For an audience member, consuming entertainment content, whether it’s television, film, or commercials, is a leisure experience.

But behind-the-scenes, weeks or months of hard work go into the finished product that the audience consumes within hours or even minutes. 

Creating good entertainment is far from a one-man show. It requires the collective efforts of actors, screenwriters, directors, and the production crew.

For these people, creating entertainment is ‘work.’ And as with any other industry, there are federal and state laws as well as guild contract agreements that define how entertainment industry workers are categorized, paid, and protected.

Whether you’re taking on the role of an employer or an employee in the industry, it’s important to be familiar with how entertainment payroll works. 

By being on top of the payment protocols, production companies can avoid legal and guild labor claims. As an employee, knowing your rights can empower you and protect you when errors occur.

At a macro level, entertainment payroll is divided into commercials, music videos, live events, feature films, and TV categories. This blog post aims to dissect these for easy understanding.

1. Union affiliations

To understand entertainment payroll, it’s important to be familiar with the various guilds and associations that sit on the labor and management sides of the table.

  • Actors are generally represented by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).
  • Directors and their directorial staff are represented by the Directors Guild of America.
  • Union production crew are in large part members of the International Alliance of Stage and Theatrical Employees.
  • On the producer side, film and television producers are represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).
  • The Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) represents the commercial producers,
  • While many commercial production companies also produce music videos, it is the Music Video Production Association (MVPA) at the producers’ side of the table.

And there are numerous other associations, unions and guilds that have a place in the industry.

Whatever the job description, union workers are protected by their collective bargaining agreements. In the case of an error, the union or guild supports its members according to the terms of that agreement.

Work for non-union projects is covered under federal and state employment law. Usually that means the FLSA – The Fair Labor Standards Act.  In California, there are even stricter pay requirements regarding overtime, meal penalty and rest invasion as outlined in California Wage Order 12-2001. The pay-scales are the location’s minimum wage with unspecific rules for residual payments.

For the employee, working union means higher wages and additional protections.  For producers, it means a pool of skilled and proven crew.

To make the payment and production accounting process hassle-free, it’s a virtual necessity to team up with an entertainment payroll service like Revolution.

Such services have strong relationships with major media associations and are well versed in union and guild contracts.

2. Payment schedules

Commercial, film, and TV projects have differing requirements regarding payment due dates.

Film and Television

Generally, film and TV workers affiliated with SAG-AFTRA get paid weekly with some situational exceptions. Late payment can result in a penalty for each actor per day that can range from $10 to $200.

Once a television project is no longer running on the primary platform, i.e. network, cable, or streaming, actors are paid a residual fee when the show is made available in other formats like DVD or pay-per-view.

Similarly, film actors are paid for initial feature runs in theatres, and then get residuals when the feature is published to DVD, cable, or a network.

Guild agreements and union contracts can have varying scale rates, rules and guarantees for film and television cast and crew. This holds even within the same agreement, depending on project type, occupation and how the member is hired (weekly, daily, etc.).


Commercial below-the-line crew get paid for each day worked, which is tracked via timecards. The crew, however, is not subject to residuals.

Unlike film and television, overtime rules and other guarantees are for the most part the same across all Los Angeles-based unions that are paid under the AICP IATSE Commercial Production Agreement (CPA).

There are differences across unions on the East Coast, some of which are paid under the CPA Northeast Corridor provisions and others that have a separate commercial collective bargaining agreement. 

Payroll for commercial talent is different and much more complicated.  The session fee can vary greatly depending on the type of talent and the markets for airing. There are a myriad of different fees to the talent for integration, recalls, tags and holding fees, to name a few.

After the agreed maximum period of use(e.g., 13 weeks) included in the talent’s “session fee,” producers have to pay commercial workers a residual fee for every additional use. 

If you are a production company, managing multiple commercial projects at the same time, tracking, and managing individual payrolls can be a daunting task. Not to mention the penalties you could face for delayed payments.

That’s why it’s best to align with an entertainment payroll service that understands the nuances of the different agreements and will meet the multiple and changing payment deadlines for you. 

3. Minimum wage rates

Actors’ salaries can be all over the map.  Here’s a breakdown of what actors would make at scale for different kinds of productions:

Feature film actors:

  • For projects released in theatres with budgets greater than $2.5 million, film actors make at least $3488 per week and $1,005 per day.
  • For theatrical productions budgeting from $700,000 to $2.5 million, actors are waged $2,190 per week or $630 per day.
  • The weekly rate for projects ranging from $250,000 to $700,000 is $1166 per week and $335 per day.
  • Projects with an even lower budget only have a day rate of $125.

A separate set of payment rules applies for films being released directly to streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, etc. under the SAG-AFTRA New Media Agreement.

Television actors:

Calculating the SAG-AFTRA minimum wage for TV actors is relatively complex. It depends on the length and number of episodes in which the actor appears.

For this purpose, the actors are categorized as series regulars, guest stars, and major role performers.

Series regulars are actors who appear in more than half of the episodes of a TV series.

  • For 1 hour episodes, regulars are paid $4,197/week for the full 13 episodes, $4,682/week for 7-12 episode, and $5,476/week for 6 episodes.
  • For half-hour episodes, regulars are paid $3,488/week for 13 episodes, $3,993/week for 12-7 episodes, and $4,656/week for 6 episodes 

Guest stars are talent that appears in less than half of the episodes. In case, the guest stars are high-end actors, they’re also referred to as major role performers. They get paid:

  • $5,528 per week for half-hour shows
  • $8,844 per week for one-hour shows

Commercial actors:

Commercial production payroll differs from feature and TV payroll as they operate on an hourly basis. They also depend on the number of cities the commercial would run in.

  • Classified A – over 20 cities:

Principal actors who’re members of the Guild are paid $89 along with additional payments each time the ad is aired. The first use or session fee is $712 on-camera and $535 off-camera.

This wage bracket is suited to commercials that run on major network channels and cable.

It also includes wild spot commercials that only run in specific cities due to restricted product availability.

  • Classified B – from 6 to 20 cities:

This category applies to commercials running in 6 to 20 cities. The first use pays a $1098.75 on-camera and $763.15 off-camera fee.

However, rates differ if New York is one of the cities specified.

  • Classified C – less than six cities:

This wage bracket pays a $654.77 on-camera and $436.55 off-camera for first use fee.

Keeping up with federal and state labor laws, with the various collective bargaining agreements, requires a large knowledge base, strong industry relationships, and the experience to apply it all correctly. 

Especially as they are frequently re-negotiated and riddled with arbitrations that morph industry practice.

Let a professional entertainment payroll service provide the software, knowledge and support to meet your production accounting needs and get all of your paychecks out correctly and on time.  Then you can focus on creating those great entertainment experiences for your audience. 

Got more questions about entertainment payroll? Get in touch with Revolution.