I'm usually upstairs in my office when the postal carrier arrives, but the second I hear the creak and clank of the mail slot opening, I bound down the stairs like an Olympic sprinter to see if maybe, possibly today's mail has brought me that which every entertainment professional hopes for: A magic envelope!
The magic envelopes I'm referring to are residual checks; wonderful little reminders that your work is still being seen on cable TV or sold on DVD, etc. Last week, I got not one, but two magic envelopes. One was for a HBO movie I did seventeen years ago. I only had one line, but I got to deliver it to Matthew Modine, so it felt like a big deal at the time. The scene also featured Lily Tomlin, Phil Collins and Sir Ian McKellen, so it was hugely fun to hang out with them between takes. Apparently the film is still being shown somewhere since the production company felt obliged to issue me a check for 43 cents - one cent less than the postage required to mail it to me. That's okay. I'll take it.
The second check was for the first network rerun of an episode of Criminal Minds, I did about a year ago. First reruns on network TV are the bomb because they represent a much larger chunk of change. I have nothing but happy memories of filming that episode since I got to play an emotionally unstable scientist who was trying to plant an Anthrax bomb in a D.C. subway station. It was very fun to shoot the big confrontation scene because I got to scream the one line that all actors live to say: "Don't come any closer or I'll blow us all up!"
Occasionally, I get magic envelopes from an ancient episode of JAG where I played a white-trash convict, who along with a couple of other bad guys, escaped from a military prison and kidnapped the leading lady of the series. Our getaway vehicle of choice was an old bus - which didn't make much sense, but was incorporated into the story because the producers happened to have some file footage of a similar-looking bus going off a cliff. Given that nobody in the cast could follow the extremely convoluted plot, it was sort of ironic that when the episode got behind schedule and my big death scene was cut, my character was shot off-screen because I "knew too much."
Since I also have a career as a writer, magic envelopes can also come from screenplays and stage plays I've written over the years. Although, I've never gotten rich from residual checks, they are always a welcome sight. And I thank my two wonderful unions, SAG and the WGA, for having made these magic envelopes possible.
Although the original thinking was that artists should participate in the profits being earned by the recycling of their work, the most revolutionary outcome of this plan was that for the first time in the history of show business, it became possible for lesser-known artists working in TV and film to actually become respected, middle-class citizens. Finally, instead of living like vagabond gypsies, one could buy a nice little place in the Valley and raise some kids.
Without residual income many of us would be forced into having "day jobs" to make ends meet. Not that there's any shame in that, but at a certain point in your career, you don't want to be going over the specials with impatient diners. You need to start feeling (and living) like a professional. Residuals dignify a business that can be pretty rough on its rank-and-file workers.
As we approach the next round of SAG-AFTRA-WGA negotiations, we will need to keep a close eye on the future of residuals. Our new employers, most of whom now fall into the mega-corporation category, are none too keen on the old system of sharing the wealth with the drones who originally built the castle. Tough shit, I say. If our bosses want their products to remain even marginally entertaining, they need talented, experienced professionals to pull that off. And talented, experienced professionals have got bills to pay.
A couple of years ago, I received the smallest residual payment I've ever been paid. It was a check for three cents for an episode of a sitcom I shot in back in 1989. The job was a horrible traumatic experience that drove me out of acting for a number of years -- mostly because I didn't understand at the time that show sets are only as happy as their stars allow them to be. The check is framed and hangs in a place of honor on my office wall. It's there to remind me that my work, good or bad, happy or sad, is always worth something!
Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (Boston Legal) and screenwriter (Kingdom Come) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv
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