How do actors make money off residuals?
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If you watch season three, episode seven of “The Walking Dead” you may see me eating a guy. I was paid $100 to dress up like a zombie and help take down and disembowel a hermit. But aside from chiggers and a blurry screen grab for my Facebook page, that $100 is all I’ll ever get from my performance. That’s because extras get no residuals.
When you become a bigger part of the show, however, that changes. The next step up from an extra is a day player. If you get a line of dialogue in a show or have a scripted physical interaction with a character (called “special business”), you qualify for residuals. Everyone from day players to stunt performers to the main cast of a show, otherwise known as “featured players,” gets residuals. How much they get is based on what they are paid in the first place.
If you listen to the story above (there’s an audio player below the video), you’ll hear how James Michael Tyler who played Gunther the barista on “Friends” got paid for his very first line. This Gunther:
But here, I thought it would be interesting to calculate how much one of the main cast members gets paid:
The “Friends” cast was making $1 million an episode for the last couple of seasons. But Craig Beatty, the Vice President of Entertainment Partners, says there’s a ceiling. During “Friends” that was around $2,500 an episode. So let’s use that as our jumping off point to calculate an example:
Let’s take “The One Where Eddie Moves In,” otherwise known as the ultimate “Smelly Cat” episode:
If, back in 1996, it repeated once during the summer and once the following year on NBC, then Lisa Kudrow would have theoretically gotten:
When a show is syndicated to basic cable and local television stations (called “free television” in the biz), a sliding scale kicks in. Kudrow would have received 40 percent for the first re-run (40 percent of $2,500 = $1,000), 30 percent for the second re-run ($750) and then 25 percent for the next three re-runs. After that, it goes down incrementally until the 13th time it airs. From then on, an actor gets 5 percent for each episode every time it airs, forever. So if “The One Where Eddie Moves In” re-aired five times in syndication, the math would work like this:
Kudrow would also be compensated for foreign rights, but those work a little differently. Back in the ’90s, she would’ve gotten one flat payment of 35 percent, no matter how many channels it showed on outside North America. So:
And if we add all that up:
I won’t get into DVD and digital media sales because those get pretty complicated, but let’s just say we hit $10,000 total per episode, for easy math’s sake . With 236 episodes, that would mean Kudrow would’ve gotten at least:
Now, we all know “Friends” has aired a bajillion times, so it’s safe to say that estimate is ludicrously, ridiculously and extremely low. Plus, the cast of “Friends” actually negotiated for a higher share than that maximum for residuals, so they’re sitting pretty, especially since “Friends” has made somewhere north of $3 billion in syndication.
Regardless, residuals are a steady stream of income in a line of work where nothing else is all that steady.
An earlier version of this story misstated James Michael Tyler’s first name. The text has been corrected.
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