Q: I’ll keep this brief to avoid boring you to death. From my understanding, a pay or play agreement means an actor will attach themselves to the project, but if the film never makes it to production, at least the actor will still get paid. So basically, it’s an arrangement that will permit an entertainment professional to attach their client to a project with confidence by assuring the actor that at least they will get paid.
A: Avoiding boring you to death has never been this blog’s goal. Yet, it effortlessly fails to achieve it on a consistent basis, week in and week out. Setting goals in life is a mammoth mistake and a recipe for failure. The only way to achieve all your goals is to have none. This blog had no goal, direction, or purpose of any kind. But look at us now — we’re bigger than U.S. Steel and Huffington Post. This blog is so tremendously influential now that every word I type sends trepidations down my spine, up my brain, and sideways to other places. None of it was planned, deserved, or earned. How can something so lackluster, mediocre, and banal be so successful? You can ask the same rhetorical question about your boss or Jay Leno. C’est la vie.
This is my seventh blog on pay or play. The first six I simply copied and pasted the same answer but changed the font. Nobody noticed. This time I’ll give a diametrically opposite answer from the first six answers, and I’ll bet you any amount of Mongolian tugriks, nobody will notice the difference (one of Kate Walker’s cats is named Tugrik, in the interest of full disclosure, and to be even more frank, and after these two and a half long (winded) years I feel I’ve earned the right to be fully frank about the intimate details of Film Independent’s staff’s lives, Kate Walker has eight cats, each named after an obscure third world currency).
Our few repeat readers wisely skipped the first two paragraphs, as usual. And the wisest of them skipped this blog entirely, which is also my advice to you if you got to this painful point, which obviously you did since you’re reading this. If you read this blog consistently, you’re a total nebekh. Of all the things you could be doing instead, including doing nothing, to read this is proof of mental imbecility. For those of you still reading, and for the life of me I can’t imagine any are, pay or play is misused almost as often as i.e. v. e.g.
Let’s start with some contract basics. When you enter into a contract with someone you can’t unilaterally change your mind and not perform your part of the bargain without breaching the contract. Let’s say you make a deal with a guy to paint your tiny mansion for $50. You then decide you don’t want it painted anymore. That’s great but you owe the guy $50. You can’t make a deal and then change your mind and have no deal. That’s the whole point of a contract.
Making a deal with an actor to act in a movie is just like making a deal with a guy to paint your house, except the guy doesn’t have an agent, talent manager, business manager, lawyer, publicist, and three assistants (unless the guy lives in LA, in which case he probably does). So when you hire an actor to be in a movie, if you decide not to make the movie, you still owe the actor his money. But that’s not all. If the actor’s deal includes backend, then you may also owe him the backend that he would have earned had you made the movie. Plus, had you made the movie, it would have been the movie of this actor’s life, he would have won two Oscars for it, and it would have made him a huge star, or a bigger star, and that has massive value, which you may also owe.
People who make movies realized early on that they’ll be legally screwed big time (sorry for the vulgar vocabulary; I forgot the proper Latin term for “screwed big time”; I’ve been out of law school too long) if they simply hire actors (or for that matter directors or writers) to act in movies, since often a movie can fall apart or if it doesn’t an actor may need to be fired for creative reasons without cause.
So these people who make movies came up with pay or play to protect themselves. Pay or play means you will be paid and your services will be used or you will be paid but your services won’t be used. And if the movie is not made or it is made but your services are not used, you’ll be paid only your fee. This way if the movie is not made or is made but the actor is not used a studio is protected from claims that an actor would have become a bigger star, etc.
Pay or play or not pay or play, either way, an actor with a deal on a movie is owed his fee if the movie is not made. But a studio is much better off if the actor is pay or play because the studio’s exposure is limited if the movie falls apart or if they need to fire the actor. If that’s true, and you can’t believe anything you read and this blog’s accuracy batting average is .201, pretty good for a blog, then why does everyone want to be pay or play?
Here is why. It’s in a studio’s interest to hire an actor on a pay or play basis. But if the movie falls apart, the studio will owe the actor his money. That’s not in the studio’s interest. To avoid that, often an actor deal will be conditioned on actually making the movie. For example, the deal could be: we will hire you to act in our movie and pay you a gazillion dollars, but only if we actually make the movie; and if we don’t make the movie then we’ll pay you nothing. It’s like making a deal with a guy to paint your house on the following terms: I’ll hire you to paint my house for $50 bucks, but only if I decide to have it painted; and if I decide not to have it painted then I’ll pay you nothing. So when everyone wants to be pay or play, what they really mean or should mean is that they want no conditions to their deal so that the money will be owed whether or not the movie actually happens.
That was succinct, elegant, and with limited going off the point. This blog is turning the corner starting with this blog. And I only have myself to thank. I’ve never in my life had good Peking Duck. In Spanish and Russian, the same word is used for “eggs” and “testicles.” “¿Cómo te gustan los huevos cocidos?” means “How do you like your testicles cooked?” But let me stop before I digress again.