Acting, The New Conversation: Audience Building
Note: This is Part II in a series that explores how Actors can think like a business owner and make greater strides in their career. Part I kicks off here with Required Reading.
Part II: Who’s Your Audience?
Success for indie filmmakers in great part lies in being able to connect with a loyal core audience rather than water down the message in order to appeal to the masses.
How does this work for actors? Who is our audience? This is a complicated question; we request audiences with casting directors, in order to be granted an audience with a producer or director, who will take our work to their audiences. Eventually, an actor also brings their own built-in audience to every screening. At this point you are or are becoming a name brand, one hallmark of a sustainable career.
Identifying your audience may indeed be the key to applying the new model to our acting careers. My suspicion, though, is that unlike Kevin Smith’s audience that continues to grow out of a loyal core, an actor’s audience evolves.
Think of the target audience trajectory for an actor like Carey Mulligan. It may look like Casting Directors (coming to the attention of…)-> Directors (in small supporting roles like Pride & Prejudice that pave the way for ….)-> Smart Indie Drama Audiences (“An Education”)-> Mainstream audiences in smart but appealing dramas (“Wall Street 2”). Essentially the audience evolves from industry gatekeepers to consumers.
The greater your inherent consumer audience, the greater leverage you bring to your industry gatekeeper audience.
Honestly, I don’t know how to increase audience viewership with casting directors; they don’t exactly type “actor” into a Google search every time they have a breakdown. The gatekeepers have a system, and it’s very difficult, maybe impossible to change such a deeply embedded system. Every CD has their own database of people and personal roster, of both talent and agents. I don’t think we can do much more to assail their gates other than be very easy to find (website, etc) and have a body of work ready to viewing. That part of the game doesn’t seem to be ripe for change.
An actor may spend a huge amount of their career in front of an audience of Casting Directors and directors without ever coming to greater attention, but it’s important to realize that this is the short game; the long game is finding the appeal for your audience who says “Oh, so-and-so is in this film… now I want to see it!” How many times have you as an audience member said you’d go see a movie you might not otherwise be interested in, because a favorite actor stars? That’s the kind of audience we’re looking to build.
Easier said than done, but let’s explore it.
Filmmakers brand themselves with a body of work, or take on the mantle of an auteur; looking at top actors working today, that model isn’t so different. I recently read an article about Angelina Jolie’s ability to open a movie based on her name alone, and her careful cultivation in the public’s eye a leading woman (dramatic, leading roles; she rarely plays a support character / girlfriend sidekick). Similarly, Meg Ryan built a legacy around America’s Sweetheart (whether or not she wanted to – and was rejected by America when she departed that role). Obviously, there is a level of typecasting that comes into play, that can probably be influenced if not controlled. Or to put it another way, the larger audiences you appeal to, the more you will face typecasting; its better to take an active role and harness it as part of your branding.
How do we do the same? Interestingly, I find a lot of resistance to the idea of actors cutting out the middle men. It smacks of being gauche, and elicits a snobbery that maybe you weren’t good enough to succeed through the “proper channels.” We want to avoid reality pseudo-stardom, which is the kiss of death for an actor’s credibility.
Branding for me comes down to this: exercising your global (online) presence in a meaningful way. Here’s a related post with tips to get started. Again, it’s not for actors specifically, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.
Actor, Know Thyself
So what’s your brand? That’s something you need to be able to identify in a few key phrases. How would you describe yourself and how you want to be perceived? This is an area where other actor friends and directors you’ve worked with can help.
-Dramatic and mysterious leading man known for intense roles and a Shakespearean background
-Fiery redhead ingenue and new media geek
It’s important that it be true to you and not someone you’re trying to emulate. Top tier Casting Director Marci Liroff gave this advice in recent interview: “Embrace what is unique about yourself, otherwise you’re fighting a losing battle of trying to be the next flavor of the month.”
