If you have a child or grandchild who has expressed an interest in acting, be it in movies, TV shows, commercials, or even live theater, you may be curious about how much child actors can make.
While it’s hard to predict the potential for earnings for an individual, it’s helpful to look at some of the average paychecks for kids in the industry, as well as some of the need-to-know laws surrounding child entertainment. Armed with information, you’ll be better informed to decide if your aspiring thespian is ready to take the leap into acting.
Read on to learn more about what you might expect if your child proves to have the motivation, talent, and dedication to earn an income on stage or screen.
The Groups Protecting Child Actors
The Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is a combined-force union representing more than 160,000 performing artists. Both groups were founded in the 1930s to protect media artists after the Great Depression brought contract issues and pay cuts to actors.
Although the two labor unions weren’t always on the same page, they formally merged in 2012. Today, the organization works to protect the rights and income of various professionals working in TV, radio, and theater, as well as professionals working on other media distribution platforms like games, mobile devices, and the internet.
Beyond just actors, SAG-AFTRA fights for and protects the rights of dancers, DJs, recording artists, stunt performers, voiceover artists, broadcast journalists, news writers, and more.
Child Entertainment Laws
Of all the laws on the books protecting child actors, one of the most well-known is the Coogan Law. Under the law, 15% of the child’s gross earnings must be in an inaccessible account until they turn 18.
The law was enacted in 1939 after child actor Jackie Coogan sued his mother and former manager for his earnings. Because California law at the time stated that all of a minor’s earnings belonged to the parents, Jackie was left with nothing—despite having a lucrative acting career alongside Charlie Chaplin—after his parents had spent his fortune.
Even after implementing the Coogan Law, various loopholes left it somewhat ineffective. But SAG-AFTRA, along with other industry groups, got the law changed in 2000. Now, all of a child’s earnings from the entertainment industry belong to the child.
Minors and their parents share a fiduciary relationship, with the requirement that 15% of the child’s earnings be placed in a blocked trust account or Coogan Account. Although the specifics of Coogan Accounts vary slightly by state, they are required in California, New York, Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico.
In most cases, parents must show proof of the trust account before their child can receive a work permit. In addition, the parents must supply their child’s Coogan Account number to the employer to ensure the company can direct deposit the 15% of gross wages within 15 days of working.
According to SAG-AFTRA, the typical child pay rates for union shows are as follows:
- Daily base rate: $1,030 (for a 30-minute or 60-minute show)*
- Weekly base rate: $3,575 (for a 30-minute or 60-minute show)*
- Live theater weekly base rate: $2,200 (Broadway; based on 8 shows a week**)
* In addition to these base rates, child actors will make an additional 10% commission for their agent.
** Off-Broadway and regional theaters tend to pay far less, and tiny theater houses may pay nothing to very little.
Rates for full-budget theatrical films are similar to those of television, but they may vary based on the film’s budget.
Those rates may sound phenomenal, but you’ll need to subtract a variety of expenses to get a true feel for take-home pay. Union initiation fees and dues, demo reels, professional headshots, and taxes can take a chunk away from a child actor’s income.
And while it might be tempting to squeeze in as many working gigs as possible, it’s important to understand that there are limitations to cap when and how a minor can work. With some exceptions, here are the basic rules for the employment of minors:
Young children under the age of 6 can be at their place of employment for six hours, excluding meal periods but including school time.
Children at least 6 but not yet 9 years old can be at their place of employment for eight hours, excluding meal periods but including school time.
Children at least 9 but not yet 16 years old can be at their place of employment for nine hours, excluding meal periods but including school time.
Teenagers at least 16 but not yet 18 years of age can be at their place of employment for 10 hours, excluding meal periods but including school time.
On days preceding school days, minors can work between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., with evening hours extended to 12:30 a.m. on days preceding non-school days.
For details on the laws and guidelines protecting child actors, visit sagaftra.org.
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