Advice and How-To's Especially for ACTORS!

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Should Actors "Pay to Play"?

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I got this very interesting question from a colleague who prefers to remain anonymous due to the nature of the question:

Dear Erin,
You being from the Left Coast (California) and all, and being well-versed in the mechanics of our fine industry...have you heard of this practice? A filmmaker (director/writer), collaborates with actors to write a film of any length, featuring said actors with characters based on their types. The director then collects money from the actors, in proportion to their screen-time -- leads pay the most, day players the least -- hires a professional crew and goes about shooting, editing, and finalizing the film for festival submissions.
I'm told this is all the rage in Los Angeles.

How say you?

- Eager on the East Coast.

Howdy! What a contentious topic. I can see why you’d prefer to present the question in “Dear Abby” format! I have heard of this... it is very similar to theater "membership" companies who charge actors a monthly fee in exchange for having stage time. The actor’s membership dues pay for the actual production of their shows, and often pay for the salaries/stipends of the producers and crew members.

The practice of paying to create work is not a new one- in the best cases it is called "self producing." But the problem with what you are describing is that actors are not being brought on as producers- they are paying for the "privilege" of having a role to perform. Without a producing credit, the actors have no authority over the script, over the direction, over the editing, or over the final product. And, yet, the actors are the ones making the production financially possible. For that reason, I think that this practice of charging actors is deplorable.

From a fellow actor's perspective, it is frustrating to think that a "professional crew" would be hired, but the actors are expected to shell out money to work. Why is the actor's role valued so little? In part, it is because producers know that there are more actors than parts available, and actors will do almost anything for their "big break." So, in effect, many actors allow themselves to be marginalized. But there's also another side to this - crew members almost never work for free. While many actors will bend over backwards to volunteer their time (or even pay for the possibility of work), most crew members refuse to take on jobs without compensation. The producers you mentioned know they need a "professional crew" in order to make the film happen and, thus, they are willing to offer paying work. Added bonus- they know they can find actors who will pay to be a part of the project. One hand feeds the other, and the producers get their film made.

In my opinion, the lesson here is less about the producer's actions (which, again, I think are deplorable) - it’s more about actors standing up for themselves and commanding respect. Sure, every actor starts out needing to take as many roles as they can get (even non-paying ones) in order to build up their experience and skill set. But when other members of the team are being paid for their time, the actor needs to take a step back and ask, "Why not me, too?"

That all being said, if the actor is still willing to "pay to play," I think it is a good idea to request an actual producing credit, or at least have some say in the final product. For example, script approval or "final cut" authorization might be some of the things negotiated by actors who are contributing money to the project, or a percentage of net profits down the line. The more actors speak up and negotiate for what they feel they are due, the easier it will be to raise the standard of conduct toward them.

Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has done national tours of plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. To learn more, check out http://www.theactorsenterprise.org.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Exclusivity in Agency Contracts

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We’re on a role with the topic of CONTRACTS! Chantelle writes:

Hello Erin,

I'm an aspiring actress in North Carolina, and I made an effort to seek new representation. It has been a while since I have been able to pursue a career, due partly to the slump in production in my state. Now that is turning around, and I want to be ready to jump back into the game! My concern is with a local agent that offered me a contract. I am in no way looking my nose down at the situation, but I am a bit concerned. Since I was sidelined (by life), I am not sure if the contract is something I should enter in to. For one thing, the agent said that the exclusive contract is world wide (except for LA & NY). The wording used in the agency's overview, made it sound as if they get a commission for work booked, even if it is global (even if they didn't submit me). I don't know if one of the agents wasn't clear, and I am going to ask before signing. My question for you is, have you ever heard of this type of thing concerning agency contracts? What should actors look out for, and what are some red flags to take heed of? I appreciate any feedback you could provide, and if you get the chance, check out what's going on in NC.

All the best,
Chantelle
North Carolina


Hi, Chantelle. Thank you so much for your email. I am very glad you reached out, because contracts are very tricky things to work with.

