Callback Turbulence: Over Scale vs. The Guarantee


by Casting Director Justin Radley, CCDA

We had been in the callback room for what seemed like a week.  It had been really only about seven hours, not days, but after ushering nearly a hundred people in and out of the room, I was beginning to feel like a flight attendant.  “Welcome aboard.  Please stow your bag in the overhead compartment…  and remember to keep your reaction subtle and dry while you do so.  The comedic timing is important when Guy #1 shouts, ‘Duck!’ so be sure to cheat that moment out to camera…  and don’t forget to buckle your seatbelt, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Once we were finished seeing the talent, the bumpy ride began.  The board looked good.  (We tack the size sheets of actors in serious consideration up on a corkboard to see the entire cast laid out in front of us.)  Everyone was thrilled with the casting.  We had our first choices and backups for each role, and everything seemed to be running smoothly until I pointed out the little dollar sign on the size sheet of one of the first choice actors up on the board.

Flight attendants, please be seated.

“What do you mean he won’t do it at scale? I’ve used this guy like three times.”  I assured the director it was nothing personal and the actor’s agent was just doing his job, which is to try to get the best deal for his client.  “Well he’s our guy.  The spot doesn’t work without him.  Let’s find the money.”  This is usually the director’s point of view.  He wants the best talent for each role, because his job is to execute the creative vision of a spot to its fullest potential.  Unfortunately for the agency producer, talent payments come out of the agency’s budget.

 “Whoa, slow down.  His agent’s got a lot of balls.  What makes him think he deserves over scale when everyone else is at scale?” asked the agency producer.  The agency producer now felt the pressure of both the director and his own creative team bearing down on him, because it was his responsibility to explain to his client why they should pay more money for this one actor, when everyone else who auditioned was willing to work at scale. 

I replied, “His agent said he just had a big role in Straight Outta Compton,” but the answer was really way more complicated than that.  Fortunately, that answer calmed the growing turbulence in the room long enough to let me go talk to the agent and try to work things out. 

Whether an actor will work in a commercial at SAG-AFTRA scale, which is the minimum payment set forth by the SAG-AFTRA Commercials Contract, depends on several factors, including the area of exclusivity (a.k.a. conflict), an actor’s current working capital (a.k.a. demand based on recent credits), and possibly the most important factor, the run of the commercial (a.k.a. the intended use).  Oh yeah, there’s also the size of the agent’s balls (figuratively speaking, of course, as some of the toughest negotiating agents I know are women).

The intended use of this particular commercial was not great compared to the broad scope of the conflict it was holding.  It was a regional commercial for the Southeast.  Since it was regional, and not “Network,” also referred to as “National Network,” the actor stood to make less on the spot in residuals because it would air in fewer markets than if it were running “Nationally.” (*These terms are all in quotes because they are a common part of the commercial casting lexicon that’s not found in the Commercials Contract.  I’ll address the vocab in a separate post.)  The conflict, which bars an actor from working in a commercial for a competing product, was a fairly big one -- Casual Dining Restaurants.  This conflict would make the actor ineligible to book spots for some big advertisers like TGI Fridays, Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s, Olive Garden, and even Pizza Hut.  (I guess some people still go there to sit down and casually eat their pizza? I’d take my kids if there were one in my neighborhood.) 

Regarding the ballsy-ness factor of the agent, Agent X was not being unreasonable at all.  The actor really did have a supporting role in Straight Outta Compton, and Agent X had to figure out how to explain to the actor, who was gaining momentum theatrically, that he should agree to do this commercial that would only air in the Southeast… which happened to be where the actor was from.  Even though it’s not running where the actor can see it on a daily basis, his family sure can.  You think the actor wants to hear his family tell him every day how his commercial is running ALL THE TIME? You think that actor would expect to be paid for the commercial he knows is running ALL THE TIME?

Every now and then an agent will ask for double or triple scale, but that hasn’t been the common practice for quite a while.  The more common way for an agent to try to make sure an actor is compensated fairly is to ask for a guarantee per cycle, or more specifically, a guarantee per fixed 13-week cycle.  (A 13-week cycle is what the corporate world calls a “quarter.”)  After talking with Agent X, I explained to the agency producer, and the restless crowd in the callback room, that, technically speaking, the actor wasn’t asking for more than scale.  The agent wanted a guarantee that the actor would make a certain amount every 13 weeks that the actor was holding the conflict, effectively taking him out of consideration for competing restaurant commercials.  The actor agreed to work for what’s considered a small guarantee of $2500 per fixed 13-week cycle with one 8-hour shoot day and use applied at scale.  Applied at scale.  See that? The session fee for the 8-hour shoot day and use fees are all at scale.  The actor’s not over scale at all.  He’s simply guaranteed to make a certain amount of money for as long as the commercial holds the conflict, and that’s exactly how the agency producer went on to explain it to his client, who had to flip the bill for said actor.  A guarantee like this, which amounts to $10,000 for a year, is really a gesture to show the actor that he’s appreciated, and that’s all that actor really wanted.  As far as the client was concerned, the guarantee gave them a set number they had to meet to pay that actor in residuals, and the client knew, based on their media buy, that they would be able to afford it. 

Now please make sure your tray tables and seat backs are in their full upright position.  The edit select links are almost finished, and it looks like it’s going to be a smooth landing.  On behalf of the entire casting crew, I’d like to thank you for joining us on this trip and we are looking forward to seeing you on the board again in the near future.  Have a nice day.