Producer's Guide: Child Actor Laws

04 March 2020 | Loring Weisenberger

In order to produce a film you need to have a firm grasp on budgeting, scheduling, and reality. But if you’re working with minors, you’ll also need to get familiar with child actor laws.

Child labor laws in the entertainment industry are designed to protect the most vulnerable members of its workforce. As history has shown, child movie stars are prone to mistreatment by everyone from high-level entertainment executives to their own stage moms and dads.

For that reason, the laws that have been built over time to protect these child actors are strict, complex, and exhaustive, forming a comprehensive legal shield.

That’s why, today at Wrapbook, we’re talking about child actor labor laws and everything a producer could want to know about working with minors.

Hiring Child Actors

In many ways, the process of casting minors is very similar to the process of casting adults. No matter how old the actor is, casting is all about finding the magic that comes from pairing the right performer with the right role.

However, there are two big differences worth keeping in mind.

First, you should carefully consider the specific age of your performer and what that means for your production schedule. Here’s a question worth asking: How long can a child actor work in a day?

And the answer: It depends on how old they are. We’ll dive into this more in the next section, but child actor laws dictate that a difference of even one or two years can have massive implications for how much time a minor can work on set.

Second, keep in mind that you’re not just casting a kid–you’re also casting their parents.

Stage parents are often either a producer’s dream or their worst nightmare, and it’s very important to know what you’re getting into. Again, being familiar with the relevant child actor laws is essential.

If an enthusiastic parent offers to let you cast their infant in your film on the cheap, you can protect yourself (and the infant) by knowing in advance what the minimum baby actor salary in your state might be.

Casting websites are great places to start your search. Although if you reach out to an established agency, they’ll already be familiar with the child actor labor laws you must follow.

Securing Child Actor Permits

After you’ve made your final casting decision, it’s time to lock in your young talent, which means it’s also time to get your pre-production paperwork in order.

Your first order of business is to check whether your child actor has an up-to-date work permit.

Technically, the minor’s work permit is his or her parent’s responsibility, but it’s in your best interest to understand their situation, particularly if the parent is new to the entertainment industry.

Next, you’ll need to apply on behalf of the production for a permit to employ minors. Again, this may vary from region to region, but the law protecting child actors in California requires that any individual or business entity intending to employ an artist or performer under the age of 18 must have a permit to employ minors in the entertainment industry.

The permit is only valid as long as the permit-holder maintains a valid workers’ compensation insurance policy, and the permit will have to be renewed if the workers’ compensation policy itself is renewed or changed in any way.

Producer Pro-Tip: Read up on Your Region

As soon as you realize that your production is going to require having a minor on set, I highly encourage you to research any child actor laws relevant to your specific region of production.

We cover the basics here, but details can vary dramatically from state to state and country to country. The fact that you’ve previously filed for a Texas child actor work permit, for instance, does not guarantee that you’ll have the same experience when filing for a New York child actor permit.

Given that Hollywood is the film production capital of Earth’s western hemisphere, it shouldn’t be shocking that child labor laws in California are particularly complex. To that end, the state’s Department of Industrial Relations maintains a child labor law booklet that details all child labor laws in California. It’s a resource that any producer would be wise to be familiar with.

Setting up a Coogan Account

If you’re shooting in California, New York, Louisiana, New Mexico, or Illinois, child actor labor laws dictate that you’ll also have to arrange for making payments into your child actor’s Coogan Account. Here at Wrapbook, we’ve covered Coogan Accounts in depth previously, but here’s the gist.

Coogan Accounts are required for adherence to the Jackie Coogan Law, a law protecting child actors from financial harm at the hands of their parents, legal guardians, or employers.

The Jackie Coogan Law mandates that a child actor’s employer set aside 15% of the child actor’s gross earnings in what is known as a Coogan Trust Account, where it can be monitored- but not withdrawn- by a legal guardian until the child reaches legal maturity.

The bottom line for you, as a producer, is that 15% of any child actor’s gross earnings must be deposited into their Coogan Account within 15 days of employment, and you are responsible for making sure that happens.

