When looking over the many emails I received about my On The Set column, I noticed a few actors requesting more articles in the “how it really is” spirit of things. One of the things I probably would’ve liked to know — as I started the pursuit of a professional acting career in a major market — is how much that pursuit was going to cost me. There are many people out there vying for a share of the actor’s hard-earned dollar (and actors are so often looking for an edge that they’ll pay dearly for something that purports to give them that advantage). What, then, are the required expenses to pursuing a career in acting? What is optional?
In order to get these questions answered, I sent an email out to the membership of the Hollywood Happy Hour mailing list, requesting feedback from those who are out there going for it every day. Dozens of actors weighed in with their opinions on what is worth the cost and what can be cut back on, when actors are looking to save money. Several of those actors (Jaye Browning, Kacee DeMasi, Julie Inmon, Laura Lock, Angel MacDonald, Angela McEwan, Chris Millar, Tricia Rockman, Mark Ira Segal, and mom to two working actors including Austin Williams) shared some money-saving tips that I’ve chosen to include alongside the financial information. As always, I offer a huge thank you to the actors who helped bring this informative piece together. Now, let’s get down to it!
“I think if someone had told me beforehand the expenses maybe I would have weighed the factors, but once I was head over heels into acting, the costs somehow did not matter and God always seemed to provide incoming gigs and checks when I could not afford certain things. It is expensive to be an actor; it is expensive to start to become an actor.” — Kacee
“Wow, people have no idea how expensive it is to be an actor. I’m really glad you’re writing about this topic and after I list all of this stuff, I’m probably going to need several large drinks!” — Angel
Note that the mention of any particular company or service should not be considered an endorsement unless I specifically indicate otherwise. While actors I surveyed valued each of these items at various levels, all actors who participated rated the first three items below as the only true “must-have” items for an actor.
Without a doubt, the number one MUST-HAVE is your headshot. A headshot is an actor’s calling card, so a headshot session and the reproduction of prints is not negotiable. However, the costs for these services vary wildly. An actor’s photo session should cost between $300 and $500 (but some actors reported spending over $1000 for very stylized headshots — something they could not credit with any increase in auditions or bookings whatsoever), with hair and makeup running an additional $150 for women. Child actors get a “pass” here. They do not need professional headshots until their look “stabilizes” (around age nine or ten). Even then, they should not spend too much on headshots, since they’ll need new ones at least every year.
Actors will need to buy color-corrected test prints of their chosen headshots ($10-$20 each). Retouching should be used sparingly and usually runs about $35 per photo, no matter how much is retouched. Reproductions can be B&W litho (around $100 for 500 copies) all the way up to $400 for 500 color prints. Most actors surveyed mentioned that they aren’t able to take advantage of the volume discounts they used to enjoy, now that most submissions are done electronically. Hard copy headshots are simply lasting longer than they used to, so most actors are spending around $55-$75 per 100 color repros, as the short-stack ends up being all they need.
Photo postcards and business cards are not considered essential expenses, but I am grouping them here with the other photographic items, since ordering in bulk can often save you a great deal of money. Recommended links for price comparison and bargain shopping: ABC Pictures, Adorama, Argentum, ISGO, Modern Age, Reproductions, Vista Print.
