Passion or Paycheck: Scale Pay + How It Weighs on Actor Earnings

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Photo Source: “Asteroid City” Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

For “Asteroid City,” Scarlett Johansson earned just $4,131 per week—quite a drastic pay cut from the whopping $20 million salary she raked in for “Black Widow”—due to her decision to work for scale so that she could collaborate with Wes Anderson again (she’d voiced the former show dog Nutmeg in the director’s “Isle of Dogs”). Here’s what you need to know about working for scale, and why stars like ScarJo might choose to accept lesser compensation.

What does “work for scale” mean?

The phrase refers to the minimum amount an actor can be paid for their work on a particular project, as determined by the relevant union agreements. These minimum rates ensure that performers are compensated fairly for their contributions, regardless of the production’s budget or success. Scale pay is typically set by actor unions like SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity Association

When actors are paid scale, they receive the minimum stipulated compensation, which can vary widely depending on the contract. This does not imply an actor is paid minimum wage, but rather that they are paid the minimum hourly, daily, or weekly salary required by the union. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for navigating the industry’s compensation landscape.

Variations of scale pay

Variations of scale pay may apply depending on factors like the nature of the project, the actor’s role, and the terms negotiated by their representatives. One common variation is “scale plus 10,” where actors receive the standard scale rate plus an additional 10% that goes to their agent. “Double scale” doubles the standard scale rate. This arrangement is often reserved for projects with higher budgets or for actors with significant bargaining power due to their star status or critical acclaim.

How does scale pay work across different unions?

Different unions have their own variations of scale pay tailored to the specific needs and standards of their members and negotiated with the industry powers that be. 

SAG-AFTRA: The Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists establishes scale rates for various types of projects, including film, television, commercials, and new media. These rates are periodically updated to reflect economic conditions and changes in the industry landscape.

Equity: The theatrical organization sets rates for Broadway and Off-Broadway, regional theater, staged readings and showcases, and other types of productions.

Why does scale pay matter?

Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedwick, Jonah Hill, Oprah Winfrey

Sam Aronov/Denis Makarenko/Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock

Nonmembers: If you’re a nonmember just getting started in the business, you might be tempted to accept very low or even no pay just to get your face out there and build up your acting résumé. Still, knowing how much money union members earn gives you the opportunity to hammer out reasonable rates with employers. Negotiating fair compensation is a vital part of advocating for yourself as an actor and asserting value in a competitive market.

Members: Upon joining SAG-AFTRA or Equity—a major step for any working actor—members are covered by certain protections, including guaranteed minimum rates on union contracts. While working for scale may not always result in lucrative paychecks, it provides a foundation for building a sustainable career and contributes to the overall professionalism of the industry.

A-listers: Actors with established reputations or specialized skills can certainly negotiate higher rates than scale pay (with or without their agents), based on their market value and contributions to the project. But often such actors, like Johansson, will accept scale pay to work on a passion project. Here are some notable examples:

  • Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick: The couple earned scale pay for their work on “The Woodsman,” which Bacon called his “investment in the film.” 
  • Jonah Hill: Hill took home the SAG minimum rate of $60,000 for his role in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” saying that the choice was “not about the money” and that it was worth it to work with the legendary Martin Scorsese.
  • Oprah Winfrey: Decades before producing the musical adaptation, Winfrey snagged $35,000 for portraying Sofia in Stephen Spielberg’s “The Color Purple.” “They were only offering $35,000 to be in this film, and it is the best $35,000 I ever earned,” she said. “It changed everything and taught me so much.”
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Maggie Bera
Maggie Bera is a NYC-based actor with a BFA in musical theater from Texas State University. Off-Broadway: “Powerline Road” (BwayWorld Award Winner—Best Performer Off-Broadway), “The Baker’s Wife,” and “Helen on 86th Street.” Regional credits include Engeman Theater, TUTS Houston, Fireside Theatre, and Connecticut Rep. TV: Showtime’s “The Big C” with Laura Linney. Maggie is also the founder of Actor Aesthetic, an actor lifestyle blog, podcast, and online learning community. Proud member of Actor’s Equity and SAG-AFTRA.
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