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Secret Agent Man


Society is divided by class, and the world of acting is no different. At one end of the spectrum we have the rich: name talent who command top dollar. Their presence in a project guarantees a certain amount of recognition, the kind of recognition that can be exploited by a marketing department. The people writing the checks like this, and as a result the checks tend to have a lot of zeros. For example, Tim Roth earns $250,000 for each episode of his very first series, "Lie to Me." It takes eight days to shoot an episode, and they produce 22 episodes a year. Tim Roth is rich.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the poor. These are the actors who survive by accepting day labor—I mean day-player work. They perform a few lines here and there, rarely working on a project for more than a day or two. These actors are essential to the success of any production but rarely rise above their class. As payment for their services, they receive daily scale, which on a Screen Actors Guild project equals $782. An actor in this class would have to work 320 days to earn what Tim Roth makes for one episode of "Lie to Me." Day players are poor.

Due to the nature of what they do, the rich and the poor will always survive. Why? Because studios and networks see them as necessary. Actors with name value will always find work. Even when a budget is tight, they survive by agreeing to provide the same service for less money. But consider this: Denzel Washington can cut his rate in half and he'll still make more than most of us will see in a lifetime. The rich stay rich. Day players will always find work too. You can't produce a project without them. Even when a budget is tight, studios and networks can't pay them less, because they're already working for the least amount of money that's legally possible. The poor stay poor.

This brings us to the vast majority of actors who make up the middle class. These are the people who are asked to bend over when the going gets tough. The middle-class actor earns a living by working in supporting roles on feature films and guest-star parts in episodic television, building up a body of work that will generate a steady residual stream. Their rate is based on their quote, which is the amount they received the last time they were employed in a similar part. The more these actors work, the more they're entitled to a bump in their quote. An established middle-class actor can make as much as $2,500 for a day of work.

In today's economic model, the middle-class actor is in serious trouble. There are several reasons for this, but here are the two big ones. First, very few employers are honoring quotes. Some are even asking actors to work for scale. Second, the residual stream that helps a middle-class actor survive during slow periods is about to disappear. The powers that be have gotten hip to the fact that it's cheaper to rerun their shows online. A guest-star actor working for "top of show" on "Grey's Anatomy" earns $3,200 the first time the episode reruns during prime time. If that rerun moves to the Internet, the same actor receives zero compensation the first few weeks the show streams, then less than $100 for every six months it stays online. That's the beginning of the end for the middle-class actor.

As the gulf between the rich and poor increases, some very talented people will be forced to change careers, losing the chance to prove just how good they really are. In a business full of injustice and greed, this might be the biggest crime of all.

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