“I think that anything more than $300 a session is bunk. And that should include at least three changes and a solid 100-150 photos minimum on a CD or DVD.” — Jaye
“I’m the mom of two child actors, ages eight and nine. I try to keep the costs to a bare minimum. So, I shot their headshots myself with a 5mp digital camera, which costs nothing but my time.” — Austin’s mom
“Headshots of course are important, but it takes a couple of tries to find the photographer that gets you. I’ve paid less but I think $375 to $400 for several looks is reasonable. Once I paid extra for makeup and hair and the person who did it left after she finished getting me ready so wasn’t there to tidy a strand of hair that got messed up when I changed clothes or to powder away the shine on my forehead (it was a hot day). So, I’ve never used one again and I bring along a mirror so I can check my own hair and makeup.” — Angela
“If the photographer is supplying the makeup artist, then you should expect that you have already seen what kind of work they will be doing when you looked at his/her portfolio. I don’t recommend makeup for most men; it can actually be cheaper to Photoshop those two pimples than pay a makeup person. And the amount of money that a good makeup person charges often isn’t justified for the small benefit men get out of it (don’t get a cheap makeup person). And makeup is REALLY visible on color photos, so it had better be great makeup.” — Chris
“My pictures may last forever. My agent rarely uses them — he’s almost completely online — and with the different submission services, I hardly use them except at auditions. Still, first and foremost, headshots are the most important actor’s tool.” — Mark
“If they are going to get two prints from the photographer this could easily be worth another $100 over what it cost just to get raw shots on a disk. And with everyone having gone to color now, I can’t tell you how important it is to have a properly-balanced shot before you order 300 from Isgo. I still recommend that everyone get a hard copy of their print completely finished before they go to reproduction. You don’t really know what you’re going to get when you print a digital file.” — Chris
“Luckily in LA people are willing to undercut even the best rates for reproduction of pictures.” — Kacee
Online Presence/Submission Tools
Online casting is at a nearly 100% saturation level for commercial submissions, 85% of TV submissions are going electronic, and about 65% of feature film projects are seeking online submissions only. That’s reason enough to have your profile up on the major submission websites, even if you choose not to have a website of your own. At the bare minimum, you should take advantage of your IMDb listing as soon as you have one, by uploading a photo, a link to your official list, and — as recommended in a previous column — a list of your other works.
“The Biggies,” as actors have coined them, are Actors Access and LA Casting. Several actors recommended Now Casting, but more for its extras like labels and web space than its audition listings. Listing a profile on Actors Access is free, so even if you never use it as a submission tool, you should create a profile in case a CD uses the search function to find actors of your type. Should you wish to use it as a submission service, you can pay $2 per submission or join Showfax for $68/year (which includes the download of audition sides and emailed updates when sides are changed) for unlimited submissions. LA Casting has recently changed its pricing structure to $5/month for actors with agents and $10/month for those actors who are unrepresented. Repped actors who don’t want to pay the monthly fee can choose a $1/submission option. Now Casting has several levels of membership, ranging from $10/month to $20/month.
Creating your own website is a great idea, if you can afford it. Even if you don’t have it in your budget to maintain a website right now, you should register your domain name so that someone else doesn’t nab it and squat. Web space is usually about $100/year with name registration being an additional $25/year with some services (others include it in the $100/year hosting plan). Most websites come with good WYSIWYG editors or guides for using the free web-design software out there, or you could pay a web designer $100 to $400 to set up your site and $50 per edit. Recommended links for price comparison and bargain shopping: Drama Sites, Go Daddy, iPowerWeb, IX Web Hosting.
“It seems like everything is a must. Commercials are mostly electronic, so you have to be on the sites, episodic/film CDs seem to only want hard copies so you still have to print and mail headshots.” — Angel
“For every ten mailed submissions I got an audition. For every 30 electronic subs I got an audition. From ’03 to ’04 to ’05 as online submissions caught on, I went from mailing 100 headshots a month (sometimes more) to mailing about five a month. Postage, envelope, and headshot came to $1 a pop.” — Chris
“If you’re broke, you can subscribe to Actors Access for free and submit hardcopy to any breakdown that lists an address.” — Julie
“I go through way less headshots with online casting. Save on postage and envelopes too. I’ve ended up subscribing to Now Casting, Actors Access, and LA Casting.” — Angela
“LA Casting is weird now. It’s free if you’re represented with a $1 charge to submit yourself per submission, or you can do unlimited submissions for $5 a month and go to their seminars (they call that the plus plan). What DOES tick me off though is that they don’t reliably answer their emails, so even if you email their customer service to try and take advantage of a special deal (like sign up for the plus plan for $40 for the whole year by Friday) they may not answer it, the bums. They’re fine on the phone and in person though.” — Julie
“I have three photos on LA Casting. The first is included but to add two more photos, I had to pay $35.” — Tricia
“Now Casting is mostly student films and freaky Internet projects, which is great if you’re starting out. I subscribe at the professional level (Ah, doesn’t the name just make you feel better too?) and it costs me $10 a month.” — Julie
“You MUST belong to Actor’s Access, LA Casting, and Now Casting. With these three you can self submit, make your agent’s life easier, reference demo reels on your resume with a website reference.” — Mark
“I think everyone needs a website soon, and go buy your domain name, someone bought mine. But even a link to your site on an online casting service is sufficient. It’s also a handy way to stay in contact with people without giving them your phone number.” — Chris
Classes may be one of those expenses that actors “drop” when money is tight, but actors I surveyed recommended that actors always find a way to maintain some level of training. On average, scene study and ongoing classes in Hollywood range from $125 to $300 per month, with the “gurus” charging up to $600 per month. Some actors take part in specialty classes like dance ($45-$50/mo.), singing lessons ($100-$200/hr.), or dialect coaching ($45-$65/session). And kids often work with audition coaches at a rate of $75 per meeting.
