I had a great casting gig last week. It lasted all of 18 hours. And then it bit the dust. Ah, this business. Easy come, easy go.

Of course, the instant I got the call, I went to work. I started doing research, I broke down the script, I made my first draft of the casting list, I checked my Ulmer Scale for bankability, I started calling agents to find out actors’ quotes for this type of project. And I created the first draft of my Casting Deal Memo.

Sun-up day two and it’s time to send over the first-draft version of everything, but first goes over the deal memo. I learned the hard way the first time I handed over work product with no contract in place that you always get that deal memo signed before handing off the work. Ah, but this job was not to be. “We’re sooo sorry.” Yeah. I know. Me too.

Should I have not done any work ’til we had a deal memo? Nah. This business is all about trust and relationships and timing. It’s often very important to get the jump on everything and that sometimes means getting to work right away, and sorting out the details later. This means when you “get to work,” it’s essential that your “picker” is good. Really good! I have no regrets over having worked for a few hours on a job that no longer exists. This was not the first time I worked with — and will not be the last time I will work with — these fine folks. We’re building our career-long trust with one another. Now they owe me one. And we all know it.

But what about you? You’re an actor entering into a relationship with producers you’ve not previously encountered. How much work do you do before your contract is in place? Well, you already start working before you audition, just by downloading the script and preparing. And then you earn the callback and you work on the script some more. You get off-book. You explore more about this character so you can have an intelligent conversation with producers, should they want to know your take on that amazing thing that happens in act three.

Then you get the call that you’ve been cast and — based on the type of project we’re talking about — you start getting other calls right away, or much later, from wardrobe and production and travel and so on. Your agent is negotiating your deal and you still haven’t signed a contract, but you’ve started the process of getting time off work and arranging for your beloved pet’s care while you’re out of town. You’ve put out a blast to your mailing list that you’ve booked a great role. You may have even designed some postcards and started prepping a mailing about the booking, since you have a bit of time to kill while learning lines, working out, and planning the travel that’s ahead of you.

And then the deal falls through. The project loses funding. A first-time producer loses her mind and goes MIA without a word to the rest of the crew. Either they recast you or there is no project in which anyone is cast anymore. Whatever the reason, you suddenly have no job (and perhaps no communication that your status has changed — people are weird like that in this business sometimes) and this could happen before or after you have a contract. So what does it mean?

Depends.

I once had a contract for casting services on a project for which it turns out the producers forged documents to verify their financing. One producer was stealing from another of the producers in order to form the LLC with which my deal was made. It seems they wanted to see just how far they could get into the movie-making process before they’d actually have to write a check, in case investors would start throwing money at them, just based on the amazing idea they’d crafted. After the wannabe players left town owing me tens of thousands of dollars, I consulted an attorney who told me I absolutely could go after them, and then I would have a judgment. And a judgment “isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on,” in this case. I’d be out the legal fees for going after these guys who, frankly, weren’t going to be easy to find. I’d be out the time and energy, of course. And in the end I’d have a piece of paper that said exactly what my contract already said — that they owed me a bunch of money, now plus reimbursement for legal fees. And… that piece of paper would get me no closer to getting paid, since the LLC no longer existed (if it ever really did).

Instead of wasting time and energy and money pursuing a judgment that may never actually yield the money I was due, I chose to work on “my picker.” Far better use of energy to make sure, next time, the producers are for real. Their project is for real. Their money is for real.

Psst! This is why people work with the same producers, again and again, in this town. We like working with people who actually deliver FAR more than we like taking the risk of developing new relationships with producers who may really just be “producers.” The rule I like to apply is one Mark Sikes introduced a while back: “Someone who has yet to complete their first project is not a producer. Not yet. A producer is someone who has finished the job. That’s what makes them a producer. Any idiot can walk around calling themselves a producer.” Dude. Amen to that. Recently learned that lesson, big time. Until your IMDb page shows at least one “win” in the world of producing, you’re just an actor-turned-screenwriter with a few great relationships and a dream. That’s not a bad thing! It’s just not enough to mean much to many. We’ve all been burned. And that’s why we’re cautious in issues of Risk Assessment, in this business.

