Part One: “Show Me The Money”
When I first graduated from college, I was forced to move back home to New Mexico to take care of some health-related issues (nothing serious—just your basic jaw-realignment surgery due to bad TMJ. Fun times). As my dad so dramatically put it, I was mopey, wrought with distress, and complained to the high heavens about the fact that, if anything, I was moving farther away from Los Angeles, farther away from starting my career in film, television, and theater, and thus farther away from my dream.
Oh, how I couldn’t have been more wrong.
At the time, New Mexico had been one of the first states to incorporate film tax incentives, luring productions away from Los Angeles to film in their states, hopefully boost the local economy, and give productions a whopping tax break. While the program was initially established in 2002, many Hollywood films, westerns in particular, had flocked to New Mexico for decades to utilize their endless vistas, desert landscapes, and historic towns. My grandpa worked as a background actor in The Light That Failed in 1939, just before he was deployed to the Pacific in World War II.
My own first foray into feature film production came at the tender age of eight, where I was cast as one of ten young actors to play the children of Bud Spencer in the spaghetti western “The Night Before Christmas,” directed by the notable Italian stud Terence Hill. I’d been auditioning for years, but this was my first real feature film. The summer between 2nd and 3rd grade was spent traversing across the state shooting in different locations, and boy did I love every minute of it.
In this day and age, and to be completely transparent here, the biggest draw for any production company to film in a local market comes down to money. When all is said and done, it’s cheaper to film in a state that offers a hefty tax rebate, particularly over 25% and preferably without a cap (New Mexico currently offers a 30% rebate and $50 million dollar cap). States like New Mexico incentivize productions by building high-quality studios, fostering local crew to work below-the-line jobs, and last but not least, offering a slew of local actors to play all the roles not cast out of LA or New York.
And it was that last bit that caught my attention. By the time I moved back, 3:10 to Yuma was a hit, No Country For Old Men was redefining the western genre, and they were gearing up to shoot the second season of a little television show about a chemistry teacher with lung cancer who decided to start cooking meth (you may have heard of it).
Unfortunately, my timing back in New Mexico in 2008 wasn’t…ideal. The WGA was striking, SAG was threatening to do the same, and then—yup—there was that whole housing marketing crash. What a time to be alive, not to mention a recent college graduate (and did I mention the whole jaw surgery thing?).
The industry in the state was also a bit tumultuous, as our governor and certain state representatives kept threatening to lower the rebate percentage and cap—statements that made producers wary and unfortunately lost the state quite a bit of film business.
But our pro-industry representatives fought hard, and in the meantime, I kept my eye on the prize. While I worked on numerous independent projects and theatrical productions (more on this topic in future articles) I was slowly but surely building my relationships with casting directors and agents, honing my craft, and finding a day job that could financially sustain me and allowed me to audition.
The hustle was slow, but it started out with small co-stars and me finally earning my SAG card in 2011 (I’d been eligible since the late 90’s due to my previous film and television work as a kid).
But 2014 and 2015 were big years for me, where a two-episode co-star turned into two seasons on WGN’s “Manhattan”, I got to act with some of all my time favorite Oscar-winning actors, and I developed relationships with wonderful creatives in the industry.
This may sound like an ideal situation for any actor, and I am beyond grateful for the opportunities to work on some of the biggest film and television shows of this decade. But before you pack up your tiny LA apartment and decide to head to the great Southwest, let’s get real on what it means to work as a local hire. My next few articles will cover various bits related to this topic, but for now, let’s talk about the Benjamins.
Like I said before, productions come to New Mexico to save money, which means they budget how much money they are willing to pay LA or New York actors (including travel, hotels, and per diem), and the rest will go to local actors. And to be frank, “local” means you are paid scale, and unless production shoots more than ninety miles from the production office, actors must drive themselves to set, house themselves, and are paid no per diems. So when I worked on a show in Santa Fe while living in Albuquerque, I had to drive sixty miles to and from set every day, with no mileage reimbursement.
Keep in mind that this was no different for a lot of crew members. My fiancé, while working on a very big budget movie as a lighting technician, would carpool with a friend for a ninety-minute drive each way for two weeks straight. When you include that drive with turn-around time, they were averaging less than 7 hours at home to eat, shower, and sleep before getting up the next day to do it all over again. They took turns driving to let the other person sleep in the car.
Negotiating for higher pay is almost non-existent. There have been a few exceptions, but productions budget to specifically hire a certain number of local actors, so even when you try to ask for more money, they may say no simply because they have none to give.
Often times, particularly in television, roles are specifically credited as a co-star in order to prevent local actors from getting higher pay. However, I have heard stories where actors were able to negotiate a guest star credit without receiving guest star pay. And local agents and casting directors, no matter how much they love their local actors, can be hesitant to negotiate, because the minute productions hear that local actors are demanding more money, they may simply pack up their bags and move to another local market.
Bottom line? Productions love to shoot local because local actors are cheap.
On the upside, I have plenty of friends (myself included) who have earned enough income from acting to qualify for SAG health insurance. A friend of mine bought a house due to the consistent work playing a nurse on a medical show. There are some wonderful opportunities as a local actor—but it is important to also be aware of the limitations.
Stay tuned for next month’s article, where I will cover casting opportunities and whether or not a move to a local market is right for you!