We are all vulnerable artists - from the creator to the created, we rejoice in a great review and cower at the feet of a bad one. The industry is filled with people wanting to get chances off of others. Few have realised just how open the doors can be through which there is an instant audience, high growth potential and that elusive step to the next level. Many filmmakers, producers and actors fail in the industry, not because they were never any good, but because they weren't industrious enough. Being industrious isn't natural. It takes motivation to learn beyond one's pigeonhole, and it takes a whole lot of study.
Actors of all shapes and sizes find it extremely difficult to get off to the right start. They struggle with detail and have difficulty connecting to the people that matter. It can be like bouncing your head off of a brick wall. We rely on others to help us, we allow ourselves to be pigeonholed performers and many of us ignore the glaringly obvious holes we need to fill in order to be different. This is because we confuse working smart with working hard. The two are very different.
We have seen actors rise to fame. Some of the biggest names out there have stuck to one plan or another. It has become abundantly obvious to us which of these plans work best, and what steps must be taken in order to enter that phase of becoming a successful actor.
If you follow these steps, we are positive that any actor who identifies their targets, builds their knowledge and their brand, will achieve success as an actor.
Step one - Define your target market
Let's look at this a little differently: actors, at the beginning, do not hold clout with the general public, so nobody in the general public should be considered to be your target market. Your target market should consist of what we call industry stakeholders - that's people who hold a stake in the success of the industry. Each individual on the list below belongs to the film industry eco-system. Understanding this eco-system presented can help you to manoeuvre your positioning around it. It highlights the power-food-chain of our industry, starting with the most powerful of your targets at the top and running all the way to the targets at the bottom:
- The film industry press and the media
- Film distributors & film buyers (Cinema, VOD & Walmart etc...)
- Celebrities (highly successful actors/producers/directors)
- Film producers
- Directors & writers
- Casting agents & talent managers
- Actors & film crew
Target no 1 - The film industry press and the media
Nobody has more influence to an actor's career than the industry press writers and media content owners within the film industry. Get a great review in a Variety daily at Cannes, then you can seriously start to pivot your way above the runs. It isn't easy to get press attention - the classic chicken and egg problem - you have to be in a good film first, then that film needs to get the right attention and so forth. But these people, the film press, let's call them, are the key to sustaining success once you have it. Knowing the industry papers first is a step in the right direction. Getting on their social media and reading what they are writing about will be key. In this game, knowing what is happening, and to who and to when, will give anyone an edge. Variety and Screen International are the two main publications that you should subscribe, along with Little White Lies and Sight & Sound - read the trades religiously, know who all the hot up and coming directors are, go out and watch the films.
When can you start building your press contacts? Today!
Above all, it is important that you engage. If you read an interesting review, go and see the film; if you agree with the critic, send them a tweet. If you don't, don't bother them; the internet is packed with enough negative energy to bend spacetime as it is, but it is good practice, (and this is a running theme here) to let people know when you enjoyed their work. Build a rapport with the journos, because when you are finally in that film you are proud of, and it is starting its festival circuit, a few journalist friends will help it get noticed.
Target no 2 - Film distributors & film buyers
Let's make this very clear: actors who get how the industry works are attractive to filmmakers starting out. For some bizarre reason, the distribution side of the film industry is largely ignored by directors and actors. When auditioning for an indie film, suggest a sales agent, producers rep or a distribution company to a director based on your understanding of the film's market potential from your reading of the script, and watch them all sit forward!
Knowledge is power for an actor. You need to know everything a film director knows about the business of film, which, fortunately, isn't that much. They don't teach about distribution and film markets at film school. Filmmakers tend to be in the dark until they speak to producers and are exposed to the marketplace. An actor with some prior knowledge of how the back end of film sales works will be a handy person to have around. Our advice is to learn as much as you can about film distribution.
When can you start learning about film distribution? Today!
Here are two incredibly insightful videos to get you started...
And if they didn't give you a full understanding, then here is a wonderful blog entry on: 'the changing of movie release patterns', from our favourite film data analyser 'Stephen Follows'.
It is fair to say that actors do go through their careers not knowing or caring to know any of this stuff. However, we believe that this is vital information for an actor that wants to stand out, as this is the information filmmakers want to know. If you can give some support, via an educated outlook, then we strongly believe that production teams will find you too important to ignore.
