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Backstage Experts

Should Actors Pay to Play?

Should Actors Pay to Play?

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

Dear Erin,

You being in NYC but 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

Well! What a contentious topic. I can see why you’d prefer to present the question in “Dear Abby” format! I have heard of 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. Instead, 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 pay 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 remunerative 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 films made.

In my opinion, the lesson here is less about the producers’ actions (which, again, I think are questionable). 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.

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Erin Cronican is an actor, lead coach at The Actors’ Enterprise, and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Cronican’s full bio!

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