Frustrated with the decline in wages among recognizable, second-tier actors and alarmed that the industry’s middle-class thesp may be disappearing, the Screen Actors Guild has embarked on a comprehensive study of compensation for supporting performers.

The study, which was launched late last year, would for the first time give the guild figures on the extent of the problem by sampling 200 to 300 performers and gathering their earnings histories.

“More and more we see the situation where there is no negotiation or a limited negotiation between employers and our members’ agents,” SAG president Richard Masur said. “The accepted practice of give and take, in many cases, has disappeared.”

The study, Masur said, is aimed at “everybody who isn’t a star but you know who they are once you see them.” He estimates that it represents about 1,500 to 2,000 of SAG members, himself included.

Caught in the squeeze

The issue has plagued the acting community for at least five years, as the so-called midlevel players, including recognizable character actors, find it tougher and tougher to pay a mortgage or tuition.

For example, where once a TV supporting player could earn $10,000 for each of four or five guest spots and TV movies a year, the thesp is now seeing a pay rate closer to the union scale plus 10% for agent’s commissions. SAG’s scale day rate is $540 and its weekly rate is $1,876.

But it is an issue that many actors are reluctant to talk about on the record, fearing that they will alienate potential employers. The SAG study is confidential.

In one sense, it is a tricky area for SAG, because it negotiates only scale wages in its contract, leaving above-scale negotiations to agents. But the guild has been collecting anecdotal data for years, and the issue also has been a hot button for the Assn. of Talent Agents.

SAG also is studying the impact of out-of-town casting – in locations such as Canada and Australia – on second-tier performers.

SAG won’t specify what it will use the study for, although it is expected that the study will be completed well before TV and theatrical negotiations next year.

Driving away thesps

The trend has meant some performers have moved from Los Angeles to other cities, where they can make a living working in equity theater. Others have gone on to do more work with the independents. Some have simply left the business altogether, Masur said.

“Many of us are put into positions where we are offered one-half to one-third to one-quarter of our quotes,” Masur said. “… We need these people to continue to work and to continue to be active and to be the rock-solid core of the business.”

The conventional wisdom has been that the income pinch has come as star salaries in TV and feature films have increased, with the pinnacle being the $20 million paydays for the top male stars in features. But Masur pointed out that this is “insurance” for the studio on a project – they wouldn’t pay those rates if they didn’t believe they would gain it back.

The problem, he said, comes when employers cast the second tier of actors: Employers see such thesps as interchangeable, and instead focus on cutting costs.

“My feeling is very strongly that the salaries at the top end are not the problem,” Masur said. “The problem is why are they making these salaries? It is the function of the attitude that it is only the two or three people at the top who matter, that it doesn’t matter who plays these roles.”

SAG is planning to identify specific trends, such as pay rates for performers in low-budget features or cable TV movies, in doing the study.

“We have a tremendous amount of anecdotal material but we want to quantify it,” Masur said.

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