Many of my friends are actors in SA and I recently noted continued questions being raised with regards to the treatment actors have to endure in CT. Especially with regards to the commercial castings.
What follows is by way of brainstorm and is limited to my take on what happened to me. May I return to CT soon and may there be changes to the plight of South African actors and some headway made towards a fairer dispensation for performers.
Please note: This article was first written February 2011. I wish I had been on facebook during the last decade while in Cape Town, as at the time I found aspects of the industry there so awful I went into a self-imposed exile as far as that went. I did not realize that so many other performers out there, also had grave misgivings about the deals offered to the performance talent down there. All strength to the South African Guild of Actors and hope this article provides some additional light on the plight of actors in Cape Town. Sadly report backs from friends in the industry in Cape Town show that the exploitation and rip off continues.
When I was in Cape Town I started auditioning for commercials and stuff again. Sad to say I had so many underlying issues & concerns with the way things operate within the industry there, that I found that as much as I needed and wanted the work, I could not continue to put myself out for it. The underlying frustration and in some cases outright indignation and anger at what I believe to be outright employment malpractice became too much to bear!
I witnessed, again, what I believe to be, basic negligence on the part of the agents, who in fear of their artists being blacklisted, fail to be able to stand up and fulfill their duty to act to ensure the producers follow generally accepted professional standards of local and international labour law. Instead they are left in silent acquiescence, kowtowing to the international production agencies and their local representatives.
The system is geared to exploit the actor's passion and love of acting and their need to find gainful employment.
And that was sad for me! You see I may not ever have gone on to ever play Hamlet, but one thing I knew I could do was present and engage an audience via the camera. Without wishing to brag, in the past I had been nominated as best and favorite TV presenter for my work in commercial campaigns and documentaries. So to find one of the streams of income via being cast in commercials, being blocked by my frustration with what I saw as unscrupulous system that placed one at such a disadvantage, was quite frankly depressing.
I had to side-step the industry because I found that there was no place for intelligent discussion. I had to cap any anger or frustration. In the long run this would only lead to depression which to a degree, for a while, it did. I could feel the underlying possibility of blacklisting; and in some cases it was reported to me in rumours because I would wish to negotiate, that I was difficult to work with. I am not! I am a pleasure actually!
But I am difficult to exploit! I get it from my Aunty Laura who got it from my fabulous Aunty Betty from Ports St Johns and mother Mary. They hated to see a person being downtrodden. And I like most of us don't like seeing the same happening to a whole profession! I don't like being bullied. Who does?
One of the most stylish of Hollywood actors Richard Gere was reported to within just days of landing in Cape Town, to have been able to so elegantly and quickly to assess the situation. He suggested that South Africans actors will never get a fair deal until the Performers Union finds its feet.
Cape Town Agent's answer: 'Take it or leave!'
When I voiced concerns and suggestions to one agent as to how things could be improved, I was told that the situation was one of 'take it or leave it!' As much as I love performing & presenting on-camera; and even having landed a couple leads (initially called featured extras - see later in this post) in US and European commercials; again sadly, I decided to take the latter 'leave it' option that was on offer.
The horridly glib 'take it or leave' phrase which is such a frightening cul-de-sac when trying to find ways to improve a situation was used when I tried to make a suggestion with regards to the 'daily rates' that are offered to actors for commercial appearances.
In the commercial lead roles I landed - I was always cast initially and informed that I would only be a featured extra and paid accordingly - in one case when I arrived on set there were no other actors in the commercials - It was only me for the whole commercial. So that should make you the lead in anyone's book!
In another instance I was originally told I was cast as a Polish Berry Picker. I thought at the audition I was going to be like one of the hundreds of Indian ladies picking tea leaves in that other old commercial. At the shoot no other actor in sight, but a large Ice Cream Truck that just stood there during the commercial and as I found out was earning more than me who featured in the commercial alone throughout!
I even got bullied a bit as I was supposed to at one stage career around Tokai forest fire roads in an Uno - they screamed I was not driving fast enough! I have have been fortunate enough to have a lot of experience but my CV does not say stunt driver - but let me check again - no experience in that whatsoever - in fact my friends rip me off about my defensive approach to driving.
I am going to describe another shoot in a bit more detail, because I think it will, in many ways, touch on a lot of the issues, and I hope this might act as a springboard for more sharing and discussions of the way things work in CT. And hopefully, may along the way lead to improvements in the plights of performers.
Having said that I am sure there are many blind spots in my assessments and this all only my impressions and how I felt at the time.
I am a real hard worker in the right environment. I love the industry. I am committed to professionalism, punctuality and preparedness - like any job there is no other way. I am not a diva. I would love to be, but a bit too mild-mannered... don't read feeble .. okay sometimes feeble...