Not quite “classes,” I’m going to list a few things like private consultations (with a life coach, business expert, image stylist; each of which fall in the $75-$150/hr. range) and CD workshops (anywhere from $35-$75 each, or $125 for intensives). Absolutely, these items are optional and many actors do quite well without ever having taken part in anything outside of a regular scene study class. Other actors rely on these as networking opportunities and foundations upon which to build their acting career. Your mileage may vary.
Can’t afford classes? At the very least, transcribe scenes from movies and TV shows, download scripts from websites, and put yourself on tape doing the material. You’ll at least know what you need to work on, just by seeing yourself working. If you have a script to print, go to Script Copier for 2¢ per page script copies from originals or digital files.
“I take acting classes, cost varies, and also attend free-for-members classes at Actorsite. I didn’t attend CD workshops for a long time, then I tried them and found I learned a lot, so I count them as another form of acting class.” — Angela
“I took my first improv for actors class at Second City with discounts for online yada yada: $315. GREAT DEAL. Note that they give you a card so that you can attend almost all the shows for $1 each if they’re not sold out.” — Julie
“I take ballet classes at Santa Monica Dance Studio.” — Tricia
“Classes and workshops are good to keep you fresh and doing things towards your career. I like the Reel Pros CD workshops.” — Mark
“I take the Dialect Master Class with Robert Easton for $65 a class (four classes per dialect, $260 total) and I usually work three dialects a year.” — Laura
Unions Dues/Professional Memberships
Obviously, once you become a union member and pony up that hefty initiation fee ($1600 for SAG, $1300 for AFTRA, $1100 for AEA), you’d better keep up with your dues (current annual minimums are $100 for SAG, $128 for AFTRA, $118 for AEA).
Many actors also join other professional organizations that have various levels of benefits for membership. Among those mentioned by actors I surveyed for this piece were The Actors’ Network ($360/yr.), Women In Film ($85/yr.), and any number of the CD workshop facilities that provide discounts on workshops to members. Also recommended, for actors seeking their SAG vouchers, was registration with the various extras casting services ($10 to $160), as that fee is an investment in a survival job that could help further your status as an actor someday. Membership in a theatre company is generally in the $30-$60/mo. range.
Other actors suggested maintaining a listing in the Academy Players Directory ($75/yr.), which my research shows is becoming far less essential than it once was. And a couple of actors suggested that actors avoid spending money on listings in Back Stage West for the special issues that feature actors’ headshots ($150).
Ah, this is a fun category. It includes things like your gym membership ($175 initiation fee with $35/mo. dues — but watch for specials), yoga classes ($40/mo.), acupuncture ($60/mo.), personal trainer ($100 to $300 per session), teeth whitening ($250 first treatment with $100/yr. maintenance), and hair color maintenance ($130-$200 every two months). I’d lump dry cleaning for your audition clothes into this category too (about $20/mo.). Recommended links for price comparison and bargain shopping: 24 Hour Fitness, Fitness Club Warehouse, LA Free Clinic, Southern California Counseling Center.
