The Trials of Mid-Level Actors

That Guy... Who Was in That ThingAndrea alerted me to the documentary That Guy… Who Was in That Thing. It consists of interviews with 16 relatively familiar screen actors about the acting business and their lives. It’s interesting because we don’t get much information about actors at that level. I didn’t learn much, however. I’m very aware of just how extreme the winner-take-all economics of the film business is.

Consider, for example, Marcus Chong (who isn’t in the film). He played Tank in The Matrix. Other than the three principal actors, he was the only member of the Nebuchadnezzar who survived. So when the producers made the two sequels, they needed Chong to reprise the role. They offered him $250,000 to do both films—$125,000 each. Chong wanted $250,000 for each. Eventually, the producers replaced Chong with Harold Perrineau in a very clunky script rewrite. This was a huge mistake. As it is, the biggest problem with the sequels is that they introduce so many new and uninteresting characters. Having Tank would have helped a great deal.

Now I understand: $250,000 is a lot of money for roughly 6 months of work. But for actors who spend most of their time not acting, it isn’t that much. And it especially isn’t much for an actor who was one of the best parts of the hugely successful earlier film. And Chong was hardly alone. While the principals made a lot of money from the film, for everyone else, it was just a job. For most people, it is nothing other than a union job. And that’s good, but not great.

This comes across loud and clear in That Guy… Who Was in That Thing. Even extremely well-established actors like Paul Guilfoyle seem to get relatively little pay. Even more than that, the whole Hollywood system is designed to give them little respect. They are just cogs in the machine, to be plugged into roles. What I didn’t know before is that salaries of the actors have gone down over the last decade. Given that they are not seen as draws (although people like Guilfoyle and Xander Berkeley are for me), producers just offer a low salaries and get someone else if they aren’t accepted.

I’m not going to shed any tears for these guys. It is relatively hard to get into the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Even so, the average yearly salary of SAG actors is below $5,000. So most actors are making little money. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the median salary is zero. So these guys are doing okay. And they are doing what most people go into acting for: to act and get paid for it.

But it does bring up the issue of income inequality. I don’t mean the fact that acting is a winner-take-all market. Everyone knows that and so people who go into the business know what they are getting into. The big conservative argument of why we have to pay the “winners” so much is to motivate everyone else. But I don’t see that at all. If there were something vaguely linear about success and financial gain, I don’t think anything would change. Certainly these middle-level actors continue to do good work despite the fact that they know they will never be stars making millions of dollars per film.

Regardless, the documentary provides a far better description of Hollywood than is usual. And generally, what is happening there is the same thing that is happening in the rest of the economy. It isn’t a question of the stars versus the rest. The real money in Hollywood goes to the producers; stars make most of their money by being executive producers. So again, it’s all about the workers versus the owners. In general, working actors and technicians do okay. But very few are getting rich. Luckily for them, they still have strong unions. Without them, it would be far worse—just like in the rest of the economy.

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