More Than Ever, Players Are Hearing ‘Scale’

“If your usual starting price was $17,000 an episode, now it’s about $12,000.”

Last Updated: June 16, 2009 @ 8:34 PM

Work-a-day actors are starting to freak out.

Film financing is harder to secure. Television advertising dollars are scarcer. Reality and unscripted television shows are reducing the number of dramas and comedies. By moving Jay Leno to 10 p.m. five nights a week, NBC took 20 percent of its primetime schedule away from scripted shows. 

So you still want to try to make it in Hollywood?

“With the very high highly paid contracts for stars, there’s a salary compression, with less and less money for the rest of the players,” said AFTRA national president Roberta Reardon.

True, AFTRA negotiated higher minimums and raises last year, and SAG just voted "yes" on its deal with the AMPTP. In general, SAG will be increasing the union scale minimum, about $800 a day, by 3 percent in the first year, 3.5 percent in the second.  

But more than ever, actors are hearing that word “scale” when offered jobs, or “scale plus 10,” which means producers will kick in another 10 percent to cover agent fees. 

One agent told TheWrap that April Webster, the casting director for the new “Star Trek” film, had told him, “Don’t send me any actors unless they’re willing to work for scale plus 10.” 

Casting director Ilene Starger agrees. "It’s getting harder and harder” for many actors to win jobs paying much above the lowest union rates," she said.

Harry Gold is a longtime agent whose clients include William Shatner and Martin Landau. He said he has one well-known client who once commanded $250,000 an episode on a television series. “Today,” he said, “he’d have to work for half of that. Studios are arbitrarily putting ceilings on what salaries can be, and raises are almost impossible. Actors of great quality are finding it very hard to maintain their pay level.’’

That phenomenon is working its way through the Hollywood, said Gary Zuckerbrod, president of the Casting Society of America, the casting directors’ union. “If your usual starting price was $17,000 an episode, now it’s about $12,000,” he said. 

“The industry as a whole is pressing down on budgets,” said Tom La Grua, contracts executive director for SAG. “It’s arbitrarily stifling the ability of actors to command or extend their quotes.” 
 
He cited ABC’s cancellation of “Samantha Who?” over its failure to cut $500,000 from each episode as a sure sign of the industry’s new trickle-down economics. 
“What that tells me,” he said, “is that the system as a whole is pressing down.” 
 
On the plus side for actors, more cable networks, like MTV, A&E and TNT, are producing original content. But even that has a dark side, said Zuckerbrod, who cast CBS’ “Without a Trace,” which was just canceled after seven seasons despite viewership than always exceeded 12 million. 
 
“Cable shows don’t make as much as network shows,” he said. “So they don’t pay as much.”
 
Starger, who cast “School of Rock,” “Night at the Museum” and the latest "Pink Panther" films, said most actors understand their industry is part of the global economy, and even leading actors like George Clooney and Tom Hanks have acknowledged that a project might be better served if the budget is spread around.
 
Still, she said, studios are saving more on the non A-listers, knowing that they are a community that would rather work than sit. “No one’s immune to what’s going on,” she said. “People have to be open and be flexible for the sake of working. For the most part, people are just happy to work.”

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