Why Producers Should Pay Their Actors (And Why Actors Shouldn’t Always Expect To Be Paid)

Why Producers Should Pay Their Actors

If there’s one thing everyone in the world has in common it’s money.

Not that we all have it, but rather that we all need it. Whether you’re a single mother of two working three jobs or you’re an overextended faux-billionaire looking for foreign help to get out from under the debt incurred as a result of a lifetime of bad investments you made with inherited money, we all in one form or another need money. Even actors. 

Which is just wacky, isn’t it? It’s funny how surprising it is for some people in this modern world to learn that actors, musicians, writers and artists need money to pay rent and, I don’t know, eat food from time to time – just like all those people with “real jobs.” That’s why it’s so infuriating that gig economy-thinking and general short-sightedness have led the gatekeepers of so many noble professions to treat the very people they claim to celebrate as their content creators as if we were nothing more than replaceable cogs in a machine. 

As a freelance writer, I can’t tell you how many ads I’ve seen over the years looking for “talented, original, writers with a minimum of five years experience” but then you get to the bottom of the ad, and it turns out the pay is going to be in the form of “exposure.”

You know what else is known as “exposure?” What I’m going to die from this winter if I don’t have money to pay rent. 

And when it comes to actors, we might have it even worse. With an over-saturated market and the Hollywood celebrity-creation machine cranked up to 11 being jammed into everyone’s eyeballs every day, everyone and their mother fancies themselves an “actor.” They figure if you just stick them in front of a camera, they can’t do any worse than one of the myriad of cardboard Kardashians and their ilk, and turn whatever it is that they do into something resembling an “acting” career.

And that’s why producers think they can get away with paying far too little or not at all when it comes to low-budget films, YouTube-oriented shows, and other types of shoestring productions.

And not only is it shitty in practice and unfair to actors, the truth is, producers are shooting themselves in the foot when they conduct business this way. (But actors, here’s another dirty little secret: sometimes taking no-pay or low-pay work is the right thing to do – for yourself.) First, though, let’s explain to producers why this type of policy usually ends up biting them in the ass.

1. Experience And Getting What You Pay For

So let’s make one thing clear at the outset: producers aren’t the bad guy. A producer can often be a passionate lover of film and acting who only wants the same things we as actors want (and directors and cinematographers and casting directors, etc. etc. also want) and that is to create something beautiful, artistic, and memorable, something that will stand the test of time and connect with an audience. Many times producers devote years of their lives to shepherd through a project that they have personally fallen in love with. So giving producers the benefit of the doubt that they are artists and not just cartoonishly greedy scumbags, that’s why it’s so puzzling that so many producers insist on hiring the people who will work for the very least amount of money. There’s an old saying about “knowing the cost of everything, but the value of nothing,” and that applies here. If you hire actors who will work for free, you often get exactly what you paid for. And never is that more apparent than when you’re ready to show off your final product. Sure, you saved money by using a bunch of actors who have zero experience, but oftentimes you’re going to end up paying for that lack of experience in the long run by having a completed project that is not nearly as good as it could have been. If you had spent a little money on some actors who have had the time to develop their chops, you might have given birth to a masterpiece. So producers: is it just that you have so little respect for your potential audience that you don’t care about the performances in your piece? Or that the money you save matters more than the art? Either way, these kinds of penny-pinching decisions don’t make you look good in terms of claiming any kind of desire to be considered a respected artist yourself. Times are tight, sure. Believe me, we as actors get that – just look for us working our coffee shop shifts or at the temp employment agency to get our feedback on how tight times really are. But you get what you pay for in this world, and that applies to filmmaking just as it applies everywhere else. 

2. You’re Hurting Your Bottom Line Anyway

So of course the most damaging thing about loading up your production with inexperienced actors in order to save a few bucks is that the final product suffers, because the acting that we the audience see on the screen at the end of the day is sub-par. But what happens along the way to getting that final product? Let’s talk about the costs of production and what it means to have less-experienced actors on set. As actors we’ve all been on set our first time – and it can be intimidating and nerve-wracking. That means it might require a few extra takes for you to get where you need to be as an actor to give the director what he or she wants. But you know what makes it easier from a newbie actor’s standpoint? The other, more experienced actors you’re working with. As a newb it’s so reassuring to have a veteran you’re reading with in a scene – and yes, of course producers should sometimes give less-experienced actors a chance. But man oh man, if you are working on a set where NOBODY knows what they’re doing? My friend, you are in for some long days, some additional days added to your shooting schedule, and a myriad of other cost overruns simply due to the fact that it’s going to take you forever to get what you need out of your actors. And to think, had you simply spent a bit more money to hire actors who have some idea of what they’re doing, you might have avoided all those headaches, all that hassle trying to get non-actors to act, all those squabbles with your crew and production team – and all that extra cost. 

3. Who’s There For You, Baby?

You know what else professionals do for you that non-paid, inexperienced actors (or people who aren’t even actors) don’t do? They show up. They show up on time, and they show up every time, and they do what needs to be done to get the shot. I’ve been on indie sets with “actors” who have simply wandered off after a few hours because they got bored or whatever. I’ve seen “actors” roll in hours after their call time wondering what the fuss is all about. No matter what the field is, if you want to create a professional product, you hire professionals, end of story. That’s not to say that you aren’t a professional if you don’t have all the experience in the world. But there is a difference and I think we can all identify what it is in our own way. For me, I’d say that a professional actor is serious about not only the job they’re hired for and shows up ready to work, but is also serious about the craft, and continues to put in time and effort on improving their abilities. 

4. (But, Actors, Sometimes You’ve Got To Bite The Bullet And Work For Free) 

Guys, the truth is when you’re starting out, there is no teacher like experience. There are tons of student film productions and indie projects that are worthy of your efforts without a paycheck. You’ve got to work to get better, and these are wonderful playgrounds to explore the craft. Just use common sense when people ask you to contribute your time and talents, and realize that you as an actor and as a person have value. What you do has value. And realize that without actors and the value we provide, there would be no movies.

A note about Pay Rates from the staff at NYCastings:

Dear Talent, just know that we want good pay rates on every job just as much as you do. In fact, we often suggest the pay rates to our clients when they are unsure what a rate should be to get professional talent to submit. If jobs are no pay (as with many student projects) we will try to get at least travel expenses covered and will push for $100 a day. We can’t win them all but we do get higher pay rates on hundreds of jobs a year from these efforts :)

Make Art and Change the World!

 

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