During the 'Sparman' campaign, as a younger man I improvised and co-wrote and presented comedy ads for 8 hours on the trot for countless days over a 5 year period.
Working with an incredible team in a small hot studio we all went on to produce the 550 (five hundred and fifty) commercials that made up that Grand Prix Loerie award-winning campaign in the '90's. So I am committed ... or should be!
When I arrived on set at the UCT Chemistry department for the shoot, I was going to be a lab technician. I haven't had much experience in chemicals but I suppose can come across sometimes like I could have. I was told to go and park in the 'extras' parking way up the hill from the shoot. Now I have no snobbery as far as being a featured or just an extra goes. I try not to go there, but work is work and I really appreciate the importance of everybody in any shoot. I have directed some media productions so really do value how vital good support casting is.
As I changed into my 'lab coat' for the role, the UK director pops his head into the 'changing room' on the fire-escape stairs, and asks "How are you with your lines?"
I had been suddenly promoted without my prior knowledge to the 'Head of the Research Laboratory.'
One can't help being flattered. 'Really little ol me,' I thought, 'In charge of all this... Oh thank you MR director - I will not let you down...' Perhaps now my fee would increase...
If only real life could be so eccentrically silly! One moment washing test tubes, and the next, screaming the order for Igor to 'Svitch on zee electrical current!'
Okay I am getting carried away, we were only discussing the best way to freeze vegetables here.
'Fridge!' I thought in a eureka moment, "Igor! We vill put zee green beans in zee beeg fridge!"
I smiled and nervously said to the director with a glint of 'at last international recognition' coursing through my veins, 'What lines?'
'Oh here, you need to learn these'
'Okay' I replied willingly...confused, but willingly.
It turned out to be a typical TV ad discussion of the benefits of freezing green beans within two hours of picking them with a major British culinary celebrity. It was only me and the celebratory food critic chatting.
Now would I get a 'lead' payment?
This was the only discussion in the 30 second commercial - albeit short - how long can a discussion be in a 30 second commercial. Now my mood began to swing. Why was I not told at the casting and prior there would be script to learn? I had to keep a tight reign on my feelings of anger at feeling I was being exploited. What rate am I going to get? I had been told I had no lines to learn.
Remember an actor is supposed to get a higher rate as a lead with dialogue. Why was this coming at me through the back door? And at the last minute! Why had this not been previously discussed? They must have known that they were going to use me in this role. And also remember prior to the audition you have to agree to the fee without being able to gain full disclosure of all the ins and outs. If you don't, you won't be allowed to audition! Sneaky hey?
Auditions as you can imagine are pretty nerve-wracking - the last minute the afternoon before a quick SMS from agent - if you are lucky a time is allocated - garbled details - vague fee description from production house - always under-playing the role in the description sent to the nice young lady who works for the agent - who then has to 'broken-telephone' the confusing details she was given to you.
I was being placed at an unfair and illegitimate disadvantage on any number of levels as an employee. In SA there is a law that describes exactly that; and that that, is not allowed to happen.
Luckily a former colleague was doing sound so I could banter with him to keep a lid on my frustrations as I watched luxurious lasangne being served from catering trucks lining up in the car park. The catering bill must have been enormous!
What should I do? Stop the shoot on a Saturday afternoon and request my agent at the time to be called to sort out what I thought would be a rate confusion?
The production clock was ticking!
Time is money - but an actor's time is worth less than any other cog in the producer's golden pocket watch.
Should I try politely to stop their production clock with their six client representatives waiting to be able to do a bit of sight-seeing? Or ask the director if I could talk to the six or seven Ad agency people about the fact that I am not sure if my rate is right?
During the commercial takes, I was under the same hot lights being shot in discussion with the celeb, but the diector did not feel it necessary to call for me to powdered down, although the UK celeb was constantly touched up.
Its hot under those lights, I was sweating. Its standard on-camera presentation technique to powder presenters. Eventually I requested some powder as the 'glow' was distracting me. I felt that they all now looked at me like I was being such a drama queen or that diva that I denied being earlier in this post.
The sweet make-up lady used the same puff on me as she had on the UK celeb and was about to use it on him again who quickly pointed out, 'That's unhygienic!'
I couldn't stop myself and chirped back - 'Yeah for both of us!'
The atmosphere suddenly was crackling with tension. I could see a collective intake of breath from crew and clients - I thought, ' Oh f*"ck here we go - keep it together Hilton!'
I wanted to stop the shoot, find a soapbox on which to start delivering a diatribe about my thoughts on the commercial colonialism that still seems occur in Cape Town. I imagined getting really declamatory and then as I reached a climax, some self-deprecation to soften the verbal blows.
"And although you might think of me as just some Carry On Cape Town 'native' which I am - this one is getting restless!"