If you’re working with a comprehensive payroll company like Wrapbook, these payments can be arranged to happen every pay period, automatically.

Signing a Talent Contract

After you’ve dealt with your permits and your Coogan payments, you may or may not still be dealing with the granddaddy of all paperwork challenges: The Talent Contract.

Talent contracts are, obviously, not exclusive to child actors. However, working with children does add a unique twist to the process:

A minor can legally walk away from any contract at any point without facing any consequences.

This reality isn’t a result of any particular law protecting child actors. It’s simply because, in the eyes of the law, a minor isn’t considered “competent” enough to enter a contract in the first place. Perhaps more surprising, a child’s parents are also prohibited from entering employment contracts on their behalf.

However, according to child labor laws in California, there is a way to prevent your production from being held hostage by the whims of a single child actor. Sometimes called judicial approval or court approval of contracts, California courts have created a process by which a minor’s right to disaffirm a contract can be suspended.

Essentially, a producer can file a petition and supporting documents (including a copy of the negotiated contract and a signed statement from the child’s parent or legal guardian) that the court then takes under consideration. If the court finds that the contract is fair, a judge will sign an order approving the contract and removing the minor’s right to disaffirm it.

Of course, as always, if you’re considering taking any significant legal action, seek the professional advice of a lawyer first. Once your paperwork is in order, go ahead and take a deep breath. As your production’s start date approaches, the real fun is about to begin.

On Set Child Actor Labor Laws

As a producer, being physically on set is often the most stressful part of the process of working with minors, but it’s also the most satisfying. Seeing a movie come to life right in front of you is a profound experience, and that’s no less true when there’s a child performer in the mix.

The keys to successfully dealing with child entertainment laws during physical production can be broken down into three basic categories: safety, timing, and documentation. On set, your 1st and 2nd ADs will shoulder most of the responsibilities, but it’s in your interest as a producer to act as a supervisor and facilitator for the big-picture tasks within each category.

Safety

Safety should be a no-brainer on any set, with or without a child present, but you should consider taking additional precautions whenever possible. Constant supervision (within reason) is a must, and it’s in the child’s best interests to have a dedicated space, separated from the working set, for use during down times.

When the minor steps onto set, make sure the crew as a whole is aware, and it’s not unreasonable to ask that the pace of work be slowed down during those periods, even if doing so feels a little painful to ADs and producers alike.

More than anything, however, the single best thing you can do to ensure the safety of your minor is to make sure they are only on set when they absolutely need to be there.

This, of course, is a matter of timing.

Timing

Child labor laws in California and elsewhere strictly and specifically regulate how long a child actor can work in a day.

The amount of time and exactly how it’s spent vary according to both production region as well as the performer’s age. As a producer, monitoring these times day to day is not your job, but it’s helpful to be aware of their basic breakdown.

Child actor laws dictate that a minor’s hours on set be divided between work time (hours spent performing on the shooting set, as well as those spent in make-up, wardrobe, etc.), school time (hours spent keeping up with their education while being a working minor), and, finally, recreation time (hours spent simply being a kid).

On SAG productions, many of these times will reported on the Exhibit G Form.

Again, it’s important to keep in mind that the amount of time devoted to each category varies dramatically according to age. Child actor labor laws allow a seventeen-year-old to work between six and eight hours on set, but they also prohibit a six-month-old from working more than twenty minutes under any circumstances.

Keeping track of these times and making sure that child actor laws are enforced on set is the cumulative responsibility of the 1st and 2nd ADs, but you can help by checking in every now and then. It keeps the AD team on their toes, but, more importantly, it gently reminds everyone on set that the well-being of your child actor is a top priority.

Documentation

Truth be told, child actor laws require surprisingly little documentation of the actual movements of the minor on set. All timecards and production reports submitted to SAG must mark the minor’s name with a “K”, so as to differentiate them from the adult cast; and you’ll also have to make sure an Exhibit G is appropriately filled out to document the minor’s tutoring hours. …But that’s about it.

