Tuesday, 18 May 2010


Contracts for actors are initially a verbal agreement. At this stage, the project, role, dates and money will be known, everything else is still to be discussed. If the discussions break down then the contract won't proceed and either party can walk away in good conscience. But the verbal agreement holds against say, a better offer coming along, in the case of an actor, or a better actor coming along, in the case of the producers. If anybody walks away under those circumstances, a row is ignited which can only be extinguished with quantities of money.
The producers have the advantage in this situation for two reasons. Firstly, they chose the actor, usually under circumstances over which they had entire control. They will have had a good long think about who they wanted and have cast the best actor they could within their budget. It is rarely the case that the budget suddenly increases at the last minute and they can fire their poorly paid first choice and employ a better-paid A-list first choice. Secondly, if it does happen then they have the budget to pay the fired actor's entire fee.
Actors, on the other hand, don't know what work choices they may have to make within any given period. They will take a job and hope they made the right choice. If they get it wrong, they cannot afford to pay for the entire production in order to get out of their commitment and you can be fairly sure that they will be sued.
Of course, this is all quite unusual. If the contract has been verbally agreed, then that is often a done deal and the rest is detail. But the detail is telling and on bigger productions, with bigger stars there are a lot of details. Billing, for instance, can be crucial and complicated with left-hand/right-hand positioning and higher/lower considerations on the posters. Stars will often prefer not to be billed at all for a cameo rather than be placed far down on the list. Theatrical productions and television series will usually bill actors in alphabetical order or order of appearance and that solves a lot of problems. Arguments can still occur over who goes first amongst the leading cast and there is little quarter given since the positioning reflects the current standing of the actor within their profession.
Other ongoing contractual obligations will cover accommodation, both on set and off, and crucially, transport. On one film that I took part in while still a teenager, my agent had not arranged any transport for me while the other actor's agents had stipulated cars, at least to and from the station. The studio was a long way from any public transport, we were filming in winter and often we did not finish shooting until seven or eight in the evening after a six am start. The assistant directors would try and arrange a lift for me, but it was out of the goodness of their hearts and their hearts were often busy bursting as they comforted yet another one of the company members who had been fired that day. It was not a happy shoot. One of the other actors took me to one side after she had seen me hanging around the AD's office yet again trying to get home. "Always sort out the transport, darling" she said in the sort of tone reserved for a particularly trying child, "Tell your agent next time." I was completely terrified and the incident made an indelible impression on me but I'm sorry to say that I never did get to grips with contract negotiations.
When my partner recently signed her own work contract for a respectable job, she took some time deliberating over certain clauses. Curious, I took out the last contract I had a copy of and compared some of the wording. When I got to Paragraph Four, I gave up. Her contract referred to some of the job requirements expected of her. So did mine. I paraphrase, "The artist will engage in such nude scenes as have been agreed in the script. Should a body double be required, the artist will be informed." I couldn't even decide which would be worse, filming the nude scenes or being told they'd rather have a body double. Turns out it's better not to read the contract at all.