In today’s glut of original scripted series — FX just pegged the number at 409 for 2015 — it would seem like a golden age for actors, with more opportunities in television than ever. It is true that there are more shows employing actors than ever. But it also is true that it is getting harder and harder to make a living as a TV actor, with series regular roles harder to come by and guest starring gigs regularly relegated to day players.
As TV budgets get tighter among viewership fragmentation and declining ratings, studios often limit the number of regular cast members on a show, instead increasingly employing actors as “top of show” recurring guest stars for a fraction of the salary. Meanwhile, guest-starring gigs that would have normally been top of the show are now more and more often done as 1-3-day stints also at a deeply discounted price, making it virtually impossible for actors to live on guest-starring roles and meet their minimums for SAG-AFTRA health insurance. The trend also is putting a squeeze on talent reps who negotiate guest starring jobs for their clients for as little as $70-80 in commission.
Top of Show guest stars were once a staple of the TV industry, with guest actors on a show routinely getting paid for the full production cycle of a TV episode — 7-8 days for drama, 5 days for comedy – plus 10% – for each job, no matter how many days they actually worked. For non-recurring characters, that has now been reduced dramatically to as little as scale for a single day’s work. TV series productions do more boarding of episodes, so if a guest character has three big scenes in an episode, instead of filming them over 3 days, they are squeezed together in one day, and an actor can be hired just for that one day.
There are provisions in the SAG-AFTRA contract that allow that based on how actors are billed. If they receive a “Guest Star,” “Special Guest Star,” “Starring” or “Special Appearance By” screen credit, they have to be paid as top of show “Major Role” performers – eight days of pay, plus 10%. But if they receive no such credit, they can be hired as Day Performers, or as Three-Day Performers. “Major Role” performers on new half-hour shows make a minimum of $4,983 a week, while Major Role performers on new one-hour shows make a minimum of $7,973 a week, though for cable series, those numbers can be lower, with cable dramas sometimes paying in the $5,500 range per episode. By contrast, actors who don’t receive “Guest Star” billing can be hired for as little as $906 a day, which I’ve seen slide down to the $800 range for some shows, or as Three-Day Performers for as little as $2,294, or as Weekly Performers for only $3,145 or even less. For producers, that’s a big savings; for actors, a major pay cut.
“Hollywood has become like a third world country,” said veteran actor Kent McCord, SAG’s former first vice president and national secretary-treasurer. “There are a few actors who are very rich, and a large base who can’t make a living. They’re turning the business into something where you have the stars, and the rest are hobbyists.”
Along with the rise of co-starring roles that pay for 1-2 days of work, more and more episodic casting notices come with a note, “Won’t Break Top of Show,” meaning that even name guest stars in major roles won’t get more than the top of show quote of approx. $8,000 or less (depending on the show). There are creative ways to get around it with crafty payments to actors that a series really wants, and there still are the rare Special Guest Stars that could go as high as $20,000-$25,000 an episode, but overall, “most actors working today don’t break top of show,” one talent representative said. Additionally, many out-of-town series rely heavily on local hires for guest roles.
Meanwhile, a new trend has emerged on series — especially new ones — in the past couple of years, with studios “pre-buying” actors as top of show recurring guest stars for 6-8 episodes. That can then be extended for extra episodes, so more and more actors would do as many episodes as a regular cast member on a series for $8,000 an episode or less vs. a $20,000-$40,000 per-episode fee for a regular. And that often goes on for years. Some studios have escalators in place, with built-in raises if a recurring guest star hits 10 or 20 episodes, but I hear those are the exception.
“If you are going to recur for any significant amount of episodes on a series, you should be paid a commensurate amount of money for the number of episodes, you should not be made top of show and treated like a one-time guest star,” one rep said.
Sometimes an actor that plays an important character can apply some leverage, booking other jobs that create scheduling conflicts to force the studio to promote them to regular in order to have them available. But in most cases, actors lay low for fear of losing the recurring gig. With series regular roles increasingly going to feature actors, TV performers, especially middle-aged ones, don’t have many options, so they would take a top of show recurring guest starring gig even if they essentially are providing series regular services.
But “you can’t live on that,” one rep said, noting that, with the pay down, residuals have become even more important for working actors to stay afloat financially. The reduced TV acting fees for guest actors also impact their ability to get benefits. Many thesps are finding it harder and harder to earn enough under the SAG-AFTRA TV contracts to earn health care coverage for themselves and their families.
SAG and AFTRA, which merged in 2012, still have two separate TV contracts. Since July 1, 2014, actors have been able to combine their earnings under the two separate contracts in order to reach the minimum threshold to qualify for SAG Plan II health benefits – which the vast majority of actors seem to prefer over AFTRA’s.
But that’s not much help for many actors, once billed as “Guest Stars,” who are now working as day players, because it takes a lot of day jobs to earn the $30,750 needed to qualify for SAG’s top-tier health plan, or the $15,100 needed to qualify for second tier SAG health plan. I hear some actors even turn down offers for one-day guest starring roles because they won’t make a dent in their income after commissions and other expenses are deducted or toward their health insurance minimum.