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What is the Screen Actors Guild?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 23, 2024

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is a labor union for movie and television actors in the United States. Like other labor unions, the Screen Actors Guild works to protect its members, while also promoting the general welfare of the industry it protects. It should come as no surprise to learn that the SAG is headquartered in Hollywood, the home of America's movie industry, although numerous branch offices can be found all over the country.

This labor union was established in 1933 in response to the growing clout of movie studios in Hollywood. Actors were often forced to sign contracts which were extremely exploitative, and many felt that they were working too hard and not earning enough for their work. By organizing as a labor union, Hollywood stars hoped to protect themselves and to make the industry better for everyone. Today, the SAG is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, and it works with a number of other Hollywood labor unions such as the Writers Guild of America, West.

The mission of SAG is multifaceted. One of the most important tasks of the union involves negotiating contracts which cover things like benefits, working hours, rates of compensation, and so forth. SAG also negotiates on behalf of its members for residuals. The union also promotes work opportunities for its members, and helps members access a variety of health benefits. Since 1995, the Screen Actors Guild Awards have also been a major part of the cultural scene in Hollywood, often suggesting which films will perform well at the prestigious Oscars.

SAG members also get some special protections through their union. The SAG vigorously enforces copyright violations, protecting performers from unauthorized use of their recorded works, and ensuring that actors are not exploited. Unauthorized distribution impacts a variety of people in Hollywood, from actors to studios, and often the SAG works with other organizations to enforce copyright law.

Principal performers are considered “SAG-eligible” if they work for at least one day on a production which is run by a producer who has negotiated an agreement with the Screen Actors Guild. The SAG-eligible performer may work for up to one month on SAG-affiliated projects, enjoying umbrella protections from the union, before he or she is required to file for membership. Background performers are SAG-eligible after three days of work. Once an actor or actress joins the Screen Actors Guild, he or she cannot work on non-union projects.

WiseTour is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By JessicaLynn — On Oct 26, 2011

I heard something interesting about SAG the other day. All SAG members have to have a unique performer name. So if your name is Julia Roberts and you want to join SAG, you're out of luck! You have to pick something else.

I think this makes sense. It certainly would be confusing to have two actresses named Angelina Jolie both actively working on movies!

By Azuza — On Oct 25, 2011

@Monika - It sounds like your ex wasted his Dad's money on that SAG entry fee. He probably thought he had gotten his big break dancing in that movie.

However, I think SAG membership is beneficial if you're actually going to work as an actor. I know there are certain productions that only hire SAG members. And SAG membership guarantees you certain wages for being an extra, or doing voiceovers or whatever, like the article said.

By Monika — On Oct 24, 2011

One of my ex's is a SAG member. He was a dancing extra in a movie for a few days, and after that he decided he was going to make it big as an actor. (Let me give you a hint as to how that story ended: it didn't happen. Surprise!)

Anyway, after he was SAG eligible he decided to join. However, joining SAG costs money! I believe it was a thousand dollars or more. My ex didn't have the money at the time, so he got his parents to pay for it.

It was kind of a ridiculous expense for him-it cost more than he made in the movie to join SAG. And he only worked as an extra in a few more productions after that. I don't think he ever even made back his SAG entry fee!

By NathanG — On Oct 23, 2011

@nony - I’m not normally in favor of unions because I think the free market does a better job of creating a level playing field without union help.

However, in cases where an industry enjoys a certain amount of monopoly power, I can see the benefit of a union. I think we can safely say that Hollywood is for the most part a monopoly and I believe the Screen Actors Guild is a good organization to belong to if you are in the entertainment industry.

In addition to helping you get healthcare and stuff like that, they can also help you get access to the best banks.

You can join SAG AFTRA which is a federal credit union designed specifically for those in the entertainment business. You’ll probably get better deals from them than you would in a regular bank I would think.

By nony — On Oct 23, 2011

My daughter landed a part in a made for TV movie once, quite apart from an agent or the Screen Actors Guild.

She just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the film producers needed a child actor with a certain look. Shortly after she completed her assignment, however, we received a letter in the mail from the Screen Actors Guild.

I had never heard of it before. They were basically offering her the opportunity to join the guild, and were touting a lot of the benefits that the article cites, like negotiating the highest rates of pay and stuff like that.

We didn’t join it – I saw no reason, and she wasn’t doing movies on a regular basis. But I could certainly see how an organization like that could protect child actors, who are especially vulnerable to the unique stresses of film production and juggling schoolwork at the same time.

By lluviaporos — On Oct 22, 2011

I know there are all kinds of complications that the Screen Actors Guild has had to work out with the invention of the internet, and specifically, with the popularity of Youtube.

Like, for example, does a web series count as a production? If it does, it still needs to be considered a union project, in order for union members to work on it, which means meeting certain requirements which could be difficult for a tiny show to meet.

And how do they get residuals from shows and films downloaded from the internet? For a while, the studios were trying to block them from negotiating this, and that's one of the reasons the screenwriters have had strikes, along with the actors.

By KoiwiGal — On Oct 21, 2011

@irontoenail - Even after the SAG came into being, children were exploited in films.

It took a long time before they put all kinds of rules into place regarding what they could and could not do in terms of hours working, and stunts and so forth.

That's one reason they will usually try to get a set of identical twins to work on TV shows now. If they only used one child, they might easily break the rules about when they can act. By using twins, they can make sure one is resting or studying while the other works on set.

I imagine the Screen Actors Guild helped to bring about these kinds of changes in legislation which we just take for granted now.

By irontoenail — On Oct 21, 2011

I have read stories about how exploitative all the movie studios were before the guild came into being.

I remember reading about how quite a few of the child stars were given the equivalent of speed in order to help them keep up with the schedules they were meant to maintain. The studio would give the pills to their mothers and explain it was something that would make them less tired, and that it was good for them, and the mothers would give them to their children.

Whether or not the studios themselves actually knew how terrible this was, is debatable, but quite a few child stars from the 1920's ended up with drug addictions from this practice.

That's what I heard anyway, I'm not sure how true it is, but it sounds likely.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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