Last week, the good people of Chicago Talent Network, a local agency owned by my friends and fellow actors Duane Sharp and Rene Ertyl, asked me to drop by and spend a morning talking with some of their actors. I was honored, since Duane and I go back almost 20 years. Back then I was a newbie asking him for advice, and today I get to return the favor for the next generation of Chicago actors.
The questions Duane and Renee asked were so thought provoking that I thought many of them would make great blog posts. So I’m going to share a few things we covered in the meeting.
Duane and I spent a surprising amount of time talking about how the business has changed since we got started, and eventually the conversation turned toward the effect social media is having on the business of acting.
I feel like actors have been skirting around this issue for a long time, asking “Does it really matter how active I am on Instagram or Twitter?” People want to know if having a large following is now a prerequisite for being in the business. I come from a time when casting decisions were based on our ability to do the job. If we were right for the role, we got the booking. There was little else at play. And I want to believe that’s still true. But is it?
Social Media Isn’t Going Anywhere.
We have to acknowledge that social media isn’t going anywhere. I got my first booking from a Facebook message years ago, when I was barely active on the site. When my agents started contacting me there instead of using the phone or email, I knew times were changing.
Then I started hearing about acting jobs being given to YouTubers and people called “influencers,” and I wondered what the production community was thinking. These people weren’t actors, they reviewed beauty products or posted pictures of themselves working out. How could they possibly tell a story using words written by someone else?
Turns out most of them couldn’t, and eventually producers caught on. But there are still clients who insist on looking to Instagram or YouTube to find talent for their projects. Since he who writes the check has the power, they instruct casting to scour social platforms in addition to traditional casting websites.
Why? Because numbers and metrics matter. There is a case to be made that for certain projects, it makes sense to attach someone who comes with a built-in audience. Money is being spent, and if eyeballs are the things the project needs to capture a good ROI, talent buyers will follow the path of least resistance. A YouTuber with no acting training looks pretty good if they have a boatload of subscribers, especially when compared to an accomplished actor with no channel to speak of.
Visibility has always been an actor’s best friend. The best way to get people to want to work with you is to show them your work. Show them often enough, and you become familiar even if they’ve never met you. But being visible has always been easier said than done. This is true for actors everywhere, particularly for those in markets like Chicago where projects with wide distribution are few and far between.
Yet today, social media can actually solve an actor’s visibility problem. Instagram has over 1 billion accounts, only 20% of which are located in the US. The rest are international users. That means your potential audience is quite literally global.
So why does social media matter?
But do you really need to have thousands of followers to be in the running for, say, a corporate narration job? Not long ago my knee-jerk reaction to that question would have been a resounding, “Of course not.” But the more time passes, the more I think it depends on the client’s needs. Or put more accurately, the needs the client thinks they have.
There will always be people on creative teams whose very job depends on pushing one idea over another. This includes people with titles like, “social media manager.” If that person has the ear of the final decision maker, you can be sure social profiles will be checked before hires are announced. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t advocate for someone with a strong social presence.
Does this make sense? Maybe yes, maybe no. From an actor’s point of view, one who has very little to show in the way of followers, it’s an insane reason to hire one actor over another. They might as well hire the actor who has the coolest eyeglasses, or runs the fastest 40 yard dash. One has nothing to do with the other. In our minds, the job should go to the person most right for the role, regardless of their enthusiasm for trading witty barbs online.
The Future of Social.
But we’ve never been in control of the casting process, we are simply tasked with adapting to it, like it or not. So with that in mind, I now present my prediction for the not-too-distant future. Those without strong follower counts may want to avert their eyes.
Imagine a world where no auditions take place in person. Every 1st round audition for every commercial, industrial, TV show or film is self-taped. In this world, all your professional relationships are digital. No dropping into your favorite casting office to say hello, because there is no office. Everyone works from home. No sending thank-you gifts when you land a job because no casting person or agent wants crazy actors to know where they live. Call backs are done by Skype or Zoom, or if they happen in person, at a production company or temp office space.
In this world, there are no headshots. Instead, your social profiles are linked to your profile on a casting site. Your reels aren’t a collection of your past work, but a monument to your most-streamed YouTube vids, most engaging Insta stories and your most retweeted tweets.
An audition comes in from your agent, it’s for a pharma industrial, and the client doesn’t care if you’re ear prompter proficient or good with copy, they plan on distributing the project using TikTok, a platform you don’t have a presence on. Oh wait. If you don’t have a profile there, you won’t get the audition, because they require everyone auditioning to have a minimum of 1M views. Never mind.
I’m not even trying that hard. Frankly, this sounds quasi-feasible today. But let’s keep going.
Let’s say by some miracle you’re put on the audition, and by some even greater divine intervention, you book the job. Go to a stage for the shoot? Oh, that’s cute. No, in this world, every actor has professional-level video production equipment at home. It’s not a luxury, it’s a must-have, like a head shot in the old days. Actors in this world not only have to be decent actors, they also have to be well-versed in production: lighting, lens choices, sound, etc.
The client sends you the script, you fire up your light kit and stand in front of your camera as you switch to a wide-angle lens because the piece is going to be graphics-heavy and they need plenty of space for them in the frame. You hop in front of your green screen and lay down takes as the client listens in via your smart speaker from 2000 miles away or watches via your secondary camera setup (probably a second smart phone, not your main one) from their seat on an international flight cruising at 37,000 feet.
Think this is far-fetched? I’m not saying we’re there yet, but I can see a day when something like this is every actor’s reality, union or not, new or not, Midwest-based or not. Casting, clients, and producers are all going to remove every possible bit of friction from the process. If they can offload the cost and hassle of production onto an actor while getting decent production values and get a solid performance, they’ll do it. And if that actor also comes with an audience for the project, even better. Something like this happened in the voice over world. I see no reason why it won’t happen in the on camera world as well.
So should you be worried if you’re not active on social media? Thankfully, the world I described isn’t reality quite yet.
But I think it could be. Might as well start limbering up those twitter thumbs.