The Secret Language of Background Actor Upgrades

Background Actor Upgrades

Are you a background actor who improvised the funniest line in a movie, TV show or commercial? Congratulations, you’ve just given it away for free.

One of the most common questions we receive in our contracts department is whether a performer deserves an upgrade from background (or extra) to principal. Most of the time we have to tell the performer they are not entitled to one. But a little knowledge can go a long way, and if you understand what entitles you to an upgrade, you will be empowered to leverage one while you are on set.

Why are background actor upgrades so coveted? They give you a big bump in salary for the day, they may qualify you for residuals if your performance is exhibited and they get you additional health and pension plan contributions.

There are different rules for upgrades among our contracts, so read each section below carefully:

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Simply put, you must be directed to speak a specific, unscripted line of dialogue and you must be recorded. If you offer a line or improvise a line, you are giving it away for free. If a principal actor says “Thank you” and you reply “You’re welcome,” you are not entitled to an upgrade because you were not given the line. Also, if the director tells you to improvise or react, and you do so with a line of your own creation, you are not entitled to an upgrade. What should you do in these situations? Ask the director, “What do you want me to say?” Also important to note:

A silent “bit” is not an upgrade

Interacting with a principal actor is not an upgrade

Being heard as part of a group or crowd is not an upgrade

Being prominently featured in the shot is not an upgrade

The good news is that if you have a bona fide upgrade, it does not matter if your line makes the final cut. As long as you performed and it was recorded, you are entitled to an upgrade. You are paid for what you do, not for what is used.

You have three months from the day you worked to claim an upgrade. Not from when the film opens or the TV show airs, but from the day you worked. If you believe you deserve an upgrade, call the union as soon as possible. Even better, ask while you are on set. And always get the name of the person who directed you to speak the line. This makes a huge difference if we need to investigate your claim.

NETWORK CODE

There are some variations under the Network Code Agreement, which covers talk shows, game shows and variety shows like SNL. In Network Code, there is an “under-five [lines]” category, which is distinct from a principal performer category. If you receive more than minimal direction and portray a point essential to the story, you may be entitled to an “under-five” upgrade if you meet some additional criteria. Performers who speak no lines but who nevertheless portray a major part in the program may be upgraded to principal performer.

There is a one-year limit to file a claim under the Network Code, but again we encourage you to contact the union as soon as possible.

COMMERCIALS CONTRACT

For spoken lines, the same rules apply as in the other contracts, but there is an intermediate upgrade between extra and principal called a “session differential.” Session differentials apply if you are given a line on set but it does not make the final edit of the commercial. If you are given a line on set but do not see a bump in your extra rate payment, contact us immediately.

Additionally, you may be entitled to an upgrade even without speaking a line, if you meet all three of the following criteria: You are in the foreground, you are clearly identifiable and you are illustrating the commercial message. Determining these upgrades requires that we look at the final, edited commercial, so contact SAG-AFTRA as soon as you see your spot playing if you think you qualify. Factors such as camera placement and how much of your face is visible will affect your chances for an upgrade in commercials.

Remember, an informed member is an empowered member, so keep this for reference and don’t give away your best lines for free!

© 2017 SAG-AFTRA. Reprinted with Permission. First appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of SAG-AFTRA New York Newsletter.