Here’s another invaluable tool by TED speaker Sally Hogshead; What makes you fascinating? I’ve taken this test twice, and each time I am assessed as being motivated by Prestige (embarrassing, but it’s inherent in my ambition – my reputation is really important to me), and Passion (hence, this blog!) You can read more of her advice on her blog, starting with tips for managing your personal brand.
I must stress again that the point of good branding for an Actor is to know yourself well. That’s what your audience — Directors, Casting Directors, and the general public — are going to respond to best.
What happens when a talented, trained actor sets their sights on building a repoire with the end user? Why wouldn’t film professionals encourage this if it ultimately pays off at the box office? And greatest question of all, how do you do so in a way that creates value and yet preserves some mystery?
Audiences want a peek behind the mask (“Oh look what she wore to the beach in this magazine!”) but they don’t want the whole enchilada. A level of mystery needs to be maintained.
This is a version of scarcity (creating value) that also implies a level of curation; there is one type of audience for you bedroom web-cam, but that’s not the audience you want. You want the audience who is looking for a level of quality management. You can still have access (let’s say, internet videos) without losing a sense of quality. What’s the key ingredient? Usually, curation.
The most famous example is Felicia Day, who created The Guild and well, now, everyone has a crush on her, especially me.
Here’s another case study: Julian Smith. He’s identified what he does well/what makes him uniquely valuable (character creation, comedy), given full access (free online content), but keeps the focus on short sketches delivered on a customized platform that adds a level of polish (curation). In return, he’s generated a huge audience that allows him to work full time at this. Will his career take off into film? That’s an outcome of this experiment we’re still waiting to see. But guess what: he gets to create his own content and earn a paycheck. Instant working actor.
Not a comedian or into sketch comedy? Create your own short films with the kind of content you wish you were being offered. Put it online, and promote the hell out of it. Doing so will not only change others’ perception of you, it will change the way you think about yourself and your own career – for the better.
So, YouTube videos build audience. An online presence build audience. Filmmaker Lucas McNelly wrote, “There was a discussion on Twitter some time ago about whether or not directors let the social media following of actors influence casting decisions. Of course it does.”
There it is from a progressive. He wants to work with people who are savvy about social media, and sees that as the future of the industry. I’ve been in the center of many raging debates from “it shouldn’t matter but it does” to “nobody in my office has ever been cast because of a Twitter account” (that last sentiment came from a Casting Director from the old paradigm).
Film marketing expert Sheri Candler has this to say about social media and actors:
“An actor without a social profile is like an actor who has no headshot and just assumes they will make a decision when they see him in person. Waiting in the dark to be picked is NOT a good strategy. Offering up a good personal network is valuable currency because it takes time to build. Anything that can give you a leg up on a similarly talented person should be used. Duh!”
I’ll never say Twitter or any other online presence trumps talent (see my earlier caveat in Part I), but assuming two actors are equally talented, wouldn’t the new paradigm filmmaker prefer to work with the actor with the built-in audience?
Yes, in theory. In practice, we don’t have enough real world examples yet to say this is true. I believe this is due, in part, to the myth of Discovery that directors buy into – – that Truly Great Actors wouldn’t be gauche (ambitious) enough to promote (brand, curate) their talents, but are pouring their hearts out into their craft on a dark stage somewhere, waiting to be plucked from obscurity like a diamond in the rough.
Bullshit. It’s both. No one is an overnight sensation. You pour your heart out on dark stages and work your ass off to raise your visibility. Together, they pay off.
Here’s something we haven’t touched on yet because I think it’s in a special category: Directors as Audience.
They are looking for you to embody their characters. They can’t make a movie without you. They will know you when you walk in the door – but they have to find you first.
Ever notice how in your particular film community, Directors tend to cast people they’ve worked with? The collaborative nature of film really means that our whole industry is built around relationships. People want to work with people they like. They want to work with fellow talents. You can build this audience right now in your own home-town by reaching out and getting on directors’ radar. First, you better have something great to show. Then, more than anything, it’s about self promotion. More on that in the next post.
NEXT POST: Directors as Audience