Learn about the business of film, click the book's cover below to buy it:
This book gives a very deep analysis and it is worth having on your person whenever you go to any indie film audition.
At the audition, it is vital that you go in fully committed to the character and the script as normal, but just as you are leaving you might want to discuss briefly the team's plans for distribution. Ask them what they plan to do, if they have any sales agent contacts lined up, and then pull your book out of your bag (it needs to look well read, and should be). Suggest that they get the book, tell them that it gives analysis based on a series of factors, and that data predicts how their film will be sold in certain territories. Share with them the ISBN number and make sure that you communicate to those present that you have an active interest in film distribution. If they inquisitively or obnoxiously ask "why" tell them that this sort of information is vital to success for everyone at "our" level. Any director or producer worth their salt will be impressed.
Target no 3 - Celebrities (highly successful actors/producers/directors)
Do us a big favour and click this link, but make sure to come back. Yes, the devil word in the film industry, the word we shall not utter here. Unfortunately, it is never going away. Family, friends and mafias, all helping one another out, building their mini-kingdoms and rarely allowing anyone else in. The world is full of them, and the film industry is packed with it, from Oxbridge in the UK to Will Farrel and friends in LA - it is one of those things that won't ever go away...
So, how do you target them?
First of all, and we'll explain about this a bit further down in step #, you must be genuine. It is absolutely no good to stalk people, hoping to make a famous friend and then using their generosity to get work - that isn't cool. That sort of early behaviour has absolutely zero staying power, and those people find themselves later down the line as insecure wreaks with a career built upon shame. Don't be that person, ever.
We have to build from the ground up and try to do what we can to be honest about our situation - networking with honesty. There is nothing wrong with going to a few gallery openings, theatre press nights and sparking conversation. It's fun and it is a big part as to why we do this, but remember to be humble, have something interesting to say, and don't drink too much. Making friends and building a network around them is totally normal, but you have to be prepared to allow people into your actual friendship network, if not then it won't work. Building professional acquaintances is not networking - you need a body of friends who work in your industry, and those friendships need to be real.
A creative connection is where to start. I have a strong feeling that I would get on well with certain film directors. I get why they always take certain projects on, I admire their decisions and I would love to chat with them candidly about those experiences. There's maybe two or three I'd love to meet and actually try to harvest a genuine friendship from. These are people I would respect and enjoy the company of. I just have to somehow meet them.
When can you start getting yourself onto the guest list? Today!
Film festivals are always a great place to start, followed by masterclasses, big city gallery openings, press nights and film premiers. All of which are easy enough to get into, all you have to do is know a few journalists (see target no.1), get on the mailing list of a few cool and interesting galleries, and read the events pages in your film press subscriptions - all of this can be done by spending a few moments on Google, Instagram, Twitter and reading the trades.
Prior to the event, take a look at who is hosting it and take a look at their Twiter feed, get the dress code and turn up. The ice always melts just before the event ends, so don't worry about walking around for an hour on your own. Just say hello to the people who caught your eye once you feel comfortable, and if you find yourself in a pub with Jeremy Irons smoking cigarettes and talking about the castle he had built in Ireland (this really happened to me), then you're on to a winner.
It is vital to build a professional network of people who feel that you're a nice, personable and dependable person. Always try to have a good opinion, always have something to say, always ask people about themselves and always buy the drinks.
Further reading into networking. Here is a blog I wrote a few years ago that explains how networking should be approached.
Target no 4 - Film producers
Film producers are everywhere, at all of the film festivals, the film markets, the premiers, the audition spaces, they are the gods of the production, they hire the directors, they usually have the final say on the castings and they pull the strings. Normally at the indie film level, they are the people who came up with the idea to make the film in the first place.
The conceptual creative producer is your target. Do not get confused with Line Producer, Executive Producer, and Production Coordinators. They aren't your focus here. You need to know who all of the major film producers are in this industry. Look at Little White Lies. Look at which films have been picked for Sundance this year. Watch all of the projects, watch all of the films and be honest in your critique. Ask yourself, "is this the sort of producer I want to be working with?"
If the answer is yes, then you must start the process of engaging with everything they have ever created within the world of film.
