Thursday, 10 May 2012

Actors On Strike

Casting call: "Payment details: no pay. Fee details: £10 show fee to cover towards costumes & insurance"

I regularly complain about unpaid work. Along with crisp eating and casting-call-mocking, unpaid moaning would earn me a lot of money if, well...y'know the rest. And I was happy complaining about it on Twitter. I was OK just subjecting T to my daily mutterings about it. But now, not only do I think the situation is getting worse, I've noticed more and more castings actually asking actors to pay. And this is bloody unacceptable. It's one thing giving up your time for free but to actually pay for the so-called privilege? Oh no. Not on my watch. If you can't even afford to put on a show then you don't put on a show. You do not, I repeat YOU DO NOT, ask actors to fund your whims. We are not Dragons Den. And we are not here to pay to work.

But it got me thinking. With the public sectors striking today, I wondered what would happen if we all got together and went on strike against unpaid work. Now I know it wouldn't happen because there will always be actors who will work for nothing. And I'm not saying they shouldn't. I've worked for free because I was starting out and fiendishly desperate for work. If you can afford to do it then I can't stop you (although, if you really can afford to do it then can you maybe also afford to give me a fiver?) But let's just imagine WHAT IF. What if we all decided that we were no longer going to take on unpaid work. Presuming anyone would take a blind bit of notice, what would actually happen?

Well, firstly I'd hope the universities and film schools would take note. Now, I realise that some film schools and universities pay their actors but there are far more that don't. And of course the students can't afford to. Their money is for beer and chips so I would never expect them to spend their few precious pennies on us actors. And why should they? They're not the ones who decide to make films, they have to because of their course. So maybe it would make the universities actually think about what they're asking and maybe offer up a bit of cash so actors can be paid. Or maybe they should instead work alongside drama schools so both sets of students can gain valuable experience instead?

And on the subject of short films, maybe it would also help stop the other big producer of unpaid endeavours - the short film competition. As an actor, you don't need to know when The 48 Hour Film Challenge or the Virgin Media Shorts competition is running because the casting websites will be awash with adverts for it. Hardly any of them pay and again, why would they? These competitions just encourage film makers to have a go and see if they can maybe win that coveted prize. But these competitions clearly don't think about the actors that will be inevitably needed to make these films. In fact, just a quick look at their website shows no mention of actors. It doesn't even mention that the actors would be welcome at the final awards ceremony. The prize is £30,000 of film funding meaning that even if the film did win, the actors still wouldn't receive a single bean. All we get is the chance for our face to be briefly seen at a screening. And we all know that landlords love when you try to pay rent with that. So, either these competitions should stipulate that all films submitted are fully-funded or they consider the consequences of encouraging people to hire actors for free.

And then there are the independent film makers, making films for whatever reason. And I salute those people for going into as precarious occupation as us silly actors. But I only salute them if they have taken the time to think about their project. They've thought about funding and have spent a lot of time raising money to ensure that everyone (cast AND crew) gets paid fairly. However I don't salute those who just feel like making a film. Those who expect actors to dance to their unpaid tune just because they're being offered a credit on a film that'll be seen by no one, a DVD that you'll receive after months of chasing and the possibility of working with these slave drivers again in the future. These film makers are the ones that need to be stopped, or at least put away under the stairs for a year or so while they think about whether they really want to make that film. If after that year they decide to play nicely and treat the art of film making with the respect it deserves then they can carry on.

And then there are theatres. Glorious theatres that charge so much for productions to be put on in their often damp and dusty spaces that theatre companies spend all their cash on hiring the space so the actors are left with nothing...again. Now I don't know what the answer is here because I can't pretend to know the costs involved in running and owning a theatre. I'm sure it's not cheap and I totally understand that they too have to make money, especially with Arts Council funding being at a depressing low. So, should theatre companies be stopped from putting on shows unless they've got enough cash to ensure everyone is paid fairly and the theatre receives enough so they can keep going? But of course, if that happens then many fringe theatres would probably be empty for at least half the year meaning that they'd then be forced to close down and the amount of work available would rapidly decrease. And I fully respect those that offer a profit share. It's wonderfully admirable but it rarely happens. I've been in a sold out play that still only made each actor £30. We had no expenses covered so for just under three months work, I got a princely sum that worked out at about £3 a week. Meaning that this job, despite not being explicit about it, had managed to get me to pay to work.

I wish I knew the answer. I wish I knew what the solution was so that actors were no longer forced into working for free. I wish I knew that there was an answer that meant we wouldn't just decrease the amount of work available meaning that the majority of actors wouldn't be pushed out of the profession while the few precious jobs remaining went to the famous names. I wish I knew more so that this blog wasn't a bit of a generalisation. But mainly I wish I knew when I'm next going to get a paid job...

1 comment:

  1. You make many good points. As a writer/director who never has money to pay people, let me respond...

    I would like to pay people. I would like to pay myself. At the moment, I see the films I make as a collaborative exercise, something everyone involved works on for the joy of creating something, and in the hope that the various talents on display will shine brightly enough for someone else to notice. Everybody works for nothing, and if someone doesn't want to take part, all they have to say is 'no thanks'. I wouldn't blame them. But assuming they like the script and assuming they don't have paid work which obviously must take precedence, then why not do it? It's practice, it's networking, it's usually fun, and there's something at the end of it. I try to give my casts something interesting to do/say, I try to alternate who gets the lead, I make sure I do everything I can to reward those who end up doing something thankless - and actually, I regard the principal function of the finished film as being to showcase the actors (and to some extent my writing, but I could showcase that with a lot less work!). I don't think anyone working with me on a film has felt exploited or misled. I hope not.

    As for pre-planning, getting money from somewhere: I could try fund-raising, but it's difficult when the world is in such a mess. I find it hard to justify asking for money to make films when people are dying for want of the basic essentials. But to make a film for no money, now that my conscience can cope with...