Monday, February 21, 2011

Negotiating the Entertainment Industry Contract: Broadway and Beyond

I Hope I Get It

Some aspiring performers dream of nothing but making it to Broadway or getting a national tour. They take classes, hone their technique, develop their style--- and they audition… and audition… and audition. If they have that special something, catch the director and producer’s eye, then maybe they get a callback… then another… and another. If luck is on their side, they may finally get the call they’ve waited for all their lives. They’re cast in a show. They’ve finally made it! They’re going to be rich and famous and buy that place overlooking Central Park, right? Probably not.

Did you know that many Broadway performers have other jobs? What about performers that go on tour? Did you know that many of them have to sublet their apartments (while they’re on the road) to make ends meet? So you ask yourself, “How can this be? A single ticket to a Broadway musical is $150. A touring show ticket is $100. The performers must make a fortune!” Right? Wrong.

Some performers actually do quite well. Some do better than others. Most struggle to keep working in this highly competitive field.

I spoke with two Equity actors about their careers, what it was like working in the business and how negotiating contracts worked, from their perspective, in the professional theatre world. Both had different experiences as you can imagine. What they have in common is that they live outside of New York, except when they are working there.

One actor was fortunate enough to have a fairy tale start to his career. He grew up in a community with many performing opportunities and by the time he was in high school he had already landed a national commercial. He earned his Actor’s Equity membership through numerous dinner theater productions and by the time he was in his early twenties, he landed a coveted role in the first national tour of a now classic musical.

He said in the early stages of his career, he pretty much took whatever offer was on the table. He was so excited to be working in the business that negotiating a better deal never crossed his mind. It wasn’t until he had been working for a while and made the move to New York, that he found out the importance of negotiating contracts. He said that he learned it never hurts to ask, even for some small addition like an extra vacation day or a few extra dollars per week. He didn’t always get what he asked for, but it made asking easier when it really mattered.

He was offered a job that would take him on the road for eight months, leaving behind an apartment that he couldn’t sublet and didn’t want to break his lease. So in addition to the decent salary and benefits he was offered, free room and meal stipends out of town; he asked for money to cover half his rent for the duration of the tour. In the end, he got enough to cover a quarter of his rent expense.

He finally made it to Broadway, in his late twenties, an ensemble member of a long-running, legendary show. One of the lead actors was taking a hiatus and he was offered the role for six weeks. Through the negotiations, he was led to believe that the role was to become his permanently and so he accepted a lower salary than he should have received, in anticipation of negotiating a long-term contract with the producers following the brief stint in the role. As it turned out, the actor he was replacing had been released from his contract, never returned to the show and another actor was brought in as the permanent replacement. Our actor was to return to the ensemble, no discussion or explanation. Feeling he had been taken advantage of, he chose to take his option and left the show.
He said, had he known he was not stepping into the role permanently; he would have negotiated for a higher salary. The experience left him bitter, he felt he had been tricked into accepting a lower salary and felt it was time to move on. As it turned out, several months later, the producers re-cast the entire production, including the lead role he played for six weeks. He never regretted his decision.

Another actress I spoke with didn’t begin her acting career until she was in her late 20’s. The mother of two young children, it was necessary to balance any work with her growing family. She started to build a name for herself, joined Equity and was content performing regional theatre roles that she could juggle while caring for her children. Twice before, she had come very close to being offered a leading role in a production running in New York and on national tour. For a year, she was on standby and was paid a small amount to be ready to step in to the show if they called. Three years went by and the call finally came. They wanted her to go on the road with the national tour. Before she sat down to negotiate the contract, she figured there was no way she could accept the role. She couldn’t abandon her family and go on the road for a year, leaving her children and husband behind.

When it came time to negotiate the terms of the agreement, she brought up her concerns and was surprised by what she was offered. In addition to her standard salary and benefits package, the producers offered to fly her family to her, anywhere the tour was performing, twice a month and pay for their hotel while they were there. As difficult as it was to make the decision, she accepted the role, with her husband’s encouragement, and a new stage of her career was born.

In both cases, the actors felt they didn’t have much leverage when approaching the negotiation stage of their contracts. With so many unemployed actors waiting for their big chance, the producers hold most of the power. Both said it still doesn’t hurt to ask for things, especially when it comes to the length of the contract or requesting specific days off.

Both actors also discussed the fact that Actors’ Equity (AE) has a huge impact on the negotiation process. The union has a tiered level of contracts and salary minimums for performers. The established minimums are beneficial, but don’t leave too much room for performers to bargain at the negotiations table. They also both expressed the frustration with Equity when it comes to controlling how and where they perform. Once you are a member of AE, you have to get permission for any live performance, including benefit appearances. This often limits or prevents them from supporting causes and limiting their performances if the venue or event doesn’t meet union standards. Violation of the rules can mean hefty fines for the actor and/or the sponsor of the event.

The first actor always uses an agent/manager when entering negotiations. He feels it takes some of the pressure off and allows them to ask for more without coming across as having an ego or being difficult. He also said he wished he had known more about the negotiations process earlier in his career. After the experience with the Broadway show, he felt he had been tricked, misled into believing he was being guaranteed the better role. He said if he were to do it again, he would have negotiated a higher salary for his time as the replacement for the role and would never again operate on a promise without some provisions in writing. When he was not offered the role, he felt his best alternative to a negotiated agreement was to leave the show. It was better to leave on good terms than to deal with negative emotions or resentment if he stayed.

The second performer said she doesn’t normally use representation when negotiating but does have a union representative go over any contract before she signs it. She said she has been lucky, for the most part, in the offers she has received. In the case of the tour, she has known other actors in similar situations that did not get the kind of deal she did. She attributed the producer’s willingness to accommodate her family concerns, largely due to the affiliation that had developed between them over the time prior to her actually being offered the role.

In the end, there isn’t a lot of room for negotiating on the side of performers. The union guarantees minimum salaries but the producers hold the power and the ability to set wages above the minimum. As difficult as it is for productions to break even in New York, let alone provide a return to investors, actors are lucky to have a union in place to help guarantee a base standard of living. There are only a handful of actors that have reached a status where they truly have any power at the negotiations table. Most actors are just happy to be able to make a living doing what they love.

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