How Much Money Will You Make On Your Recent Commercial Booking?
Pick A Number Between Zero and a Bazillion
by Adam Lieblein
People often hear about how lucrative a commercial booking can be for actors. For decades people have shared colorful stories of how a child can book one national commercial and pay for college with the money. A few stories of big scores have been blown out of proportion, and people were led to believe that these exceptions were more common than they really are. This understandably created a lottery mentality among commercial actors. This unbalanced financial temptation continues to attract large numbers of new performers to the world of commercials.
However, as actors begin to learn more about the industry, they hear a very different story. They are told that the residual income from booking a commercial isn’t the big score it used to be in the “good old days.” While there is some truth to the fact that things used to be different, the average income per commercial booking has basically stayed the same for the past twenty years. What are the realistic expectations an actor should have about how much they will make for a typical commercial booking?
To fully comprehend the structure of commercial residuals, it would take a great deal of time, a primer on media buying strategies, and would refer to pages and pages of charts and numbers. In a course I have taught at UCLA Extension since 1996, I spend a full week discussing these issues, and yet we only delve into a small portion of the topic. There is, therefore, way too much information to share in a single blog entry. But I can share some honest generalities about how commercial residuals work, and the true average payments that can be expected.
For the purposes of this article, I won’t bother with nickels and dimes, and will round off certain figures to make them easier to remember.
Let’s say you book one day on a union commercial job. That’s standard. You work a few hours, and get paid for a full 8-hour day. You will receive a gross session fee (at minimum scale) of approximately $600 dollars. That’s it. After taxes and agency commissions, you will see a net amount of around $400 in your pocket. If you pay a manager as well, you may see around $300. If you are under 18 years old, then 15% is paid into a Coogan Blocked Trust Account in addition to the commissions, and the take-home pay will be reduced to just over $200. If the commercial doesn’t run, or you are outgraded and not used in the final spot, you won’t see any other payments. If you are downgraded to an extra you will see one small additional fee, and that’s it.
Now let’s look forward to what happens after the commercial is produced. When an advertiser uses an actor in a union commercial, they typically have the right to use it for 21 months. In order to maintain that right, and to prevent the actor from performing in competitor’s commercials (causing a “conflict”), they must pay “holding fees” every thirteen (13) week cycle. So, even if the commercial doesn’t run, an actor may see the same $600 gross payment every three months. Including the initial session fee, this means that an actor will make about $4,000 before taxes and commissions over the course of those 21 months simply on holding fees.
The bigger question is how much an actor who books a principal role at scale rates in a commercial can expect to earn if a spot actually runs in one or more markets. Let’s discuss some averages. Before we do, let me first justify how I am calculating these numbers. As an agency owner, I supervised the processing of payments for thousands of commercial bookings every year, and literally tens of millions of dollars of actors commercial income per year for sixteen years. With that sample size in mind, here are some statistical averages…
If a commercial runs on cable, the maximum scale payment per cycle hovers around $3000. If a commercial is made for TV but is used on the internet, the additional payment is around $2,000 for each year. If used on “new media,” the talent can earn another $2,000-ish per year. Worldwide buyouts (outside of USA) pay fees of up to $4,800. Then there’s wildspot usage that is payable based on the unit value of a territory, and other categories such as dealer use, Class C, Class B, and the beloved Class A national network usage, which pays the talent a nice fee each and every time the commercial is aired. A commercial that is extensively used on most media can generate well over $10,000 per cycle, and over $70,000 during the initial 21-month maximum use period. Most pay less. Some pay more. Furthermore, if a commercial is renegotiated for use beyond the initial 21 months (which happens to only about 10% of commercials), these numbers typically increase by significant amounts.
I have represented actors who have received as little as one session fee for a job, and others who have received several hundred thousand dollars for one days work at scale on a commercial. Those are the extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but the more common experience comes somewhere in between.
In order to give you some realistic averages, I calculated the total income of the thousands of union scale commercial bookings my clients experienced over 16 years, and divided them by the number of commercials booked. I excluded any overscale talent, spokesman bookings, and renegotiations. Even when comparing the annual numbers over multiple years, the average income per booking stayed very much the same. Generally speaking, an average booking of this type will generate a total of $12,000 to $15,000 over the life of the commercial. And remember that after taxes and commissions (and Coogan deductions), actors may only receive between 30% and 50% of the gross payment. Considering that a commercial actor usually works only one day on a job, that’s still not bad. But it certainly doesn’t cover the cost to send a kid to college. And with the amount of money and time that actors generally invest in classes, workshops, photos, auditions, and other services, it is clear that an actor must book more than just one commercial each year in order to make a reasonable living.
What lessons can we learn from this? Booking one commercial is rarely a quick fix for an actor’s financial problems. It’s a freelance job that is usually most effective when it is accompanied by other sources of income. Most actors who make a living in the entertainment industry are diversified. They pursue work in other areas such as television, film, theatre, short films, webisodes, industrial, print, voice-over, hosting, standup, and so on. Can you make a living purely on commercial acting? Of course you can. A small percentage of actors do, even if it only lasts a few years. It takes effort, dedication, talent, and an honest understanding of the reality that exists in our industry. Once you have that, then all you need is a healthy dose of luck, and a backup plan. That’s the deal.
Adam Lieblein is a graduate of the UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television, and spent eight years as a producer of films, commercials and television projects until 1993 when he opened a talent agency. Adam was the president of Acme Talent & Literary for sixteen years, and together with his eighteen agents represented actors for film, television, commercials, print modeling and voiceover work, and writers for film and novels. At the end of 2008, Acme’s several divisions were sold to other agencies, and Adam returned to the business of producing and teaching at UCLA. In 2011 Adam was recruited by Casting Networks to work in Business and Product Development.