Can an actor who only acts once in a while make a living as an actor?
February 14, 2011 1:48 PM   Subscribe

HollywoodFilter: Can Demore Barnes, actor on The Unit, one of my favourite TV series, make a living as an actor?

I worry, perhaps needlessly, about actors I see on TV after their shows are cancelled. I worry particularly about actors of colour. One of my favourite shows ever was The Unit. Demore Barnes, who played Hector, was actually killed off the show, which was a great disappointment. When I look him up on IMDB, I see that after the end of The Unit, he's only had 3 roles. Granted, they are in Fringe and Supernatural, well-received shows, but my question is, can he make a living from so few roles per year? I don't know anything about Hollywood, acting, or the acting world. How much can he expect to make from an appearance on an hour-long prime time show? Personally, I am someone who needs about $2000 a month to live well. Can he make enough per one episode to keep him afloat till the next job comes his way?
posted by Sully to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, for starters - is The Unit still playing anywhere? He'll be receiving residuals as long as the show is playing somewhere.
posted by absalom at 2:06 PM on February 14, 2011

Here are the SAG minimum theatrical rates for TV; for 2010, the minimum for day performers was $809 and $2808 for weekly performers.

Keep in mind that working actors can earn income doing all sorts of things that don't show up on IMDB, too: commercials, voice-overs, modeling, theater, etc. Actors also receive residuals for performances when they are rebroadcast (when a show goes into syndication, when a movie is shown on cable, every time a commercial runs), though I will avoid my usual rant about certain weaknesses in recent SAG contracts that have made it easier for actors to get screwed on that score (my boyfriend is a commercial actor so it's hit him hard some years).

That said, of course, plenty of working actors have to supplement their income in other ways, whether by teaching or waiting tables or writing or having a partner with a 9-5 gig.
posted by scody at 2:06 PM on February 14, 2011

This is a major issue. This article is from 2004 but still holds true -- it tells the story of veteran character actor Michael O'Neill -- you'll recognize him, I guess, from NCIS, Law & Order, Grey's Anatomy, etc. -- and how incredibly hard it can be to make a living as a jobbing actor. Current SAG scale is something around $800 per day. A lot, on one hand. Not a lot if you only work a few days a month or year... So while I don't know anything about Demore Barnes per se, by looking at his IMDB I've got to assume he's got a day job.

The shorthand is: The top stars get a lot. Everyone else gets much, much less. (And this goes for the crew, too.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:11 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can he make enough per one episode to keep him afloat till the next job comes his way?

Doubtfully. Hence the cliched phrase "don't quit your day job yet".

According to the SAG rate card for 2009 (pdf), single day performer rates range from $759 - 809, with Major Role Performers getting 10% above the day rate, with an 8 day minimum expected.
posted by nomisxid at 2:11 PM on February 14, 2011

Maybe he decided to do something other than acting. I'm not sure that you can tell from his resume on IMDB whether he is a victim of racism (as it appears you think) or that he decided acting is not for him and he has moved onto something else.
posted by dfriedman at 2:13 PM on February 14, 2011

He's married and lives in Toronto with his wife, according to his Twitter page. Maybe she has a steady paycheck.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:17 PM on February 14, 2011

Looks like he has a regular job as personal coach. As scody said, it's a strong possibility that he's also doing some stage acting.
posted by chrisulonic at 2:19 PM on February 14, 2011

Short answer: probably doing just fine.

Long answer: If you're running with a semi-artistic crowd (like I once kinda was) but not famous, and you ever get a chance to meet an actor who achieved this level of fame in the 80s (regular on a TV series for 1+ seasons) -- who has not completely overspent their level of fame, you probably met this actor or actress because they were now doing "real" acting in capital-T, end in "re" Theatre.

And you know what their stock answer is now to young actors who ask about what it was like being in Remington Steele or WKRP in Cincinnati many moons ago?

"It was working on those shows then that mean I can do whatever I want now."
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:22 PM on February 14, 2011

Yeah, I once read this expressed as the number of actors able to make a living just from network TV being a multiple of, say, ten for every hour show on the air -- and even with four or five networks, that's only going to be (3 hours * 7 nights * 3 networks) + (2 hours * 7 nights * 2 networks) or 63 + 28 = 91 or around 1000 "making it" actors.

There are many more than 1000 actors in Hollywood. Even if you throw in cable, account for New York and Vancouver, and so forth, there are obviously thousands of actors who only work occasionally -- and unless you do have a full-season contract, you're probably not going to be able to do any other kind of work, so it's catch as catch can.

It's just like the NFL -- only a few stars make a real bundle. 9 out of 10 pro football players is only in for a couple of seasons and then out, possibly with injuries. They don't have the fame or the fortune.
posted by dhartung at 4:12 PM on February 14, 2011

Apparently the real money is in commercials. Especially national commercials that run for a long time. It seems weird, but the woman from those Progressive car insurance spots probably makes more money than the guy who had five minutes of screen time in the episode of CSI the commercial played during.

