Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How "low" can you get ... ?

The unrest and rioting against the U.S. in the Middle East this past week has, according to press reports, been sparked by a poorly made and cheaply produced “ultra low budget” film.

This fairly new SAG-AFTRA classification of production makes it possible for union actors to appear in films produced by students and other people with limited budgets (or people or organizations who may have money, in general, but who choose to spend as little as possible producing a film — for whatever reason).

Whether or not the film in question is truly the cause of the latest round of violence is not a Business of Acting topic, but the category of “ultra low budget” productions and the risks actors can face when they choose to appear in one of them is very much a part of the new business of acting landscape.

What happened to the actors in the cast of this film raises the question, "At what price act?" In other words, is every breakdown for a project that seems right for you worth submitting on? Is every audition you are called in for worth going in on? And is every role you are offered from a self-submission worth taking?

In short, no.

I spend a lot of time encouraging young and new-to-the-business actors to be pro-active in every way that makes sense, but there is also a responsibility is this process to perform due diligence at every turn -- and even if if you do, there is no guarantee that after the performance you gave was filmed, that the producers won't go in and do apparently what was done to the actors in this film, replace dialog and edit to an extent that the end result is a film that you would never have choosen to even submit on, let alone act in, if you knew up front what the producer's agenda was.

If a producer meets the SAG-AFTRA requirements to earn the "ultra low budget" classification for their production, it doesn't sanction the production as "worthy," only as "qualified."

Countless organizations produce agenda-driven films, including every political party and the Church of Scientology. I'm not a Scientologist, but at least their breakdowns identify who they are. An actor on a sell-submission and reel-building mission can then determine if he or she is comfortable or interested in appearing in one of this group's films.

The Los Angeles Times ran an excellent front page story the other day on this exact issue. It's worth a read.

It's a discussion we will be having in my Emerson College Business of Acting class tomorrow night and worthy of a discussion here.


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 ...


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Making of an Icon ...

Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford

I was so sorry to hear the news yesterday that my former client and pal Sherman Hemsley has died. This sad news comes just weeks after the seventh year anniversary of Isabel Sanford’s death.

I first met Sherman in the early 1980’s when I worked for producer Norman Lear as the publicist for “The Jeffersons,” which became the longest running series in the history of television at that time.

Through The Jeffersons and particularly the years that followed, there were many memorable moments. Being Isabel Sanford’s manager, I was able to place both of them into many television and film projects where their contributions to American pop culture were celebrated as they recreated their roles of George and Louise Jefferson, including many personal appearance trips to Italy where “The Jeffersons” grew to be a tremendous hit.

I have always thought that both Isabel and Sherman never quite got their due. For me, they will always been one of television’s most memorable, yet most overlooked, duos.

It is, indeed, the end of an era.

We have just uploaded a nearly ten minute segment of my interview with Sherman from November 1992 interview for our live Beverly Hills-based coffee shop chat show. There is a short promo that just went up on You Tube. After watching that, I hope you will view the entire piece at for a really interesting look at the making of George Jefferson as Sherman tells it.

In honoring Sherman, we also honor Isabel and have returned her to the Now Playing section. On the Home page, you can run (or rerun) the first segment of our three parter with her from 1992. The other two segments are available for viewing on-demand in the RerunIt Library.

I hope they are both smiling down on us from their “deelux” apartment in the sky …


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Before the Dark Knight could rise ...

Christian Bale as The Dark Knight

It's no secret that I am a big fan of American pop culture.

In 1939, an icon was created by cartoonist Bob Kane that has stood the time of both time and reinterpretation. Before the Dark Knight could rise, he had to be born.

Batman creator Bob Kane talked about that fateful day and the Batmania it has since stirred in a 1992 interview I did with him for our little Beverly Hills-based coffee shop chat show.

It was a different business of acting then, but nonetheless inspiring to revisit.

We just added almost 20 minutes of never-before-seen (since the original broadcast) footage from that interview on

My bad 1990's hair aside, I wanted to share it. :)


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What does the SAG-AFTRA merger really mean for actors? Read the Author's Note Book Update just added at

We have just added my Author's Note Book Update on the merger of SAG-AFTRA to our website. It discusses the "new landscape" that the new union has brought to us all to.

Indeed it is a "new" business of acting. Current union member or not, read all about how it stands to impact you at whatever point you are at on your career journey.


Friday, March 30, 2012

A new era in the business of acting begins with a new, merged union ...

The news has just come in. An overwhelming number of the members of both SAG and AFTRA have voted "yes" on a union merger. Just announced, 86% of AFTRA members and 82% of SAG members have set a new path for a new business of acting, far surpassing the 60% threshold of "yes" votes needed for the merger to be approved.

Now, let's let the news settle in while we contemplate what this means for both union and non-union actors everywhere.

It's a good day in the business of acting ...


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tomorrow afternoon, it will truly be a "new" business of acting ...

The business of acting is about to change -- and tomorrow is the day.

Friday, 3/30/12, at 1:00PM, Pacific time, SAG & AFTRA will announce the results of the merger vote. It's history in the making. Watch it live.

Regardless of which way the vote goes, a "new" business of acting landscape is about to be born. Should the merger not pass, clearly this will not be the end of the proponents's campaign to have both unions join forces. Should the merger pass, I would expect that the opponents of the merger (whose attempts to get a court order to stop the vote count were denied in court earlier today), will not stop there.

