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Equity (The Actors' Union)

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Ian Dunn
122880.  Sat Dec 02, 2006 11:16 am Reply with quote

Oh I see! Sorry about that. *klaxon rings*

King of Quok
131634.  Fri Jan 05, 2007 4:14 pm Reply with quote

I am an Equity member; it's not compulsory at all to join although it is now much easier to do so than it was previously, when the number of Equity cards available was restricted. All I had to do was produce one contract showing evidence of a professional engagement as an actor, but I believe that it is acceptable to produce a contract now for an equivalent job, such as skin-work (the people you see dressed as Mickey Mouse etc. at theme parks). It is reasonably easy to find work without being an Equity member, so long as you're not too choosy about what work it is; people in reality tend to be more interested in who your agent is, and even then it's not the be-all and end-all. However, Equity does offer very useful and valuable services such as an insurance scheme, and a job information service (and a lovely diary each year!), and will deal with greivances (usually over wages or injury) if you are a member, and not necessarily only if you are working under an Equity-approved contract. Many companies now make adjustments to the standard Equity contract (call me cynical but largely, it seems, to avoid having to pay things such as overtime on Bank Holidays and Sundays), and Equity itself sometimes operates contracts in conjunction with the Theatre Manager's Association (TMA).

162267.  Mon Apr 02, 2007 5:39 am Reply with quote

MatC is correct ... it used to be mandatory but isn't anymore. Several rules have changed over the years, some more beneficial to individuals and the profession as a whole.

One of the prime reasons for restricted entry to the union was to exert some sort of quality control. This became increasingly necessary when membership was being sought by groups of people for whom the term actor was quite a stretch ... namely night-club hostesses and even prostitutes. I don't believe those professions should be discriminated against, just not described with the same epithet that I earned after years of study and practice! I once spoke to the point against Vanessa Redgrave at an Equity AGM ... and won!

The so-called withdrawal fee is to keep one's status semi-active, so that if there's an intention to seek work at some point in the future, members don't have to go through the initial joining phase all over again.

Equity does the job of three US unions: SAG [covering films]; AFTRA [covering radio and tv]; and AGVA [covering variety artists]. Equity also protects opera performers, stage managers, professional ice skaters, news readers and broadcasters/presenters, and more.

You mustn't assume that the treatment of stars - pay and conditions - is applicable to those working performers without whom the show simply couldn't go on.

If you'd been subject to the obscene exploitation of actors in the days when there was no protection, you'd understand why union regulation - so hard fought for - was so welcome by all but those unscrupulous producers. e.g. Actors were abandoned on tour when they'd signed run-of-the-show contracts. Some were blackmailed into performing sexual favours in exchange for work. Fees were negotiated in secret and awarded according to irrelevant criteria - or none at all.

I'm proud to say I was instrumental in getting some of the union legislation altered to further protect screen actors -- even though I got blacklisted by certain casting agents for my pains. Until some 25-30 years ago, for instance, UK screen actors - unlike their US counterparts - had no rights to any royalties on their performances, despite continued after-sales which netted producers extraordinary amounts of money.

Equity's been a blessing to the industry in the UK. Acting, despite what Hello Mag implies, is NOT a glamorous profession - it's bloody hard work. The hours are punishing, and the preparation and practice of professionals isn't even on the same planet as amateur dramatics.

I bet if it were your kid or your mum or your best pal you wouldn't want to see someone being exploited!

Whew! Rant over!

King of Quok
162320.  Mon Apr 02, 2007 7:40 am Reply with quote

Thanks for that HasBeany, I'm convinced my friends think I live a life of heady sex, drugs and rock and roll excess, and that I spend no time at all at work in exchange for enormous amounts of cash. I have tried disabusing them of the idea but it hasn't worked.

162366.  Mon Apr 02, 2007 10:45 am Reply with quote

actors ... had no rights to any royalties on their performances, despite continued after-sales which netted producers extraordinary amounts of money

Yes, thanks for an informed opinion. Out of interest, do you think that other creators who have contributed to a production (such as carpenters, make-up artists, focus pullers, etc) should be entitled to royalties, or are actors a special case?

162376.  Mon Apr 02, 2007 11:59 am Reply with quote

Flash wrote:
actors ... had no rights to any royalties on their performances, despite continued after-sales which netted producers extraordinary amounts of money

Yes, thanks for an informed opinion. Out of interest, do you think that other creators who have contributed to a production (such as carpenters, make-up artists, focus pullers, etc) should be entitled to royalties, or are actors a special case?

Well, it's a tricky area. The waters are muddied because of the convoluted way films and telly shows are financed. I could write an essay on the evolution of show biz pay structures, but hey - we've all got lives --- even me! Rest assured the royalties are pro rated and most actors receive tiny fractions of their original fees, and there's a scale of percentages depending on factors such as territory sold to, volume of product shipped [ie for DVDs], etc.

