For a great many people, acting is a career and profession like any other.
Although the public pays most attention to the salaries and scandals of the most famous actors, most of the people in the profession live rather ordinary lives and struggle to make ends meet—just like everyone else.
The thing that most distinguishes movie acting from other jobs is the unpredictable schedule. I have been in the industry for nearly two decades now, and I have still not gotten used to the chaos of film projects.
This is only enhanced by the busyness of my own life, as I need to keep two or three jobs going at once to make a decent living.
I can spend four weeks straight on a project, then bounce to another set for a day, and then fly back to the first project for a few hours, and then go off to do a screen test for a prospective job.
The one thing I can count on, however, is a steady pay check for the work that I do. Here is how it works.
Do actors get paid before, during or after a movie is filmed?
In order to answer the question properly, it is first necessary to discuss the actor’s union known as SAG-AFTRA. This organization is a fusion of the old Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
It represents 160,000 performing artists in film, television, and radio. If you are a principle or background actor in a film and have proof of at least three days of employment in such a role, you are eligible to be a member of SAG-AFTRA.
The reason why SAG-AFTRA is so important is because it has established the rules on when actors get paid. If you are a member of the union, the film production company you work with must pay you in accordance with these rules.
When is payday?
Like everyone who works for a living, film actors must know when they are going to get paid and how much. According to union rules, whatever actors earn by Saturday they must be paid for it by the following Thursday.
If the money doesn’t arrive by this day, the production company has assessed a penalty of $10 for each late day—up to $200 in total.
So, to answer the title question, movie actors get paid during the production of a film.
I am a member of the union, and I have had no real problems with being paid on time. Of course, I have made a rule of working only with professional production companies that have fully-funded film projects, so the money is never a problem.
What about overtime?
Actors must not only be paid on time; they must also be paid fairly. SAG-AFTRA also sets rules for the number of hours that a director can work an actor before paying overtime.
The latter is based on the performer’s workweek. The basic rule states that overtime begins once filming exceeds an 8-hour day. However, there is some flexibility in low-budget films.
It is also acceptable, in some instances, to split overtime pay over multiple paychecks.
Actors are employees, not independent contractors
The fact that an actor does not work for one particular company over a number of years does not make them freelancers. As an actor, you are an employee of the production company for the duration of the film.
It is vital to keep this in mind when going through contracts.
You should not be hit with a 1099 tax form, which is the form used by independent contractors.
You should instead receive a W-2 while in the company’s employment, which means they must withhold social security and unemployment insurance from your paychecks.
They are also obligated to make pension and health payments, which work out to roughly 19 percent of your pay. In some states, the company will be required to offer workers’ compensation and liability coverage.
I have seen production companies try to stiff non-union actors of their pay. For union actors, producers must take out a security bond covering their salaries.
If the project runs out of money or the production company goes broke, the bond pays the union actor’s salary.
Is there such thing as minimum wage in the acting industry?
The minimum payment to a SAG-AFTRA actor for an 8-hour day is $226.60. The actual minimum wage for a union actor in a particular production depends on project type, budget constraints, and distribution plan.
The average salary for movie actors is about $56,357. Of course, the superstars of the industry earn well over this amount.
In addition to base pay, you may receive other payments and benefits. If you must travel to shoot a film, then you will get money for accommodation and per diem for food.
The greater the demand for your talent the more perks you can request and expect to receive.
Do movie actors receive any money after a film has been released?
The answer is yes. Actors who have done a film that runs on cable, broadcast TV, or is streamed on Netflix or Amazon are entitled to what is called residuals.
The formula for calculating how much residual income each actor is to get is complicated, but all the principle and supporting members of the cast are entitled to a cut.
You should expect to be paid one to two months of the film’s release on television.
If you are not a member of the union, you will have to negotiate pay and a pay schedule with the production company on your own.
Some companies want to preserve their reputation among more powerful actors and treat newer and less powerful actors fairly.
However, not all producers are willing to observe such niceties, especially companies that are not as well established.
The bottom line here is that there are no guarantees of what your pay or pay schedule will look like if you work outside of SAG-AFTRA.
To be clear, this article is not meant to be a promotion piece for SAG-AFTRA. However, because the union has essentially set the norms of when and how much professional actors are paid, it is necessary to simply point this fact out.