“I have to count hair color as an acting expense! If I don’t keep my hair consistent, I have to reshoot my headshots.” — Julie
“I do a deep chemical peel once a year — not for my mid-20s skin so much, but for my skin when I’m in my mid-40s. I’m all about foresight and being proactive. The deep peel is about $400, once per year.” — Tricia
You could spend a lot of money on trade publications, if you chose to subscribe to all of them, daily. Most actors I surveyed have come up with some great ways to get the best bang for their trade-publication buck by being selective. Back Stage West is $3 each week and most actors starting out buy it every week at newsstands (subscription delivery does save money, but is reportedly very late in arriving at your door). Most actors who buy The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety do so only once per week: THR on Tuesday (when its production charts run) and Daily Variety on Thursday (if targeting TV production) or on Friday (if targeting feature film production). Savvy actors supplement their trades with the free daily subscription to Cynopsis (which is also available in a free podcast format). A membership at IMDbPro is highly recommended, especially because SAG members receive a 30% discount on the annual rate of $100. Since IMDbPro cross-posts many of the articles that run in The Hollywood Reporter, it is often a source for pre-production information.
As far as books are concerned, actors regularly purchase books on the craft and business of acting. Many browse at Samuel French and then buy in bulk (at a discount) on Amazon.com. What actors can buy at Samuel French that they can’t find with the big guys are plays, dialect tapes, agency and CD guides and labels, etc. Actors who are actively seeking agents tend to spend about $12/mo. on The Agencies guidebook and actors who submit directly to CDs prefer to use online labels or books provided by Breakdown Services (which are guaranteed to be accurate). Finally, every actor needs a Thomas Bros. Guide it seems, as that is the kind of backup you’ll want when MapQuest.com sends you down the wrong road to your audition.
“Luckily my office gets all the trades so I can look at those for free.” — Angel
“On trades, of course I read them. The only one I buy is Back Stage West. The rest I can read at work.” — Jaye
“I get Ross Reports and skim it but don’t use it as much as I would like as month-old info in Hollywood may or may not be out of date. I also subscribe to The Voice Over Resource Guide, which comes out three times a year and is great.” — Angela
“I always try to read something technique or business related. I’m a fast reader (with an extensive library now)! I like to be reading at least one play at a time. My acting teacher recommends this as well. They are reasonably priced at Samuel French.” — Tricia
“Agency mailings and postcards are still necessary, as I believe in sending postcards as thanks after auditions and jobs. If you’re looking for an agent I recommend The Agencies. Tells you everything you need to know.” — Mark
“As a member of Actorsite I can download the most current address labels and print them as needed for free (such a deal).” — Angela
“I’m thinking about joining The Actors’ Network just so I can use their extensive library and squib books between auditions, drop-offs, and my internship every week.” — Julie
“I’m use CastingAbout.com for labels right now. I also have a subscription to the Breakdown Services CD Directory so I get updated addresses every week via email.” — Jaye
“I buy The Agencies once a year and Agents & Casting Directors once a year for $10 from Info4Actors.com. I maintain my own mailing lists getting address updates on TalentPIMP, Celluloid Curtain, Now Casting, and the list from Breakdown Services about who is casting each show.” — Laura
“Moral: Get a library card!” — Julie
Just like any other business owner, you must set yourself up for doing business. That means having a computer with Internet access and — if you print your own resumes and cover letters — a printer too (be sure to budget for toner cartridges). You don’t need to go all out with a deluxe system; you’re looking for something that gets the job done. Also required: a cell phone with voicemail ($35-$65/mo.). If you’re trimming your resumes to fit your headshots, get a $20 paper cutter. It’s so worth it.
Expect to spend anywhere from $500 to $1000 each year in online access, envelopes for headshot mailings, paper, staples, labels (if you don’t buy pre-printed labels as outlined above), and Sharpies. Best money-saving tip I can give you for your office setup is to go in with other actors and create a shared workspace. Sure, you’ll go through the supplies more quickly when several actors are using them, but you can also buy in bulk and save on the cost per envelope, for example.
