Count me opposed to the needless and introspective thought process that has been introduced to what we at the Beverly Hills Playhouse would call “Administration” – namely, those efforts undertaken by actors to sell their talent to the industry that is seeking it. (There is much in life that could fall under ‘Administration,’ but this essay is addressing career-specific actions.) The study and attempted application of generalized “Actor Marketing & Branding” have increased in the last few years, and I think not always to the benefit of the aspiring actor.
First, as I believe many actors conflate the concepts of ‘branding’ and ‘marketing,’ let’s differentiate: My shoot-from-the-hip definitions would be that ‘branding’ is the process of clearly identifying the specific features of Badass Product X and linking them with the name Badass Product, while ‘marketing’ refers to the strategy and actions undertaken to let the world know about Badass Product. For your average up-and-coming actor, let’s simplify life and assume that ‘marketing,’ ‘promotion,’ ‘advertising,’ and ‘sales’ are pretty much all the same activity: Letting the world know you exist so that producers, directors and casting people call you in for roles.
Asking how you should market yourself is a valid question with many simple answers, all requiring consistency and discipline over time.
Asking how you should brand yourself, however, is trouble. It’s introspective, I think it leaves actors staring at walls trying to get an “A” in wrongly applied corporate-think. It introduces needless complexity to a simple matter: Are you a good actor? Nicely done, good for you. Now get out there and let people know.
So a problem has arisen whereby the word ‘marketing’ is used both for the necessary activity of presenting yourself to the Industry, but also the unnecessary analysis of your brand, looking at yourself as a product, and how to distinguish that product from other actors/products. Enter stage left: a cottage industry of entrepreneurs looking to make money on that introspection, and sell actors on their ‘marketing strategies’ and/or their highly evolved tools for marketing, which often include excessive ‘branding,’ to all of which I say….
You’re not a can of Coke. You’re not a cell phone. You’re not a branded commodity. You’re red on Monday, you’re blue on Thursday, you’re sweet one day and savory the next. Ideally you’re whatever you need to be to service the story for which you’re being considered. The idea that with due attention to proper branding you’ll find that special something about yourself that will be consistently valuable to others is, to me, highly questionable. Why? – because these thoughts about The Brand of You as a precursor to taking administrative action have zero use or perceptibility outside of you. It’s just like the thoughts about The Talent of You as a precursor to acting. There simply is no linkage between those thoughts and the real world. You’re going to go out on stage and act regardless of your thoughts (Am I any good?), and you should damned well administrate your career regardless of your thoughts (What am I selling?).
The whole idea of being an actor is to say to the world, “I’ll be whatever you need me to be to tell your story.” To worry excessively about branding your specific qualities would seem to be antithetical to this purpose, and all time spent theorizing about your ‘branding’ would frankly better be spent improving and simply getting out there. Once we’ve got the acting in shape, it’s a matter of being seen in as many professional settings as possible, delivering the goods when asked or hired, and a monastic devotion to communicating regularly with everyone you can think of about what you and they are doing. Give me a good actor who conducts himself professionally, and puts out a diligent 50 pieces of communication each week, and show me where he is after five years. I’ll bet he’s better off than the one who delays action because they’re cogitating on branding strategies as if they are working the corporate job we all swore we’d never take.
And yeah, I get it, if you have a very strong physical type – intensely athletic, supremely nerdy, Vogue cover-worthy cheekbones and skin – then that clearly identifiable physical type can be marketed to solve certain casting problems. Milton spoke often of the importance of an actor knowing his or her ‘casting’ – the first circle roles where most storytellers would place you based on your look and your manner. Sometimes the gorgeous actress doesn’t see herself as the lead because of some inner esteem issue. Sometimes the down-to-earth character actor believes with all their might they should be the romantic lead. A good teacher can help resolve those issues, so you develop more realistic view of your casting.
But even then… Let’s say you have a very specific look, the ‘studious/nerd look’ for instance, and you’re going to market that look for all those roles. You could take two equivalently nerdy young specimens, and their quality when acting will be completely different. One comes off supremely arrogant, another comes off sweet and innocent. But let’s go even beyond that – you may have on your hands the supremely arrogant nerdy actor who through diligent acting study develops his skill and knowledge of story and tone, and who hence knows for this certain script he needs to bring in the sweet/innocent version of the nerdy character, and he books the job…. The variables are insane to contemplate. How do you ‘brand’ the look versus the innate quality versus the ability? (Let me guess: Take the Professional Actors Marketing Workshop / Level Two for $199.95, and they’ll let you in on the secret…)
Frankly I think you should just do whatever comes to mind to broadcast the message that you are talented, compliant, sane, humorous, easy to work with. Market the fact that you’re a professional, you’ll tell the story right and be fun to have on set. Ensure this gem can be found easily through all the various technological means used by those people who cast projects. Introduce this gem in person as much as you can.
Sometimes the hemming and hawing, the working out misapplied branding techniques, corporate-speak mission statements, convoluted conceptual frameworks – it all leads to occasional frantic appeals from actors to know…. What is my path? And this is something that seems very discordant to me. As a musician it never occurred to me to ask my teachers, “What is my path?” or “How should I market/brand myself?” Because the answer would simply have been, “Your path is to be the best fucking pianist you can be, and then get yourself heard as much as possible using whatever means possible.” Along the way, you will discover many things about yourself and what you’re interested in, and where your ever-evolving skills fit in an ever-evolving business.
Part of what drives me nuts about the ‘marketing’ thing with actors is that it is an overemphasis on what others are interested in instead of what you’re interested in. Acting is tough enough in this regard – there always seems to be another person making the decisions about what parts exist, who gets called in, who gets cast, who ‘they’ decide will be the next star… I think each actor’s sanity is increased to the degree he or she individually becomes the decision maker. I like that filmmaker. I like that television show. I like this kind of part. I like action. I like independent. I dream of sitcom. I dream of one-hour drama. And then you chase that, because it’s your passion, not because it’s vector-aligned with Marketing Strategy Q476-B (rev 3q).
So to those who have been sold on the idea they need to ‘market’ themselves via some corporate mode of thinking, or who think there is some elusive and yet highly specific answer to what ‘their path’ is as an actor: At the BHP we emphasize Acting, Attitude & Administration. The answer to questions like that lie in those three areas, and that sequence. Acting – get it in shape, including the underestimated importance of knowing the story, its writer, and its specific tone. Attitude – professional, courteous, on time, respectful, not neurotically insecure or irritatingly know-it-all. Administration – now take the actions necessary to get a quality actor with a good attitude out into the marketplace. Take those actions consistently, each week, regardless of how you feel about yourself or about the business. You’ll never go off the rails.