Theatre, too, can be a way for actors to earn their bread and butter. I know a few actors here in New York who largely support themselves that way. Well, that and temping and stand-in or background work, and maybe having a regular freelance thing or doing a couple bartending shifts a week.
posted by Sara C. at 5:23 PM on February 14, 2011

Apparently the real money is in commercials. Especially national commercials that run for a long time. It seems weird, but the woman from those Progressive car insurance spots probably makes more money than the guy who had five minutes of screen time in the episode of CSI the commercial played during.

There's money to be made from commercials, but I don't know that I would characterize is as "the real money." Sure, the Progressive woman or the "Can You Hear Me Now?" guy are certainly earning a great living from those campaigns spots -- and more power to them, I don't begrudge them a cent -- but honestly, 99.9% of commercial actors don't get a national gig with a recurring character that runs for months or years like that. Most make a few thousand here and there from single spots that run nationally for a couple of weeks, or run on cable, or only run seasonally. Some spots are offered only as a buy-out (i.e., a one-time payment). Residuals aren't tracked as well as they used to be. So there is money to be had from commercials, but for most working actors it's not big money.
posted by scody at 1:15 AM on February 15, 2011

Oh, yeah. The "s" at the end of commercials was deliberate, for sure.

From actors I've known who've booked big national commercials (and nowhere near the Geico caveman or that ilk), it seems like they make quite a bit of money from them, at least up front. Like "let's go out on a drunken bender, I'm getting the next round!" money - which, myself being a freelancer depending on the trough of the entertainment industry, probably means more than a couple thousand dollars.

And, yeah, 99.9% of commercial actors maybe only ever see one commercial, ever. I dunno. But I know a handful of working actors, none of whom wait tables. Some of them have day jobs. But some of them don't. And they all seem to make at least as decent a living as I do.

Unless you're absurdly lucky, the money isn't good. But enough people can eke out a decent living at it that I run into them at dinner parties pretty frequently. You'd be surprised, actually.
posted by Sara C. at 1:28 AM on February 15, 2011

You'd be surprised, actually.

Nah, not too partner's been a commercial actor for 20+ years. :)

Of course, as you say, there's a continuum in the money. Some working actors make steady, can-pay-a-mortgage-in-L.A. money, year in and year out; some make a few grand if they're lucky; most are somewhere in the middle, with ups and downs from year to year. (The ups and downs in earnings also affect what benefits you're eligible for through SAG, incidentally, because they have a three-tier benefit system; the more you earn, the better the benefits package you qualify for. Which means lean years are made leaner because you're only eligible for the barely-covers-anything health and dental plan. I don't know if this is true for AFTRA as well, though.)

I will say that most unionized actors aren't likely to receive "a couple thousand upfront" for a commercial -- if that's really what your friends are making on the front end, it sounds like they're getting a one-time buyout on a non-union gig (which means no residuals). If your friends are in SAG/AFTRA, though, the upfront money for a day's work (or even several day's work) is likely much more modest than that; most earnings on a commercial come on the back end, months after it's been shot.

In general, these past couple of years have been harder in general (at least in L.A.) due to the recession, as many advertisers have slashed their budgets; virtually everyone my boyfriend runs into at auditions and on shoots has mentioned they've booked less over the past 18-24 months. All of which means a few thousand is indeed a nice windfall when it happens (whether it's on the front end or the back end). It's the frequency of when it happens, as well as what constitutes a "decent living" (e.g., "drinks for everyone!" vs. "braces for the kids!"), that's the kicker.

posted by scody at 1:45 PM on February 15, 2011

Maybe it's just easier in New York? There's certainly a lot more theatre here, which might make it easier to get steady paying work.
posted by Sara C. at 1:53 PM on February 15, 2011

It's not easier in New York. Lots of companies are opting for the non-union ads, or offering plum gigs to celebrities who need to pay their pool cleaners and nannies. And theatre doesn't pay. Most theatre actors (the ones who don't have a steady gig in The Lion King, etc.) will tell you that. Off-Broadway contracts are a little depressing, off-off-Broadway contracts are insulting, and a lot of actors are afraid to do regional theatre if it means missing out on commercial auditions in town.

As for Mr. Barnes, he has no theatre credits listed on his resume. (There's an online casting database.) That doesn't mean he doesn't do theatre at all, but if he were actively doing stage work between on-screen gigs, he'd be a lot more likely to have those credits listed. I don't know that his ethnicity hinders his ability to get cast, since so many breakdowns specify a desire to open up casting to "any ethnicity." (The real question is whether or not it hinders his ability to get cast as a lead.) But as seen upthread, he's keeping himself afloat in other ways, just as millions of other actors are doing. That in addition to his residuals should be enough to take him to the next big job.
posted by zerbinetta at 9:02 AM on February 16, 2011

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