Nutshell - Department Head grades on crews CAN and most DO get initial fees far in excess of actor's wages. I know some directors of photography who earn more on one gig than the average actor in a year. So the playing field ain't exactly level. It's a bit too complicated to explain above and below the line costs in a forum post.

Fact - punters go to see films first and foremost because of the actors featured. That's the justification for paying the stars big bucks, but the gap between that level and support level is partly sweetened by the royaly system.

Another relevant fact is that crews have an expectation of pretty consistent employment, whereas actors - apart from stars - are convinced that any job they get will be their last. Also - a crew is on the gig for the duration - usually months; actors, apart from stars, usually wrap up their work in a matter of days or weeks.

The statistics have probably moved a few notches but not that long ago the ratio of members of Equity to actors in work was on the order of 30 to 1.

There are no easy answers, but please note that the culture of films and tv depends on a hierarchy from start to finish. Pay structures tend to reflect that, and the hierarchy ain't based on deservedness or quality. It's worse in the US.

If a studio is paying a star millions you can be sure they're earning far more themselves.

So, you decide if actors are a "special case" or not :)

162395.  Mon Apr 02, 2007 1:14 pm Reply with quote

Well, I would say "not", I'm afraid, except to this extent: they are in oversupply - so anyone who wants to deploy economic arguments (such as their value to the box office) in support of actors' employment terms starts off on the back foot as far as I can see.

I work in film, and I'd query this:
punters go to see films first and foremost because of the actors featured

for anyone bar the headliners and this:
crews have an expectation of pretty consistent employment

for all but a few. Most members of the crews I've worked with in both film and TV seem to work on the most bizarrely precarious basis.

All I'm really saying is that film is a highly collaborative process, and I see no basis for ranking the efforts of an actor who often turns up on set, as you say, for a couple of days, above those of a skilled make-up artist who is there at 6am every day for 12 weeks. And as for the producers, I'm sure they would be willing to share some of those extraordinary amounts of money they earn on the successful productions with anyone who is prepared to chip in to help with the even more extraordinary amounts of money they lose on the others.

162419.  Mon Apr 02, 2007 3:51 pm Reply with quote

I think one would have to be a very dedicated moviegoer to decide to go and see a movie on the basis of the names of the gaffers or the people who do the make up though. And it's well-known that some (star) actors can carry a movie and bring in the profits on the basis of their name alone.

162443.  Mon Apr 02, 2007 5:21 pm Reply with quote

Yes, exactly - only the stars (the headliners I referred to in my post), who will indeed be in a position to negotiate profit participations. As for the others: if you're marketing a special effects movie the effects designer and his team are FAR more important to the box office than the guy playing the third X-wing navigator is. A martial arts film, the fight arranger. A musical, the music arranger. Marie Antoinette, the costume designer - etc etc.

And, of course, if actors do argue economics as the basis of their claim for higher remuneration then they're stuck with the immutable laws of economics - which say that oversupply depresses prices. There may be a moral argument for paying rank-and-file actors more than other creative artists on the same project (though I confess I can't see it) but there certainly isn't an economic one.

162503.  Tue Apr 03, 2007 3:04 am Reply with quote

Just to add a few points: some productions - indie film, usually - offer actors points [i.e. - small percentages of eventual profits] - in lieu of pay - which means there's no baseline from which to calculate any subsequent royalites. This frees up the filmmakers from having to raise bundles of cash up front, and asks everyone involved to take risks of success or failure. Sadly, the ploy is used by unscrupulous producers to avoid paying actors and/or crew.

Of course, there is another factor in operation:
Namely, that not all actors automatically receive royalities. Many are asked to waive any such payments; this option is most likely offered to those actors referred to above who occupy very small roles.

But -- as is frequently heard backstage: There are no small roles, merely small actors! ;)

But back to royalties - there've been raging discussions for years from directors and writers about their entitlement to such payments - none of which is automatic.

As to issues of supply-and-demand -- my experience tells me this isn'tas straightforward as some would have you believe. I've worked in front of the camera, as a producer, an independent producer and a television executive - and decisions from commissioning writers to dealing with distributors are made for a wide range of reasons -- sadly some of them verging on the arbitrary. Many budgets have at least as much to do with tax write-offs as project viability; hiring can still be determined by tacit deals. I'm not meaning to imply the entire industry is corrupt - any more than I'd make such a claim for the music industry - but its history tells us there's a fair old amount of bad practice about.

Unions - to bring this back to topic - were evolved to deal with such injustices. Sure, many became corrupt themselves, particularly when the Mafia took control of the US Teamsters. But British Equity has had a hard-fought battle over the decades to become more than an ineffective gentlemen's club.

