Becoming a Film Actor: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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An actor's mean wage is about $37.28 per hour. Is a shot at fame worth the union dues and the lack of job security? Get the truth about acting jobs and career prospects to decide if becoming an actor is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Professional Film Acting

According to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the success of aspiring actors often depends on sheer luck. Consider some of the pros and cons to an acting career.

PROS to an Acting Career
No college degree is required for this career*
Unions and guilds can protect your professional interests**
Much of the learning process is on the job*
Working on location often provides opportunity to travel*

CONS to an Acting Career
Many American film and television projects require union membership and dues**
Rejection is a constant factor*
There is little job security**
Job growth was predicted to be slower than average (four percent from 2012-2022)*
Many film projects require long hours that can extend into weekends and holidays*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Screen Actors Guild.

Career Information

Job Description

Many actors begin with small projects like independent films. Breaking into major motion pictures may require you to fill extra roles, also known as background work. To find these jobs, a prospective actor can audition at casting calls found through trade publications. Organizations such as SAG offer helpful advice to both members and non-members about career choices, such as choosing a talent agent and finding the right photographer for headshots.

Casting for acting roles primarily hinges on your level of talent and ability to give a nuanced portrayal of your character. Film acting varies considerably from theater acting, since you often must perform the same scene over again for a number of takes in front of a camera. You must also use a more realistic voice level, since you have sound mics that can amplify your voice. Acting can be difficult; for example, you might only have a few seconds to show viewers that you've been standing in the rain waiting for a bus for the last hour. You also need to memorize a great deal of dialogue, show creativity, take directions well and have strong speaking skills.

Job Prospects and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job prospects for actors were only expected to increase by four percent from 2012-2022 (www.bls.gov). Wages can range from non-paying background work to millions of dollars for a single film project. As of May 2014, the BLS reported that actors earned a mean hourly wage of approximately $37. Because of the differences in pay for various acting productions, salaries can range considerably. The bottom ten percent of actors made about $9 per hour or less, while the 75th percentile of acting professionals took in over $49 per hour.

Education and Training Requirements

Film actors don't typically need formal education to audition for roles, but training can help you sharpen your skills and network with other acting professionals. Some colleges offer film acting degree programs, but theater programs are more prevalent and teach the same acting fundamentals. You can enroll in both bachelor's and master's degree programs in theater.

Despite the lack of a degree requirement, all actors need to hone their acting chops by taking workshops or working with an acting coach. Actors also may be required to learn auxiliary skills to fit a particular role. As an actor, you may find yourself learning to surf, speak with a Russian accent or juggle snowballs if a scene calls for your character to perform these tasks.

What Employers Look For

When you create your acting resume, it's important to show your flexibility, but remember to keep it accurate and up to date. Prospective employers want to see your previous work experience, who you trained under and a headshot that will look like the person they'll meet if you manage to get through the auditioning door. If you play soccer, roller skate, paint or play the piano, you might want to put it on your resume. You can find employment ads for actors through organizations like Back Stage and Now Casting. However, these job boards often require you to sign up for a subscription in order to view employment ads and contact prospective casting agents.

How to Stand Out

Take Advantage of Trade Publications

Some actors start out on their own with few connections and may discover that reputable work ads are primarily listed in trade publications. In the long run, it can be worth it to invest in subscriptions to acting publications to gain access to casting call notices. Most of the more reputable publications even offer online access to their ads, and some allow you to post your resume for consideration. Because they're online, you can enhance your profile with videos, acting reels and other multimedia displays of your talents.

Get an Agent

Agents can be an essential tool for actors. Not only can they help you find work, they can protect your interests. You can investigate prospective agents through the Better Business Bureau, according to SAG. The guild also noted that a reputable agent usually requires no initial financial consideration, but rather collects a percentage of the profit once you've secured a paid role. The amount you owe your agent can increase with your success rate, but that only gives your agent more incentive to find work for you.

Alternative Career Paths

If your love of film draws you to the industry, but you don't have the desire or resources to weather the potential financial and emotional setbacks, other film career options exist. It's important to note that both of the following occupations also rely on production work.

Camera Operator

These technical professionals work to translate the director's vision to the screen. Many schools offer bachelor's degree programs that can teach industry skills and the latest camera techniques. The BLS reported that camera operators earned a median hourly wage of about $19 per hour as of May 2011. Between 2010 and 2020, camera operator positions were expected to grow four percent, which was less than average.

Director

If you're interested in coordinating both the crew and talent in order to convey a story on film, you might be good at directing. Many directors have at least a bachelor's degree in cinema-related studies. The BLS noted that hourly median wages for directors as of May 2011 were about $34. The BLS also predicted that this job field could increase at an average rate of 11% in the 2010-2020 decade.

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