Category Archives: anecdote

Freakonomics and the acting industry and why you take it or leave it if you are an actor

Please watch this video.  It explains one of the chapters in the hit book, Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner.  It is counter-intuitive but it shows why, using a flat rate commission model, your estate agent is not really looking out for your best interests if you are a seller.

I am of the opinion that the Actor / Agent / Casting Director relationship is similarly skewed against the interests of the Actor.  ie when he/her is offered a job, the system is skewed against his/her (I will use the masculine pronoun henceforth) best interests.

As we know, the hardest thing about an Actor’s life is getting work.  Barring the famous and in-demand actors, who can open a show or film or carry a TV show  (like, say, Benedict Cumberbatch / James Nesbitt), there is not a high proportion of Actors, who are offered enough work to keep them busy throughout the year.

For these working Actors, the majority of them rely on their Agent to find them work and put them up for it.  The Agent (again, barring those Agents who represent the Cumberbatch/Nesbitt actors) has a stable of say 100+ Actors, all of whom are looking to get a slice of what is available (incidentally, the money at this level is not very impressive either,  having been decreasing in comparative terms including inflation almost every year since Equity membership was  no longer a requirement to work as an Actor.  A West End job today pays less than I was paid in Miss Saigon in 1992).

There are some Actors (most of the well known ones), who do quite well at this level – and while not famous enough to be in the Cumberbatch/Nesbitt order of magnitude, have a name from previous shows, maybe, or simply a reputation for being good and (impressively!) they are making a living from the profession.   Others make a modest living but do not have to do anything else.  I am more or less at this level –  my work as ChineseElvis subsidises my acting career and allows me to turn some acting work down.

The vast majority of Actors (if this survey is to be believed)  do not make a living solely from acting and are basically in a position, where they are expected to be grateful for anything that is thrown their way.

The Agents (feminine pronoun henceforth) are themselves trying to make a living (and pay for offices and staff) by taking commission from the ever-diminishing earnings of their coterie of barely-employed actors, and the ever-decreasing smaller number who make a living. The overall diminishment of these Actors’ annual earning power is why Agents have slowly pushed up the commission rate from 10% in the ’80s to, in some cases, 20% and 25% today.

It is therefore obvious that an Agent would rather an Actor were tied up doing a job in theatre – even if this in no way is going to enhance an acting career (or even be interesting to do as an Actor).  A year’s contract in The Mousetrap playing to uncomprehending Japanese tourists is not on many Actor’s to-do list, but 15% of a £500 weekly wage is a reliable source of income for an Agent as well as keeping that Actor from hassling the Agent, moaning about not being seen for this or that.  Actors, especially the 75% of Actors earning less than £5K a year, find themselves often pressured into doing things that are not  really good for them, but good for the Agent.

How many times have I and other UK Actors done work for free – or for much less than what US Equity would call “Scale” – because of the “potential exposure” this might bring in the future or the “doors this might open”?!  It is the idea that you scatter groundbait in the hope you collect later!  I turned 50 in March and if the doors are not open for me yet, then they never will be!  I should be in the collecting stage of my career from all the free stuff I have done, surely?!  But I digress…

What I want to address in this post is that  I have realised that even when an Actor, who is among the rarefied ones making a living from the industry, gets a decent job offer on a TV or film, say, then their Agent is not really incentivised to negotiate any better deal than that initially offered.  Not perks, not billing,  not a better money offer – but in the same way as the video above describes, is more interested in locking down the deal for the sake of the commission – and to preserve/enhance their relationship with the Casting Director / production.

By way of another digression and to illustrate this point, I was asked to go up to Granada Studios in Manchester to audition as a doctor for Coronation St in 2011,  I didn’t want to spend the approx £100 for the return ticket from London (they don’t even pay your fare any more, it is ridiculous) and waste an entire day for one day’s work, especially given I had played a doctor in Coronation St already twice before! I had no desire to do it just for the sake of the day’s work.  So I decided not to go.  My Agent (at the time) went completely batshit!  Given I had only just moved to this Agent, I agreed to travel all the way, wasting the whole day, in a bid to smooth the transition to her and demonstrate goodwill to this new relationship.  My reasons for not going, (perfectly sensible given the part was less good than the two other times I had already appeared in this soap) made this Agent no money and by me spending £100 of my own money it gave her the chance of making a few quid – and strengthening her relationship with Granada TV!  The same agent could not comprehend why I turned down 9 months work at Stratford Upon Avon and would not leave my 12 year old son at home alone!

