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Players: A View Into The Paper Prisons That cage Actors

a view into the paper prisons that cage actors
by Helen DeWitt
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Players: A View Into The Paper Prisons That cage Actors

Helen DeWitt
12 Snaps

1.

There’s a passage in Kevin Brownlow’s biography of David Lean that describes Trevor Howard’s response to a poignant scene in Brief Encounter, the Rachmaninoff-saturated classic of repressed British love: “They know jolly well this chap’s borrowed a flat, they know exactly why she’s coming back to him, why ­doesn’t he fuck her? All this talk about the wood being damp and that sort of stuff.”

Lean struggled to explain his vision.

Howard: “Oh God, you are a funny chap.”

Lean: “Funny chap or not, that’s the way we’re doing the scene. Now come on.”

Not long after reading this exchange in a review,
I saw Hugh Grant’s cameo in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks. Allen, reputedly a morose workaholic, had built a career on the shtick of likable Jewish bumbler; it was as if he’d looked at Grant’s shtick of likable English bumbler, seen through to something cold and calculating and clever behind it, and come up with the space for this astonishing performance. Grant laid bare something shocking: not just the skill that goes into playing a likable bumbler, but whatever it is in an audience that finds bumblers likable.

If only Grant had had more parts like that! If only Howard had had a part that put on display the cognitive dissonance of this argument with Lean!

So I had a brilliant idea for a book about an actor.
I had thought of only one line for the character (Frankly, my dear, I think you are being a cunt), but I knew it was a work of genius in the making. A book can show something a movie can’t, the actual text of actual contracts, the paper prisons that cage actors before they’re players; I needed to know more about the biz.

People in the biz won’t normally waste their time on writers. Even if you have a movie deal on the table and your very own personal agent or your very own personal lawyer, they are not going to waste their time explaining the biz; they want to get paid and move on. But I knew a player.

The player wanted me to sign a contract. He was happy to help. We met at a diner. He had brought an actor’s contract, and he ­started to talk, and for two hours I said nothing but WOW. WOW. WOW.

 

2.

PLAYER: Yeah OK so, let’s see,

Artist shall continue to render exclusive services in connection with the Picture during and after the principal photography of the Picture, commencing on a date to be designated by Company, which date shall be on or about August 8, 2003 (“Start Date”), subject to suspension and extension due to Force Majeure. Artist shall render such exclusive services from and after the Start Date for the full period of principal photography of the Picture.

 

“Full period of principal photography,” yeah, see, this requires the actor to be exclusively available for as long as they’re shooting, it could be a month, it could be six months. Let’s say the star breaks his leg, so they send everybody home, say this actor gets another offer, he can’t take it, he has to go back to waiting tables. Because if you look in the Standard Terms and Conditions, yeah, OK, 

If by reason of any mental or physical disability or otherwise, a principal member of the cast (excluding Artist) or the director or the director of photography is unable and/or unwilling to substantially perform his/her ser­vices or comply with his/her material obligations in connection with the Picture or if a principal member of the cast (ex­cluding Artist) suffers any facial or physical disfigurement or material alteration or change in his/her facial or physical appearance or any impairment in his/her voice materially detracting from his/her appearance on the screen or interfering with such cast member’s ability to substantially perform all required services for the Picture or rendering him/her unsuitable in Company’s good faith business and/or creative judgment to portray the role for which such cast member was engaged, blah blah blah Act of God blah blah then Lender’s engagement, Artist’s services and the accrual of compensation hereunder shall be deemed automatically suspended im­mediately upon and for the duration of such Event of Force Majeure.

So say they deal with the problem, they terminate the suspension, this guy has to show up. Say the suspension goes on for two months, he can terminate the agreement. He does have that right. So OK you have not bought the guy for life. At least that’s the theory. Heh heh. But you know he’s not going to do that, (a) because he doesn’t want to give up the break and (b) because maybe word gets around that he’s impossible to work with.

And see it says “during and after the principal photography,” say they have to shoot some extra scenes, or do a retake, or they need the voice, or they need publicity material, they can come back to this guy and he has to do it, for no extra money. A star’s contract, someone like Nicole Kidman, would specify a block of time, a month, two months, to be available. So a big star can make a lot of movies in a few years because they only have to be available for a fixed time for each one, but further down the totem pole somebody could be stuck waiting tables even though this was supposed to be their break. So you know what they say, the more you make the more you make, a big star who is getting a million, 5 million per picture gets to accept lots of offers but this guy, he’s maybe getting fifty thousand dollars, but for that they’ve bought up his time for as long as they want.

OK, what else is there? “Render all services…” OK, see here, it says “Lender shall cause Artist to comply with all reasonable directions, requests, rules and regulations of Company in connection with such services, regardless of whether or not such directions, requests, rules or regulations involve matters of artistic taste or judgment.” So say the guy saw the script, loved the part, but he has absolutely no control over what they do with the character, maybe he turned down something else to have this part, but later they could change the script, that character could be to­tally changed. You see that happen.

Yeah, what else, options, oh yeah, OK, yeah that’s a very big deal.

Artist hereby grants to Company one irrevocable option (exercisable in Company’s sole discretion) for Artist’s acting services on a motion picture project to be designated by Company as the “Optional Picture.” The Option shall be exercisable at any time until the earlier of (a) 12 months after the general theatrical release of the Picture and (b) 18 months after the completion of the principal photography of the Picture (the “Option Period”)…. The Option Period may be further suspended and extended by reason of an “Event of Force Majeure”… cast unavailability, pro­duction or location exigencies, mu­tual postponement and/or de­lays caused by Artist.

