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I just heard from an Austin actress I worked with on a shoot this summer. She wanted to know if I have been paid for the work we did in June. June 28 to be exact. The simple answer was no. However, it leads to a much bigger conversation about money for acting in general.

Let’s start with those of you who are unrepresented or booking gigs directly. You agree to a rate, you do the work, and then you get paid with a check or cash. It may come at the end of the shoot or it may come in the days or weeks following the shoot. Either way, it’s helpful to know when to expect your money. VIRTUALLY EVERY OTHER BUSINESS IN THE WORLD WORKS LIKE THIS. 

The companies that handle your cell phone service, your utilities, your cable or dish service, and every other bill you owe set a date for payment. If you don’t pay by that date, they charge you late fees—or worse, they shut off your service. They are in the business of making money after all, not being your pal.

Now let’s turn our attention to the actor represented by an agent. Your agent negotiated (or agreed to) the rate and your agent handles the billing. It’s standard to wait 30 days or more to get paid by your agent, who’s also left waiting for payment for the actors. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately, most agents will not impose a late fee for payments received after the due date. They want to keep the business and not alienate the client. So it’s the actor who gets directly affected. Knowing that one detail before signing with an agent can change your expectations greatly.

This isn’t to say talent agents are doing it wrong necessarily. But if every other business in America gives you a deadline to pay and is clear and up front about the consequences for non-payment or late payment. It’s just the way the world works. Except for actors.

In the case of the project I referred to at the beginning, I contacted the agent who booked me several times over the matter. The most recent communication was enlightening. The message to my agent from the production company indicated that the production company had not been paid yet. I’m glad to know the company is capable of surviving while waiting more than two months for a check that should be in the neighborhood of $75K, if not a lot more.

Placing blame doesn’t solve the problem for the working actor waiting 60, 90, 120 days or more to get paid. The work is done. In some cases, the finished product may be already getting used and the actor is still wondering when payment will arrive. So what does one do?

As an industry, we need to work together to hold the people who hire us accountable. If you’re offered work, either directly or through your agent, know how much the job is worth and ask the question about when to expect payment. Even if your agent doesn’t have an answer, get in the habit of asking anyway. If it’s a client the agent has worked with before, they will have a history of when payments were received and can give you a sense of 30-day or 60-day waiting period.

There is a personal responsibility we must take as well. We also must prepare ourselves as working actors to be prepared to handle a potential financial crisis if a large check goes unpaid for more than 60 days. While ridiculously unfair, the client that hired the production company that hired you doesn’t care if you missed a meal today or you had to pay your rent late. Your hiring was purely a business decision. Just because they like you for the role doesn’t mean they will like you as a person or respect you as a business commodity.

Now get back to making yourself a commodity worth hiring and worth paying in a timely fashion!

UPDATE ON OCTOBER 18, 2013

Exactly 16 weeks after the shoot referred to in this blog post, payment finally arrived by mail. 

Actors who make a smart business plan and prepare for long waiting periods to get paid can avoid this fate.

Actors who make a smart business plan and prepare for long waiting periods to get paid can avoid this fate.

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