Being given an opportunity to be an actor on a television series can be an exciting stage in an actor’s career. While the level of excitement will vary depending on the role that you are given, and the show that you are being cast on, there still is an air of excitement regardless of the project.
But what happens to this excitement if this is a show that you’ve never heard of, or even more so if it is a show that has never been aired? *Cut to close-up*, congratulations, you’ve been cast on a pilot!
For (almost) every television show, there is a pilot. A pilot is the developer or producer’s way to show the world what the new show will be about and who will be the regulars on the show. Although the world of television is changing due to new technologies and platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, the basic premise of a pilot still exists.
So what happens if you land a role on a pilot? Well, it is first important to understand what you’re starring in. The number of shows that are pitched to different networks and companies each season can be nearly unimaginable. People and companies from around the world spend months (or at least they should spend months) preparing pitches and sizzle reels all in the hopes of being picked up by a network or production company. Those few concepts which do make it through the heart aching process of selection are then given the opportunity to put everything they have on the line and to create a pilot for the networks and/or public to view.
Somewhere between the pitch, the sizzle, and the pilot, there comes a time where the developers need to attach talent in order to increase the value of the production. Herein comes the “Pilot Services Option.” This option essentially attaches you as talent for the production in the event that the idea gets the thumbs up and a pilot (and hopefully the rest of the season) is produced.
At this point, the developers don’t even know if the pilot is to be produced, but they want to have the option to attach you as talent in the event that it is. This option will set out the basic terms such as the length of the option, the compensation that is to be paid to you, the credit that you are to be afforded, and other provisions such as merchandising.
Once they have you secured as talent on the option, they need to go one step further and also secure you for the series, if it is to be produced. After all, a pilot which is successful would need to retain its original cast to keep the chemistry that was displayed in the pilot.
The series will also likely be in the form of an option since at this point, the developers are usually unable to commit to whether the series will also be developed. The series options will secure your place as an actor for one firm contract year, usually with as many as six annual options thereafter (coming soon, an article about the limitations of Personal Services Agreements). This section of the agreement will also lay out common terms such as compensation, credit, and other provisions related to the projects exploitation of your image.
Generally speaking, your compensation depends largely on one thing: union or non-union. Union productions are governed by the terms of the union’s collective bargaining agreement and include certain minimums that union members must be paid. In the motion picture and television industries, it’s most likely going to be the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) whose minimums you must be paid, if you are a member.
Beyond whether you are union or non-union, other factors such as who you are as an actor, what kind of role you will be playing, and what kind of production you are being featured in will have an impact on your compensation as well. For actors who are more established, compensation will also be based on prior rates that you’ve received.
For an actor, prior rates received is an important part of the gig because in many instances your compensation will be based on what you were paid before. There are of course other facts that go into basing your new compensation off of your old pay in that it depends; what kind of role you played, what kind of production the project was, and how old the rate is. You can see why these factors matter as basing compensation for a lead actor in an action series based on an actor’s 6 year old rate for a drama where the actor played a minor role will not be an accurate portrayal of the actor’s worth.
Pay or Play
Another important aspect of compensation is whether you are “pay or play.” As it sounds, “pay or play” requires that the actor be paid regardless of whether the actor’s services are ever actually used. An actor who is given a pay or play clause is in a good position as regardless of the development of the project, the actor is being compensated. Due to the risk that projects never make it, producers are hesitant to grant pay or play unless the actor is a key component of the production. For larger, well-known actors, they will almost always be pay or play as it would not be worth the actor’s time commitment if they were not guaranteed compensation.
And so on…
There are many other provisions that go into these agreements, the more important of them being what happens in case you breach the agreement and if they are deemed to have breached the agreement. Typically, if you breach the agreement, you’re probably not going to be working on the project and may be liable for certain consequences resulting from your breach. On their side, you will not be able to stop the production or have any kind of equitable remedies in the event they breach. That’s just how the business goes.
For more information on television actor agreements, or for assistance with your television acting career, contact Biletsky Law.