Hollywood Contraction: Actors Struggle To Find Jobs As TV Castings Dry Up

Editor’s note: Deadline is launching a new series, Hollywood Contraction, which examines the toll the job losses caused by the ongoing industrywide cost-cutting has had on different sections of the entertainment community, starting with actors.

Most of the college-bound aspiring actors from the high school class of 2020 received their acceptance letters in the first days of the pandemic. Their early studies and stage training were disrupted by Covid, with many classes moving online. Four years later, the same class is graduating from college and facing an even bigger challenge — a contracted TV marketplace post-strike.

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“It’s so f*cking hard out there. There is so little work. It’s a brutal time in the business. There are no jobs,” I hear consistently from agents, managers and actors.

On top of fewer shows and virtually no pilots, the available acting gigs pay less than they used to amid rising cost of living, talent sources say, making it hard for many working actors to afford their rent or mortgage and support their families.

As Deadline reported in September, accelerated contraction and reeled-in budgets made for a bumpy re-entry into the TV marketplace post-strike. Things only got worse by November when tens of thousands of SAG-AFTRA members started looking for jobs after the actors union reached an agreement with the studios.

The wave of series cancellations during the dual Hollywood strikes has continued amid sweeping cost-cutting, including layoffs and content removal, by traditional media companies and some belt-tightening among the tech-based streamers too as their once sky-high series budgets have come down to earth.

What’s more, the strikes resulted in a pipeline backlog, with a number of streaming series originally intended for 2024 being pushed to 2025. That has led to fewer greenlights as platforms’ 2025 slates are largely filled. The same goes for the broadcast networks, with most of the new scripted series for 2023-24 being delayed to next season.

Non-Existent 2024 Pilot Season

A decade ago, as many as 100 broadcast pilots would be casting right now. This year, we have a total of three, all at NBC. In addition to a shot at an on-air series, a casting in a pilot provides a life line for hundreds of actors with a paycheck that helps them qualify for the union’s health insurance.

Broadcast networks had already been pulling away from pilots — they don’t really factor into Fox’s development model, and the new CW’s scripted slate relies predominantly on international co-productions. (With few exceptions, basic cable networks, which also employ pilots, have retreated from original scripted programming altogether.)

Still, after the physical and emotional toll of the strikes on actors, many of whom lived off savings and odd jobs for six months, they had been looking forward to the 2024 pilot season for some semblance of normalcy.

Because of the effects of the strikes, which delayed production of new and existing series and development of new ones, that was never really in the cards. An anticipated flood of series castings immediately after the end of SAG-AFTRA work stoppage didn’t materialize either.

“Fewer actors are auditioning this year for pilots vs. previous seasons, and actors are really feeling the emotional effect,” one casting director said. “Competition for the few series regular roles that are available is much more intense.”

The same applies to name actors getting offers. NBC’s Suits: LA pilot cast Arrow and Heels star Stephen Amell as its lead.

During pilot season we would normally have a feeding frenzy for TV stars of his caliber. But, because of the contraction, with broadcast volume going down, pilots drying up and streamers often going for feature names, there are dozens of proven TV stars in their 30s, 40s and 50s — all of whom have headlined hit series — that have been sidelined for months (some for a year or two) with no major job prospects.

Disappearing Series Regular Roles

The value of series regular roles has diminished over the past 10 years as TV seasons often consist of 6-10 episodes in the streaming era — a fraction of the standard 22-24-episode a year broadcast shows that dominated television for decades — making it harder for rank-and-file working actors to make a good living off their episodic fees.

Even broadcast series don’t always produce 22 episodes a season anymore, with 13-18 episodes considered a standard order size, and the current network model rarely can sustain a show beyond six or seven seasons.

Still, due to the volatility in streaming where short seasons of 6-8 episodes could run a year and a half to two years apart and shows often gets get canceled after 2-3 seasons, a lot of big-name stars who had turned up their noses at broadcast in the golden era of cable — and then streaming — are now looking to go back to the steady paycheck security the network business provides.

But those well paying jobs are harder to land as budgets are being slashed amid industry-wide drive to rein in costs.

Broadcast dramas now often cost between $3 million-$5 million per episode, streaming ones $5M-$10M an episode, down sharply from the highs of the past decade, according to sources.