The language of the contract that you mentioned sounds like standard language for agency contracts. When you sign a contract, it grants both you and the agent an exclusive relationship - this means that for any work that you get while on contract, you must pay a percentage to your agent as a commission, even if they did not "get" the work for you. This is a typical arrangement, because it guarantees that whatever work the agent does for you (initially unpaid) will be rewarded at some future date.

The good news is that there is usually an "out" clause in standard agency contracts, which allows the actor and/or the agent to bow out of the contract if neither of you have procured work over a certain period of time. In union contracts, this time is anywhere from 90-180 days; in non-union contracts, it can be anywhere from 90-365 days. You'll want to read your contract carefully before signing to see if there are any provisions for this. If there is nothing in the contract about an "out" clause, it would be perfectly reasonable to negotiate one.

Also, while the idea of a "global" contract (outside LA/NY) sounds scary, it probably isn't as massive as it seems to be. Generally, you'll only want to be represented by this agent while you are living in your current city/state. If you planned to move to another city, you would cancel your contract with that agent, and they would not have any claim over future earnings. So, even though "global" sounds like this agent will receive commissions on work anywhere in the world, this would only occur while you are under contract and, ideally, you would only be under contract with them while you live in the same vicinity. And, of course, it sounds like your contract is null-and-void in the Los Angeles and New York markets.

I usually recommend that any actor (union or non-union) show the contract to a lawyer to make sure that all provisions are clearly understood. At the very least, read over it carefully and then share any questions you have with the agent. When you talk to them, I would suggest asking:

1) How long is the overall contract?
2) When the contract expires, does it automatically renew, or do you both take the time to sign another one?
3) Is there an "out" clause, whereby one of us can cancel the contract if there is no work procured during a certain length of time?
4) If you move out of state, can you get out of the contract?
5) Does the contract include theater as well as film and TV? Does it include commercials? Does it include print work? And, is the agency commission the same across the board?

... and any other questions that come up for you when you read the contract.

Hope this helps- congratulations on being offered your contract, and I wish you the best of luck in your career!


Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has done national tours of plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. To learn more, check out http://www.theactorsenterprise.org.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Submitting in NY & LA from Other Cities

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One of my students is based in Louisville, KY, and though she comes to New York City on a fairly regular basis, she is not able to take full advantage of the audition opportunities. Here, she asks me a question about being out of town and submitting for NY Projects (and I think this is relevant for folks on the West Coast interested in LA projects.)

Hi Erin-

I am back in Louisville now. I have been organizing and sending some mailings and doing a website, but first, I have a couple of question for you or for the blog.

How effective is responding to call postings on Actor's Access? The convenience is fabulous- but will it get me results? Do the casting people even see our responses? I am trying to do this remotely as you know- but I don't want to waste time and money either. Is there anything else I should be watching for postings I can respond to? And finally, should I include my Midwest representation? Is it better to be represented or just solo?


Hi, there! Generally, I consider Actors Access to be one of the very best resources for actors to get work in NYC, though not all of it pays a huge salary. Because they don't always have large paying jobs posted, it may not be worth it for you to do much submitting unless you are already planning on being in town. But once you have a trip planned- it would be the first place I'd check for audition notices.

Regarding your agent- If your agent doesn't have relationships with NY casting directors, then you are better off just self-submitting (solo) through Actors Access. So, there is no real reason to add your agent's name to your account.

Now, one thing you CAN do is see if your agent could subscribe to the NY breakdowns through Breakdown Services. I am not sure what the yearly fee is for that, but if she subscribed she would be able to submit you to all of the breakdowns that New York agents are seeing. In that case, you would add your agent to your Actors Access account, because Actors Access and Breakdown Services are run by the same company. (She would be linking to your Actors Access account when submitting via Breakdown Services.)

I hope this helps- let me know when you are back in the city!

NOTE TO READERS:

To see my list of reputable casting websites for NYC, click here.

For those of you on the West Coast, there are other casting websites that also have great notices for the Los Angeles area, namely Now Casting and LA Casting...


Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has done national tours of plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. To learn more, check out http://www.theactorsenterprise.org.

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