Watch their entire back catalogue, from the first film to the most current. Put yourself in the mind of each production, what must it have been like to organise, what were the struggles, the challenges, the sacrifices the producers needed to make along the way? Get into the soul of the producer. Then get a pen, paper and envelope and write to them. Producers don't get fan mail, and this sort of approach is romantic and it is endearing. Everyone responds to a letter.
If they have produced a few films chances are they have an office, so write to the office with the heading FAO Their Name at the top of the letter. In the letter briefly tell them that you were really interested in their body of work, that you watched all of their films, and mention a few moments that stuck out to you. Ask them three very specific questions about their experiences that you genuinely want to know, and be sure to leave your email address for them to respond to you if they happen to find the time. Do not send a headshot or a resume. Don't do it. Doing that takes away the sincerity and immediately your contact comes across as desperate and needy.
Take your contact with the producer in three stages.
Firstly write the letter and wait for a reply. If they reply, it will undoubtedly be via email, so write back to them and tell them that you are an actor, one of the many thousands in your city. Offer up your services, but be sure to do this in a charming way, not in an offensive or hyper-excited manner. Here's an example...
"...So I now have to come clean and let you know that I am an actor, one of the thousands in London, but aside from this I am also a big fan of your work, and I'd love to be a part of whatever you do in the future, either concepting and workshopping scripts, to any small roles you might think I'd be suited. It would be wonderful to work with you. If you'd like my headshot I'll send it over, or better yet I could buy you a coffee and you ca see my head in real life (?)..."
It's humble, genuine, and a bit cheeky - I would want to like the person who wrote this to me.
I am a film producer and I never get this sort of attention. If I did I would be flattered, impressed with the approach and I would certainly meet with that actor, especially if they lived in the same city as me.
When you meet them face to face it will then be the time to discuss with them your contacts from target number 1 the journalists, your knowledge from target number 2 the world of film distribution, and your contacts from target number 3. This is called talking the talk. A producer has these very same targets and if you can even out the playing field by having an informed discussion from all of the above, you won't come across as a two-dimensional performer. Instead you will come across as a smart, and industrious actor. A person very hard to ignore.
Attempt to target at least five producers like this each quarter of the year.
This is a great place to source interesting and successful indie content where your producers will be hiding!
Target no 5 - Directors & writers
Directors, writers and actors are all at the same level in our opinion. Each has to start with nothing, build a library of content that proves their employability and thus, get employed. It is fundamental as an actor to understand that you have the abilities within your craft to direct and to write. Every time an actor works through a script, they are studying the writing. Every time an actor works with a director, they are studying dramatic direction - whether they're conscious of it or not. Actors make great screenwriters. Actors make great directors. It is rare that it's the other way round and, unfortunately, it is rare that actors realise these hidden skills.
How Lift-Off Community+ membership helps
Using your membership to the Lift-Off Global Network Community, you have access to hundreds of scripts and you have access to the work of some of the best up and coming directors around. An industrious actor will see the opportunity that lays before them. Here's an idea:
- Open the script database available to you exclusively with your Lift-Off Community+ membership.
- Browse and read as many scripts that interest you based on type, genre and the character you would like to perform.
- Find a script you like and contact the screenwriter, asking them for an update on how the project is progressing and if they have found anyone interested in taking the project forward - you can contact the screenwriter directly from the database.
- If the writer is yet to find a team, offer to help move the project forward.
- Find a director using the many resources your Lift-Off Community+ membership allows - this includes festival programmes, our online festivals, and the find a freelancer section in the community dashboard.
- Bring the team together, share your thoughts on the script, share your thoughts on the films potential with press (see target no. 1, above). Offer up your distribution and sales knowledge (target no. 2). Introduce someone of influence that might be interested in taking on or discussing the project (target no. 3), and possibly invite to the project one of your producer contacts (target no. 4).
When we attended the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival, we were lucky enough to get into a masterclass with the festivals head programmer Paul Verhoeven. We met him afterwards and he told us an amazing story about how Arnold Schwarzenegger had fallen in love with his directing style after watching Robocop. He fell in love with Paul's directing to such an extent that he had to find a way to work with him. So he found a script, got a producer to buy it and then at a chance meeting in a restaurant managed to convince Paul Verhoeven to look at the script and take on the role of director, with Arnie as the lead. Think whatever you want about Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his industrious smart working attitude has made him one of Hollywood's highest grossing actors - completely unpredicted and totally out of character with the Hollywood norm. He is living proof that working smart, works.
