Sir Laurence Olivier once said: “I am an actor. I am paid to act. Sometimes I am paid well.”
I clearly remember the first time I was paid to act. When I got that first check from Park Square in the early 90s – I didn’t want to cash it – I wanted to frame it! (But of course I needed the money, so to the bank it went.)
Once we are paid for our acting, we become, essentially, a small business. Whether you make a $25 stipend on stage, $250 for a voiceover or $2,500+ for a broadcast commercial, when that check arrives you have entered into the business side of your art. You are a small business with a product to sell: YOU.
How do we price our worth – our work, time, talent, experience and expertise? The decision to act for free or cheap – or to expect to be paid what we’re worth (however we may define that) becomes a dilemma: When should we be paid? How much? How little is too little? When is it okay to act for free? Who decides?
If you’re a member of one or more of the actors’ unions (Equity/SAG/AFTRA), your wages and working conditions are defined by contract, so the considerations here don’t apply to your union work. (Indeed, if there was enough union work to go around for all of us, I would be advocating that everyone join the union… but that’s a much larger, more controversial discussion for another time.)
If you’re a non-union actor who expects or hopes to be paid, you have to run your business and sometimes set your own rates. However, the wise businessperson learns about the market before investing significant time and money. Actors and other artists often go at business backwards. We work our craft, get training and plunge into the biz, determined -- often desperate -- to get work, thrilled when someone gives us a tiny monetary token of gratitude.
What a lot of newer actors fail to understand (seasoned actors, too), is that while we live in an hourly pay paradigm in our daily work life, the going rates in the acting world are largely based on a different paradigm: exposure. More seats in the theater, more exposure, higher pay. Local, single market radio spot, moderate exposure, moderate pay. Regional or national broadcast TV commercial, far greater exposure, far higher pay. While $25, $50 or $100 per hour might seem like great pay -- in some parts of the acting business this is insulting.
The proliferation of on-line audition sources further complicates our business decisions. It used to be that actors had few audition sources: the Equity hotline, The Star Tribune 550 section and our agents. Now I receive almost daily e-mails from theaters and various audition sources about work for stage, film, even commercial and print. Further, actors are finding work via Craig’s list (really!) and various on-line voice-over sites. How on earth are we to know which directors, producers and clients are legitimate? And how do we know if the pay they offer is respectable?
Money is tough for many artists to handle. I’m a terrible accountant. I often say I’m a lousy businessperson. I have a difficult time asking for money. I have a challenging relationship with numbers, particularly as they relate to finance. My brother majored in finance. I majored in theater (much to my family’s dismay). So, take any financial advice I offer here with a grain of salt. I can’t tell you what to do with your own small business, it’s yours to run as you see fit. Having made my living in the acting business in the Twin Cities for nearly 20 years, I simply offer some opinions and food for thought based on experience.
Three questions to ask yourself:
- What do I stand to gain personally by doing this particular project?
- What will the market bear? (In other words, how much money does the client or “employer” have? What can they reasonably afford?
- What is the value of my own acting work?
What do I stand to gain by doing this particular project?
I’m not talking money for this question, I’m talking life, satisfaction, joy. At “mid-life” (whatever the hell that is) I’m entering a phase where I’m hoping to cut out some of the noise of life and zero in on what I really want to do.
My current questions when I’m evaluating my involvement in anything:
- Will it bring me joy?
- Will it bring me health and energy?
- Will it significantly expand and enhance my learning, experience and creativity?
- Will it pay what I’m worth?
If the answer is no to all of the above, then I’m not doing it. Period. Committing to such a project would only bring resentment and frustration.
If the answer is yes to one or more, then the project warrants consideration.
I’m all for acting for the pure joy of it, for the challenge and for the amazing artists and friends with whom I’m privileged to work. Most of us work happily for no money, at least occasionally. I’ve asked several professional actors this question:
“When is it okay to work for free or cheap?”
- For non-profit organizations and fund-raisers.
- For low budget indie films and student films.
- For community and small theater when I love the people and the director, or it’s a role I’m dying to play.
- If it’s something I’ve never done before – a character completely unlike how I’m normally cast.
For charity, for joy, to learn, for the opportunity to do something you’ve never done before, working for little or no money may be a legitimate option.
What will the market bear?
Now let’s talk money…
Obviously, most theaters have tiny budgets. They can’t afford to pay more than a small stipend, if anything. You have to decide: continue auditioning for small stages for little or no pay or audition only at theaters that pay their actors a living wage. (In that case you’ll likely need to become an Equity member.) If you’re learning, by all means act wherever they’ll cast you! Once you gain experience and training, what pay you expect for your stage work is up to you. It will simply dictate where you audition – and where you don’t.
