Skip to main content
Performing arts

See also:

When should DC Actors hold out for money?

When should DC Actors hold out for money?
When should DC Actors hold out for money?
socialvelocity.net

When faced with non-paying gigs vs. paying gigs, actors generally take one of two approaches: take what comes along and build credits, regardless of pay, or hold out for paying gigs. Where money is involved, there is much controversy and pros and cons galore. Let's hear from two DC-area actors on their respective opinions on the subject: Mark Shell and Warren Watson.

Mark Shell, filmmaker and owner of 5th Underground LLC, a vodka company, thinks working for free can be to the actor's advantage, based on several factors:

Why actors should consider working for free? There are a lot of good reasons to work for free. Many people pay a lot of money to take acting classes which probably won't do too much for you. But you could play a lead role in a no budget indie film and get real life experience. I don't like working for free, but I do it to help aspiring filmmakers and while House of Cards may have paid me just over $100 for 16 hours of work and I won't even be seen---I'd rather have $0 and some dialog. If you want to include modeling/print ads, I would not do those for free.

Also, just because you may be doing an indie movie for $0, does not mean you can't barter---you can offer acting in exchange for help making a reel, perhaps photos from the shoot, positive comments / feedback on the actors work on other projects. While I do pay my cast/crew (not a lot), I push their work in front of other directors, casting agents, studios, etc. and recommend them to casting agents, etc. I have gotten actors interviews for radio, and print and have even garnered front page news paper coverage in Ohio. That all adds up [to] becoming known. Not everyone does this though. While my movies are ultra low budget (under $4,000), the trailer for my recent production was viewed by over 125,000 people, the movie is scheduled for release in July, cast and crew are eligible for a portion of the revenue, which may be $0, but if we sold 125,000 DVD's that would probably put $10k in the pockets of the lead actors.

I. If the acting gig is for a commercial, industrial/ training video, major studio feature film, a well funded production (>$100,000 budget), or a television series appearance, then I do not recommend working for free. These are projects that can afford to pay actors and they are getting a benefit from using you as an actor. There may be a few more things to group into this category.

II. If the acting gig is for a student film, low/no budget indie film, commercial contest, video contest, or just a short someone is making for a film festival, then you should consider working for free. These types of films are not likely to go anywhere or gain anyone money, in fact they usually cost the filmmaker money that they will never recover.

Certainly it would be great to get paid for this type of work, but the reality is “there is no money”, so it’s mainly something to do, something that can help you practice and develop skills. The following is criteria I generally use to determine if I would act for free:

• What is the scale/scope of the production and what kind of financial benefit is the production getting out of using you? If the criteria of I above is met, then no, don’t do it for free, otherwise if it falls within the criteria of II above, then it may be worth considering. Factors to consider:

• Will the role benefit your acting career by helping you apply and demonstrate your acting skills or improve skills?

• What is the size of the potential audience, and who might see it?

• Where will it be shown?

• Will you get a copy of the finished product?

• Is the project a good one, something that you really like and believe in?

• What about the director/producer, are they a person who does good work that will make you look good?

• Are there other cast members that you can learn from and improve your acting skills?

• How much screen time and dialog are you going to get?

• Are you provided any food, drink, or gas reimbursement?

• How much time is this project going to take?

• Can you commit to the production schedule?

• What other projects are available?

• If there is no pay, is there any revenue sharing if the project makes money?

• Is this charity work to help out someone less fortunate than you are?

• What are the benefits of being part of the production?

• What are the negative consequences of being part of the production?

• Will the production actually be completed?

• Do you believe it will be a good production, something you can be proud of?

- Mark Shell, Filmmaker, Owner of 5th Underground LLC

****

Warren Watson, a professional working actor, model and voiceover talent, thinks working for free devalues the profession:

An Actor (or production person) who works for free only devalues the profession. They're saying they have no real value to society and that couldn't be further from the truth.

I think there has never been a better time to be an Actor. 30 to 40 years ago, there were very few avenues for someone who wanted to be an Actor. There was the three broadcast networks and feature films and that was it. If you wanted to act on film and have a reel to show someone, the only thing left were indie films that were lucky if 10 people came to see.

[Warren's rebutal to Mark's Factors to consider]:

Will the role benefit your acting career by helping you apply and demonstrate your acting skills or improve skills?

I still wouldn't do it for free. Maybe a reduced rate because you are gaining news skills but not for free.

• What is the size of the potential audience, and who might see it?

That is not something the Actor is in control of. 10 people might see it or millions might. The Actor can only do the best that he or she can do.

• Where will it be shown?

Again, the Actor has no control over this.

• Will you get a copy of the finished product?

It makes no difference if you do it for free or are getting paid the Actor is ALWAYS owed a copy of the finished product. I have it written into all my contracts that I am to receive a copy of the finished project for my reel. Side note: Actors should ALWAYS have a contract for their services, even if they are not getting paid.

• Is the project a good one, something that you really like and believe in?

If it really is something you truly believe in, say a film with a social message, I can see doing it at a reduced rate, but not for free.

• What about the director/producer, are they a person who does good work that will make you look good?

Again, I can see doing it at a reduced rate, but not for free. Jonah Hill always wanted to work for Martin Scorsese. He finally got his wish with Wolf of Wall Street but he did it at a significantly reduced rate, NOT for free.

• Are there other cast members that you can learn from and improve your acting skills?

Same as above, you should not do it for free.

• How much screen time and dialog are you going to get?

That doesn't matter. You may have one line or be the lead but you should still get paid.

• Are you provided any food, drink, or gas reimbursement?

This does not make a difference if an Actor should work for free or not. Cast (and crew) should be fed while on set, regardless of pay. You can't keep a roof over your head with leftover pizza.

• How much time is this project going to take?

That doesn't matter. You may have one line or be the lead but you should still be paid for your work.

• Can you commit to the production schedule?

If you can't, why did you agree to the production in the first place?

• What other projects are available?

Plenty, paying ones.

• If there is no pay, is there any revenue sharing if the project makes money?

That is not something the Actor can control. The genre may fall out of favor with distributors, there may not be enough money for proper marketing of the production. The story may be re-worked during editing or may have been edited poorly and the film is no longer marketable. Through the use of "Hollywood Accounting" a Filmmaker can hide profit while claiming they never made a dime from the production. Once the Actors are finished filming their scenes it is out of their control.

• Is this charity work to help out someone less fortunate than you are?

If it's for a non-profit as I outlined before, then yes, by all means do it for free.

• What are the benefits of being part of the production?

Along with pay, a production you can be proud of, something for your reel, IMDB credit. But these are IN ADDITION to being paid for your services.

• What are the negative consequences of being part of the production?

Uninteresting story line, poor editing, inadequate distribution, other things out of the Actor's control.

• Will the production actually be completed?

Again, this is out of the Actor's control.

• Do you believe it will be a good production, something you can be proud of?

Hopefully you'll be proud of all the productions you are in but that doesn't put a roof over your head or food on the table or the lights on. Today, there are more opportunities than there have ever been thanks to three factors: the emergence of quality programming on cable television, more limited run (13 episode) and summer series on broadcast TV and programs created for internet distribution like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. Add to that commercials made just for the web, branded Webisodes and ‘viral' videos and corporate/industrial videos that look like scenes from primetime television. but now Actors are more in demand than ever before.

The bottom line here is that acting is a business and if you want to be an Actor and not wait tables or work an office job the rest of your life then you need to take yourself seriously as a business person. You are no different than the Accountant or auto Mechanic or HVAC repairman. As a friend once told me, "This is a business first and a creative outlet second".

- Warren Watson Actor / On-Camera & Voice Talent / Model