We may not all agree about exactly which kind of capitalism should prevail for actors, but I hope we can all acknowledge that no group of employees should be easy exploitation pickings for those in postions of power.

Jim Phelps
219182.  Wed Oct 10, 2007 9:38 am Reply with quote

HasBeany has done a fair job of presenting what might be called the actor's side of this argument. Sadly, while he has had much to say about the terrible possibility of 'actors' being exploited or abused, he has been (no pun) much less forthcoming on the subject of actors (and actors' unions) exploiting and abusing others. Purely in the interests of balance and fair play, let me present the other side of the coin.

I used to make corporate videos and suchlike. Small fry, perhaps, but the productions were to broadcast standard, we did use experienced TV directors and professional actors, and our clients, at least, thought our efforts were worthwhile.

I once needed an actor to dress up in a 'teddy bear' costume and meet and greet people (regular members of the public) as they arrived at a train station. That was it. He didn't have to learn any lines or anything... he just had to be a living teddy bear and shake hands with people and stuff like that. On the day of the shoot, the actor - backed up by his agent on the phone - said that there would be an additional fee... over and above the regular union rate for the job... because the actor was having to improvise, and this was an extra skill.

Naturally, as any sane person would, I said that this was a baseless claim. Nonetheless, the actor and the agent both said that unless I agreed, the actor would simply wallk off the shoot. I was the producer. Cancelling the shoot wasn't an option because we had a full cast and crew and special permissions etc., so I had no choice but to agree.

You can all chime in here and say that these details should all have been settled in writing before the shoot. Yes, agreed. That's what I had been desperately trying to do, but time was very short, the agent was sloppy at returning phone calls and messages, and there isn't always the luxury of pinning down every detail before the day of shooting.

At a later stage in the same project, we needed to do some extra scenes to match those already in the can, and so we had to hire the same actor to go int the same teddy bear costume. This time, as it happened, there was no need to improvise... he had a few lines of actual script (less than a page, as I recall). I confidently entered negotiations with the agent, pointing out that this time there would be no need to improvise, hence no extra fees. The agent told me that this time, there would be a charge for extra rehearsal time because the actor would need to learn lines.

Again, I had no choice, because I had to use the same actor to match the original footage.

So, he doesn't have to learn lines... extra fees, he does have to learn lines... extra fees. Stupid, inconsistent... obviously just instances of naked, shameless greed bordering on professional blackmail, by both actor and agent.

I could tell many similar stories of working with professional actors in Equity. Another quickie: professional, Equity actress hired for a simple shoot where she had about ten lines. The shoot went over time and over budget because she just could not deliver the lines with the correct intonation so that they sounded like they made sense. We gave her endless re-takes, took breaks, did all we could to give her support, encouragement and a stress-free time, but she still couldn't get it anywhere near right. In the end we had to schedule a re-shoot with someone else, costing us a lot of money and making sure we made no profit on the project. We had all of the actress's hopeless attempts on video, so there was little question as to her incompetence. We naturally stated that we would not be paying her fee, since she wasn't up to the job and had actually cost us money. The union got involved and we ended up having to pay her.

So HasBeany can wail all he likes about the poor, poverty-stricken actors and how badly they might be treated if it weren't for the union. But in my experience, they don't mind abuse and exploitation at all... so long as they are the ones doing the exploiting, and so long as the cash runs in their favour.

219221.  Wed Oct 10, 2007 11:26 am Reply with quote

Bravo Jim,

just what i and hasbeany needed to here. i too have a fully fledged membership of Equity. i have had the misfortune to body double a "star" who having read the script months before and shot over 70% of the film decided that the scene where she got out of the bath was inappropriate!! ha!

thanks to her demands i stood around for 2 days almost naked and was filmed 37 times getting out the bath. my fee was a miserable 81 and my train fare. hers was six figures. she didn't even acknowledge me and the film thankfully was a flop.

prior to these few bit parts i earned my money as a escort despite 2 years at college studying drama at degree level so his statement was that it was stricter to exclude persons such as hostesses and prostitutes but this is not the case. most professional pornographic actors are also Equity card holders.

so not such a status after all!


Larry Lovage
219271.  Wed Oct 10, 2007 2:44 pm Reply with quote


219460.  Thu Oct 11, 2007 6:19 am Reply with quote

Hi Bracken and Jim

You both make valuable points about the exceptional and disgraceful abuses of what is supposed to be a system which protects people from exploitation. I've not implied that everything's always perfect, but was merely trying to remind people about why there's such a discrepancy between who does and doesn't receive royalties.

But, can I point out, from all your quoted examples, that it's not actually the union's fault these circumstances arose? As I said, I, too have worked on both sides of the camera and as a tv commissioning executive, so I have a pretty wide-ranging experience of the process of film-making. OK, I've been out of the loop for a while, but I still keep tabs on things.

