This is a VERY touchy subject because you have different levels of opinions on this. One thing that doesn’t really get talked about are those productions that have a zero budget and have high expectations. So, the biggest question is, should independent productions pay their actors?
In the beginning of our production, we didn’t have any money to do anything. Basically, we had enough money to pay for gas and that’s it. When it came to videos that had actors, we used friends and the client provided their friends. At one point, one of the actors had asked, “Are we getting paid for this?”. I replied, “I’m not even getting paid for this, but since this is going on YouTube, if it makes money there, you’ll make money too.” It made it easier for them to work knowing that the director of the video isn’t getting paid either. Now, that isn’t the ideal thing to do in this business because if you start doing free work, they WILL expect you to do free work. It’s better to start off with a budget for everyone involved, but if you’re in the beginning stages of your production business, the best thing to do is be honest and tell them they have every right to use this for their demo reels.
Eventually we started getting work that paid us more than we were used to, so we were able to start paying our small crew for their time. It wasn’t much or anything to live off of, but it was something. It was nice because it finally started to seem worth it for all of us. We got clients that went into the production knowing they were going to have to pay money for quality work both in front and behind the camera. This is the good side of it, but what happens if the money falls through? I have a story for that too.
There was an instance a few years ago that we were hired to do a video project and we made a deal that the actors needed to be paid before anything could happen. It was also made clear that the actors aren’t guaranteed unless they are paid. We agreed to the terms, the actors were notified, and we started planning. A few months had gone by and we were getting close to filming. Locations were booked, actors had their flights planned, but something was missing, money. The main actor had asked me if he was going to get paid because most of his money was being used for the flight. I started telling the client that it’s important that he pays the actor because he’s not under contract unless he gets paid. Long story short, the client was waiting until filming day before he paid anyone. The actor finally told me that if he wasn’t going to get paid, he was going to take a role in New York. I understood because he wanted to take a role that would pay him. Of course, the client was mad because he backed out, but that’s the risk you take when you tell your actors that they’ll be paid, and they find out that you lied to them.
If you don’t have the money to pay an actor, tell them upfront. People appreciate honesty more than anything. Of course, if you are able to pay them and the project actually has a budget, then yes, you ABSOLUTELY should pay your actors. Don’t be that guy that makes empty promises and drags your name through the mud. If you're able to, have your deposit reflect both your time and the pay for the actors so you can guarantee your crew and talent are taken care of. Make sure you take care of logistics before you take on a project that involves money. Careful planning and execution goes a long way.