If you’ve ever worked on a film set or had to pay a crew member, you probably know that most film professionals have a common favorite phrase: “What is my day rate?”
Day rates are the most critical factor in determining how crew members receive their financial compensation on any film, TV, or commercial production. In a very real sense, day rates make the entire world of professional filmmaking go ‘round.
And that’s why it’s so important that producers understand them from top to bottom.
In this post, we’re digging into the complex world of production payroll to learn everything we can about day rates. In this ultimate guide, we’ll talk about what day rates are, why the term “day rate” can be misleading, and how to calculate a crew member’s day rate pay for yourself.
Let’s dive in.
Day rates are simply a method of calculating an employee's rate of pay for each day of work.
For instance, if you hired an employee- let’s call him “Kenny”- at a day rate of $350, you would pay Kenny $350 for each day that he works. It doesn’t matter if he works one hour or eight hours or sixteen hours, if Kenny worked one day, he’s getting paid $350 for that day.
But here’s the thing…
Professional filmmakers definitely aren’t paid like Kenny. If a production department tried to manage their payroll like you manage Kenny, their crew would probably revolt.
Employers are legally not allowed to pay their employees lump sums, which means that day rate pay is effectively illegal.
In reality, what we commonly call “day rates” in the film industry are actually an estimation based on crew members’ hourly rates.
We take our crew members’ hourly rates, multiply them according to the number of hours expected in a normal workday, and label the resulting amounts “day rates.”
At this point, you might be tempted to think that the flat rate vs. hourly rate debate is irrelevant. After all, who cares about hourly rates if each employee is being paid, more or less, by a day rate anyway? What’s the difference, right?
Well, if you care to ask a production accountant, they’ll tell you that the difference is massive.
Crew members are classified as non-exempt employees. And if you know the difference between exempt and non-exempt employees, you know that this classification has a huge impact on how crew members’ total earnings are calculated.
Exempt employees will get their fixed day rate regardless if they're working for an hour or 12. Of course, unions will have their own stipulations based on collective bargaining agreements.
Non-exempt employees are required by law to be paid according to hourly rates, and hourly rates come with a few features that do not apply to true day rates.
Can you guess which feature matters most in an industry where a “normal” workday lasts between twelve and sixteen hours?
Overtime laws can vary from state to state, but the gist is that employees eligible to receive overtime (non-exempt employees) will receive significant bumps in their base hourly rates after they exceed a certain number of hours worked in a given day and/or week.
It goes without saying that overtime can dramatically increase an employee’s earnings, a reality that significantly complicates the flat rate vs. hourly rate conversation.
Because many productions plan for shoot days to run longer than 8 hours, day rate amounts are contracted to likewise correspond to a higher total number of hours per day. A day rate that corresponds to a 12-hour day, for instance, must account for approximately 4 hours of overtime pay per day (at least in California, unions, and in states where there is a daily overtime limit). In California, there is a daily overtime limit of 8 hours, whereas in New York, as long as the weekly limit of 40 hours isn't reached, a worker could work 10 hours and then begin accruing overtime after that.
Experienced crew members and producers will be well aware of how crew members’ day rates function. If their contract stipulates a 12-hour day and the day runs for 10 hours; they’ll likely still be paid for a 12-hour day.
Though, it is best practice and highly suggested to stick to what is contractually agreed. Say a crew member leaves set after 10 hours, and they get into a fender bender on the drive home. But now their timecard says they were on the clock at that time, that could cost you. Avoid opening yourself up to unnecessary risk wherever possible.
But what about the reverse? What happens, for example, if the day runs for 14 hours?
A day rate is still subject to change if the planned amount is exceeded. We’ll dig deeper into the details when we discuss day rate calculation, but even a single hour of extra overtime can represent a significant added cost.
