You've Just Won the Lotto

by Casting Director Justin Radley, CCDA

A recent Variety article by Jenelle Riley details the fortuitous path fledgling actor Jeffry Griffin took to land on screen with Ryan Gosling in a number of scenes of the hit movie The Big Short.  I love hearing success stories like this.  It proves that if an actor positions himself in the right place at the right time, that ethereal dream of booking a role in a major motion picture with a star-studded cast is attainable – as long as the actor is prepared.  According to the article, a PA on the film plucked Griffin “at random” from a pool of about a hundred extras to play Gosling’s assistant.  Although I’m skeptical the decision was as random as it may have appeared to Griffin at the time -- actors rarely realize how much thought goes into casting -- Griffin proved he could rise to the challenge and went on to have a great experience shooting a scene with Gosling.

While congratulations are certainly in order for Griffin, there was one part of Griffin’s success story that bugged me.  It was this:

…he got a call two weeks later from Charlotte Gale in the casting department.  She asked what he was doing the next day and he replied he was shooting a Louisiana Lotto commercial…  “She said, ‘Cancel it.  You’ve just won the Lotto.’”

The article then goes on to explain that Gosling wanted Griffin back to play his assistant in additional scenes, and that a single day of work turned into two weeks of- Wait a second.  Griffin was booked on a Lotto commercial and backed out of the booking the day before the shoot? I’d be interested to hear more about this little detail of the story that was glossed over as though backing out of a commercial booking is an acceptable practice.  I certainly understand why Griffin made the decision he did.  What actor in his right mind wouldn’t rather be in additional scenes of The Big Short with Ryan Gosling instead of hawking lottery tickets to the bayou? In Griffin’s case, his decision seems to have paid off.  He ended up getting two weeks of work and, more importantly, gained notable screen time that might lead to future theatrical opportunities.  Although it may have been a good move for Griffin, it could have backfired just as easily, and the ramifications of Griffin’s choice still aren’t fully realized.  If he was booked as a principal on the Louisiana Lotto commercial, I can assure you he was not plucked at random by a PA, because that’s simply not how the casting process works in commercials.  How difficult was it for the producer of the Louisiana Lotto commercial to replace Griffin less than a day before the shoot? Did they have a suitable backup for him? Did they have to spend thousands of dollars pulling together a last minute casting session to recast the role? Did they have to spend tens of thousands to push the shoot because they lost their lead actor in the spot?

It’s something that happens on occasion, and as someone who casts a lot of commercials, I’ve come to accept it as a reality of the business.  It’s happened in our office several times over the course of my career, and I always have to explain to the justifiably livid producers that I’ve never met an actor who moved to Hollywood to star in commercials.  (In Griffin’s case, he was in Louisiana, not LA… But I’ve never met an actor who moved to Louisiana to star in commercials either.)

The sexiest choice isn’t always the smartest choice.  The most frustrating thing for commercial casting directors is that there is very little recourse to hold an actor accountable for backing out of a booking.  If we cancel an actor after he has been booked, the actor is entitled to a cancelation fee, which on SAG-AFTRA jobs is a full day’s pay for the number of days the actor was booked.  If an actor accepts a booking and then later decides to back out of it, however, there is no reciprocal rule that says the actor must pay something back to production for the breach of contract.  In theory, the actor could be sued and held accountable financially, but in practice, it makes much more sense to hire another actor and move on.  The only thing we can really do is to put a permanent note on that actor in our database.  I’ve never been a fan of the practice of blackballing an actor, but the lack of professionalism exhibited when an actor doesn’t honor a booking as a verbal contract is hard to ignore.  Casting directors remember things like that.  We always remember.

One time I had to tell a producer the day before a big car commercial that one of the principal actors decided she would rather do a table read for a film with Quincy Jones than work in the commercial.  The producer screamed at me and threatened to sue the actress for the budget of the commercial shoot (somewhere in the mid six figures I think), which was ridiculous, because the twenty-something-year-old actress was about as likely to have that kind of money to pay for production as any other struggling artist or recent college graduate barely paying off student loans.  Ultimately, we ended up hiring the backup, who turned out to be great.  The director of that spot has gone on to use her in several other commercials since then.  I never heard whether the first actress got the gig with Quincy Jones, but I do know one producer who made it abundantly clear that we are never, EVER supposed to call in that actress for a project she is producing…  and that producer works on A LOT of commercials.  I hope it was worth it.  I bet Quincy’s really cool.