Indeed, either way, it will be a new business. Let's hope that, either way, that the "new" business doesn't get in the way of simply doing business.

And the winner is ...

We soon shall see.


Monday, February 27, 2012

With Oscar season over, now it's time for union actors to have their say ...

While the seats at the Hollywood & Highland Center are still warm from last night's Oscars, ballots go out today to union actors on the proposed SAG AFTRA merger.

And the winner is ...

Stay tuned ...


Sunday, February 26, 2012

"The Artist's" Oscar wins paint a great tribute to the film's entire cast ...

Congratulations to my long time client and friend Basil Hoffman. Those Oscar wins tonight for "The Artist" are his to share in, too. He was wonderful in his role as the Auctioneer, setting up a pivotal transition in the journey of the film and its star.

Bravo, Basil -- to you and to all of your fellow cast members who went unmentioned tonight, but whose performances helped "The Artist" earn its place in film history.


Monday, January 30, 2012

One united union doesn't change the importance of "don't rush to join" ...

AFTRA and SAG members will soon have their say in the next (and final) step toward the big “I do” between the two performer’s unions. With their Board’s vote of approval this weekend, AFTRA leadership officially joined with SAG leadership in moving the new SAG-AFTRA towards consummation.

The “devil” that may have been in the details seems well on its way to a resolve. Aside from these health and pension items, the rest seems, potentially, rather seamless. We know a few of the details of what the merger will mean to actors who are not yet in either union or who are members of only one union. It will all become public very soon as the merger ballots and supporting documents are issued.

Jonathan Handel, in the current issue of Back Stage, does a great job of spelling out the bigger picture of what lies ahead. A tougher admissions policy will no doubt spell the end of AFTRA’s just walk up and pay membership plan, but the future of SAG’s more complicated and stricter rules for membership will also undergo changes. On the journey to creating a stronger, single union, membership will have to be both earned and paid for. However the long term benefits will far outweigh what might amount to just “minor” inconveniences on the way to a new union card.

What will remain the same has nothing to do with ether union, but instead, has everything to do with a non-union actor’s goal of (eventually) joining the (new) union. Don’t rush it. I have been advising young and new-to-the-business actors of any age to focus their journeys on building resumes, not in rushing to join any union. The (new) union will be there when you are ready for it. But until then, it’s not about the membership card as much as it is about doing the work you need to do to get you to the point where union membership makes sense.

Until then, you better be sure to open your Business of Acting bank account (chapter 9 in The New Business of Acting) to begin to put aside the money you will need for your union initiation fees because one thing is for certain. When it’s time to join, what has been the past initiation fee for either union will for sure go up.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Build your brand this pilot season in positive ways that last all year -- and beyond

Starting with this week's issue, I will be writing on a regular basis for Back Stage.

My first column, just out, is about pilot season strategy for actors. In it, I offer up an easy to follow, five-step plan to guide you through pilot season 2012 in a way that can help you make your mark and build your brand.

I hope you will check it out -- and pass it on.

I am thrilled to be asked to join the Back Stage team!


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Do you SAG take AFTRA to love, honor and cherish ... ?"

Although they haven’t yet registered at Target, SAG and AFTRA are now closer to a walk down the matrimonial aisle than ever before. While we all consider what we might wear to the wedding, let’s consider what this pairing can mean.

It certainly wasn’t love at first site. This union has been attempted before with an ugly outcome. Now, a little older, perhaps a little wiser, both unions have been happily dating again in an attempt to finally merge its energy and its benefits, in the hopes that together they can birth a stronger, more viable union that can serve all of the needs of all of its members in this new landscape that is the new business of acting.

I think this is a great move for both unions and for all of it members. The story in today’s Los Angeles Times provides an important and articulate overview of the history of this journey. The time has come for all “performing artists” to reap the rewards of being represented by one entity that is designed to act in their best interests.

The opposition to this merger has been rooted in the question, “How can a union that represents actors also serve the best interests of newscasters and weathermen?” The simple answer is that there is no reason that it cannot.

A merged union can operate with departments dedicated to serving specific segments of its membership. A merged union can also have strength in numbers when it comes time for contract negotiations at all levels.

The bigger issue will be how will a new, single union impact those performing artists who are not currently members of either union when it comes time for them to join? Will it mean higher initiation fees? Will it mean increased dues? Will it still require three vouchers for a non-union actor to gain the opportunity to join? Will it take away the current AFTRA policy on joining requiring only an application and a check from a prospective member? What will happen to the current SAG-E status? How will the Taft-Hartley provision be impacted by this?

Clearly there are numerous questions that need to be addressed – and I trust that they will. Now that the joint committee has created an agreement for a merger that both sides of the merger team are happy with, it’s time for that document to be presented to and voted on by the boards of both unions. The next step will then be yours (if you are current a member of either or both unions).

Before you vote “yes” or” no,” perform due diligence. Read the merger document; read the fine print and consider the bigger picture of what a merger means, not just for you and your career personally, but for the business of acting as a whole.

Having not yet seen the merger agreement, and as a union member myself, I can say that on the surface, at initial contemplation, this move seems like a win-win for all parties involved.

What are your thoughts?