This youtube video below (to digress again) is a funny – and incredible – mashup of my very first appearance as a Doctor in Corrie intercut with almost identical scenes with me dressed identically in EastEnders from the same year (2008).  The scenes are identical!  FFS!

Back to the point.  In the same way as the Actor doesn’t want to compromise his relationship with his Agent (as recounted above), the Agent doesn’t want to compromise her relationship with the Casting Director or production.  The Casting Director is looking to place suggestions of actors in front of a Director or Producer for some project or other and it is entirely up to the Casting Director who they pick for this.  So the Agent, understandably wanting her stable of actors to be in the frame, doesn’t want to compromise being on the Casting Director’s “For Consideration” list by causing problems and insisting on anything more than offered.  This compromises the interests of the individual Actor who has been offered a role via this mechanism.

What may not be widely known is that the Casting Director also negotiates the money with the successful Agents on behalf of the production.  I disapprove of this and feel this is where it gets opaque.

In the case of the Casting Director negotiating the fee with the Actor’s Agent, the perceived wisdom is that the Casting Directors are merely the go-between, taking the hassle out of negotiating the cast’s fees for the production. I am sure that is true in most cases. However, I have noticed a flaw in this wisdom, which further compromises the individual Actor after having been offered a role. Although it is only (perhaps) theoretical, it is one which Actors should think about.

Let us imagine I were a Film Producer and wanted to only spend £100K on my cast for the entire film.  To incentivise people to achieve that goal, would it not make sense to say to a Casting Director (who I had hired and works for me, don’t forget) that I would allow her to keep any money she had saved underneath this budget?  And let’s say I allow a 20% contingency from the budget to give me some wiggle room for one or two actors who are big enough to stand firm, making the Casting Director’s budget £80k.  It would make complete sense for The Casting Director to try and cast the film spending only £75K (or less) because of the £5K bonus they would earn!  If targets were achieved, I would be delighted because I save £20K!  This would actually be the clever & Freakonomics way (from the Producer’s perspective) to carry out this task.  But the Actor is helpless if this is what is happening.

In this hypothetical case, the Casting Director would say to the Agent that the budget was low.  “Take it or Leave it”.  The Agent, because the relationship with the Casting Director is more valuable than the measly extra £150 she might earn by demanding another £1K on top of the £10K already offered for the Actor (as explained in the Freakonomics video)  would say to her Actor the exact same, “Take it or Leave it” and the Actor would be no better off than when the offer was initially made.  And while I am discussing the dynamics of negotiation, it is worth observing that no serious negotiation, Brexit included, starts off with a best offer!  It is very common, however, for an Actor to be told what their money is and there is no negotiation whatsoever!  Take it or leave it!

Whether the above hypothetical scenario has actually ever happened or not, (ask yourself how you would know) the end result is the same for the Actor, who is told,  “It’s a small fee because the budget is low.  Take it or leave it.  It’s only a week’s work – so it’s better than nothing” etc.  All actors have heard this.  And all Actor’s just accept this and give everybody in the process the benefit of the doubt.  They will complain about their predicament – but never have I heard any Actor discuss and complain about this idea.

The question is, would a production or Director really prefer to re-cast than add 10% to the fee?  If yes, then the Actor has no leg to stand on and he is probably among the 75% who are not making £100 a week.  If no, and I postulate that this is the case in most scenarios, the Actor is able to negotiate a higher fee.  But this works only if the Agent actually asks the Casting Director for this and then again, only if the Casting Director relays the same back to the production.  It’s a lot of hassle and the Actor is trusting a lot of parties who, as explained, do not have his interests at heart.

