What It Means When Your Commercial Isn’t Airing

Recently I was chatting with a former student and she asked an interesting question. She shot a commercial, was paid for the session and a little usage, and then…nothing but holding fees. This happens quite a bit, but what does it mean?

Here’s my explanation, but this answer only applies to union commercials shot under the SAG-AFTRA commercials contract. If you’re not sure what that is, there’s a ton of details about being a union actor in the book. What it takes to join, if and when you should join, how much union actors earn from commercials, and a lot more.

The situation my former student described is pretty common, one where the advertiser produces a spot, runs it, then stops running it but continues to pay holding fees for…well, sometimes forever (it seems).

When a union actor shoots a commercial, or a nonunion actor gets Taft-Hartly’d on a SAG-AFTRA commercial, the advertiser has the right to use the spot for 21 consecutive months from the production date. Every 13 weeks during this time, they have to pay holding fees, which ties the actor to that advertiser by way of a product conflict. Typically a holding fee is equal to one scale session fee.

Some advertisers have a long term plan for their spots, others intend to air commercials for only a short time. It sounds like this commercial is in the latter category, since the actor was paid usage fees up front but only got holding fees from then on.

Actors are never told the reasoning behind these decisions, but we ARE expected to honor the product conflict that comes with holding fees. If you do a spot for Ford, you cannot do a spot for any other automaker while Ford is paying you holding fees. This connects you to that advertiser for those 21 months, but you’re getting paid NOT to work, so it isn’t a bad deal. It’s a minor inconvenience since you have to pass on auditions for competing products, but again, the advertiser is paying for that privilege.

To this actor I’d say enjoy the holding fees, don’t audition for competitors (on-camera or VO if it’s airing on TV), and fugghetabout it until your max use is up and it’s time to renew…or not. Within 90 days of the end of the max period of use, your agent should reach out to the ad agency to ask if they’re going to renew the spot. If they do, your agent will negotiate a raise, but if the spot hasn’t aired for a while, chances are they’re not going to renew it, and your journey with that job will come to an end.

Actors are almost never told how much their spots will air, or how long they’ll be held. Holding fees with no use fees just means the advertiser has shelved the spot, and in my experience once that happens, it’s unlikely the actor will get usage fees again.