There are a number of factors which I believe impact on your various experiences.

First is a more general tenor-of-the-times kind of thing. It's undeniable that over the past 15 years or so the escalation of the freelance and independent sector has been accompanied by an erosion of best practice. In the early days of IPPA and PACT, compliance was a big issue and very closely monitored. Then, more and more stories started filtering through of really bad treatment of cast and crew, blatant disregard for matters of health and safety, and really terrible discrepancies of who was paid what.

It's no excuse, but perhaps understandable, that agents began to emulate the most powerful of their US counterparts and start making contractual demands, pushing to their limits and beyond matters of pay and conditions. That was disgraceful in and of itself, and, I agree with you - it was disgraceful that the union backed up such bad practice when confronted with a challenge.

The most important word in that para is 'contractual.' More and more indies and inexperienced producers and casting agents are issuing do-it-yourself contracts which fail to take into account all the various ways they're shooting themselves in the foot. I'm not saying either of you did or didn't go that route, but an increasing number of industry employers are either deliberately careless or just ignorant of what's required.

Contracts in show biz as all other industries are for protection against the 'what if.' I've met producers who claimed they couldn't afford to have their contracts issued by industry-expert lawyers and who've paid the price later on down the road.

There are unscrupulous people in all industries. What makes show biz bad practice remarkable is because of the industry cache among the public, and the fact that what's being 'traded' are human beings whose work is intrinsically part of themselves.

Whether your teddy-bear tale could have been resolved differently I can't say. What instantly occurs to me is that a teddy-bear doing promotional work on the street surely needn't be performed by an actor. PR for something isn't the thing itself.

Did you, in the body-double debacle, point out to anyone that you were getting cold. Did you suggest that you might be offered some protection during the time between shots?

So far as the incompetent actress is concerned, didn't you audition her? There are so many truly talented people around desperate for work. There are, I believe, some 40,000 members of Equity, and only about 1000 are working at any given time. That's an awful lot of trained people to choose from. Good audition evaluation skills are a valuable part of a director's and producer's repertoire. You prepare shots with camera people, you assess the director-editor relationship.

Surely, you need to evaluate the cast before you commit finance to a shoot? If you hire someone and are contractually obliged to pay them, you can't reneg if you're unhappy with their work - especially if you didn't vet them adequately beforehand. Auditions don't cost anything and out of work actors shouldn't mind doing them. Even very experienced actors will audition if they really want a part.

Relationships with agents are crucial to all the points you both raise. And, let me repeat, I believe they ARE valid points. The people you've both encountered have behaved disgracefully. Now, you both need to evaluate how you can protect yourself and those you work with from now on.

The wider point I'm trying to make is that as this and other industries are de-regulated there's an almost inevitable series of abuses of the system that begin to creep in from all sides. The most important thing to do is to protect yourself and provide the kind of working environment which produces loyalty and a feeling that everyone's on the same side without issues of exploitation.

You can make good relationships with agents, with crew, with union reps, and others in your own profession. Many abuses exist because people don't talk to each other and assume they're being exploited, then act preemptively.

Oh, yeah - on the matter of porno actors and hostesses and hookers as Equity members ... I remember a very heated Equity AGM a long time ago, when Vanessa Redgrave was trying to get membership extended to so-called hostesses. Now, whatever I felt about such women or their need to unionize, I was adamant that they did not belong in a union that I had to train for years before I could join. She presented her arguments and I mine, and that motion was defeated. Has the situation changed in the interim? If so, I'd really be opposed to that.

Porno actors are probably in a different category, since they are for the most part acting - apart from those people who are sadly in the control of criminal gangs who get men and women to participate in such films and vids to pay off drug debts. I don't know what the union stance on that is, but I do know from some work I did in conjunction with Interpol that this is a global problem which is getting worse.

Hope this is helpful.

Incidentally, not that it matters - but I'm a woman. ;)

219749.  Fri Oct 12, 2007 1:34 am Reply with quote

Working in performing arts in education ( we teach btec performance and production) if people go off to uni after X'000 they get a little present of a Equity card, which I am told, was not available until you had done at least 4/6 weeks in a run for a theatre or tour.

Now its very early in the morning so I am missing out on some thing's but 40,000 members I think I read and only 1000 working, to behonest out of the 30 students who left I think it was about 5-10 who went off to uni and thus get a Equity card.
out of those maybe 1 will work. There is a teddybear story and the other one about the acrtess now if they were 20 years ago and had Equity you would know they were good, had worked before, etc etc. now almost anyone can get it and in my eyes flooding the market with actors/actresses.

Its FAR too early in the morning to be typing a post like this so I hope it makes sence.

But as a performer if you are a muso you have the best union ever.
And all this talk reminds me to look at my union and join up.


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