The One Line Day Player

Okay, today’s episode is a little outside my usual PA mandate, but it keeps coming up on the show I’m on, and I want to rant somewhere.1

A “day player,” for those who don’t know, is someone who works on the production for only a day. This can be because we have a big scene that requires more grips and electrics than usual; it could be because a camera operator or make-up artist called in sick. Or, it could be an actor with a small part.

Let me back up a second. Consolidating an actor’s work to a single day is generally a good thing. Remember, personnel is the biggest expense on any set, and actors tend to be the biggest expense within that. The minimum guarantee for an actor is currently $906 per day.

Plus, you have to pay the actors for what are called “hold days.” If the actor shoots Monday and Friday, you have to also pay her for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, to “hold” her from other work.2

To avoid these costs, the AD and UPM try to schedule small parts for a single day, if at all possible. And thus, day players are born.

Taking a step even further back, these characters are created in the writer’s room. If the main character is put on trial, you’re gonna need lawyers, a jury, and a judge. It’s gonna be weird if the lawyers and judge don’t talk, so those are a given. You probably want the foreman to say, “We find the defendant… [dramatic pause]… not guilty!” The other 11 jurors can be extras to save money.

And you probably want the bailiff to shout, “All rise! Court is now in session!”

Except… do you? If you just start the scene already in session, the bailiff is an extra. He’s minimum wage, plus the cost of lunch and a uniform. For those seven words, he gets a pay bump of $766!

That’s two grips. Or five and a half PAs. Or another week in the edit suite. Or a round of Starbucks for the entire cast and crew. So, really, is that character with one line really worth all that?

Okay, yes, occasionally a character with one line is totally worth it:

But as a general rule, outside the paycheck, it’s not even worth it for the actor. Someone with one line isn’t a “character.” They’re not really playing anything; it’s just functional. This scene isn’t going to end up on their reel.

Tarantino3 said in an interview once that he never writes a purely functional character. He gives every part some personality, or conflict, or at the minimum, an affect. Something.

The waiter who starts the scene with “Are you ready to order?” is the antithesis of this. It’s wasteful, it’s unengaging, and there’s a 95% chance it’ll get cut, anyway. I really, really wish the writers would understand the downstream effects of their seemingly innocuous decisions.

I haven’t seen this issue come up in every show I’ve worked for. I honestly wonder if that’s because those showrunners are thinking about the budget in these minute details.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Remember, dear readers, it’s a bad idea to rant about your workplace at work.
  2. At that point, you’d probably just hire them at the weekly rate; I’m just explaining for illustrative purposes.
  3. I think it was Tarantino.
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3 Responses

    1. That’s true, but if you’re not getting regular work, paying dues is pricey.

  1. Interesting — I wasn’t aware of “hold days” for actors, or exactly how big a bump a single spoken line gives that lucky extra or day-playing actor. That said, I’m always glad to see an extra or day-player get a line. Sure, it costs the producers a bit more, but it makes a big difference for a struggling actor — which is pretty much all of them other than the core cast and guest stars.

    Of course, I’m not a producer, so that’s easy for me to say…

    Below the line, the term “day player” refers to anybody other than the core crew, who — technically speaking — are hired on a daily basis. On my last show (a fucking nightmare it was), we often had at least one day-player with us all week long, and for the big day and night exteriors, we’d add at least four juicers to the crew. Sometimes more.

    As for work not being a good place to rant, that reminds me of a saying our gaffer liked to invoke when we found ourselves bitching about one of the many brain-dead aspects of our show:

    “In the house of the hangman, one does not speak of rope.”

    Or maybe he meant this:

    Either way, it’s a good idea to be discreet…

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