‘People treated me like a star but I was basically unemployed’: Irish actors seek better pay deal amid Hollywood strike

Actor and trade unionist who played role in Pirates of the Caribbean says he earned less than €10,000 from acting last year and has no pension of his own

A strike by the American actors’ union representing Hollywood workers may not have achieved anything for those on the picket lines yet but for the movie-going public it has been a stark reminder that for every star playing Barbie or J Robert Oppenheimer there is a bit part player struggling to make ends meet.

Sag-Aftra, which represents 160,000 people in the film industry in the United States, says 87 per cent of its members do not make the $26,000 (€23,600) in annual income required to qualify for its healthcare programme and many make far less than that.

In Ireland, the disparities between the top stars and the great majority of industry workers are also dramatic. Irish Equity cites Central Statistics Office figures to suggest the average income in the profession is about €15,000 with half of those involved in the business earning less than €8,000.

Many harbour hopes of progressing to a level that brings big pay cheques but it can be a long, hard slog with Domhnall Gleeson recalling last week how his mother’s day job was a key part of keeping the household on the go even after his father Brendan would have been widely regarded as well-established.


One actor, a familiar enough face on British and Irish TV, recounts a day out at an open-air concert recently when he was repeatedly asked to pose for photographs and generally treated like a star by strangers. “I was thinking, ‘if they only knew that I’m basically unemployed’,” he tells The Irish Times.

Another individual who got out of the business more than a decade ago recalls averaging €3,000 a year for a few years then, as he and his wife weighed up how to pull together a deposit on a house, landing an ad that paid €15,000. He grabbed it, took it as a sign and started a new life.

Irish Equity president Gerry O’Brien knows such struggles all too well. A veteran of about 50 years in the business he has been in a long list of TV series, from Strumpet City to Fair City, and quite a few movies. But, he says, last year he earned less than €10,000 from acting and has no pension to supplement his State one.

He works whenever the opportunity arises and has recently been involved in a project that involved spells filming in Scotland but much of his time these days is being taken up with the union and its attempt to negotiate a new agreement with film producers here which, he says, needs to reflect some of the very same issues being battled over in Hollywood.

The basic rates paid to actors working here are, says O’Brien, far too low. But a key issue is the widespread use of residuals buyouts, payments intended to bundle future royalties into a single upfront payment. These are given at the same time as, and usually based on, the actor’s fee.

Pay for actors can be a complicated issue but, all in, the rate for a day’s work starts at about €600, most of it relating to future residuals.

O’Brien gets a couple of cheques in the post each year to cover his existing residuals, money he is owed because something he has worked on in the past has been streamed or reshown somewhere. Most of the individual payments will be relatively small, a few euro here for an episode of Father Ted, a few there for Ballykissangel or Holby City. But he has also got residual payments for his role in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the second film in the franchise which, by itself, took more than $1 billion at the box office.

The film’s big names included Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. O’Brien played a character simply listed as “Irish man” but he was flown to Los Angeles for the filming, well-looked after and well-paid. Crucially, he adds, he was put on a Sag contract because all of the other actors were. So, he got his pay cheque and went home but then, the following year when the film was drawing big crowds he was paid an additional €50,000 in royalties. The number went down over time but last year he still got €3,000.

“Now that’s as good as it gets,” he says. The money has become an important component in his annual income but “if I had made that film in Ireland, I wouldn’t have it”.

This, he says, is at the heart of Equity’s attempt to make residuals a routine part of the contracts its members get when they work on films here. “It’s about sharing in the success,” he says. “If the film makes nothing, you get nothing but where a film does make a lot of money then you are fairly rewarded for your part in that. That’s what we are looking for.”

The industry landscape is complicated, with more than 100 producer companies affiliated to umbrella body Screen Producers Ireland (SPI) and many projects, whether for television, the big screen or streaming, are made as co-productions with big international companies. But key to it all is the section 481 tax credit, a subsidy to production companies that can, in some bigger budget instances, be worth more than €20 million to a project. In most cases, the figure is under €500,000.