“I bought a $130 laser printer that I can feed my headshots into one at a time through the front slot. I print my resume right on the back of the headshots as I need them. This is single best piece of time-, hassle-, frustration-saving info I can give to any actor. And it’s way cheaper for printing than bubble jet printers, so I also save money when I’m printing my maps, sides, and scripts out too. Seriously, I can’t say enough about this.” — Chris
“I don’t buy separate paper for printing resumes. I think it’s a waste to buy special-sized paper or to have someone else print my resume on special paper for me. Especially since hopefully it will change very, very often. And I use a mail merge to print the addresses straight on cards and envelopes so I don’t need labels.” — Jaye
“I download and print my own labels and use sheet protectors as envelopes, cutting off the three-ring holes and sealing with a little sticker.” — Angel
“I just buy envelopes at Staples, although one time I did purchase the clear envelopes from Samuel French which were 100 for $40.” — Tricia
“My new thing is printing a cover letter on half a sheet of paper only (heck, I’d be cutting 8.5×11 to 8×10 or so anyway, why not cut in half so a bit of my face pokes out from behind? Still nicely printed, formatted, signed, etc.). And since I print my resume on the back of my headshots, I’m using a lot less paper these days. Mostly just for directions and sides now.” — Julie
“I get off easy on the office material because I usually get most of that from work. I print my resume directly on the back of my photo.” — Laura
Even though you’ve shifted much of your “hard copy mailing” budget to your online subscriptions, you will still need to mail headshots and postcards out from time to time. Most actors surveyed indicated that they spent anywhere from $400 to $800 each year in postage, depending on whether they were actively seeking representation, doing CD submissions, or promoting a show. Leave off most bells and whistles in your postage expenses (no need to overnight a general submission, or pack a headshot with cardboard to keep it from bending) unless you are dropping your agent. For that sort of thing, you should do a certified, return-receipt letter ($5).
Perhaps a demo reel is non-essential, but boy, when you need it, you really need it. So, it’s better to have it done than to have to pay last-minute rush rates when the request comes in. Actors I surveyed mentioned spending anywhere from $50 to $300 for demo reel editing, with the average hitting around $100 for the first version of the reel, $40/hr. for edits, and $5-$10 per DVD copy including generic packaging.
“Set aside money each month for things you think may come up regarding acting, because you know you eventually will need a demo reel. I have been lucky. No one has ever requested a demo reel from me until last week, and I was able to put one together on my home computer the same day, but the cost involved was time.” — Kacee
“Just got a demo reel done by David McClellan of Potty Mouth Productions. He has a special demo reel rate of $100 for under five-minute reels.” — Angela
I know it’s tough to imagine budgeting for agency commissions, but if you have representation, you’re contractually obligated to pay 15% (or more) to your manager and 10% to your agent for everything you book. I’m including this item in this list because I would hate for you to book a gig and start spending the money — all of it — right away. There is a significant service you are getting for that commission. And just as your agent or manager doesn’t come after you for expenses when you “come close” but don’t book the role, you shouldn’t make your rep come after you for commission on work you booked (whether you submitted yourself or not). Budget for these commissions paid to the people who are out there hustling for you every day.
Gifts to people in the industry are totally optional, in that your gift is the fact that you did a great job and booked the gig. But if you choose to provide your agent and manager with a little something each year for the holidays and send something to the CD who cast you in the role that got you your SAG eligibility, that’s cool too. Flowers, cookies, giftcards to Starbucks or Borders, lunch dates, fruit baskets, wine, etc., are all okay. Most actors who included gifts on their lists of expenses allocated about $75 per booking for this category. Keep in mind that hand-made goodies are extra special (and more affordable).
“Obviously this is one you can cut down on, not exactly a basic, but it’s something to budget SOMETHING for just in case.” — Julie
Entertainment/Study of Craft
Good news! Your human need to see movies, plays, and standup comedy is actually an acting expense! Yup, your TiVo, cable bill, and Netflix membership are all covered come tax season. Expect to spend about $300 a year on these things. Try to hit plays on pay-what-you-can and preview nights to save some money. Oh, and remember that some class tuition comes with bargains for shows by the mainstage group (see Julie’s tip in the Classes section, above).
