The unglamorous lives of Korean drama actors

Posted on : 2013-06-04 15:12 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Actors are often cheated out of their wages and are overworked in desperate conditions

By Kim Yang-hee, staff reporter

“Three years ago, I was cheated out of more than 2 million won, too (USD$1,774). The producers fled the country, and the broadcasters kept refusing to take responsibility for the money. There was no one I could go to and complain about it. I’m not sure that the actors are going to get their money this time either…”

Veteran actor B followed this statement with a long sigh. He has more than twenty years experience acting in Korean dramas. While TV viewers might not recognize his name right away, his face is familiar.

With the unpaid wages for actors in “Rascal Sons,” a television drama on MBC, a major South Korean broadcaster, in the news again, a Hankyoreh reporter met with B for an interview. During the interview, B talked about the three biggest heartaches that actors face. There is the uncertainty about not getting paid for completed jobs, the exploitative behavior of casting directors, and the last-minute scripts that make acting similar to a live broadcast.

■ Low production budgets that lead to unpaid wages 

After the president of To Be Enterprise, the production company that made the drama Rascal Sons (a weekend drama that ended in March), ran and hid out in the Philippines, most of the actors haven’t received all the money they are owed. The Korea Broadcasting Actors Union (KBAO) estimates that the outstanding fees owed to the actors amount to around 680 million won (US$603,000). MBC insists that it has already paid the entire production fee to To Be Enterprise. B gives us the full story about why this kind of debacle keeps occurring.

“Let’s say that a broadcaster and a producer have agreed to shoot a miniseries for 120 million won (US$107,000) per episode,” A said. “At least 60 million won goes to the male and female leads. That leaves at most 60 million won to cover the wages for the staff on the set, the cost of renting the equipment, and doing the graphics work. The only solution here is for the production company to decrease the money it pays the staff, which can eventually mean the wages aren’t paid at all. The biggest problem is that broadcasters tend to avoid the risk of losing money, which makes things harder for the production companies since they insist on unrealistic production fees.”

According to statistics provided by the KBAO, the outstanding wages currently owed to actors in dramas outsourced by the main broadcasters total 3.174 billion won (US$2.815 million). The broadcasters keep shifting responsibility to the production companies, which leaves the actors with no recourse when the production companies shut down their operations and go into hiding.

With the establishment of new channels operated by conservative newspaper companies, there are now more dramas being produced, but the situation has only deteriorated. Since the new channels provide far lower drama production fees than the established broadcasters, they tend to attract not major production companies but new companies with little in the way of capital or credentials.

“Actors are paid for their work on the last day of the month following the day that the drama episode was broadcast. For example, if a drama went off the air at the beginning of May, you would get paid at the end of June. But during that time the production company can collect the money from the broadcaster and run off. If that happens, the actor has essentially sunk millions of won of their own money into the drama,” B said, bursting into anger. He also mentioned that actors who were injured during a shoot had to cover their own medical bills.

■ Casting directors who siphon off actors wages 

Some casting directors take advantage of their close relationship with production companies or directors to charge actors in supporting roles or small roles commissions that can go as high as 30%. Suppose that an actor for a drama being filmed in the countryside is supposed to receive 500,000 won (US$450) per episode, which includes the room and board allowance. The actor would give the casting director 150,000 won of this. Subtract the cost of gas for the car, eating expenses, and the motel cost, and he is left with no more than 100,000 won for his work. The more desperate actors are to appear in a drama, the more commission the casting director demands.

B’s voice grew louder when he was talking about casting directors. “There is obviously a need for casting professionals to find the right people for dramas,” B said. “But some of these people are not even professionals. They’re just brokers who are exploiting actors and taking part of their pay.”

There are currently only 4,500 actors registered with the KBAO. Hundreds of actors graduate from university acting departments and private academies each year, and competition has gotten even fiercer as singers start to dabble in dramas. While the amount of work per episode of a drama has increased, the total number of shows being produced has sharply declined, making it more difficult than ever to get roles. These circumstances are a golden opportunity for casting directors who can take advantage of their connections to help actors break through the competitive deadlock.

One bright spot for actors was the KBS historical drama The King’s Dream, which offered a fair number of supporting and bit roles, but the number of available jobs decreased even further with KBS’s decision to temporarily suspend historical dramas.

■ Last-minute scripts - a daily occurrence 

“Now I’m dead,” sighed a top star who was filming their first miniseries in three years. Another celebrity lamented, “About all the miniseries do is improve your ability to improvise, your ability to quickly memorize things and focus from moment to moment.”

Their complaints stem from the problem of routinely receiving scripts at the last-minute. B explained, “With a miniseries, you should start filming about two months in advance, but nowadays it’s considered wonderful if you can film just one month ahead. Film is money, and these cash-strapped production companies want to cut down on the amount of filming they do. Now, with the scripts provided page-by-page, three teams of cameramen work on a rotating basis, and the actors find themselves in front of the camera without any rest. This may be the only country in the world where the actors stay up all night and wait for the script as they’re getting their makeup done. They talk about the ‘IV sets,’ where everything looks nice on the outside but things are actually really brutal.”

Normally, production companies in the past prepared two tapes before broadcast - one for actual airing, and one as a spare. Things have changed recently. “These dates, it’s normal to have seven tapes per episode for a 70-minute miniseries,” said a network source. “They edit it into 10-minute segments and send it off to the network right away. When the scene went black for ten minutes during Episode 19 of ‘Man from the Equator’ (2012), it happened during this process.”

Actor Kwon Sang-woo, who starred in “Queen of Ambition,” once complained that he had been shooting the series “up until 30 minutes before the last episode was aired.”

Many say the last-minute scripts and all-night filming have reduced the quality of miniseries and resulted in a flood of low-grade shows that emphasize sensationalism over performance.

“Sometimes, I get the script and think, ‘Am I supposed to be some kind of acting machine?,’” said B. “Dramas these days have technicians, not actors. There have been a few times when I‘ve looked at myself and just thought I was pathetic.”

The KBAU is now calling for a standard contract that would ensure actors are paid within 15 days of airing, prohibit shooting for more than 18 hours a day, and require scripts to be provided at least three days before filming. But the country’s major broadcasters have balked, calling the terms “unrealistic.”


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