In my nervous day dream, the crew would have applauded and my fellow cast members would have carried me on their shoulders to the the beautiful Houses of Parliament and then onto the Parade where the crowds had gathered. Viva Lawrence Viva!
Instead I went all obsequious (which I tend to do when I am freaked out) and said something silly to one of the red suited clients like, "Cape Town is renowned for its pasta pasta - I mean have you been to Mama Africa in Long Street and done the Pata Pata ...."
Client: "Uuhuh?" Moving away quickly
But I held it together just, by the skin of my teeth, with 'uncomfortable' being my dish and order of my day.
One is caught between your belief in your professionalism and the 'show must go on' and your indignation with the former winning having to win over. I would hate to think that this breakdown in communications was premeditated but at the time its hard not to believe that.
When I called on the Monday to report the matter, I felt as if it was kind of just swept under a carpet of what seemed like slack disinterest or resigned tired vagueness.
'Oh we were not told told you had any lines' and somehow the fee remained the same.
I should have pushed more, but there remains at the back of your mind, that little paranoid thought that perhaps you are in fact the 'difficult one to work with.' And those feelings of being under a veiled underlying threat of loss of work opportunities and that somehow if you do push the issue, well that might prove to their minds the unjust and unfair comment to be true.
Plus its business basics that it is really hard to negotiate fees once you already have delivered the goods.
It took 4 months to get paid the fee.
The agent could not according to Cape Town procedures invoice for the commercial until 90 days had past and the UK agency had given the go-ahead that I was in the commercial. This in spite of the fact that the commercial was being screened in the UK and available on-line within 3 weeks of the shoot.
After tax and agents commission the fee was not a lot even for what seems like just 'one days work.' The life of a free-lance actor is tough. I have earned more for one-off appearances as a comedy host and presenter for corporate year-end office parties that fronting an international ad booked in CT; and weirdly in CT if I had been a model in exactly the same role, I would have earned 150% more. I will tell you more about that a little later on in this post.
The fees actors are paid are a tiny portion of budget. The budgets on commercials can be jaw-dropping huge. I estimated that the 'talent' aspect of budgets is often less than 1 or 2% of total spend on the campaign. But there's lots allocated to flying in the whole agency and international client's excessive entourage who sit looking bored and longingly at the beach and the great Mountain. So its not as if there is no money floating around!
One has to be available at the drop of a hat - attend auditions - costume calls - wait for the calls - often you are optioned for a week - and incredibly I heard that sometimes everyone who attended the audition had been 'optioned.' 'Optioned' means you are not allowed to take any other work - and if something comes along you have to ask the sweet young lady who works for your agent to ask your agent to ask some unknown entity whether or not you can do it.
They then have 24 to 48 hours to let your agent know if you can or cannot do the job that you actually have been given. It happens that you turn down alternative confirmed booking only to find they do not take up your option or the shoot has been rescheduled completely. So in a sense the 'one day' fee should cover you for all of these days wasted and scheduling permutations that occur.
WTF?!! In most case I suspect it is a case of production houses and ad agencies all stuffing around. The actors must wait with bated breathe as producers and clients and agency sift through their own incompetencies, inefficiencies and low levels of professionalism.
The powers that be seem to have an annual witch hunt to find who is stopping commercials coming to CT. Often the campaign tries to undermine the actors role. They are quoted in newspapers interviews all self-righteously in articles saying that actors are charging too much. I have even heard the same rumour being carried on by technical crews.
Utter Nonsense!! Crew can move from one commercial to the next! Actors can't. Actors have to sign crazy exclusivity clauses - signing away your rights to appear for any competitive products for the duration of the commercials in any country designated by client.
The additional exclusivity fee that we should get paid for this exclusivity - in most cases - is neatly side-stepped by agents and production houses.
No such thing as an Actor - only 'characters'
There is no such thing as a 'actor' in the Cape Town industry. Its like Ripley's Believe It or Not! But believe it .
The rate cards as to how much actors will get paid in 2006/7 was set by NAMA, The National Association of Models! Again WTF?!!
Now NAMA have discriminatory and unfair rates discrepancies between the rates they pay for exactly the same role Its a 150% more if you are a model. But if you are an actor who has paid student fees to study, devoted your life to honing your craft, worked your butt off to gain experience so as to be able to deliver an excellent on-camera performance in one or two takes.... you get less than if you were a model for exactly the same role.
Not to put to fine a point on it, but that's discrimination.
You see they don't call us actors - in rate cards we are billed as 'characters.' I suppose we are...one has to be, to put up with the way the industry treats us
Again I can only imagine how tough the agent's job is, but I get the feeling that the actor's love of their work is exploited and someone higher up in the feeding chain is making a killing.
The Buy Out Clause - or should we call it The Sell Out Clause
Okay I must rap this for now but just one last thought that I discovered about the Cape Town commercial industry
There is the pathetically disguised rip-off (read theft) in the buy-out deals offered.
