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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

4 COMMENTS - Click to READ:

Lorraine James said...

I once did a play many years ago and membership payment was required. I absent-mindedly forgot to pay, but I'm glad I didn't. I'd never heard of anything like it before and never afterwards. I'm glad you wrote on this. I'm sure others have come across this method of horn-swagglery.

Nance L. Schick said...

It's the lawyer weighing in again. I remind you that I cannot give specific legal advice without consulting with you individually, but I generally think you have to consider "pay to play" very, very carefully in your overall business plan. Remember, "You're a Business. Act Like One (TM)."

Erin is right-on! A professional crew would not pay to work on a production. Nor should a professional actor--unless you have negotiated adequate benefits and protections.

I see several potential legal problems with this structure. Some of them might be addressed in the agreements made among the "players." However, I suspect many are being overlooked. You need to think through the "what-ifs."

- What if someone is injured during the project? Who pays for their medical care?

- What if something happens to equipment, property, etc. during the production? Is anyone insuring it? Who?

- Aside from the potential profits from the production, who owns the rights to ancillary products, characters, merchandise, etc.?

You don't necessarily have to have a lawyer draft your agreement, but you certainly need to think these issues through. You know what they say: "It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt." Hurt can encompass everything from physical harm to hurt feelings or egos. Plan accordingly.

PaulH said...

I see no problem with Pay-To-Play for actors. If an actor needs something for his/her reel... why not pay to be in a film? Getting legit work can take months. Pay-to-Play is a great way of getting material in the can quickly.

Unknown said...

PaulH are you a producer or someone else who might benefit from exploiting actors this way??? That's the sense I get from your flippant disregard for the blatantly unethical nature of "pay to play" scams.

Never mind the obvious fact that there are a NEVER-ENDING supply of non-paid roles out there in community theater, student films, legitimate indie films, 48 hour film projects, DIY films... NONE OF WHICH REQUIRE PAYMENT BY THE ACTORS...

And all of which are a great source of "something for his/her reel."

Apparently you got a degree in hornswogglery from "Exploit U."

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