Last night at the monthly panel put on by Women in Film and Media Colorado, the question came up about whether or not to join SAG here in Colorado. It was a very large and diverse panel with a range of perspectives on the issue, and we were lucky to have SAG board member (and WIFMCO member) Shannon Dunn in attendance to offer even more guidance.
(Caveat: I am not an expert on this subject, nor a SAG member (I am currently a must-join). The following is based on my own understanding and is meant simply to help those considering their options to organize their own thoughts on the subject. Before making any decisions, actors should thoroughly research all the options for themselves.)
There are three options for those working in Colorado: turn down union jobs once you have reached must-join status, join SAG and don't work any non-union jobs, or go Fi-Core (Financial Core) and work both union and non-union jobs. Many actors in Colorado choose to go Fi-Core once they reach that point in their careers, which means that they are a "fee paying non-member". Productions are not allowed to discriminate against Fi-Core members, although these members are not allowed to claim SAG membership on their resumes. We also learned from Shannon last night that once you go Fi-Core, you will never be allowed to be a regular SAG member, even if you move to another market.
Ultimately, the union decision will depend on your goals as an actor. If your goal is to move to one of the larger markets, then a full SAG membership is the way to go. It is easier to start in a smaller market like Denver, where there is less competition from union members and a higher chance that you will be hired for a union job. Once you have SAG eligibility, all you have to do is pay the difference in initiation fees in order to be a SAG member in LA or any of the other markets. Also, if you plan to keep living here but work on bigger projects all over the country, and you want to proudly claim your SAG membership in those larger markets, being a full SAG member is again what you want.
What if you don't plan to move and can't fly all over the country chasing acting roles? Then your best move still depends on what kind of work you want to do here in Denver. In addition to not taking non-union film roles, SAG also expects you to honor their sister unions' rules as well--which means they don't want you to do non-union theatre or voice-over work either. There are equity houses in Denver, in fact we have some of the best regional theatre in the country, but there are still relatively few roles compared to the number of actors out there. Also, consider the kind of work you want to do. If you're happy with local and regional commercials, student films, short films, non-paying or low-paying microbudget features and community theatre, then stay non-union or go Fi-Core. As much as the union has helped improve conditions for actors, it really isn't going to help you out at that level.
However, what might be the reasons for an actor who works mainly in Denver to become a full union member? If you don't need to take just any acting work you can get to make a buck, and you don't really enjoy the local commercials and low-budget films, and especially if you can get yourself into regular roles at the DCPA or Arvada Center, it might be worth it to stay full union. If you can get yourself down to Albequerque on a fairly regular basis where they have quite a bit of union TV and film work, and you're really only interested in the bigger projects that come through Denver, then that option might work for you. You will be doing a level of work that is more prestigious and generally speaking, more rewarding for the experienced actor. You will most likely work less, but as your SAG rep will gladly remind you, you will be working less time for more money.
And Denver's market is really picking up. We still don't compare to New Mexico, and certainly not Louisiana and Georgia, but some good work is coming through here. We had both out-of-state and local productions under SAG contracts this year (one of them was a film I co-wrote, Gnaw, which should be premiering soon!).
So, do your homework and make an informed decision that aligns with your ultimate goals. And remember, you can always go from being a full SAG member to Fi-Core, but not the other way around. So keep that in mind in considering your options.