My 12-year-old takes weekly film acting classes with the wonderful Nancy Chartier. Over the year and a half he’s been studying with her, I’ve gotten to know some really wonderful parents of very talented young actors, as well as some of the young actors themselves.
Every now and again, I run into a newcomer to the class who has a horror story to tell about their experiences at other local acting classes, or about their experiences with Casting Hub, Actors Models and Talent for Christ, or one of the other “marketing services” that promise to help newcomers to the industry “break in”. Yesterday, I met one of those moms.
She had two daughters taking their first class with Nancy, and as she was talking to me and some of the other parents waiting in the waiting area during the pre-teen class, she showed us some of the materials that she’d paid Casting Hub to create for her daughter.
This is no reflection on the child — who is lovely — but the headshots were horrible. Fly-away hair that should have been retouched was just one of the many flaws in them. The most obvious is that they were “comp cards” (a 6X8 double-sided print job with several photos on them). I remember models bringing comp cards in to the ad agency I worked at in the 1980’s, but actors don’t use them anymore (if they ever did). I don’t know if models do either — but even models need high-quality head shots.
Then the mom told us she’d paid over $500 for the photos plus printing costs, and had just been told by a casting director that they were completely inappropriate and she needed new headshots before anyone would take her child seriously. Yikes! Most photo sessions in our area cost about $200-300, not $500.
One Family’s Investment
I had heard stories about how much families spent with Casting Hub, but recently one very organized family emailed me copies of their receipts. Here’s what this family spent between June and December, 2013:
$3,995.00 Casting Hub fees
$2,750.00 Casting Hub New York Agent Showcase
$500.00 Headshot photography*
$175.00 Headshot printing and comp card printing*
$10,700.00 Tuition, private performing arts academy*
$7,000.00 Special Skills Classes (Dance)*
$7,000.00 Special Skills Classes (Voice)*
$1,000.00 Wardrobe, hair “makeover”*
*Vendor recommended by Casting Hub or met through the service
That’s over $33,000, not including the family’s out-of-pocket travel for the New York “showcase”.
Granted, a third of it is for a private school that caters to “professional children”. The cost for that isn’t out of line with the cost of other private schools in the area. Many families with working child actors home school, using online curriculum, or send their kids to a private school with flexible class days — but most make the switch once a child is working or auditioning so many days that they’d run afoul of the state’s truancy laws otherwise. This family was encouraged to put their child in a school for professional children before the first audition, let alone the first job.
It’s important to note that the family that shared their receipts with me is happy with the services they are getting from CastingHub. The mom said that her main frustration is people like me who say bad things about CastingHub without “trying it for yourself.”
“It’s the first thing everyone says to me — you shouldn’t have paid all that money,” she added. “Everybody from my mother to the kid’s acting coach has chewed me out.”
She was incensed with an outspoken agent who said that she didn’t consider kids who came from CastingHub, and a casting director who told her to come back when she had decent head shots. “That’s just because of the bad publicity. It’s really unfair. There are a lot of happy parents and successful kids — just look at all the positive reviews the company has online!,” she said. (I have, and nearly all of them are on sites owned or controlled by CastingHub itself.)
What It Should Cost
First, and this is an absolute, never pay anybody on the expectation that they will “market” your child to agents or get them an audition. I can’t say it often enough or forcefully enough, actors don’t pay for auditions, and they don’t pay to be submitted to agents.
You’ll spend quite enough, trust me. The biggest expense is the most essential: training. Here’s what we spent in 2013 towards helping our child achieve his dreams:
-Weekly Film Acting Classes: $1,400 per year
-Weekly Private Lessons (36 weeks during the school year only): $2,880 per year
-Workshops: $1,800 per year
-Special Skills Classes: $720 per year
-Summer Camp: $2,400 per year
-Headshots: $200 (as needed)
-Headshot printing: $100 (as needed)
-Travel & taping for auditions: $600 per year
That’s about $10,200 per year, or $850 per month. We give our 12-year-old a monthly budget, and he has some say in spending. There are times when he has to pass on something he wants to do because it isn’t in the budget.
He’d love to go to both French Woods and Circus Smirkus for summer camp this year, but the budget won’t cover both. He went to New York’s prestigious French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts in 2012, and Circus Smirkus in 2013, and is headed back to Vermont for Smirkus in 2014.
It took us several years to build up to this level of spending with our child — and he earns enough to offset many of the costs. Not that he pays for things out of his earnings, but I feel better knowing that the money I am spending isn’t taking away from his future.
We spend carefully, and don’t use credit cards for Kameron’s acting expenses. I’ve heard more than one family say that they maxed out a credit card to pay CastingHub fees or take their child to a Models Actors and Talent for Christ showcase.