And what if you’ve started working on the project before a contract comes over and then the project goes away? Can you get anything out of that? Not likely. The reason a contract is so important is because it spells out expectations and benchmarks and a timeline that is agreed upon by both parties. Without a document that spells that stuff out, neither party can point out a “meeting of the minds” on the terms of collaborating on the project. As you can probably imagine — since it’s often tough to get even contracted services paid for if one party is scamming another — it’s pretty much impossible to get services for which there was never even a contract paid for! This is why pros insist upon “putting it in writing.”

So, am I saying, “Try to get a contract right away. But even then, it might not protect you. So why bother?” No. I am not saying that. Contracts in the entertainment industry are so much like a pre-nup. You hope you’ll never need the protections that you put into place, but you have them should you need them down the line. People who cannot agree to the concept of even having a contract drawn up to protect both parties are telling you an awful lot about their character and their professionalism. A good contract protects everyone and really just spells out terms, expectations, and a timeline. A producer who won’t spell out your series attachment when casting you in a spec pilot is not only not taking care of you but is also potentially screwing himself. I mean, let’s say your work in the pilot is so amazing that you are the reason the series will fly. Suddenly, negotiations are going to be much tougher. Their mistake. Anyone who is afraid to commit is a non-pro. Let them take that lack of professionalism elsewhere. You don’t want to work with them anyway.

An agent or a manager who wants to rep you without a contract? Well, why would they want that? Why wouldn’t they want something spelling out that your bookings are commissionable? What’s the reason for not having a contract? Usually, in cases of representation, it’s due to an interest in keeping commitments at a minimum and an official client list looking smaller than it actually is. Does that mean actors should always avoid hip-pocket deals? Heck no! Sometimes they work out really great! But just don’t start feeling that you’re “all taken care of,” when you have a handshake deal for representation. You really just have a deal that marries you but allows the other party to screw around on you with a whole bunch of others. Be sure you’re okay with that before you consider yourself “off the market” to other suitors.

Remember that SAG will look over any contract a member brings in, whether it’s a contract for representation or for a project in which you’ve been cast. Take advantage of their expertise and the benefits your dues provide! Let them help you, if you need it.

I’ve told you before about the Copy Provided Form that Holdon Log makes available for download. Definitely make sure any project in which you’re cast includes a guarantee that you’ll get your copy! Especially in “copy, credit, meals” deals, that’s a big part of your “pay.” And speaking of pay, make sure your contract spells out exactly how much you’re getting paid and when. If a project is deferred pay, under what circumstances do you receive pay and how long after producers get that first buck do you get yours? Have you agreed upon the scale of measurement you’re using to determine back-end payments? Is it what Variety reports? Or does a producers’ cleverly-structured profit-and-loss spreadsheet trump that official ledger? Get it in writing.

Make sure your safety is protected. Never agree to be a part of a project on which you’ll be asked to do stunts when there’s no stunt coordinator and choreographer on set. If there’s nudity required of a role, every possible element should be fully disclosed in your nudity rider. How long will how much of what part of your body be on camera? Who will be on set during the shooting? What are your rights in terms of approval? Use of stills? Distribution to the Internet? Use of a body double? Get it in writing!

Finally, remember that “nonunion” does not mean “no contract.” There are still state, federal, and child labor laws out there to protect every employee on every type of project. Mandated work breaks, insurance, minimum-standard working conditions are all within your rights as a performer. Asking for terms to be spelled out in writing is also your right, whether you’re a member of a performer’s union yet or not! Since there will never be an end to the parade of (often well-meaning but sometimes shady) wannabes who fancy themselves producers in this town, remember to use your energy to hone your picker. Choose to work with the real pros in this biz and you’ll rarely have to worry about “what if” on matters of a contract because it will all be taken care of — in writing. How do you know if a “producer” is legit or not? Start by asking ’em to put it all in writing. If your request scares someone off, good. Consider it an A-Hole Filter. Better to learn who you’re dealing with now than later.


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/001022.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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