From a financial perspective, a single day of work on a commercial can be more lucrative than two weeks of work on a major motion picture with a star-studded cast.  SAG-AFTRA scale on a commercial is $627.75 for an eight-hour day, and use fees are paid according to how the commercial runs.  If it plays on the internet, as most spots do these days, the move-over rate is $2,511.00 for one year of use.  When a commercial airs on TV, the principal actors earn residuals, which are based on many things, such as whether it is running on a network or cable and in what markets it will air.  For this reason, it is impossible to calculate how much an actor will make without knowing the exact media buy, and even then, it’s a complicated task better left to professional trackers and agency accounting departments.  To keep things simple for our comparison, let’s say an actor shoots a commercial ($627.75), which runs only once in a single cable market (a whopping $10.55) and then moves over to run on the internet for a year ($2,511.00).  For a single day of work on a commercial that hardly aired broadcast, an actor could make $3,149.30.  Remember this number.  The caveat to this paradigm is that an actor only receives the use fees when the commercial is used.  This means that all an actor is ever guaranteed on a commercial is the initial session fee of $627.75, because a client could decide to pull the plug on a spot before it ever airs, eliminating any chance of future use fees.

Getting back to Griffin’s situation, a spot like a Louisiana Lotto commercial is quite possibly non-union, meaning it would not adhere to the above scale rates. (IMDB doesn’t list whether Griffin is a SAG-AFTRA member.)  We recently cast a non-union commercial for a state lottery, so it would be fair to surmise that the rates on Griffin’s Louisiana Lotto commercial were similar to the spot we cast.  Inclusive of a 20% agent’s fee, the session fee was $600, and the use fee was $3,000, totaling $3,600 for a single day of work and one year of use on regional broadcast TV and internet.

Now let’s look at what Griffin made for his work on The Big Short.  The current SAG-AFTRA Theatrical scale, as of 7/1/15, is $3,145 per week for actors hired on a weekly rate.  (If he shot before July, he would’ve made a little less, but we’ll go with the current rate.)  Griffin says in the article, “It went from a day to a week to two weeks.”  Scale for a single day of work is $906, and there are no additional use fees on top of that rate.  If Griffin had been hired for a single day on the movie, and if the Lotto commercial was non-union, he would have made roughly $2,694 less on the movie than the amount he would have made for a single day on the Lotto commercial.  Because he was ultimately hired for two weeks, however, the non-union rates outlined above indicate that Griffin’s gamble paid off, as his two-week total would have been $6,290.00.  But if the Lotto commercial was a SAG-AFTRA job, he probably would have made at least $3149.30 (see above), and would stand to make much more in residuals over the course of the spot’s life on TV. 

Whether or not Griffin’s decision to back out of a commercial booking was the best one for his career as an actor remains to be seen.  According to imdbpro.com, Griffin has worked on 16 commercials and 10 industrials, so maybe he had a close enough relationship with the casting director and producer that his good fortune and opportunity didn’t earn him a permanent note in their databases.  Maybe it all ended amicably, and the casting director of the Louisiana Lotto commercial wished him well on his future feature film pursuits.  He’s in a major motion picture with a star-studded cast, and he got to work closely with Ryan Gosling and director Adam McKay.  Hopefully he forged strong relationships with each of them, as well as others he met on set, to help further his career and book bigger roles in future projects.  Whether or not he has truly “won the Lotto” by taking this role, only time will tell.  I’ll be looking out for Griffin in the movies.  I’ll also be looking out for him in submissions on commercial projects.  The article doesn’t say whether Griffin will be moving to LA, but I’m sure he’d do well in commercials while he’s striving for those bigger theatrical roles.  If he’s ever faced with a similar situation, I hope he considers his decision carefully.