Personally, I would recommend going one step farther by logging exactly how your young talent spends her or his time with your production and keeping that record on file.

If you’re following all necessary child actor laws, having that information on hand can only be to your benefit. However, that’s a recommendation, not a mandate. As far as documentation goes, child actor laws are almost exclusively concerned with appropriate permitting and making sure that those permits are accessible to anyone who might need to see them.

Etiquette

Before we move to post-production, I want to offer a brief word on etiquette.

Adherence to child actor laws is all well and good, but adherence to basic human decency is far more important. If you have a minor on set, behave accordingly and strongly encourage your crew to do the same. Child movie stars who fall into substance abuse and poor mental health are an unfortunate cliché that you don’t want to help perpetuate.

Treat your child actors with respect. Listen to their needs, don’t confront them with mature material of any kind, and be mindful of the fact that children are fundamentally more sensitive than adults.

Hiring Studio Teachers for Child Actors

Child actor labor laws dictate that when a minor is on set, the production must hire what is known as a “Studio Teacher.” According to child actor laws, a studio teacher (sometimes called a “set teacher”) is intended to serve as an advocate for all minors on a set and, as the name suggests, provide schooling to any of them that are school-aged. In essence, they’re supervisors and tutors for child actors.

However, what child actor laws don’t tell you is that a studio teacher can also be a producer’s greatest ally. I mean, think about it. A studio teacher is an individual whose entire job revolves around dealing with kids on set and, therefore, around dealing with child actor laws.

If you have basic procedural questions- like “How do young actors go to school?”, “How long can a child actor work in a day?”, or “How many hours can a child actor work in California?”- who better to ask than the studio teacher? The same goes for questions about the child’s well-being, temperament, or even their parents’ attitudes.

At first glance, they may seem like tutors for child actors, but if you make friends with the studio teacher, they’ll prove an invaluable source of information throughout the entire shooting schedule.

Why Not Ask The Teacher?

Studio teachers are even great to go to for the curveball questions that occasionally pop up.

For instance, when a minor needs to obtain a homeschool work permit, California’s child actor laws can quickly become difficult to navigate for a producer. In that situation, details could easily get lost in the confusion, potentially causing a permit catastrophe, which you definitely don’t want.

The solution? Ask an expert. Ask the studio teacher.

Post Production & Beyond

Once you’ve wrapped principal photography, the hard part’s over. From here on out, the process of working with a minor is all about follow-through.

Obviously, a large part of this simply comes down to fulfilling your end of the talent contract, just as it would with any actor of any age. The primary difference with child actors is that, until they reach the age of majority, you’ll still have to consider any minor-specific consequences that your future financial actions might bring, like making additional payments into the minor’s Coogan Account if they’re to be paid any royalties.

You should also keep in mind that you may have to bear some extra financial burden when it comes to certain post-production activities. Re-shoots, pick-ups, ADR and even press events are all going to cost just a little bit extra when working with child actors, due to costs associated with parents, studio teachers, and time limits.

Wrapping Up

For a producer, child entertainment laws mean more work and higher costs. Dealing with them is not particularly fun, and there’s no getting around that reality.

In many places around the world, child actor laws offer completely different standards than those encountered around the U.S. Some are stricter, while others are, tragically, non-existent. In either case, it behooves you, as a producer, to carefully consider any and all child labor regulations that might affect your production.

More than that, however, it behooves you, as a human, to carefully consider how your production might affect a child. The headaches that come alongside child actor laws are a small price to pay in order to protect both child actors and the vital contributions they make to cinema everywhere.

Disclaimer

This informational post should not be misconstrued as legal advice. Wrapbook and its authors are not responsible for decisions made based on the information covered in this article. For legal advice, please hire a insurance professional, like Wrapbook, who can help figure out your specific situation.

Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a writer, director and graduate of Chapman University’s MFA program in film production. Loring earned his production chops as an independent producer and assistant director, working across multiple formats for companies as diverse as Issa Rae’s Color Creative TV, Blackpills, Havas Worldwide, BuzzFeed and many more.

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