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!