Here are Arnold and Paul discussing that very moment...
Target no 6 - Casting directors & talent managers
This is something actors need to rememeber: your work should do the talking and you should be finding yourself in a position where talent managers are offering to represent you and not the other way round.
The biggest culprits of pigeonholing an actor go to the casting directors and the talent managers - they see you how they want to, not how you want to to be seen. Casting is a very difficult job. The casting director will break down their books based on the simplest forms, from hunky men to intelligent-looking women, to twins, to theatre only, to ridiculous judgements like: "can only play baddies..."
We are really on the fence about agents and talent managers. They can be great for some actors but they can also destroy the enthusiasm of others. It boils down to the saying better the devil you know, better the devil you don't. We will try to give a balanced argument here for targetting them, but we really cannot stress how imporatnt it is to find a way to work without them...
Firstly, agents and casting directors hold fake-power. So many actors worry about casting directors and talent managers liking them. We say forget about them, focus on building your contacts and following the targets above and the rest of the steps in this guide and you can do no wrong. Casting agents open doors for you, yes, but it is ultimately the producers and the directors job to hire you. You can totally bypass the casting agent by building solid relationships outlined in the targeted steps above.
But yes as stated, having an agent on your side does help in terms of opening doors - sometimes. In the UK agents help to negotiate your deals and they rarely get involved in production aspects, but in the USA it is a different matter, as talent manager can help in getting productions off the ground and launching the careers of their actors in doing so.
If you want to be on the radar of either a talent agent or a casting director, then our advice would be to send them a bunch of taped perfomances, with you nailing monolouges that show your diversity and castability.
Invest in a home-based self-tape studio. The number one casting method for the big shows, film and during the pilot season, tends to be the self-tape -- that is filming yourself reading from the script. Self-tapes determine the shortlist, they are used all of the time. Getting a small studio set-up at home isn't expensive, many cameras work well so long as they shoot 1080p HD, and lighting provided that it is spotlit and white, instead of yellow is great. Add in a neutral background, and you are ready to go. Be sure to film yourself doing monologues from screenplays that aren't that well known.
If you have an agent. Send them the tapes to show your versatility.
It is very common to hear the complaint "My agent is crap, they just don't get my versatility".
If you have an agent and they are only putting you forward for limited castings, talk to them and send them your recorded monologues, especially if they involve you in a character way beyond your agents imagination - do it. Self-tapes are incredibly important in showing your versatility - and maintaining not just your agents belief in you, but your belief in yourself.
If you don't have an agent. Use the tapes as a small calling card expressing your desire to be signed by the agents that you send these to.
It is important to remember that all of these agents or managers are ultimately employed based on your success at the audition. They are either employed by the director, the producer, or you. We have them in the ecosystem slightly above actors and crew because many actors and crew put them there.
This is just our opinion, but you really don't need to be wasting any more of your time with either casting agents, casting directors, talent managers or talent agents. They exist to make money from actors, and they have been a big problem facing many of the unemployed actors in New York, London and LA. The decision on who to cast is always that of the producers firstly and then the directors, and we are vehemently opposed to the notion that there are good casting directors and bad casting directors - all they do is herd actors, and funnel actors into thinking that they'll never make it. There are thousands of actors looking for work around the world, and many of these actors believe that casting agents are the key to their success - that is simply not the case. If actors can learn to adopt methods whereby they don't need to be relying on others to gain opportunity, then those actors will thrive in the industry. Destiny helps those who help themselves.
There's always this method...
Target no 7 - Actors & Film Crew
Shakespeare was an actor. So, here we are at the bottom of the eco-system, actors and crew members hoping to get picked up by someone in the target list above them. A static career will work just like this. Waiting around for the phone to ring, an email to come in, job posting to go up, an application to be made - it should not be this way.
Imagine for a moment that you're an actor with a bunch of friends who are also actors. Imagine for a moment that you have a few friends that are also 1st AD's, camera people, editors and post-production assistants of some kind. Now imagine that you brought those people together and worked on a project with them?
The mistake that is made at this level is that actors and crew need others to make content - that is not true. The actor Brian Jordan Alverez submitted to us at the very first London Lift-Off a short film he had created with his acting friends called 'You are what I want'. Not surprisingly it focused on certain themes that were current, it also had very natural acting, a good script and strong storytelling - something one would expect from an actor's self-created project. The film gave Brian the confidence to continue to make his own work, and in little under five years he is building a great career for himself, having just sold one of his comedy web series to Lionsgate - with several other self-concepted projects on the horizon.
