The Business of Show Biz: Negotiation
Monday, June 15, 2015
By Velina Brown
Q: During the last show I did, I really lost money. I wish I’d asked if I could come to rehearsal an hour later on Saturdays so that I could have kept my yoga teaching gig—or, if that wouldn’t work, then I wish I’d asked for a travel allowance. Something. But negotiation scares me. I know big stars do it, but how typical is it for local stage actors to negotiate when they are offered a role?
A: It varies. There are people at all levels of this business who negotiate all the time, and others who don’t. I think most of us take it on a case-by-case basis.
When I first started out, I had no idea that people ask for more when they are offered a role. I naively thought that whatever was offered was always what the theatre was capable of giving. I’m reminded of a show I did many years ago in which I was the title character. I was in every scene. It never occurred to me to ask for more money. One day, for some reason, we actors were talking about money and the young actor who played my boyfriend exclaimed, “I always ask for more than what they offer. I never work for the minimum.”
I asked, “What if they don’t have more money?”
He said, “Even if they can only pay a dollar more. I do not work for the minimum. I’m not a bare-minimum actor. I don’t accept bare-minimum pay.”
What a difference in mindset!
So, who gets paid more is not necessarily based on who has the largest part or the fanciest resume, but rather on who asks for more. Case in point: when Sony Pictures’ computer system was hacked in late 2014, it clearly revealed a Hollywood gender pay gap.
Jennifer Lawrence, an Academy Award winner and star of one the highest grossing films in cinema history, signed for less money than Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper when they were to team up in American Hustle. Once the disparity was revealed, Lawrence went back and negotiated for more. But this very high profile example shows that even if you’re an Academy Award-winning, highly bankable actor, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
But let’s not get stuck on salary. Actors have successfully negotiated all sorts of things. Here are examples that came up at the roundtable discussion on this topic that Valerie Weak and I hosted at the 2015 TBA Annual Conference:
A vocal coach, to help with learning a song in a nonmusical play.
A fight choreographer, for an indie film in which the actor was to depict a character being brutally choked and beaten.
Travel costs, when the company didn’t want to increase the actor’s pay, but were willing to write checks to FasTrak to cover her bridge tolls.
Childcare solutions; if a theatre has space located near the rehearsal studio that is suitable for childcare, parents can combine resources. Rather than each actor paying a separate babysitter to watch one child, all parents working on the show chip in to pay one babysitter to watch a few children. What is negotiated is the space.
Schedule adjustments of all sorts. In your case, if you had negotiated arriving an hour later on Saturdays you could have kept your yoga gig and not lost money doing the show.
The bottom line: I don’t want you cringing in fear. If there is something you want, I encourage you to ask for it. Still, be aware of what’s going on in the market, and what’s going on with the given theatre(s) with which you are dealing. All these years later I actually don’t believe that if you accept an offer as-is it makes you a “bare minimum actor.” It depends on the offer. Sometimes the offer is really good: you like the role, you like the working conditions, you like the people, you like the pay, it fits into your schedule perfectly and it’s an easy commute. Take it! No need to finagle. They’ll respect you in the morning.
But sometimes there are things that make it difficult to accept the offer as-is. Then you have to decide whether to ask for what would make it work for you, grimly accept it, or pass. I advise against hard-and-fast rules that prevent you from taking current circumstances into consideration. You don’t have the same leverage in every situation.
You are taking a risk when you ask for something. There’s no getting around it. But remember: if you don’t ask, the answer is definitely “no.”
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at email@example.com.