Monday, July 30, 2012

"Modern" Inequality?

The cast of "Modern Family"
The news that the cast of Modern Family has settled their salary dispute must come as great news both to them personally and to the production company and network that is eagerly awaiting the launch of the new fall season. However there is another side to this story that doesn't involved Modern Family, but instead impacts the rest of the professional acting community. 

As I wrote on Facebook over the weekend, there is much more to this story that needs to be considered.
As someone who represents talent, the growing trend to offer the actors cast to play roles in single episodes of series scale-only fees, the notion that a series regular is earning roughly $160,000 for the same episode you are been awarded a minor percentage of, continues to slant the playing field further in the direction away from the other "working" or wanting-to-be-working actors. 

Earning a living in the business of acting as a professional actor continues to get tougher and tougher for those not lucky enough to earn those series regular roles. 

I have represented many "series regular" actors over the years. Those big salaries make for some handsome agency commissions. But it also makes it harder, when in the classroom, to encourage acting students to pursue this for their love of the craft (even when they have to work for free) while holding down "day jobs" they would rather not have. It also makes it harder on the "in the trenches every day" actor who longs to earn a living wage that they can actually live on.

My issue is not with the Modern Family actors. Bravo to them for building a brand together with tremendous value. My issue is with the business piece of this. The networks, the studios, the production companies should pay their "cash cows" (if you will excuse the expression) as much as they deserve, but not at the expense of guest stars, co-stars and others who will be lucky enough to book a weekly gig on a show like Modern Family.

If the money exists to pay a series regular those serious bucks, find the money to pay the "working" actors these shows (also) rely on a wage that is fair, a wage that compensates them for their talent -- and a wage that allows these actors to also attempt to earn a living doing what they love, just as their series regular colleagues get to do.

Many times I have been told by a casting director that it's scale or nothing for a client who is up for a role. They are not to blame; they are doing the job they have been hired to do. The conflict for the actor then arises of do you take the job for scale and add a new credit to your resume -- or do you try to do something about it? 

Turning down a job when jobs are so difficult to come by doesn't make any sense. Of course you would take the job, accept the scale payment and then, the next day, return to your "day job" that pays your bills.

There is also a trickle down component of this equation. The less an actor makes, the less commission their agent and/or manager makes. The less the actor's agent and/or manager makes, the more difficult it can become to sustain a level of representation that is essential in moving a client's career forward.

The inequality between star salaries and guest star/co-star/featured stipends needs to be addressed. The onramp to a solution perhaps lies with SAG-AFTRA. Now, in this post-merger landscape, the new union should address the issues that are crucial to a union member's quality of life in pursuit of a career. Of course, greater union actors' salaries also means increased dues paid to the union (which are based on the union member's earnings). SAG-AFTRA's involvement with this stands to be a fiscal "win-win" situation for both parties.

It's time to look at those union minimums and explore how the wealth of a successful series (any series) can be spread out among any and every actor who works on that show. Perhaps it's time to set union minimums based on the rates of pay series regulars get on shows. Add up the total amount being paid to them for each episode, divide that number by the number of series regulars and come up with a percentage of that amount that would be the new "scale" payment for any non-regular actor hired to work on that episode (or series of episodes).

Union scale might not be an issue for the non-series regular actor who works several days a week, every week. But, as every actor knows, the truth of how often they get the opportunity to audition, let alone the opportunity to work, is hardly enough to build a life, let alone a career on.

It's a discussion worth having -- and I hope you will have your say about this here. 

It's a start ...



Alex Sessa said...

Brad -- I stumbled upon this article (via Facebook) and I was very intrigued by your thoughts. Like other aspects of out alleged free country, we're moving farther into a monopolistic system in which a few get everything, while the rest get, well, nothing. Sadly, it's not so surprising to see that the same has happened to the acting market. As a student, it's not a very encouraging world to step into and for many, equal opportunities are steadily becoming a thing-of-the-past. As I've always felt, the best way to find work these days (in any profession) is to make your own work. As a young actor, I too am looking to make work for myself with a new production company. But sadly, some people are not as business savy and simply can't do this. Like the rest of our society and current workforce, the world of entertainment is rapidly changing. A lot of programming isn't even devoted to actors/performing anymore, but rather reality-based garbage, which is cheaper and easier to produce. ABC's recent decision to canle ALL MY CHILDREN and ONE LIFE TO LIVE. While fans and actors alike were devestated, the network was set on ending these shows to make way for EXTREME MAKEOVER: BOOBJOB EDITION, or what have you. I was a fan of both of these shows, and I have known many actors who have appeared on both of these shows throughout the years. I honestly don't think I've ever met a working actor who hasn't been on ALL MY CHILDREN at one point or another. It was just one less opportunity for actors. All in all, I don't think that this situation is limited solely to entertainment, but is merely a sign of the times we're living in, unfortunately.

Brad Lemack said...

Thanks for your comments, Alex.

The truth is that at the end of the day, economics rule.

ABC's decision to cancel the shows you mentioned had nothing to do with popularity, only ratings (because the ad revenue they receive from a show is based on the number of people who watch it, not on how popular the show is -- and often times, unfortunately, these are two very different numbers).

Keep the faith and keep being proactive doing the work you love to do. The career journey is always filled with twists and turns, but, if your passion is there for the pursuit and the opportunities you will earn, then it is a path you have to stay on.