It is worth thinking about.

If an Actor is relying on an Agent to simply find him work he would never have otherwise heard of, (which is my position) then all this is a perfectly acceptable situation.  If the Actor gets offered work and is relying on the Agent to negotiate more money, he needs to be willing to lose the job to achieve these ends.  This is why some Actors don’t perceive their Agents as being worth the cost.  In the mere process of seeing whether there is any more money, the Actor is calling the Casting Director’s (and Production’s) bluff and putting his Agent in a predicament as described.  It is not a very powerful position for the Actor – and now he has been offered the job he is better off without an Agent, arguably.  The idea that an Actor’s Agent is always looking out for his best interests (especially when he has secured a job offer) is NOT the exact reality.

To finish with another anecdote, I was once cast in a show and the money was agreed.  I was then asked to undertake understudy duties instead, while still appearing in the show, but now I was to be understudying the role I had initially been offered.  The new guy they had now cast was too young to do all the understudy duties of the other parts that would have to be covered.  I agreed to this but the Casting Director made the argument that I could hardly understudy a part and be paid more than the Actor playing it!  This was one I was willing to quit over, (and holding already an offer and agreed money) so I held fast.  I am now the only Actor in the West End who has been paid more (50%) than the Actor he was understudying! Actors, especially the ones making a living, need to be more brave about holding out for more money, because their Agents are not incentivised to do this.

They will still take the commission, though, if you succeed!

1994. Life was exciting as a busy, young actor.

As a young actor, (well not so young actually … 27, in fact ) over 20 years ago, I was booked to do a show for Aquila Theatre Company.  2 shows, in fact.  It was early in the company’s development and my flatmate, Robert Richmond, was their new Artistic Director and employing all his mates, much as he still does nowadays!

I had been cast in two shows, Philoctetes and The Wasps – two classic Greek shows in an all male cast of four.

Miss Saigon logo
Logo for the world-wide hit musical

I had to leave the West End show, Miss Saigon, to do this job, envoking my “betterment” clause.

This betterment caused some distress to the Miss Saigon company, they having just appointed me to be the understudy to two main roles in that show, Thuy and The Engineer.  But the point of the “betterment” was to get out when something “better” came along.  Or so I thought.  It emerged that it was customary that the actor did not get to decide what was better for his career!  This came as a shock and after  a bit of a shouting match with the resident director,  I eventually left the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and started rehearsals in a church hall in Peckham with three other actors, all of whom I was putting up in my flat for the duration!

The Aquila job was to tour all over US, playing at Universities, doing these two plays and workshopping with the students.  Aquila Theatre Company were developing a reputation for this (and have done exceedingly well in the meantime).  I was young, had done Miss Saigon already, was ambitious and the decision to take this job was a no-brainer for me.   The only down side was the fact that there was to be a 6-8 week gap between tours, during which we would not be paid (and a consequence of which meant it was 99% certain we would be unemployed in that time to boot). This was annoying, but what could any of us do?

We all duly signed these two separate contracts and our passports were sent off to the US embassy in London with a particular work visa application (I forget what it was called) to work as specialists in education. The cast comprised 1. me, 2. Robert Richmond (directing and in it), 3. Dennis Conlon, who brought his young son, Sean, to stay with him, in my house for the rehearsals and 4. a grizzled-looking older geezer called Steve Owen.  We all had varying experience and competence – but we knew how to party and were close mates.   (Incidentally, Dennis’ son, young Sean, soon was to become a multi-millionaire boy band member, known for being the talented one in 5ive!)  But back to the main cast: Steve Owen filled in his visa application form by ticking “yes” in the box, asking whether the applicant had ever been convicted of a drugs-related offence.  There were only 5 questions altogether!  One of them was whether the applicant had ever been a member of the Communist party!  He then scribbled his “mistake” out and ticked “no”, which was the correct (and true) answer. His passport picture could not have looked more stereotypically like a pot-head if you tried, with uncombed thinning hair and incredible un-uniform teeth, like wonky and dilapidated tombstones in an unattended graveyard.  He and the other two, Robert and Dennis, had already been in receipt of one of these visas, and it was considered a formality.

