ED'S NEWSLETTER for ACTORS
"If I were starting out today ..."
Let's talk career strategy. Specifically, let's consider the future facing a young actor who wants to turn professional in 2009. Not that I want to sound like an oldster, but the view looking out today's front window is nothing at all like that in the rear view mirror.
A quick look back to 1970, which is when I got my first union card: There was no Internet then, not even videotape. No microchips, no digital technology. Commercial auditions were conducted "live," mainly in New York and mainly for Madison Avenue ad agencies. The free-lance independent commercial casting director had not yet been invented.
The only thing that was the same in 1970 as it is today is that acting is still acting. The theatrical transaction between actor and audience is still based in the live theatre. Actors are still shamans. And, oh yes, the United States federal government still does not enthusiastically support the arts. Actors here who want to make a living wage from their craft are pretty much on their own, then and now.
In 1970, the equation for financial and artistic success as an actor in America was easy: Act on stage for the love of it, and act in front of a camera for the money. The first television network, CBS, was invented by a man named Bill Paley, who envisioned it as a medium for selling products. Television in the U.S. never was about art, it was about commerce. Television shows existed in order to attract good-humored consumers to the commercials. That is still pretty much the underlying guiding philosophy of network programmers. Television was the only game in town in 1970, and actors knew that was where the money was. Even as late as 2008, SAG and AFTRA members earned upward of $900 million from commercials, about as much as from movies and television shows combined.
America itself has not changed in the past 39 years. We are still a country that is primarily defined by how we sell things to one another. Art is joined at the hip to commerce. In order for a new actor today to make a living, he will very likely have to find a way to participate in sales. The challenge is that sales mediums are being redefined even as I write this.
Unions are still necessary. Without those, actors would probably cannibalize one another, and producers would take all the money to the bank. For sure, there is no going back to non-union days. But where does that leave the new actor? The commercials contract that SAG and AFTRA jointly negotiate with the advertising industry expired in 2006 and has been extended year-by-year since then. SAG has practically imploded in its attempts to reach a contract agreement with theatrical (film and television) producers. We've technically been without a contract since last summer. SAG has not even been able to negotiate a satisfactory Talent Agency Franchise agreement since it expired in 2002. In short, the financial nuts and bolts of our industry are unglued as we move into the summer of 2009. Everything is up for grabs, and the producers hold most of the high cards.
f I were starting out today, I would still look to the stage as my "home". Acting in movies, which can also be artistic, has become somewhat more doable since digital has replaced 35mm. Costs of production have decreased. Means of exhibition are still in flux, though. It appears that commercial television networks are about to go away. A night out at the multi-plex is on the verge of being replaced by movies downloaded "on demand" for a giant high definition screen at home. The producers of "South Park" recently struck a deal with Netflix to "stream" first-run episodes of the hit show. That means you will be able to watch new episodes of "South Park" on your computer at about the same time that you see them on your television. Other shows will surely follow.What is going to happen with commercials as we switch from analog over to the "new media"? How do we keep track of re-use in a digital age when the one-millionth copy of a performance is as sharp as the first one? Back in 1970, the idea of "pay for play" was loosely based on the built-in obsolescence of film. Commercials and television shows were shot on 35mm film, which deteriorates a bit with each passage through a projector. There is no longer any deterioration. Not only that, but transmission of digital data is almost instantaneous.
I personally knew the world was changing when I was on vacation in Rome a few years ago. I was sitting at the foot of my hotel bed, channel surfing. Suddenly, my own face came up on screen. It was a re-run of some show I had shot a couple of years earlier. The thing was that I had been dubbed into German and subtitled into Italian! That was when it really sunk in that the entertainment industry has truly gone global. Did you notice that at this year's Academy Awards several languages other than English were spoken in acceptance speeches? Will there be work overseas for today's young American actor?
Did you see the Sony movie Beowulf, starring Anthony Hopkins? That flick was 100 percent "performance capture." They put all the actors in rubber suits with sensors on them and converted the performances into digital information on a "virtual" set. They used 270 cameras. (That is not a misprint. Yes, 270 cameras.) Is actor training today being adapted to equip actors for that kind of work? Why not?
I read a couple of days ago that Microsoft has joined up with Intel to create a digital "personal assistant" for every American who wants one. If they are successful, that kind of thing will surely involve the talents of actors at some point. Is Screen Actors Guild ready? Why not?
The video game industry now makes more money than the movie industry. Imagine that! Last year, income from game hardware and software exceeded $21 billion. If I were starting out today, I would definitely try to figure a way to tap into that.
If I were starting out today, I would take off the blinders. America is still a story about selling things to one another, and actors still have to make their own financial way. It is not going to be easy to support a family, even if health care and education finally get pushed into the 21st century. Today's new actors are going to have to be far more innovative than I ever was.
If I were starting out today, I would hope that my unions would get their act together, but I would try to be more forward looking than the lead negotiators evidently are. I would ask myself how I could sell my art in a digital age. I would try to find talent agents who are motivated by the same goal, and I would work closely with them. In addition to audition notices in trade publications and on-line services, I would make it my business to keep up with industry trends. I would educate myself about the implications of digital duplication and data transmission, and I would read publications like The New York Times, The London Times and The Economist to keep up with global developments.
If I were starting out today, I would try to be a bit of a visionary. The truth is that young artists today are pioneers, very much like the artists who were around at the birth of movies. Everything is changing and, as screenwriter William Goldman famously observed, "Nobody knows anything."
And if I were starting out today, I would cherish the purity of the legitimate theatre. It is on the stage that shamans and tribes can directly communicate, with no digital interpretation. Throughout history, theatre has been a philosophical compass. Today's new actor must - more than ever - keep his bearings clear.
Until next month...
"Actors are shamans!"
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