So that gives the company the right to use the guy again in an­other picture, and if it’s somebody just starting out it could be two pictures. So maybe he took the part in the first movie because it was a great part, or a chance to work with a great director, or a chance to work with some great actors, but the op­tion could be anything, it could be a teen movie, or some horror movie, anything.

And see, compensation and services, OK here they’ve guaranteed the guy a hundred thousand dollars for the second movie as op­posed to fifty thousand for the first one. But see, it says

as full and complete compensation for all rights granted and all of Artist’s services in connection with the Optional Picture for the “run of the show” (which includes, but is not limited to, all required preproduction, principal photography, post­production and publicity and pro­motional services).

So if they take up the option, the actor is still on the same terms of engagement as he was on the first picture—he could be tied up all over again for six months, a year, maybe on some movie he didn’t want to be in in the first place. And see, it’s still a flat fee, a hundred thousand dollars, only this time in weekly installments instead of 70 to 30 percent, the way it was on the first one.

So obviously, what the pro­ducer is hoping is that the movie will do really well, not just for the money they can make off that particular movie, but because they can leverage that into a bigger profit off some other movie they might want to make. If it takes off and makes the guy a star, then the guy would be a million-dollar actor that they get the right to use for a hundred thousand dollars.

So maybe the guy wants to work on another picture, now he’s got all kinds of offers, they might let somebody else use the guy in return for compensation. Or let’s say the guy says,“Fuck you, I won’t do it, sue me,” they might say, “Look, OK, we know the kind of offers you’re getting, the contract says you get a hundred thousand dollars, we’ll make it two hundred thousand dollars.” But they’re still getting a million-dollar actor at way below market value.

See, you’re giving someone their break. If they don’t like it, there are thousands more where they came from, there are thousands out there waiting tables who would agree to the terms. Heh heh.

So maybe a director has asked for an actor, we say, “Yeah, we like your idea, we’re really excited about casting this actor and we’re making him an offer,” but if the actor didn’t want to agree with the terms we’d go back to the director and say, “Look, we’re sorry, the actor is impossible to work with, find someone else.”

And the thing is, no director is going to jeopardize the chance to make their movie for the sake of an actor. Even with a star, sometimes a director starts off wanting to use one actor but that actor isn’t available, or the agent is asking too much money, so they get a different star who can fit the timetable, or who will do it for less money. So you know if they make those kinds of compromises with the star they’re not going to take a stand for someone like this.

So what you’re looking at is a guy with no leverage. And the people who have leverage are not going to use any of it on this guy. A star wants all the things that go with being a star, like you get somebody saying they want a ­driver, but they also want a rental car, you’re thinking if you have a driver what do you need a rental car for but they have to have both, or let’s say some other star has a gym in their trailer, they want a personal gym even if they don’t work out, heh heh, you’re thinking what do you need a gym for if you don’t even work out, but somebody else got it so they want one too, and the trailer is a big deal, this guy won’t even have his own ­trailer, he’ll be sharing some communal trailer, if he’s lucky maybe he shares a trailer with some other actors instead of the crew, but the stars get these double-banger trailers, that’s two trailers, with a sound system, an entertainment system, a kitchen even if they don’t cook, in a star’s contract just the trailer could take up a whole page.

HD: Could the star reduce their own fee, or take fewer perks, as a trade-off, to get a talented actor in the film who didn’t have that kind of leverage?

PLAYER: Heh heh. All I can say is I would love to see that happen. Sometimes a star will agree to the deal on condition that some other star is used, because that makes it a stronger picture, and also it means they don’t have to carry the movie alone. If it’s a flop they don’t want to have to take all the blame.

So the thing is, even if you can’t afford a big star that doesn’t mean you can’t make money. You want name recognition because that really helps with the distribution. But maybe the big thing about that movie will be somebody who’s just getting their break, because there is some amazing talent out there. So if you have that combination you can have a movie that can really take off for not a lot of money. And then that puts you in a position to leverage the money you make into more money, because you can use that actor you gave a break to.

Also, when you have a project that has a great part for a kid, that has incredible potential. Because on the one hand the parents and the representation of a child actor know, or if the parents don’t know the representation definitely knows, but usually the parents know, that the kid has a sell-by date. Whatever the kid has going for him may or may not survive the transition into adulthood. But if the kid has a genuine talent, if it’s not just a cute kid, people with the kid’s interests at heart want to see that develop. But the typical kid or teen movie has very limited cross­over potential as a basis for an adult career. So if you have a project that has a really great part, an acting part, for a kid, you are offering some kid the chance not to retire at the age of fifteen. If you think about what Taxi Driver did for Jodie Foster, that’s what you are offering the kid. So you really just have to make sure the investor understands that, that the potential to leverage that into a ­profit is phenomenal.

 

3.

WOW.

 

4.

The player said he was still passionate about our project and he would really like to move forward on it and he would be happy to send me a copy of a star’s contract with the names taken out if it would help with the new book, which he would be very interested to see.

I told the player I was going through a bad time and I couldn’t think about business. The player said, “I understand that, Helen. Remember, there are people who care for you. It’s not just a business relationship. We’re friends.” He offered to put me in touch with his shrink.

Things might have gone better if I’d signed his contract, who knows? If I’d signed his contract I could definitely have mentioned his name.

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