When Thomas Ochoa signed with a theatrical agent, his representative reminded him to prioritize auditions. Be available for auditions; don’t miss them or turn them down; and if you must take a vacation or attend to family, try to do so during slow periods in the industry. It was standard advice for an actor.
“The most consistent work that an actor does is auditioning,” says Ochoa, whose credits include iCarly and Me Time. Given that he often performs as a drag queen, that work can be particularly time-consuming: even if he were to speak only one word in an audition, if the producers want him to be in character, it requires several hours of preparation.
While not every actor spends as much time on costume preparation as Ochoa does, they still devote significant time to the audition process. Now, with the advent of self-taping — a shift from the traditional casting call that, while already in practice before the pandemic, became the norm with the onset of COVID-19 — the costs are significant.
“At a bare minimum, a self-tape audition is at least an hour of labor, and that’s if you’re not spending a ton of time preparing the script,” says Ochoa. “But in terms of other preparation, you’re usually also physically preparing for the role, setting up equipment, filming and editing it, and then that work is doubled for your unpaid reader.”
According to Variety, outsourcing the task of reading with an actor to actors themselves has saved producers some $250 million per year. It is safe to assume that the total savings on studio space, equipment, and additional staff hours amounts to a much higher figure.
“With self-tapes, I have to ask someone in my life to do free work for my job,” says Tavi Gevinson, whose credits include Gossip Girl (2021) and Neo Yokio. “Plus, a lot of actors want to use other actors as readers, because you want to give a good performance — you want to read with someone who you can really be in a scene with you, so it’s as if actors are doing double the work.”
Gevinson and Ochoa are part of a group of members of the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) who are pushing for a means to make that work more sustainable, one that is already in the union’s television and theatrical contract.
Under the banner of “Auditions Are Work,” the group is advocating for the enforcement of a provision in the book-length union contract that entitles members to compensation for auditions. Specifically, Schedule A 15 (B) of the standard contract states that if an actor does not book the role for which they auditioned, “the performer shall receive one-half (½) day of pay.” SAG-AFTRA’s current day rate is $1,082, meaning this would amount to $541 for every job that is auditioned for but not booked.
The guarantee has existed in the union contract since 1947, but in recent decades, it has rarely been enforced. Few members were even aware of the language until 2019, when actor Charlie Bodin found it while flipping through a SAG contract he’d found in a library. He has since generated an extensive spreadsheet to compare SAG’s collective bargaining agreements over the years.
As Bodin’s discovery gained attention, the union published a statement about the provision.
“It has come to the attention of SAG-AFTRA that there is a lack of clarity regarding the requirement of payment for auditions where the performer is not subsequently offered employment on the picture,” wrote the union in September 2022. They went on to delineate the circumstances in which members can claim audition pay, such as when they are made to wait more than one hour for an audition or “expressly” required to memorize lines in advance of the audition.
But Auditions Are Work’s members say that not only is the latter circumstance not mentioned in the contract, it’s also a canard: a producer doesn’t need to tell an actor to memorize their lines for an audition because every actor knows that is the best way to increase their chances of booking a role.
“I’ve done about as much auditioning-for-TV training as you can do in Los Angeles, and the number one tip that any actor will hear for successful auditions is to be off-book: be memorized, and know your material,” says Ochoa.
Actors say that since the September 2022 SAG-AFTRA statement, producers have begun including a memorization disclaimer when soliciting auditions. That doesn’t stop actors from memorizing their lines, but it does protect production from audition pay claims.
As SAG-AFTRA began negotiating its contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which expires today, Auditions Are Work’s members created a list of demands: rescind the September 2022 statement concerning audition pay, reject any proposal from the studios that diminishes the audition pay provision, and enforce audition pay.
“All the other issues that people are talking about right now in regard to negotiations — artificial intelligence, streaming residuals, raising employer contributions to our health and pension plans — are really important, and they’re things we need to negotiate for and win,” says Gevinson. “But we already have this provision. We just have to protect it.”
There are a few objections that tend to arise when enforcement of the provision is raised. Many actors see auditions as job interviews, and rarely is a worker paid for that. But as Auditions Are Work’s members point out, that comparison does not hold up when one considers auditions’ function for the industry.
“I don’t know anyone who does multiple job interviews a week where they have to create a unique work sample that was solicited per the producer’s specifications that they cannot reuse in another ‘interview’ at the frequency that working actors audition, or at the scale that producers solicit auditions,” says Gevinson. Plus, auditions can function as table reads for producers, a means of enabling them to hear the script read aloud by professionals. That has artistic value and can lead to rewrites and tweaks of the script.
There are monetary benefits, too. Producers frequently solicit auditions while an offer is already out to an actor for a role, effectively making other actors bargaining chips, or backups, should the desired performer fall through.
But there is another concern, one that was raised during a town hall held by Auditions Are Work in May of this year. During the Zoom event, at which roughly one hundred actors listened to the group’s members discuss the topic, some attendees expressed anxiety that if the audition pay provision were enforced, producers would cut back on the number of auditions they solicit, prioritizing offers to known actors and diminishing the opportunities for lesser-known performers.
“There is a practical concern around ‘opportunities’ for actors who are not well known,” says Gevinson. “But what we have right now is an illusion of opportunity, and it’s worth getting concrete about how the casting process currently functions to explain why the self-tape cattle calls are not actually fair or ethical.”
Characterizing the current process as a “cattle call” is hardly an exaggeration. Self-taping has enabled producers to expand the number of auditions they solicit, or direct casting directors to solicit, exponentially.
“We are now expected to (and need to) see between one hundred and five hundred actors per role,” wrote casting director Alexis Allen Winter in Deadline. Compared to being one of the thirty to fifty auditions that might take place in person, submitting a self-taped audition is more akin to entering a lottery. Writing about self-tapes, Winter admitted, “Do we watch ALL of them all? Not all of the time.”
Auditions Are Work’s members emphasize that the issue is not one of casting directors versus actors but rather casting directors and actors versus producers. Casting directors are following the guidelines communicated to them by producers, and the group’s members believe that audition pay would improve the process for casting directors, too.
“I’m not criticizing casting directors,” says Gevinson. “I’m saying a crazy burden has been placed on them. There’s no transparency around this process, so what we have right now is not actually some kind of meritocracy.”
“I have a number of friends who I would be quoting by saying, I would much rather have fewer auditions that are more legitimate than to keep making these self-tapes that I’m actually not in a position to turn down because I need casting to know that I’m game, and I need my reps to stay invested in me — reps and casting have a relationship that is at play here — and I want the producers to remember that I exist or to learn that I exist,” she continues. “It is a union-wide issue. We need everyone to keep talking about it and to ultimately decide, as a democratic organization, what to do with this provision.”
That gets to a more fundamental issue: What precedent does it set for a union to advocate against the enforcement of a provision that is already in its contract? Being treated professionally by employers is a perpetual issue for performers, and voluntarily giving up pay to which they are entitled works against that goal.
“It conveys the message that I believe my work actually isn’t worth that pay,” says Gevinson. “That does not put you in a position of power — it doesn’t put us in a position of power as performers, and it does not put us in a position of power as a union. Why would you negotiate against yourself like that?”