TV Contracts 101: How Much Money Actors Make by Role

Article Image
Photo Source: Spencer Alexander

Unless your name is Ryan Gosling or Lupita Nyong’o, most of the work you do will be on episodic television. Why? Because there’s a ton of it out there, and those shows need a constant supply of actors.

Not counting series regulars, there are three types of job you can book. I’m going to break them down by size, compensation, and billing—let’s start from the bottom up!

Co-Stars
These are minor characters. They do not have arcs, and their functions are superficial. Think of the uniformed cops at the start of every “Law & Order” episode, the ones who tell the leads about the crime scene and then disappear. Those are co-stars. Sometimes they work one day, sometimes they work more.

Co-stars are hired on a daily contract. The pay is usually scale ($1,005) plus 10 percent for the day, but your agent has room to negotiate. And if you’re hired for two days on an episode of “NCIS” and those days are Monday and Wednesday, for example, Tuesday is a hold day, and you get paid for that, too.

As for billing, your name will appear in the end titles on a card with a bunch of other actors. The odds are that that card will get squeezed to the side so the network can run clips for the next show. It’s amazing the union allows that. 

READ: How to Read Your First Contract

One-Day Guest Stars
Like really good ribs, these parts have more meat on the bone. They’re characters who service the plot while interacting with the leads, but they can also be filmed in a day. Imagine the lead is a disillusioned lawyer who meets his mentor for drinks in a bar. The two of them have an intense conversation in that one location, and the scene runs about four minutes. That mentor character is a one-day guest star.

The rate here is negotiable. I represent established actors who command $3,000 for one day of work. I’ve also closed less experienced clients for $1,500. It all depends on the performer and the agent’s ability to get things done.

One-day guest stars are billed in the main titles. Those are the credits that appear up front at the start of the episode. You’ll have to share the card, but your agent can negotiate how many actors are placed on that card and what your position will be. 

Guest Stars
These roles are the focal point of the plot, and the actors who play them are hired for the entire episode. Sometimes, the character shows up in future storylines and you end up recurring on the series. That means multiple bookings from one audition.

The pay is called “top-of-show.” That’s the most a show will pay for a guest actor. On network TV, the rate for a one-hour drama is currently $8,624 (eight days of work) and half-hour comedies pay $5,390 (five days of work).

Guest stars are billed in the main titles on a separate card. That means it’s just your name on the screen. Sweet, right?

Keep in mind that there are minor deviations to everything I’ve just explained, and rates vary between networks, cable, and streaming services. But these are the basics you need to know. 

This story originally appeared in the July 11 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s Los Angeles audition listings!

Author Headshot
Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man is a Los Angeles–based talent agent and our resident tell-all columnist. Writing anonymously, he dishes out the candid and honest industry insight all actors need to hear.
See full bio and articles here!