How to Ask for—and Get—a Raise as a Film Actor

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Photo Source: Thomas Pitilli

Dear Michael:
I just booked a lead in a SAG-AFTRA Ultra-Low Budget film. I am super happy and super blessed. The script is really good and the part perfect for me. It will boost my career, I’m sure. The people working on this are professionals with many more credits than I have. I really want to do this film. But the pay offered is nearly nonexistent, and I may end up on the street if I take this many days off from my day job in order to do the film. How do I go about this without having an agent? I can’t afford to lose this opportunity, but I also can’t afford to not pay my rent.
—A Starving “Star”

Dear Starving:
First, congratulations. How wonderful to book a role you love in a piece you love.

Second, this: Often, actors operate under the mistaken belief that we have no options, no value, and no power, particularly when it comes to negotiating for ourselves. We’re not usually business minded, so it feels awkward, and we feel so lucky to have a gig, we fear it may be yanked away if we ask for anything beyond that opportunity. This is all just actor mythology.

In most cases, people are expecting and prepared for negotiation. It’s neither an insult nor viewed as ungrateful, as long as both parties are reasonable. When negotiating for yourself, the key word is “collaboration.” Reject the adversarial “us against them” attitude, and work together with the people hiring you. In this case, I’d give it to them straight: “Here’s the situation. I love this script and this role, and I really want to accept. But here’s the problem. I haven’t figured out how to do it without going broke. So I need to know whether you can come up in salary so we can make this work. I’m not looking to get rich, just keep the roof over my head and my bills paid.” They may ask what you need to make. Trust me on this: Pad it a little. They may feel they’ve failed as negotiators if they don’t land lower than the figure you quote, so give them some room to do that.

Remember, casting is hard. By the time producers and directors have chosen their actors, they don’t want to make changes. You’re who they want. So they’re not about to fire you over a friendly negotiating attempt.

Be ready for the possibility they won’t be able to pay you what you need, and decide what you’ll do in that case. Can you compromise (they pay a bit more, even if it’s not enough)? Do you need to decline the project? (Remember that nothing is ever your last opportunity.) Or will you do it regardless of the financial consequences? (The poverty we constantly fear very rarely comes to pass. Chances are you’ll pull through. Maybe you can pick up a small side job, or maybe even raise funds online to support your participation.)

None of those choices are wrong. Just be clear with yourself about what you need to do. There are always options.