A pickup or renewal for a series nowadays almost inevitably comes with a budget reduction that impacts every facet of a show: crew, sets, locations, post-production — as well as casting.

That has led to salary concessions, like the 25% pay cut the Blue Bloods‘ cast took to pave the way for a Season 14 renewal; the minimum guarantee reductions adopted by Wolf Entertainment series; and series regular cast members getting downgraded to recurring, which happened on CBS’ Bob Hearts Abishola and the CW’s Superman & Lois, among other shows.

“Fewer series regulars, more pressure to cast actors in recurring guest roles without series options, casting more local actors if the show is shooting in Atlanta, New York, Chicago or Canada to save money,” one casting director said about ways studios tackle casting budget cuts.

That often makes for a balancing act. “In many cases, when the series spends a lot of money for their series star(s) who anchor the show, that leaves very little money for the rest of the ensemble cast,” the person said.

One talent agent lamented that in order to save money, a show that would have had eight series regular characters in the past, now would list four of them as series regulars and the other four as recurring.

Casting sources confirmed the “new normal” of roles being listed conservatively on breakdowns as Guest Star, Possible Recurring or Recurring, Possible Series Regular so networks and studios could spend less on a pilot for a show with many characters. The executives then decide which actors to upgrade if the pilot is picked up based on which characters popped.

Skewed Supply-Demand Equilibrium

The drop in supply of series regular roles has greatly increased the demand, which largely eliminates leverage in actors’ negotiations.

According to talent reps, outside of top A-listers, most series offers are now capped at $100K an episode, and they are take-it-or-leave-it, with studios willing to go to the next actor on the list at the slightest pushback.

The budget cuts also have greatly reduced the ability of casts on established series to renegotiate their contracts.

TV industry tradition calls for actors on successful series to be able to negotiate salary increases after Season 2, 3 or 4. That now only applies to the biggest of hits. A recent attempt by an agent to renegotiate their client’s contract for a pay raise after a couple of seasons of a mid-tier series was quickly shut down. Noting the budget cut that the renewal had come with, the studio offered to write off the actor if they were unhappy with their salary.

Trickle Down Effect

The scale-back in number of shows and pilots also means fewer jobs for casting directors. Because most of their work is still being done remotely and virtually post-Covid, some have opted to leave LA for a more affordable living as their income has been hit by the drop in casting assignments. Others are training to be insurance writers and real estate agents.

Many talent agents are hurting too. Smaller agencies’ income depends almost entirely on commissions, with the lion share coming from series regular castings. Already hit hard by the strikes, resulting in salary cuts and layoffs, some of those agencies may find it hard to recover amid the current casting drought and series cancellations.

Weakened by the pandemic and the strikes, A3 — a staple in the business that has been a longtime go-to place for young actors out of Juilliard and other top schools for their first Hollywood representation — just folded. (There is an effort underway to launch a new agency with remaining agents but I hear it may only include commercial and youth departments.)

A demise of such smaller agencies would have a major impact as they play a vital role in the Hollywood ecosystem by nurturing the next generation of stars.

Market correction or irreversible contraction?

The current TV budget cutbacks follow a decade of escalating prices fueled by the streaming wars as attracting big talent and big shows was considered paramount in the pursuit of subscribed growth. (The end of packaging several years ago also is said to have contributed to the push for higher actor salaries to keep the pay comparable after commissions.)

With the focus now shifting to profitability, the market is undergoing what many describe a correction. The question is how long it will last.

Presenting his annual tally, FX’s John Landgraf’s recently declared Peak TV over, revealing that there were 516 original English-language scripted titles in 2023, down 12% from 2022, and projecting a further slide to 400-450 shows within the next few years. Those are levels from a decade ago, and the trend would mean acting jobs going down roughly 30% from the peak of 2022.

As a veteran rep put it in September, “The bubble seems to have burst.”

So, while some predict the current contraction to last a couple of years, with volume of castings and acting salaries creeping back up from the current low point, making a living as an actor would likely continue to be difficult, leading to scores of performers potentially leaving the profession.

That is not encouraging news for the acting class of 2024 as they prepare for another hard and uncertain transition, entering a job market that may not be able to sustain them — at least for the next few years.

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