The Business of Show Biz: Negotiating A Contract
Tuesday, March 5, 2019
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Velina Brown
Q: When you were just starting out as an actor, how did you deal with contract negotiation? Was that something you did?
Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.
A: To be honest with you, because I joined Equity as soon as I could in my 20s and thereafter worked under collectively bargained contracts, it didn’t occur to me for a long time to do any negotiating. Any hiring conversation was mainly about scheduling conflicts. If I was, for example, performing in one show while beginning rehearsal for another or I had a film shoot or something that was happening during the run, those things would have to be sorted out.
However, when it came to asking for more money, I didn’t do it. I remember early in my career (I was maybe 23), while working with another young actor, the subject of pay came up and he exclaimed, “I always ask for more money. No matter what they offer I always get more. Even if it’s just a dollar more. I always ask for more. I want them to think of me as a cut above and that getting me means paying more.” I remember at the time thinking, “Wow, what an ego maniac.” But considering the huge pay gap between men and women in the entertainment industry, maybe that was my first glimpse into why the gap exists.
Sometime later, I asked an artistic director about how a certain casting choice came about. I had thought a different actress was going to be cast in a show for which she was perfect. The AD said, “I know! We wanted her but she wanted more money.” My mind at that point started chattering, “See how dangerous it is for women to ask for more money?” But the AD wasn’t finished. He wasn’t suggesting that she shouldn’t have asked for more money at all. He continued, “I sure wish she had asked sooner.” Because, get this, other actors had also been negotiating for higher pay and the money the theatre had budgeted over scale (scale is the base pay for a given contract) was all gone by the time she finally said she needed more. Not getting the amount she wanted was a deal breaker for her and she ended up passing on the offer. This was blowing my mind because I still hadn’t ever asked for more money than I was offered for an acting gig. Now I’m hearing there’s money budgeted for negotiations and that some negotiation is even expected but it is possible to miss the window of opportunity to negotiate for more. This was all news to me.
It’s not surprising that I didn’t know back then because theatres are not going to advertise that it’s possible for nonsuperstars to negotiate.
Now that I help run a theatre company, I can tell you that not all theatre companies distribute resources in the same way. In some theatres, there is a large chasm between what the theatre administrators are paid and what the artists are paid. Some theatres, of course, don’t pay anyone anything. And some like my home company, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, are more about pay equity. Recently, TheatreFIRST announced a commitment to paying everyone $15 an hour which is a big deal for them. My guess is telling that theatre company that you need $30 an hour won’t be very successful.
Companies that don’t have a stated commitment to pay equity are more likely to have money budgeted for negotiations. Companies that do have a pay equity commitment obviously won’t.
I didn’t really begin negotiating for more until I had a baby. I sometimes asked for a childcare stipend in situations where there was very little compensation for say a workshop reading and it wouldn’t work to bring the baby.
When my husband and I were cast in a show out of state and our son was 10 months old, we negotiated for things that would make the project work for our family. My husband negotiated for more money to pay a sitter, and I negotiated for a studio apartment for the sitter in the same actor housing apartment building in which we would be staying. Those requests didn’t appear to be a big deal at all for the theatre, and everything worked out great.
It took some time before I did any negotiating. It helps to get your hands on an Actors Equity Association rulebook to be knowledgeable about things that perhaps you haven’t yet thought about but have been negotiated for union actors. You could ask for some of those things too. Money is not the only thing that can be negotiated. Wait for an offer before you start negotiating. Investigate the theatre's budget and policies on pay equity to help you aim within the company’s abilities. Let the theatre know what you require sooner rather than later while they still have some budgetary latitude. Make sure everything that was verbally promised is written in the contract.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at email@example.com