“As actors, we are compelled to see and study performances that maybe, had we chosen a different profession, we would never think twice about watching. It’s just part of doing your homework.” — Tricia
You’re going to have to get to your auditions. That means your car needs to be in good shape, you need gas money, and there’s parking to deal with too. Certainly, you can park at a meter far from your audition location and walk, but that’s not always appropriate for the amount of time you have to spare, nor is it always safe. Oh, and in LA, you can count on parking tickets at least once a year. Never fails, no matter how sure you are that you’ve read the signs. Just count on it and consider a ticket earned during an audition a sign of good luck. For NY-based actors, there’s subway passes, tolls, and taxi fare. No one rides free. Budget $100-$200/mo. for your transportation (and that doesn’t include the money it would take for you to visit LA for pilot season or having to do any out-of-market auditions).
“Don’t forget parking. It’s free if you can find a space, $6 at the nearest cheapest lot for improv class if you get there late and can’t. Not that I’m ever late, you understand.” — Julie
“Gas and tolls probably account for most of our expense (along with union dues), but we live within 45 minutes of the city, so it’s not as bad as it could be (tunnel toll with EZ-Pass discount, turnpike fee, gas each trip).” — Austin’s mom
Actors I surveyed often mentioned “audition road kits” which included items such as Tide laundry pens (don’t want an en-route stain to spoil your audition wardrobe), hairbrush, toothbrush, bottled water, snacks, clean-up wipes, and maybe even mace! Recommended links for price comparison and bargain shopping: 99¢ Store, Actor Bags, Cheapskate Monthly, Frugal Corner, Stretcher.
“Another expense: BAND-AIDS. For placing upon the blisters you get when walking way too far in your crummy audition shoes (that seemed to fit SO WELL in the store) to your audition in the heat over really screwed-up, uneven pavement or through humongous studio lots (got lost at Universal today).” — Julie
I’m afraid to provide a grand total on this. In fact, I won’t do that. (As Tricia said, “I can’t even add these amounts up, sometimes denial is better.”) Since so many of the above-listed expenses are considered optional, based on any particular actor’s personal marketing plan and his or her specific area of emphasis (which can shift at any given time). Some actors spend $8000 and up each year pursuing acting and may only ever earn back a few hundred dollars. So, what I will do is share a few money-saving tips and hope you’ll make contact if you have some great ideas for a future column. Keep it all in perspective and, like Austin’s mom said about her two young actors: “They have made more than they have spent, but they’re not quitting their day jobs just yet.” You’re not doing this because of what money you may make, doing it. You’re doing it because you can’t NOT do it. This is just a column about expenses you can expect along the way.
If you have a marketable skill, try to barter it for something that benefits you as an actor. Are you an ace at web-design? Find an acting coach with no web presence and offer up a website in exchange for classes. Do you have loads of free time to spare? Work as an intern in a casting office so that you can reap the benefits of seeing thousands of other actors’ headshots and learn a bit about the casting process. Are you super-fit? Perhaps you could trade off personal training services to a demo reel editor who will edit your reel in exchange. Get creative!
If you’re doing regular mailings of your headshot and resume to casting offices (and not seeking representation, for which you would submit your most professional packet), consider sending your headshot as an oversized postcard. You can print your resume directly on the headshot in about 3/4 the usual space, then use the rest of the space to print the recipient’s address and place postage. I get these “oversized postcard headshots” quite a bit and they are never worse for the wear than headshots sent in envelopes. Best bit is, they help you save on postage and envelopes.
Members of SAG should look at the many, many “member perks” listed at the SAG website. Here are just a few: Beauty and Grooming, Cars and Automotive, Education and Career-Builders, Health Services, Legal and Professional Services, Media Subscriptions, Multi-Benefit Programs. You can find even more by visiting SAG.org and entering member discount in the search box.
“Sometimes people never get out of the red in this business. Always keep a running budget or a list of all expenses because pretty much everything is tax-deductible in this business. Stay focused, do not get discouraged, and please do not give yourself a time frame.” — Kacee
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000440.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.