Student and indie films rarely have a budget. Of course, if you want to work in film in Minnesota, you almost always work for free or cheap. Again, it’s a personal choice. When you’re learning to act for the camera, student films may be a great option. (And believe me, while stage acting and film acting are of the same genus, they are entirely different species!) The student filmmakers are honing their craft just as you are. Keep in mind that as these student filmmakers learn they may be struggling with efficiency, schedules, scriptwriting, etc. When you commit, you commit to full participation in their learning curve. You never know what you’re going to get. A shoot takes as long as it takes, sometimes well over 10-15 hours. Some directors are organized and try to be very respectful of your time. Some are scattered and underprepared. Once you commit, brace yourself.
(Often, film projects offer no pay, but they do offer lunch and a copy of your work. Some small budget filmmakers don’t follow through with sending a copy of the finished product to actors. Be persistent with these filmmakers – if a copy of your work is your only compensation, demand it!)
In the world of commercial and corporate work, the question becomes a lot more complicated. Given the economy, of course companies are cutting costs wherever possible. This is where the question, “what will the market bear?” really comes into play.
Let me be blunt. When a successful, major national retailer advertises for actors and they offer a $50 gift card as pay, this is insulting. They have the budget to pay actors, they hire us all the time. Know that if you accept this, you’re not being hired as an actor, you’re just a body.
When a local company wants you to do a voiceover for their Internet advertising and they offer you $25 per hour, know that you’re undercutting the going rate by 80-90% at least! The more actors work for free or cheap – the more producers, directors and clients will expect us to work for free or cheap.
If you want to be a professional actor, if you’re going enter the business end of the biz, know something about it. A wise businessperson knows how their competition prices their services. Know what the going local rates are, at least ballpark figures. Ask your agent to share a rate sheet, or at least some of the typical figures. If you don’t yet have agency representation, page 108 of The Acting Biz (my book -- shameless plug) lists some basic categories and the average rates for both union and non-union work here in the Twin Cities.
I know, I know, it’s hard to refuse a project that pays too little: “But it pays! I need the money! I’ll do it!” I get it. If that small check is going to significantly help you make your rent, your mortgage or feed your family this month, then I can’t tell you to refuse it. Is that $25, $50, $100 going to further your career? Probably not. If you’re a beginner, you might want to take it for the learning experience. If you call yourself a pro, think twice.
Another way to look at it…
When a Walmart opens in a new town, people flock to the cheap prices, for better or worse. Local businesses suffer and even go out of business. When actors are willing to work for bargain prices, it can have a similar effect. Prices are driven down, and the acting community suffers as a result.
Walmart is successful, there’s no arguing that point. Prices are good, quality can be questionable. As an actor, be a Walmart if you’d like. You might get bargain work here and there but the more you do, the more clients expect it. And the more you’ll be known as the bargain talent. It’s up to you to define yourself, bargain or quality.
What are you worth? When you’re new and inexperienced, of course you may need to accept lower paid or free work in order to gain experience. But once you have a little training and experience, you need to give this question some thought. Are you a garage sale item, sold at absolute rock bottom prices? Are you a Walmart generic brand? Are you a quality product that commands a respectable price with no deep discounts? Or are you a boutique, specialty item sold at higher than market prices? Give some serious thought to what kind of product you want to be. If you accept any small price for any kind of project, it’ll become difficult to demand more.
Let’s look at it another way. If your accountant charges you $250 to do your taxes, would you ever think to say: “Hey, would you do my taxes this year for this $100 gift card?”
If you’re getting bids from a plumber, would you say, “I know the going rate for your work is $75 per hour – but I can only afford $25. Would that be okay?”
Really? Why is it okay for businesses to offer actors bargain rates? (Because there are those who will accept those rates.)
What complicates the issue is that there are so many actors seeking work, the laws of supply and demand sometimes drive down the value. We actors can become so focused on the sheer numbers of our “competition,” that we’re willing to accept anything or nothing, just to get a piece of the action.
Desperation isn’t a good feature of a business plan.
A little pep talk for actors: Our art, expertise, training, experience, talent and hard work have significant value to society.
- When you bring your talent, experience and training to the stage or film, audiences willingly pay see you act. That has significant value.
- When you bring your talent, experience and training to a commercial project to help a client sell product, your image and talent bring credibility to their message and an increase in sales. That has significant value.
- When you bring your talent to an industrial/corporate training program to communicate a client’s message, your talent brings credibility and clarity. That has significant value.
Our acting talent and training have value. Don’t sell yourself short!
You’ve invested time, energy and money into your training, your art, your craft. Educate yourself. Respect your fellow actors. Claim your value in the business.
Beth Chaplin, Actor/Author of The Acting Biz: A Career Guide to the Twin Cities. ActingTwinCities.com
(Available at Play by Play Theater Bookstore, Borders, Amazon, your local library and through the website.)