Saturday, September 4, 2010

Know the Law: Child Actors

Ever wonder why the actors in all those “teen” comedies or dramas look like they are in their 20s? Because shooting youthful-looking actors posing as teens is cheaper than shooting real teens. Real teens are for the Jerry Bruckheimers and Harvey Weinsteins of the world. And even then, Mr. Bruckheimer and Mr. Weinstein know that casting an 18-year-old instead of a 17-year-old means huge savings for the company and/or studio.

All actors under the age of 18, although adorable, add to your project’s budget almost exponentially. Oftentimes, a child actor may be an unknown, meaning you can sign him or her on a project for cheaper. However, many beginning filmmakers do not factor in the hidden costs of having such a young individual on-set.

Some of the laws (yes, LAWS!) regarding child actors involves the all-important studio teacher. In case you haven’t seen Brüno or Little Miss Sunshine, or have never worked with children before, the generalized reputation of the so-called “stage parent” is an infamous one.

Although obviously not true across the board, stage parents have been stereotyped as overly anxious, overbearing, and dismissive of the child’s welfare for the sake of fame. Real life examples include the public’s perception of Lindsey Lohan’s parents, Joe Jackson, Kris Jenner, and Matthew Knowles.

A studio teacher’s job is to ensure the child actor continues classes during the shoot, to promote a safe environment for the child, and to oversee the child’s working schedule. So, in short, a studio teacher will most likely not allow you to shoot your 11-year-old actor hanging out of a moving car at 10:30pm on a Wednesday night. Studio teachers can cost somewhere between $150-400 a day! Also a studio teacher must be certified in accordance to the law. No hiring Uncle Jeff to watch the kiddies, unless Uncle Jeff is a social worker. You can search for California certified studio teachers here.

Since acting is technically a job (despite what your parents and ex may tell you), there is one more thing you’ll have to worry about with child actors: child labor laws. Good news: the state of California makes exceptions for child actors. Bad news: getting permission involves a lawyer and paperwork. In addition to an actor release, you’ll need a minor release signed by the parent and a permit to hire and work with minors for your production. Your young actors will also need a permit to work, which, depending on the child’s age and school year, will require other official paperwork. In general, children can only work between 5am and 10pm on school days, and up to 12:30am on non-school days. In addition to these restrictions, the allowed hours on-set for minors due to age are in this chart. Note how little time you have with babies and toddlers. This is why twins or triplets are cast as one baby. That's right: child labor laws made the Olsen Twins famous.

If—even with the legal requirements, strict scheduling, and price of studio teacher—you still want a 15-year-old actor for practical reasons, plan accordingly and work tightly. You may also want to consider only hiring a true teen for principal actors only. Examples of this strategy include Bring It On, Heathers, and Mean Girls. Also, don’t forget the obvious: no drugs, no booze, and especially no nude scenes.

Happy Filmmaking.

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