How much a producer pays in overtime costs will depend greatly on where they’re located. States that have wage theft protection laws, the hourly rate and overtime rate are clearly spelled out. But as an example, let’s say we’re in Texas or Georgia. Their concept of a 10-hour day at say $500 per day is $50 per hour. Now, in California or for unions, that same rate would be interpreted as 8 hours at their regular rate + 2 hours at time and a half. For that same $500 for 10 hours, the hourly rate would be $45.45.
This of course has huge implications. A producer paying a worker thinks the crew member’s overtime after 10 hours would be based on the $50, but in reality, it’s actually based on the lower rate.
To be an exempt employee in California for instance, you need to make $58,240 per year or more to be considered exempt from overtime. This is for companies with up to 25 employees. For companies with 26 or more employees, the threshold is $62,400.
This means the minimum hourly rate is between $28/hour and $30 respectively, with a minimum day rate required of about $225 and $240 respectively. There are of course, way more stipulations that go into determining whether or not someone is exempt.
Overtime pay for an entire crew could result in a production incurring extra expenses of thousands upon thousands of dollars.
But you’re a smart producer. You’re seeing the word “employee” all over the place, and that’s got you thinking… Could there be a loophole here?
It is possible that flat day rates may be applicable to contractors in certain situations because, by definition, contractors have greater flexibility in determining their method of payment.
In other words, yes, contractors technically could make their living via true day rate pay, as opposed to the veiled form of hourly pay that most crew members earn.
But before you say “Ha! Told ya so,” and attempt to reclassify your crew members as contractors, you might want to take a moment to read the fine print.
Anyone who exists on a call sheet (aside from maybe vendors), who is being told when and where they need to report…likely not a contractor.
Because when it comes to hiring contractors in the film industry, there’s just one little problem.
It’s called Assembly Bill 5.
Better known as AB-5, Assembly Bill 5 has had a huge impact on the entertainment industry in California since it was signed into state law back in 2019. You can read the bill’s full text here, but the basic point of AB-5 is to protect workers by making it more difficult for employers to deny them benefits via a contractor classification.
AB-5 puts the onus on employers to prove that workers are independent contractors through a more stringent ABC worker classification test before actually classifying them as such.
And what does that mean for having contractors on your crew?
Let’s just say it’s unlikely you’ll be paying flat day rates anytime soon.
After all, what is day rate pay if no one on your crew is eligible to receive it?
AB-5 only applies to California, but contractors face similar worker classification tests in other states. To learn more, check out our complete list of worker classification tests by state.
Beyond general labor laws like AB-5, day rates in film production are also influenced by other, industry-specific forces. Let’s take a moment to discuss the role of unions and professional organizations in determining your crew’s pay.
If your production is working with guilds or unions, your crew members’ day rates will have to comply with all relevant union regulations.
Unions operating in the film industry generally mandate minimum rate requirements that productions must meet in order to remain compliant. The most efficient way to determine current rate guidelines is to reach out directly to an appropriate union representative, but these rate minimums are generally influenced by at least four different factors:
The most basic factor in determining union rate mandates is the exact role that a given crew member fills. Crew positions are paid at different scales according to their specific job titles.
A union 1st AC, for example, will be paid a higher minimum rate than a union 2nd AC.
Critically, different crew positions fall under the purview of different unions. Though that may be obvious, it carries an important implication. Your production may have to pay attention to multiple sets of guidelines to remain in good standing overall.
Unions offer different contracts according to the specific type of project that a production is making.
Feature films, television shows, commercials, and “new media” all operate under slightly different regulations. Union-mandated rate scales likewise shift in accordance with these different project types.
Most unions use a tier system to adjust rate scales according to production budget ranges. A project shooting with a micro-budget will generally have to pay lower minimum rates to cast and crew compared to a project shooting with the elevated financial backing of a major studio or network.
When planning any production, minding your budget tier is a pivotal, ongoing task. Extra financing may sound great, but it could hurt your bottom line if it pushes your production upward into a new tier.
Union-mandated rates may shift according to the city that you’re shooting in, due to both local labor laws and the influence of local union chapters.