It was a hectic time and the flat was full to bursting.  It was compounded by the fact that there was for some reason an official water shortage and so we could not go to the loo, wash up etc. and we had to fetch water from a stand-pipe outside the notorious and criminal Peckham Rye pub, “Kings on the Rye”.

As we rehearsed, I was offered a job:  Lead part in a new German TV series, paying a huge amount of money and 7 months filming in Hamburg.

It was un-turn-downable.  I was offered a fee that could have easily paid off, even after tax and agent’s deductions, my flat in East Dulwich (worth at time of writing  in 2016 circa £850K+).

Filming of this, my “breakthrough role” started after the Aquila Theatre company 8 week hiatus.  So… I was theoretically able to do the 1st part of the tour then the cast would be able to rehearse a replacement in the unpaid 8 weeks.  I offered to pay for the entire cost of these rehearsals, including all wages and venue hire as well as putting everyone up.  It was the least I could do, given I was now minted!

However, this is where I discovered having success as an actor makes actors bitter.  This was to be my Withnail and I moment.

Incredibly, the company were not happy with this offer!  I had signed the contract (actually both contracts!) If I even attempted to leave, I would be sued for breach of contract, I was warned!  There was some lawyer or other, who was connected to Aquila and he was, I was informed by the cast, who as I have already explained had worked for the company already (unlike me), a stubborn and ruthless man.  Like the owner of the company.

This preyed heavily on my mind, but the 2nd Aquila contract (after the hiatus) in question started around February 2005 and it was around July 2004.  There was time!  We were to start the 1st half of the Aquila tour sometime in September.

I was then offered a job in Croatia;  2 weeks on a US TV film, with Pierce Brosnan!  My immediate future was looking like: 2 weeks in Croatia on Pierce Brosnan job, return and go on tour to the US for 10 weeks, have a 8 week hiatus, be sued and then go to Germany for 7 months!

The fly in the ointment of all this was the thought of being sued – and this was preying heavily on my mind.  I went to Croatia, had a laugh for two weeks on the film The Nightwatch. 

The Nightwatch, TV Film 1995
DVD Cover of The Nightwatch, 1995, Shot in Croatia during the war!

When I came back to London, I had no idea what to do about the problem of being under contract and having by now signed my German TV contract.  I had in effect signed up to two things, which clashed.   My offer of paying for everything was not taken up.  Why?  I have no idea.  Maybe jealousy?  I was sick with worry.  It seemed to me that if I went and did the 1st part of the tour, then Aquila would have a better case that I was letting them down for the 2nd part and the lawsuit would take me down.  However, the threat of being sued did not make me particularly amenable to the idea of even doing the 1st part of the tour.  The owner of the company was not exactly dealing with this in a reasonable manner!

It was left to the migration policy of the USA to help me out.

We then received our visa applications back.  Steve Owen, looking like he was Howard Marks’ best client, with his scribbled out wrong answer to the drugs / busted question was granted his visa.  To everyone’s relief.  So were Robert and Dennis.  However, my application was denied!  wtf?!  I was the only person with a real reason to come back – having just bought a flat!   Was it just a racist policy to ban foreign-looking people (this was 20+ years before Donald Trump!)?  Who cares?!  I was free!  Even I  knew Aquila theatre Company could not very well force me to work for them in direct contravention of the explicit ruling of US immigration dept!  It would be illegal!  My contract with them was null and void!  Also my offer to pay for the rehearsals, which had been turned down, no longer needed to be on the table!  So off it went!

I did the German job.  It was called Echt Harder.  I managed to get a mate of mine, the actor Kay Siu Lim, ( who had a big part in the Pierce Brosnan film, incidentally) a part in an episode.  For a short 6-7 month period, I was the main role and I loved it.  Kay Siu said to me, “It’s like in Croatia, except you are Pierce Brosnan!”  It was true!  I was!  I earned a London house!  I loved it too and was not going to be sued – and it was all down to a bewildering and apparently racist US immigration policy, whose decision I never appealed.