of actively pursuing a career in acting for a time) and I’m re-upping just so I can be a part of this new mega union. It’s a historic moment for our industry! I’m thrilled to get to be a part of it. But for those who are not yet a member of either SAG or AFTRA, choosing to wait to join could make joining a very expensive predicament. Also, we’re not exactly sure what the eligibility standards are going to look like in this new union just yet. Will actors be able to get in doing background or stand-in work? Will actors be able to get in via self-produced new media projects? Will actors be able to just walk in and plunk down the (much higher) initiation fee? What will it take to qualify to be a union actor in 2013 and beyond?

We don’t know yet. So, for actors who are sure they will be “joining the big leagues” within a year or so anyway, why wait for what we don’t know (and a pricier buy-in)?

The important thing to note, here, is that I still believe this to be a form of a premature move! It’s just one that’s less risky than NOT joining right now, in my opinion.

Look, actors who join the union almost always report a major slowdown for about 18 months after joining. Their auditions have been flowing, they’ve been the “best nonunion actor” their professional contacts are used to using, and that means there’s a load of work compared to what they’re going to experience the second they join the union. Again, part of the reason I’ve always said to get eligible and then wait ’til the absolute last moment to join the union is that it’s TOUGH to lose that momentum, and it almost always happens. While the period of time in the slowdown could be shorter than 18 months, there will be a slowdown!

It’s the same as changing gears while riding a bike. You feel like you’re flying in first gear, then you shift to a higher gear. Your legs now have to push harder, it seems, and you’re not whizzing through at a fast pedaling pace. BUT you are — once you get used to this “new normal” pedaling pace — going to fly even faster and with less effort. Just not right away.

Because there will be a slowdown when you join the union, I always recommend using that time (while you’re working to build relationships at this new, higher tier) to self-produce, create your own work, invest in relationships, build up your show bible, research, network, and build your brand.

It’s important to understand that there are people who rep and who cast and who direct actors at the top of their nonunion game, and then there are people who rep and who cast and who direct actors at the top of their union game. Generally, THOSE ARE NOT THE SAME PEOPLE.

There are some people — like yours truly — who cast nonunion actors at the top of their game and union actors just starting out or midway through their game (and less frequently, union actors at the top of their game, i.e. name actors or “the big guys” we’d all like to emulate, credits-wise). Once you join the union, your job is to begin transitioning out of relationships with those who will only ever rep or cast or direct top nonunion actors while building connections with folks who do what I do (bridge the gap between nonunion and union projects and people) while building your show bible up on the people who go from my end-point (those union projects at the micro-budget level) on up into the higher-profile union projects.

It’s a new set of people, with a few exceptions. You already have momentum because of having built up your reputation as “the best nonunion actor” these folks know. But know, when you join the union, you will feel like you’re starting over. OR, if you’ve been starting to build relationships not JUST with the nonunion folks but also those few who bridge the gap (who work on top nonunion and entry-level union projects), you slide your energy over to nurture those relationships more (but you will still have a drop-off because it’s now a smaller subsection of the work that’s being produced at any given time within your immediate reach), and you START trying to build webs of trust with those at the very first tier of the union projects.

The problem is (two problems, usually), that you may be focused on higher-tier union projects than you can actually get into, right away and you’ve possibly been networking exclusively with folks at the highest nonunion tier and they have no interest in working on union stuff.

I remember when my husband Keith got calls from his heavy-hitter fans in the nonunion world after he joined SAG and he had to tell them NO when they called — with straight offers — and sit, doing NOTHING, instead of working. It was painful to watch. But what looked like doing “nothing” was actually a process of non-set, non-auditioning work that would lay the groundwork for the next tier. He was working on building up relationships with casting directors. Interning. Networking. Doing table reads and staged readings and plays that would get him in front of a new, union set of buyers who were scouting the big dogs in those projects. Going in on crappy (but union) student films that were being cast by casting associates in major TV offices while their shows were on hiatus. Expanding his fanbase into the union world.

There is a LOT to do while you’re in that downtime between the heyday of your nonunion status and the START of momentum coming back, at your new “pro” status (and “pro” doesn’t mean you’re not professional when you’re nonunion. You are professional because you’re professional, at your core. But the unions define professional workers as those who are being paid under union contracts). Going pro is like surrendering your amateur status to be a pro athlete. There’s much better money there… but you have to leave the Olympics. Good news: You’re leaving the Olympics for the Super Bowl.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I tweeted the other day about going by the Studio City Samuel French and seeing its picked-through stack of books and the for lease sign in the window. I thought the doors of the Valley branch of this entertainment industry bookstore had been well covered out there and certainly, we had been discussing this on Hollywood Happy Hour. But when that tweet went out, I was hit back with a flood of replies from people who hadn’t heard the news, so I decided to make sure I mentioned it in this week’s column.

Yes, the Studio City Samuel French will close its doors on February 20th. Stock is on ridiculously low-priced sale and what doesn’t sell out will be transferred over to the historic Sunset Blvd. store in Hollywood. Online shopping remains an option as well. Guys, go show some love to the Samuel French folks. Reflect on how it felt the first time you entered a bookstore devoted to NOTHING BUT INDUSTRY BOOKS and how amazing it felt to get to wander through, seeing shelves filled with volumes of love for your chosen profession, all in one place. I truly hope the Hollywood location will thrive and that we’ll all remember the value that physical books have in our lives, even as we enjoy the convenience of reading digital files on our gadgets.

Remember, folks, I wrote a weekly column for a publication that has begun “restructuring” under new ownership in recent weeks, but for eight years, my weekly columns have only been available online, here. Did the words have more value when they were in physical publications? Of course not. But there’s something so sublime about holding a magazine, a newspaper, a book. Let’s not forget that, even if our relationship with our media is already forever changed.


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/001462.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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