When you act in a commercial unionized under SAG -- or SAG-AFTRA after the 2012 mega merger -- you're still getting paid by the production company. However, it's the rules of the performers' union that determine the numbers on that paycheck. The merger actually made the deal better for commercial actresses, with perks including a one-time overall pay increase of 6 percent and more potential compensation for cable TV spots.
As a principal performer in a SAG-AFTRA commercial, a significant portion of pay comes from your session rate, or the money you get paid for actually performing in the spot. Because commercials range in type so widely -- from cable commercials to wild spots, or ads that aren't tied to a particular set of networks -- so, too, do the rates. At the low end, you get paid about $600 per session. At the high end, session pay can reach about $3,000, as of 2013 contract rates.
Residuals, also known as "use fees," make up the real meat of a commercial actress's paycheck. After the commercial is released, you get paid more based on how many times the spot airs, or for how long it airs. For cable spots, residuals depend on unit values, which are based on the number of cable subscribers likely to view the ad. Network spots work in cycles, netting you additional pay as the commercial continues to air over weeks. At the end of a cycle or once a certain number of audience units are reached, you receive additional payments. These payments may be as large as your initial session fee, or a fraction of that fee based on how long the commercial airs or its estimated viewership.
Session fees and residuals aren't the whole story. As a member of SAG-AFTRA, you can get paid about $40 an hour for first and second auditions that run over time, or about $78 per hour for a lengthy third audition. You can also earn more for ad libs, special performance abilities, mileage, performing in hazardous conditions, using your own vehicle or props in the spot, or collecting late pay damages. All told including session fees, residuals and additional pay, a single national commercial can net $25,000 or, in exceptional cases, even more.
Spanish-language commercials pay exactly the same session fees for principal performers as English-language spots. However, the residuals system favors payment cycles over “per-per-play” rules. SAG-AFTRA's New Media commercial rules, which cater to commercials used on the Internet, are a little more flexible in terms of payment. Under these rules, producers are able to bargain for an extended broadcasting period or even move the New Media commercial to broadcast or cable TV. These situations result in more money for the performer -- in the latter situation, the principal actress sees no less than 400 percent of her session fee for each year the commercial airs on television.
Dan Ketchum has been a professional writer since 2003, with work appearing online and offline in Word Riot, Bazooka Magazine, Anemone Sidecar, Trails and more. Dan's diverse professional background spans from costume design and screenwriting to mixology, manual labor and video game industry publicity.