Monday, July 28, 2003

When No Means No and Yes Also Means No.

In what I sometimes call my "real life" world, I learn all about different theories on how to do business better. It's given me insights to the importance of customer service. Two quick stories:

My dry-cleaner lost a pair of my black pants years ago. They apologized and looked and looked, but never found them. The lady behind the counter asked me how much they were and I gave a guess and instantly that became my "tab" at the dry-cleaners. I wouldn't have to pay for dry-cleaning until that amount was reached. Years later, they are the only dry-cleaner I go to.

A couple of years ago we had some "lawn experts" do our lawn for us. They called the year after to confirm they'd be doing it for us again that year. I told them that, well, LAST year we were pretty disappointed with the results - the lawn was brown and the only green parts were the weeds. So, here again is an opportunity to make a customer for life. The guy on the phone says, "Okay," with a very brusque tone and hung up.

We do the lawn ourselves now.

In the BIZ, it's a stranger world. In the BIZ, the answer is always, "Yes." Even when it's "No", it's "Yes". This can be frustrating.

There's an arc to a person's perceptions about doing movies and stuff. At first it's glory and glamour. I can remember standing "off-stage" in the black, cables snaking around my feet, getting ready to appear in my first commercial (the lottery commercial, a background poker player with Fat Dick, just a couple of guys behind the REAL action). I was sweating and my guts were rolling from nerves. When the commercial's all done, you go home and sit and wait and finally jump up from the couch when at last it appears on TV. You call around and ask to get copies of the commercials so you can have them on tape at home to show off. You call your agent, the production company, the ad agency.

They all tell you, Yes, they can get you a copy.

And sometimes they do.

Other times you wait and wait and then call again. Yes, they tell you, and the cycle repeats.

You learn that the stock answer to any question is "Yes." Even when the answer is "No," you're told "Yes." I can only assume that it's done to keep everybody happy ... or at least to not have people be mad a YOU. You said yes, after all.

The only time I was told No, was from Agent # 3.

Agent #3 bought and assumed control of the talent directory from Agent #2 who, as you will recall, bolted town with his co-agent wife and took all the peoples' money with them. Agent #3 was from Florida and had the distinction of once having appeared in Playboy. Agent #3 has since gone back to the States and yielded the reins to her then-secretary, now-president, Agent #4. I'll wait a moment while you jot all this down on your scorecard.

So. Agents get you auditions, auditions infrequently get you work, work gets you your cheque. Woo-hoo! You're a professional!

When you receive a cheque for having done work for TV and film, you get the whole amount. By comparison, when I receive a cheque from my "real job", I only get about half the whole amount. The government gets about half in taxes and pension and unemployment insurance and all that. But the acting cheques come deduction-free, and that rhymes with "T" and that spells Trouble.

The government's going to want all that money sooner or later, see, so that's why you have to be careful with acting money.

I'm sure you've heard of people more famous than I who have gotten into trouble over this point.

So when the acting cheque comes in, I do the math. Amount divided by two. There's my half. From the other half, pay the agent her commission. Pay whatever other expenses. Whatever else is left over, that goes to mutual funds. What goes to mutual funds doesn't go to the governement as tax (not yet, anyway). All of this financial wheeling and dealing gets recorded in a spreadsheet that I maintain and submit with my taxes. Everything above board and clear as a bell. Everybody's happy.

Revenue Canada was not happy.

What happened was that the payroll company gave me a T4A, which is a declaration of earnings, for the full amount of all the acting cheques I received. I had recorded the full amounts of all the individual cheques on my spreadsheet, and from each took away all my expenses and put what was left over on my income tax form. Net income from professional services. Revenue Canada, not seeing the GROSS number, the number from the T4A, the number that they WANTED to see on my tax return, assumed I hadn't declared ANY of what I got and lo and behold, my $200 tax rebate was transmogrified into a tax-owing bill for $500.


This has happened three times now. The last time it was when I sent my taxes out to my mutual funds guy to do them and he got caught the same as I did. I had since figured out a better way of clearly showing that acting income and I let him know how to solve the problem. But the first time it happened, I was a little panicked and I went to my agent to ask for help.

She told me no.


It's a personal problem, I was told. It wasn't her business.

It's a business problem, I said, related directly to my work as an actor.

No, it was a personal problem. Go away son, you're bothering me.

Frustration, bitterness, gnashing of teeth. Eventually, of course, I sorted it out on my own. But I'm still noticing how the agent (even Agent #4) is happy to take her commission … but for that you get notice of auditions and that seems to be where the service ends.

Also, Revenue Canada has me in their sights and every year at tax time I notice that they are very watchful of what I submit. They still occasionally like to tell me that I owe them money when I've declared it all in my little spreadsheet.

There's a guy in my office that used to work with Revenue Canada. I told him this story and asked him if it's possible that a person can get blacklisted. He assured me that, yes, there's probably a little red flag on my file.

Which means I'm screwed. I'll never have another simple tax return for the rest of my life. Yay.

I was on a movie set with the ex-Mrs. Eddie Van Halen about a week ago. She has her own trailer of course. All the principle actors have their own trailers. I show up on this hot July afternoon with two suitcases full of clothes, sweaters and winter coats. We're shooting a Christmas movie. "John Christmas" is the name of it. Watch for it this year on CBS. Anyway, I stroll up to the set with all my belongings to report in. The actors are here, the crew is over here and you, Mr. Extra, your room is over there. Welcome to Extras Holding. It's a big, blank room with hard metal folding chairs. In this room I will sit (stand, mostly, because of a current back ailment) for HOURS. There is no glamour on a film set. There is no glory. It's all about waiting. And waiting.

And waiting.

You soon figure out: bring a book.

There were about twenty of us there by the end of the evening in the big blank room. Almost everyone was sitting and reading.

Time passed.

I struck up a conversation with another of the extras and started talking about the "Arc of Expectation" as a movie extra. How you start all nervous, like me in that first lottery ad. How, at first, you wants copies of all the little bits you've done, then later you become less and less interested.

It looked like it was going to be a long night. It looked like I might not even get to go in front of the camera for that last scene.

I told of the time I did background work for a movie called "Magic of Marciano". It starred Nastassja Kinski (who I never saw first or last). For this movie I sat in a different blank room with folding tables and folding chairs. I sat for hours and hours and hours. Fat Dick was there too, unless my memory is faulty. Briefly, I went to the set to start to work on some blocking. I was to be a detective going through a bedroom, a crime scene. Something wasn't quite right though, the crew wasn't ready and I was sent back to Extras Holding.

The next word came hours later and the word was that we were wrapped. Thanks very much. You're done. And I had never even gone before the camera.

I was crushed. Disappointed. I had my cool detective suit on, my shoulder holster, my gun, and I never got to play.

Now, years later, sitting near the set of "John Christmas" where it appeared that once again I might not get to go before the camera, I told the "Magic of Marciano" story to another of the background performers.

And how one of the biggest lessons you learn is that whether they use you or not, the money still spends the same.

Just don't forget to give half to the government.

Still to come!

- Vomit Your Way To Stardom!
- Why I Hate Harrison Ford.
- Rick Mercer, Sela Ward, Valerie Bertenelli, but not Leslie Nielsen

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