Behind every clever advertising catchphrase snuggled into the Kiwi subconscious is the perfect delivery of an actor. Without Darcey Ray Flavell Hudson we wouldn’t have ‘You know I can’t grab your ghost chips’; without Wesley Dowdell we wouldn’t have ‘bugger’; and without Frank Whitten’s southern charm we definitely wouldn’t have the enduring appeal of ‘She doesn’t drink Speight’s but…’. Yes, the words may be concretised in their respective scripts, but they are brought to life by the prowess of actors in each instance.
There has for decades been a symbiotic relationship between the advertising and acting industries, with actors able to supplement their incomes with money earned from appearing in commercials.
When TVCs were big and budgets even bigger, it provided a lucrative opportunity for agencies and actors alike. However, as the industry has fragmented, shrinking margins have seen these opportunities squeezed—and the actors who previously relied on the odd ad gig are facing an uncertain future.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult to manage the expectations of the client in conjunction with the ‘ever-diminishing budget’ and their obvious need to spread that across as much new media as possible,” says Actors Agents Association of New Zealand (AAANZ) spokesperson Gail Cowan in a statement jointly written for StopPress by a number of agents in the organisation.
"The work is there, but it's simply not advisable to participate at the level of fees being offered."
Cowan says this issue is particularly pronounced when it comes to online-only campaigns, where actors often undersell themselves by agreeing to short-term exclusivity agreements.
Before media became a hot fragmented mess, talent agents had contracts that included exclusivity agreements as part of the standard fee. These types of contracts were decades in the making, but they have become increasingly anachronistic when viewed against what brands are asking for these days.
“Longer ads and multiple cut downs are becoming the norm along with inclusions of previously ‘separately paid additional media’ where the need to compete to give the client as much bang for the buck as possible is causing an erosion of the base fee while increasing the exposure for talent.”
Like everyone else in the industry, actors are now being asked to do more work for a smaller payout.
“A trend towards including ‘behind the scenes’ footage online is also a growing problem to actors as they have no control over the material and this is often being asked for with no additional compensation offered or right to approve the content.”
Modernisation efforts have been initiated, with industry bodies working alongside agencies to bring contracts in line with the modern media landscape (as far back as 2013, NZ Marketing ran a story on the need for change).
However, it is proving difficult to make these changes practicable, given that the lines between channels are in a constant state of flux.
“Language and terminology are also causing concern, because agencies use ‘non-broadcast’ to mean any platform other than free-to-air or paid TV, without acknowledging that YouTube and any other web platform are digital broadcasts,” says Cowan.
Cowan says this creates the perception that the talent should be cheaper in the online space, even when the reach on YouTube or other web-based platforms might be comparable to that achieved on TV.
Further exacerbating the situation for actors is the fact that clients often require them to disclose any commercial work they have done for other brands in the last three years.
“This is so the client or agency can gauge whether or not the actor is recognisable and if that might impinge on the ‘suspension of belief’ they require from the consumer,” says Cowan.
“There have also been cases where a client has refused to hire anyone for a commercial who has played a villainous figure in a local drama, thankfully this is not overly common.”
Is the gig economy the answer?
The aim here is not to provoke pity for actors. Those in the industry knew what they were setting themselves up for before they joined. It’s always been a difficult place to make a living, and with the advent of digital it’s only making it more difficult.
The same argument could easily be made for copywriters, journalists or video production companies, all of which are now required to produce far more for far less. Actors are simply one of the many dominoes feeling the impact of a disturbance further down the line.
It’s also worth noting that advertising has never been at the heart of what actors sign up to do. It has always been more of a steppingstone to a career in the movies or theatre.
And while the digital age has made it more difficult for actors to find high paying jobs in advertising, it has also presented a few opportunities along the way.
On a recent trip, an Uber driver relayed to StopPress that he welcomed the launch of the app because it gives him the freedom to attend auditions during the course of the day. He said if it weren’t for Uber, he would have to get a full-time job, which would in turn make it difficult to pursue his love of acting.
Recognising that actors now need to find alternative modes of income, Bruce Hopkins founded ActionActors, an organisation that places actors in a variety of temporary working roles.
“By sourcing what could be labelled non-acting work for actors, ActionActors provides a vehicle to generate income for performing arts practitioners,” says Hopkins.
“We have managed to get a bit of work through an Auckland Council controlled organisation. Cities such as Auckland often promote the arts as one of the reasons for their city's vitality, and I’ve always thought the councils around New Zealand could engage artists for various temp roles as a no extra cost way of supporting the arts.”
That said, Hopkins is very critical of the level of investment the government has put into the arts, saying it’s a missed opportunity.
“In late 2015 PWC released a report they had been commissioned to undertake, examining the financial impact of the creative industries in New Zealand. They calculated this impact to be $3.8 billion. Surely this kind of impact justifies a more positive government investment strategy in the sector?”
He points to the example of Germany, which has invested heavily in the arts.
“In 2012, the German culture minister Bernd Neumann called his country’s 5.1 percent increase in its arts funding commitment ‘a significant investment in the future of our country’, not a ‘subsidy’.”
In contrast to the German example, Creative New Zealand predicted a 10 percent drop in funds for the arts sector this year due to forecast decrease in Lottery Grant Board funding.
“Fobbing a portion of the funding responsibility off onto a income stream reliant on increasing the gambling spend of average Kiwis seems like a pretty lazy approach,” says Hopkins.
But this has, of course, created an opportunity for Hopkins to scale up ActionActors and further develop New Zealand’s gig economy.
“Working in the gig economy is what actors do even when they are working as actors,” he says.
“Actors enter the performing arts field knowing there is no guarantee of work or income. Unfortunately, the performing arts and, in fact, the entire screen production industry in general operates on the basis of all workers being independent contractors.”
And should Hopkins’ company continue to grow, actors will find it a little easier to pick up gigs between their acting gigs.