Suddenly NAMA ignore their own guidelines on the extra money one should be paid for each additional use of your appearance usage for world-wide web use, viral on line campaigns, cinema, print, in shop point of sale, training, & product launches.
This buy out practice should be renamed the 'Sell-out!' Then at least a glimpse of straight talk might permeate negotiations.
The proverbial pie is divided unfairly and the performers are left with the few crumbs that fall from the agency tables!
Who checks up on the renewals due when the commercial you appear in roll out for another year. Like we can all trust the international agencies to always come forward! There should be a law in place to fine any company found guilty of not paying renewals.
Also who checks up on where in the world the commercial is actually being flighted. You are supposed to get extra percentages for each region. Who checks on this? Are we supposed to imagine that each agency is run by a fair Mother Theresa?
I once did a silly Knife commercial for a shopping channel. (May the theatre gods forgive me - but I was trying to stop ABSA's repossession of our JHB house)
It was only for SA use! Then at the whim of the producers and agencies it was broadcast worldwide!! Not the international debut the younger Lawrence in me had ever planned.
When we pointed out the breech of contract to the client - we were ignored - as was the wonderful Johannesburg agent. She really was the most brilliant, but at that time was paralyzed by client's absolute stonewalling and the
fact that they knew it would cost us a fortune in legal costs that none of us could bear. She was as shocked as I was! It took months of frustration, no years to get a paltry settlement.
How many times has your agent ever been able to secure copy of your appearance for your show reel?
Who or what is NAMA? And why should a modeling association have the final say on actors salaries? Why on earth should a model receive more if they are looking for the same role. Its inexplicable! From hereon at over 50, well I have just become a model then! :)
Oh and the 'take it or leave it' came in reply to my suggestion that upfront an actor should be able to say, 'look this is my minimum daily rate - let the director and agency audition me and then decide if they want to use me or not at that rate.'
Not me rock up at audition - for gosh knows what and have to sign - before I even really know any details - that I will accept the paltry fee on offer.
Sure in most cases I may not have been 'optioned' because I want three grand more or whatever in my suggested scenario. It would be stated up front to agency and then client could decide if I am worth it or not AFTER having seen me.
Every time I brought this point up which I think is called fair negotiations - when the service provider is allowed to discuss what they charge for their services and at least show their wares to prospective buyers. - it was - No you cannot be optioned and then negotiate!
But I never suggested that - let the actor set his or her minimum rate first - if they wish to set a higher rate then at least let them be auditioned. Do not prohibit them from auditioning because they think they are worth more! In some cases the client and director may think, 'Hold on! We really want that one!' and be prepared to pay the little extra for them. Then a negotiation would start with a little give and take.
It makes perfect business and fair business practice sense. It is called negotiation!
I think there is basic unfair business practice going on and on that flies in the face of South Africa's and universal labour law.
As you can tell I feel strongly about this. As I said earlier, I don't like being bullied! Who does?
No the only answer I got at that stage was 'take it or leave'
Sadly I had to leave it for the remaining period I was in Cape Town and I did love the work. Its not why I left Cape Town for a while, but boy its good not to be reliant on that system anymore.
I also do know that the agents down there all wish it were different, and they have to think of their own and those under their wing's survival. And really I know that sometimes, something is better than nothing at all.
But where has that most intrinsic part of their job disappeared to? That of being able to negotiate on behalf of their stable of actors, where has that gone? Why is that vital and standard part of any business interaction not allowed to occur?
I have the luxury of being once removed from the situation and its complexities. I hope this provides food for thought for any actor in the most beautiful city in the world who may feel isolated and powerless, like I did when I was there.
But be assured you are not alone and don't make the mistake of doing what I did, by cutting yourself off.
Keep getting out there and networking and sharing your frustrations. Again I wish I had been on facebook then.
Join Saga like I will when I am back in SA and soon you will find like Michael Jackson sang, 'You are not alone - I am there with you' along with many others.
Best wishes and hang in there.
And just to end on a lighter note - here's a link to the first three of the 550 improvised commercials of the Sparman campaign from 1889, I mean 1989. I was so fortunate to work with such a brilliant production team on this campaign.
By the way when the campaign kicked off, the daily rate I received was higher in 1989 than any of the international commercials I was cast in Cape Town along with its system of awful global buy-outs from 2003 to 2007.
And just to let any casting agents out there know that as I head towards my 54th year on this wonderful planet, for a fair and reasonable rate I can still be just as whacked as I was in the previous century. To be perfectly honest, in fact more so!
But don't try and exploit me because then like the song goes, 'I'll see you when you get there!'
The link to the commercial is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDebDpMOdLw
Some photos used by way of illustration and rights remain that of owners.