Actors should get it together and build their own content. There is crew out there looking for that next opportunity to move up in their own respective career - a 1st AD looking to direct, a gaffer looking to become a cinematographer - people want to progress, so get them together and try some projects out.
Creating content together is obvious. Aside from this, there is also the opportunities for contact and network sharing. If you are a jobbing actor and you get to work in a film, invite an acting peer of yours along to the premiere, and make it clear that you'd like the favour reciprocated further down the line. Build from one another's successes, and take on the journey together. This approach has worked so well for the likes of Seth Rogan and his friends and there is the obvious success of Ben Aflack and Matt Damon.
The idea that actors working together to help build each other's careers isn't a new one. If some of the subscriptions above cost you too much, share the payment, split the bills of your new industrious actor's lifestyle - the key is to find a way that works well and creates opportunity and ultimately content for all of you to be proud of.
Step two - Define perspective
Your biggest challenge as an actor is to gain respect. Have you ever watched yourself back on a tape when you thought you weren't being taped? It's a strange question granted, but it serves as a clear indication as to how you look to others. Many of us find selfie-tastic actors and people writing streams and streams of consciousness on social media, as those who we'd rather not work with. Self-indulgence is not self-promotion, it is narcissism and it is a habit that has infested our youth cultures.
The problem we face as artists, actors or otherwise, is that we are the product we are trying to sell. If we choose to sell our brand 24/7, we risk the chances of becoming perceived negatively, overexposure, if you will. Knowing how we come across to our target market is vital to selling our talents with credibility. The likability factor is the main issue many actors are faced with.
Working on stage, going to auditions, performance, in general, can warp the mind, it can make people self-indulgent and it can take away the vital elements of perspective that ultimately aim in making an actor employable. It is the snake eating its own tail and if you are an actor where 60% of your Instagram is selfies, then you need to buckle up and face the fact that selfies are naff, and the producers that employ don't want to deal with an ego, they want a credible humble partner who listens and who puts the project first before their own self-gratification. Beauty is an important part of stardom, of course, it is, but at the beginning, you can't simply use a look to open doors. You need to be magnetic, fun, and most of all industrious (see the numbered targets above).
A big generalisation coming up but this is important to note: actors in general love to talk about themselves, we know actors very well, all of us do. From the focus pulling antics on set to the way you model your Instagram feeds, we see everything. So make sure that you can release yourself from your own perspective and see yourself subjectively too.
A lot of the actors I have met, especially the struggling and the industrious ones, tend to be from working class to lower-middle-class backgrounds. It is very important to note that not everyone feels this way about actors in general, and whatever you feel about stereotypes, you must consider the fact that this industry is by and large a judgemental one. People that grew up with privilege tend to be the most judgemental, and in our western culture, those with privilege always tend to be the ones that become the employers. So, it's worth pointing out that what you feel is a harmless share of your successes with your friends and family, will be met with disdain from your wider audience, especially if your group consists of newer friends and acquaintances that you've met in a metropolitan city and on your way up the eco-system. So watch out for that - really be careful with how you parade your successes. What is big for you, won't be all that much of a big deal to them.
I know personally just how vulnerable you must be feeling reading this. It makes us all feel very self-conscious, but don't worry it's just something you have to recognise.
Step three - Define success
Finally, let us define what success as an actor means to us. If you earn 100% from acting, and this enables you to own your home and support a family of some shape or form, then that is the benchmark, the first sign of success - anywhere from there is a bonus. The issue of credibility is at stake here if you want to be seen to be credible, and likeable, this is a humble starting point to state as a full ambition.
It makes perfect sense to aim for this as a first goal. Due to the sheer number of actors, and failed films, this is a really great achievement. Try not to allow your aspirations to be clouded by Hollywood or the idea that only being a star is the plan. Give yourself this first goal and make it happen - this can definitely work for you.
By utilizing the power of your immediate network you can get projects set-up no matter how small they are. The rule is that content leads to more content and the only way to strike gold is by digging for it. So find your people, use the Community+ forums to put your ideas out there, build a network of your kind of people and create -- we can't wait to see what you come up with.