The 5 Laws Of Negotiating With Onscreen Talent

Whether you’re negotiating with actors that have even a remotely successful career, or with an actor in the church basement theater group, it is important to know that making deals with talent is a tricky business, but doesn’t have to be painful. In my early days, I would often cave to even the slightest resistance, just to avoid the possibility of “losing” the opportunity of having this actor in my film. Then, later, I went the other way. I was a hard-nosed asshole who wouldn’t budge an inch.

In the end, neither was a very good tactic. Negotiating anything in film shouldn’t be a fight to the death, especially not with actors. If a producer manages to close a deal that is built on an adversarial relationship, the production process is going to be a nightmare. Don’t forget, actors (good ones at least) are your partners and the value they bring to your web series or film far outweighs what you’re paying them.

So whether you’re negotiating with Matt Damon or your friend down the street, each party should feel like they are offering value to the other. Besides, a contract that unfairly favors one party over the other rarely holds up in court, should it come to that.

The following are 5 “LAWS” or industry-proven guidelines to make your next talent negotiation a productive and profitable experience.

Use The Carrot, Not The Stick:

Onscreen talent represents one of the single biggest costs in making your project, so be sure both of you realize the value you are bringing to the table. You are trying to get the best talent for your project and they are trying to make a living in a very competitive industry.

Know Your Budget Before Sitting Down To Negotiate:

Again, lead actors cost money and sometime they represent the better part of your budget. Know what your final price is before sitting down with the talent and/or their representative. Believe me, they know their number.

Be upfront from the start:

I’ve seen producers walk into negotiations playing things close to vest and acting completely aloof as if they could take it or leave it. Let me be straight: this makes you look like an arrogant dick. The answer is often, “leave it." That attitude sets the tone and the talent will assume the production process will go the same way.

Instead, be up front. Let the actor or their rep know why you want to work with them and what value they’ll get by working with you as a producer and/or director.

Don’t worry about feeling like you’re low-balling them. Great actors are known for working for scale if they like the script and the director. Most actors want to be associated with important work and realize in the long run, a good film will result in notoriety and hopefully money.

The Devil Is In The Details:

Contract negotiations often breakdown because of the little stuff, not the big stuff. So, be attentive to what your star needs. Points that WILL get negotiated include:

  • Does an actor have an existing project that will shift your production dates either forward or back? Try very hard to accommodate this and be flexible. This happens almost every time.

  • Often actors will want top billing and have their credits appear first and for a particular period of screen time. This can get very specific, like center placement, or first credit for 5 seconds. People fight for this. Credits are what actors trade in. Their credit list is their resume and represents real dollars to them.

  • How much say do they have in the script? If you’re running an independent production, they will definitely want more say in how things are produced.

  • Pay to play – This is a guaranteed fee that the actor gets whether the film happens or not. If they block off their schedule to work on your film and you cancel, they still get paid a fee. They look at it as missed opportunity costs. They could have been working on another film so they rarely give on this point. Know what you’re willing to give should that occur.

  • And finally, what does the backend profit sharing look like? Meaning, if the film makes money, how much is that actor going to get? The rule is simple: the less you pay an actor up front, the more they get on the backend.

If it’s not working, it’s time to get out:

Sometimes a deal can’t be reached. Always know when it’s time to walk away and always be willing to do it. Don’t forget, you may be able to work with this actor in the future so don’t burn that bridge. Simply say, “I’m not sure we’re finding the common ground we need to make this deal happen, but know we love your client as an actor and look forward to figuring something out on future projects." Shake hands and move on.

All of this seems obvious, and it is, but in the heat on negotiations, we can forget them and find ourselves making enemies in an industry that is a small one simply because we forgot to employ common sense.


I’m curious your feelings about how this should be negotiated. We’ve had threads on the forum before about people with actors (and key crew, too) who get incredibly unhappy if they feel they don’t have control, but of course ultimate control is still up to the director/creator. How do you balance giving an actor or anyone else creative control without giving away too much, especially if you disagree with their thoughts?

The short version is that filmmaking has to be a collaborative process and if the talent has a good reputation they only have the best interest of the film at heart. That said, the parameters by which you work togetheri should be memorialized in the contract long before principal photography starts.