The saddest thing about the happy CastingHub customer who emailed her receipts with me is that she truly seems think that it’s inevitable that her child is going to land a role on the Disney Channel, and instantly begin earning enough to erase the money problems her family has gotten into “investing in our child’s dream.”
I tried to explain that a spot on a Disney or Nick TV series doesn’t pay all that much, but she clearly didn’t believe me. She flat-out told me I was wrong when I said that the average pay for a child on a Disney Channel show is $365 per day –union minimum — and that many earn even less. (Source: BizParents Foundation.)
How Much Child Actors Really Earn – and Keep
Most working child actors outside LA earn only a few thousand dollars a year working on short or low-budget films, and on local commercials. My grandson had two auditions today. One pays $175 per day for 5 days, and the other pays $565 per day times a seven-day shoot. 12 boys read for the first part, and over 300 read for the second, which is filming in Shreveport, Louisiana and requires “local hire” status. (That means the filmmakers won’t be paying travel or hotel costs.)
The dream sold attendees at the huge “open casting calls” thrown by the marketing companies like CastingHub is that the child can land a lucrative role in a Disney series, so here’s an example of what a child has the potential to earn (and keep) if that dream becomes reality. (Do I need to point out here that most actors never get a recurring role in a TV series?)
The typical salary for a lead role on Disney is $10,000 to $25,000 per episode. Fantastic, right? Actually, it’s about half of what a child might earn in a series on another network, but it’s still more than most adults earn.
Most Disney Channel shows film 21 episodes per year, so at $10,000 per episode, a child who is in every episode earns $210,000.
Take $31,500 (15%) off the top — that’s the amount set aside for child actors by law in a Coogan Trust that no one can access until the child is 18. The money goes straight to the trust account. So the $210,000 drops to $178,500 in “spendable” income. Still fantastic, right?
Next, deduct another 20%. That’s the amount that your agent or manager will take before they forward the remainder. So you’re down to $143,500.
Before you spend a dime, set aside California and federal income taxes. The studio probably won’t withhold this money, but if you don’t set it aside and pay it promptly, you could wind up paying huge penalties or even going to jail. (Yes, you could go to jail — the government doesn’t jail children for not paying taxes, but they will jail adults who are responsible for making tax payments on behalf of a working child.)
Your child will pay a federal tax rate of about 28%, plus a California rate of about 9.3%. So deduct another $53,095 (37.3%). That takes the spendable income down to $90,405. Still pretty good, right?
Don’t forget the 12.4% in social security taxes on the first $114,000 of earnings. (Actors are independent contractors, so they pay the 6.2% other employees pay, plus the 6.2% employers pay.) So that takes another $14,000 or so out of the total, leaving about $78,000.
You’ll also need to deduct SAG union dues, paid in two installments each year against a sliding scale that determines the amount. Assuming that the Disney series pay of $210,000 is your child’s only SAG income for the year, you’ll pay $3,307.50 in union dues, bringing the “take-home” to about $75,000.
Not many kids can earn $75K per year, of course, so your little Disney star is still doing amazingly well. It’s a known fact that Disney likes to cast kids from outside California in new Disney projects, so here’s the big questions for families who live somewhere else when their child is cast in a California-based TV show: what will it cost to uproot at least part of your family for the move to California?
The cost of life in LA is where the golden dream starts to look a little tarnished for most families. You’ll be in LA for 6 or 7 months while the series is filming and the child is rehearsing or handling the promotional assignments built into the contract.
A nice 2-bedroom apartment in LA will cost about $3,000 per month. Can the grown-ups finance this, or does it come out of the child’s earnings? Either way, expect to spend $21,000 for seven months of LA rent.
If rent comes out of the Disney income, that leaves $54,000 in spendable income from that $210,000 salary. Does any of that have to be sent “home” to cover a mortgage, pay the expenses for back-and-forth travel, and keep the family going?
Do you have credit card debt you ran up paying for CastingHub and other services you “invested in” to get your child to that all-important audition?
Most of the online cost of living comparison charts say that life in Los Angeles is 50% more expensive than life in Dallas. Can you afford to pay all the usual household costs without needing your child’s earnings to help, or does the Disney salary need to cover things like:
• Car insurance, gasoline, and auto maintenance
• “Special skills” classes (dance, voice, etc.)
• Household expenses: gas, electric, cable, cell phone, water
• Travel to and from LA for visits with family
Whether or not you think CastingHub can actually help anyone get cast in anything, when you’re thinking about how much you can afford to pay a marketing service, stop and think about the “what ifs” that go along with success. Can your family afford to invest this kind of money for that kind of potential reward?
Can you afford to invest this kind of money even if the dream doesn’t come true, and your child never earns enough to offset your costs? Before you sign a contract, take a little time to think about it, okay?