In which you decided to not pay (or defer pay to) your actors

I get it. You’re making a movie with – like – *no* budget. My god, what a crazy thing to do. No one has ever done this before. What are you going to do?  OH, here’s a great idea. Don’t pay the people who are going to make or break your ability to tell your story.  After all, actors are the most desperate people in the biz. They’ll do anything, right? And they don’t have any equipment to bring in, and most of the time they’re just sitting on set not doing anything, while the rest of us are moving machines around and wearing carpenter pants, why should they get paid?  They should be HONORED to be in my movie.

Only now you’ve “hired” unprofessional actors, and/or you’ve belittled your actors by not treating them as professionals, and you’ve enabled them to lose a piece of their integrity, and you’ve assumed they are plug-and-play robots that will just show up and grovel at your feet, and… oh crap. Why aren’t they behaving professionally on your set?  Why do they have a glint of “if I just get through this crappy movie, I’ll get something on my reel and finally get to do REAL movies” behind their eyes?  Your movie shows that you didn’t work with professionals. It shows that you didn’t value the craft they brought to the set enough to give them a few bucks.  And before you say, what craft? They’re beginners, they’re just lucky to have been chosen — THINK.  You held an audition session, and you CHOSE THEM. So they must hold some value, right?

Now obviously, I’m not talking about situations where you and your friends decide to make a flick, and everyone pitches in a few bucks for beer, and you run the camera and do your thang.  That’s a fun, creative, social experience. I’m not talking about student films, because that’s a learning experience, and the actors you’re using are learning their craft as well.  I’m talking about when you are producing a movie that you intend to showcase with the goal of furthering your career as a filmmaker. I’m talking about when you have a producer (even if it’s you) going to vendors (even if they’re people you happen to be friends with) and creating a budget (even if it’s minuscule).  In that budget should be pay for your hired actors.

Now some of you may be thinking — wait a second. My actors weren’t paid and they did an amazing job. Or — wait a second. I’m an unpaid actor and I acted my heart and soul out on that flick. Fine. But then make honest people of yourselves. Dear filmmaker, you are past the stage of student films. You are making films to display your vision publicly. You are making films to get on a bigger, better stage every time. Eventually, you will have to pay your actors, so just get used to that budget line now. The business aspect of this is inevitable. Accept it. You need to put money out there to see more of it in the future.

My favorite is when I see castings listed as “Paid” but it’s really deferred pay.  Let me put this right out there. “Deferred pay” means the actor is going to see zero dollars. Because we all know your seven-minute movie isn’t going to make money. At least be honest about what that really means.

Many people will look at the SAG-AFTRA rates and say, “Gee, if SAG-AFTRA allows deferred pay under these contracts, then that must mean I should defer pay.” WRONG. SAG-AFTRA puts that in there to encourage filmmakers to use Union actors, but it doesn’t mean it’s a wise decision that will make your film better.

So what to pay?  Well, the minimum daily rate for Union contracts that require pay is $100.  Think about that.  One Hundred Measly Dollars to make sure the Face that will Tell Your Story feels respected enough to Tell Your Story Right.

How to find that money?  Guys, seriously? We have so many crowdfunding opportunities nowadays.  IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, RocketHub, Peerbackers… Pick one and hustle.

Take care of your actors.  Feed them. Pay them. Help them with transport. Bring your pride down. If you chose them, then you consider them an integral and invaluable part of your project. It means you cannot make your film without them. It mean they are just as important as any piece of equipment, any crew member, any pizza you order. For crying out loud, show them that you know that.  The magic they will make for you is priceless.

And yes, this goes both ways. Actors need to learn to keep their integrity and resist doing every non-paying gig out there.  Such a level of desperation will just bring everyone down.  But that’s for another post…

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