Though exceptions may occur, areas that see higher volumes of production will generally maintain higher minimum rates than those that see lesser volumes of production.
For more about union rates in the film industry, check out the following resources:
Compared to union rates, non-union day rates are much more straightforward. Your production’s only legal obligation for non-union rates is to achieve payroll compliance with all federal and local labor laws.
However, it’s also important to communicate with your crew and ensure that you’re operating with a mutual understanding. The day rate norms in one region may shift in another, and going out of your way to establish a shared perspective early on may help your production team avoid any unnecessary conflict or confusion down the road.
How do you translate day rates into hourly rates? What is a day rate when you break it down into something meaningful?
Let’s take a look. Below are the four basic steps of calculating day rates.
How many hours does an employee have to work to earn their pay? Eight? Ten? Twenty-four? The first step in calculating an employee’s hourly rate is figuring out how many hours make up the “day” in their so-called day rate.
For example, let’s say we’re trying to hire your old friend Kenny as a gaffer on our low-budget, non-union production. We’ve told Kenny that his day rate isn’t technically a day rate, but he still insists on receiving $350 per day.
How do we handle this situation?
We begin by negotiating the expected length of Kenny’s workday.
Fortunately, this is usually the easy part. Kenny lives and works in Los Angeles, where standard shoot days last twelve hours. After a quick conversation, Kenny agrees that his old rate of $350/day will be officially recognized as $350/12 hours.
Once that’s settled, we get to do some math.
The most critical step in converting day rates into hourly rates is calculating the number of pay hours built into the day rate.
And what are pay hours?
Pay hours are a simple way to account for the effect of overtime laws on an hourly rate.
Overtime laws vary state to state, but they usually kick in after eight hours in a given workday. After eight hours, an employee’s hourly rate begins to be multiplied by a factor that increases as more continuous hours are worked.
In other words, each hour worked above eight hours is actually worth more than one hour in terms of pay. It’s worth more than one “pay hour.”
To clarify, let’s return to Kenny for an illustration.
Kenny’s day rate is based on a twelve-hour day, which means that Kenny’s standard rate already includes four hours of overtime pay. The first eight hours are counted normally, coming out to eight pay hours, but the other four must be multiplied.
In California, overtime pay starts at a factor of 1.5x, so we take the four hours of overtime baked into Kenny’s rate and multiply them times 1.5 to get six pay hours.
We then add these six pay hours to the eight initial pay hours to get a grand total of fourteen pay hours. In essence, we’re paying Kenny for fourteen hours of work at his base hourly rate per day.
Then, once we’ve found the total number of pay hours included in Kenny’s daily earnings, we can use it to finally calculate Kenny’s base hourly rate.
With the pay hours total in hand, calculating hourly rates is an easy task.
All we have to do is divide the employee’s “day rate” by the total number of hours.
In Kenny’s case, we divide a rate of $350 by a pay hour total of fourteen.
Kenny’s effective hourly rate is $25.00 per hour.
But there’s still one more step to go before we’re finished.
When converting so-called day rates to hourly rates, there’s a chance that the resulting hourly rate might not meet a state’s minimum wage requirements.
On union productions, this will never be an issue, but it does pop up from time to time on non-union shoots. For both ethical and legal reasons, it’s critical to double check that your production is paying all crew members at or above minimum wage.
Kenny’s hypothetical hourly rate of $25.00 puts him well above the minimum wage requirement in California.
Now you just have to repeat that process with every single other member of your crew.
Unless, of course, you’d prefer to handle payroll the easy way.
Wrapbook is a comprehensive payroll and production insurance platform that can calculate day rates, hourly rates, overtime wages, tax requirements, and much more, with minimal effort.
With built-in features like Quickbooks integration and automatic calculations of LA commercial IATSE and Teamster timecards, Wrapbook is constantly innovating to streamline entertainment payroll and maximize your production’s efficiency.
Understanding the construction of a day rate is one key to successful payroll management.
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