In total, abut €100 million has been paid out annually in recent years with the scheme extended last year until 2028. A Department of Finance review suggests it has resulted in an industry that provides about 3,000 full-time equivalent jobs although nobody can agree on the figures and various industry reports put the number at a multiple of that.

O’Brien supports the subsidy, without which there would be a lot less activity, but argues that it funds projects on which actors who are Irish residents, and taxpayers, are routinely paid less than British colleagues working on the UK’s Pact-Equity industry agreement or American actors on the Sag one.

One of the conditions attached to section 481 is the provision of “quality employment”. O’Brien argues this should not be exclusively for residents of other states.

Equity, which is aligned to Siptu here, effectively wants the British Pact-Equity deal adopted in its entirety not only because it generally makes better provision for residuals, but it brings with it mechanisms to establish entitlements and have them collected. Its basic rates are better too and are structured more favourably.

Drama on the picket lines: why Hollywood is on strike

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Irish actors speak of working side by sides on sets with British colleagues who were being paid multiples of what they were earning.

“The gulf between what we have here and Pact-Equity is very significant and that’s not acceptable,” says Siptu organiser Michelle Quinn. “Actors here shouldn’t be worse off than colleagues from the North or Britain when working on the same project. What we want is the same terms that they have.”

SPI argues that a previous feature film deal, done in early 2021 but repudiated by the union side after just a month, provided much of what is now being demanded but this is disputed.

Several issues relating to working conditions in the industry were aired when the Oireachtas Committee on Budgetary Oversight held hearings on section 481 late last year. Its recent report included 14 recommendations including a more precise definition of “quality employment”, more effective compliance with the EU copyright directive and that a request be sent to the EU for clarification on the issue of buyout clauses.

Other findings related to the general lack of permanent employment in the sector, with “designated activity companies” established for each project. These might employ significant numbers of actors, set designers, carpenters and other workers on fixed-term contracts or similar arrangements.

Some say the lack of long-term security is inevitable given the project-based nature of the business and is reflected in pay. However, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, who has driven much of the political debate on the sector, told the Dáil recently “I asked them (SPI) if they could produce one worker who had gained a contract of indefinite duration in the whole of the film industry funded by section 481. The representative told me it was not possible to do so because there is no such person. These workers do not exist.”

SPI, for its part, insists it routinely deals with unions and screen guilds, which also work with Siptu, and that it is keen to do a new deal with Equity. The two sides have been in contact on the issue in recent weeks and Equity’s executive considered terms of reference suggested by SPI at a meeting last Thursday.

“We currently have five agreements in place with six separate unions,” says SPI chief executive Susan Kirby. “This means a significant percentage of workers in the sector are now covered by agreements which clarify rates but also address areas such as pensions, sick pay and work/life balance. We believe such agreements are the best step forward in ensuring stability and transparency of terms and conditions in the Irish audio-visual industry.”

With regard to remuneration, she says, “some actors get incredibly well-paid based on their profile and track record and previous awards success but we appreciate that this is not the reality for some actors in what is an incredibly competitive industry.

“The implementation of the copyright directive into Irish law was very poorly managed and we certainly agree that clarity is needed on these points. The best way of resolving these matters, as is referred to in the directive itself, is through collective bargaining agreements. SPI is committed to well-regulated collective bargaining and agreements which provide for fair and proportionate remuneration for all performers,” she says.

Whether the two sides can agree on what constitutes “fair and proportionate” is, of course, the big issue. In the US, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers hailed the employers’ offer as containing the biggest increase to basic pay in 35 years and a 76 per cent increase in foreign streaming residuals. Orange is the New Black star Kimiko Glenn taking to TikTok to show off her $27.30 foreign streaming residuals cheque suggests the two sides might still be some distance apart.