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From time to time, The Florida Blue Sheet addresses career problems of those who make their living in the entertainment industry. The following is edited down from a series of editorials that appeared in past issues of The Florida Blue Sheet, focusing on those who work in front of the camera. While it is directed at actors in Right-to-work states, generally, and Florida actors in particular, the guidance it provides may be useful to actors everywhere.
10 Things to Do to Screw Up A Career
Actors do not have a monopoly on stupidity, they just seem to have one.
Stupidity, as you know, is ignorance unattended to; that is, not knowing something you need to know; and, when told you need to know it, you don't do what is necessary to find out. It is in the spirit of compassion for other weak minded souls like myself, that I offer the following: The Top 10 Things talent can do to screw up their lives and their professional careers. The countdown beginneth:
#10: NEVER CALL YOUR AGENT. Even in a strong agency state -- New York, California, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and a few others, where good agents represent only a handful of actors -- even these agents don't generally don't feel an obligation to keep in touch. That's the actor's responsibility, or at least that's what most agents believe (they also believe you work for them, which is, of course, nonsense. They work for you; that's why they're called "agents.") The fact is, if you don't call your agents, you won't get much work, beyond the occasional low paying extra gig (no matter what the agents may tell you.) The trick and the skill lies in not harassing your agents but simply reminding them from time to time that you are there, ready and willing to work. If phoning makes you nervous, send a postcard with your head shot on it. (If you don't know where to get such postcards, contact us. We'll give you a couple of dandy places.) Keep you agent informed of anything you do to enhance your value: Plays you're in, speeches you give, awards you win, nonpaying but professional work you may do (as in low budget independent films), volunteer stuff, talking yourself out of a speeding ticket -- better yet, talking yourself out of jail. If you appear to be working a lot, you'll look more marketable to your agent -- you'll BE more marketable!
#9: ALWAYS BELIEVE WHAT YOUR FRIENDS, AGENTS, GIRL FRIEND, BOY FRIEND, MOM, AND OTHERS SAY ABOUT HOW CRUMMY YOUR HEAD SHOT IS. A high quality head shot will get you work, and you owe it to yourself to get the best you can. But once you've got even an average head shot, stay with it until something about you is distinctly different: Your hair changes color, your nose falls off, you grow another ear, that sort of thing. Ignore completely any advice to the contrary. You will always get a serviceable head shot from a professional photographer. You will almost never get the work of art you think you deserve -- unless you happen to be Mona Lisa. So stay with it, even if you hate it. The only people who should have more than one head shot a year are kids who are growing like weeds. (Obviously, if you're commercially flogging your new born babe, you can't take one shot shortly after birth and not take another until the kid is shaving.) A head shot will never directly prevent you from getting work, even if it's grainy and out of focus (which it won't be if you've used a professional.) What may happen is that your average picture may have to compete harder against the other mostly average pictures for a casting director's attention. (The competition is always less, by the way, if the Casting Director knows you personally and what you can do.) And if your head shot makes you look a little strange or even ugly, rejoice! There is far more work out there for the Wicked Witch of a West than for an innocent ingenue. Because most of your income will be derived from commercials (unless you're big enough in the business so that your agent has to call you, and is often put on hold when he does), if you are lucky enough to look like Quasimodo, you'll always have money in your pocket. Pay no attention to anyone who says you "need a new head shot." It's probably not true, and it's probably a scam to separate you from your money, and generate a kickback to whoever it is gives you that advice.
#8: ALWAYS SERVE AS A BANK FOR YOUR AGENT. Rewarded behavior is repeated behavior. If an agent knows you will cut his heart out if you are not paid, you will get your check in a timely fashion. If you are a wimp about being paid, count on it: You'll have to wait. Unfortunately there are Florida agents, for example, who use you, their talent, as a bank, holding your money, paying their bills with it, and stringing you along with the old wheeze, "The client hasn't paid us yet." After 30 days, you should suspect it's a lie. After 60 days you should be sure of it, unless the agent can give you absolute proof -- copies of "demand" letters, for example -- that he hasn't been paid. After 90 days, it is a lie; and you need to do something about it. You have many remedies for getting your money, if you are willing to use them. In Florida, the most effective and least expensive is to make a claim against the agent's bond (every licensed agent must have one.) It almost always works, if you have the proof of your claims, and it generally scares the schantzschwanker out of the agent when the bonding company comes after him for reimbursement.
#7. SIGN UP WITH AN AGENT AND WAIT FOR THE PHONE TO RING. This is almost the same at #10 above, but different enough so that it deserves a # sign all its own. I get at least 50 calls a month from actors who are relatively new to the business complaining about their agents not calling them, and, therefore, their lack of work. "My agent never submits me for anything, even the stuff I know I'm right for." Ever heard anyone you know say that? Ever said it yourself? If you haven't, you're not a working actor & never will be. Of course it annoys you when your agent doesn't call. But you call yourself an actor. So act! Play the role of Top Talent Marketer. And in that roll, go out & promote yourself to the skies. Florida agents (and most agents in Right-to-work states) don't build successful talent. Not their fault. They are caught in weak agency systems that were around before most of them were born. Under such weak agency systems, agents are rarely more than order takers for casting directors & producers. It's the rare Florida agent, for example, who succeeds in getting a client into a long running, high paying TV series or into a feature role in a big movie. It happens sometimes, to be sure; but its notable for its rarity. Well, if your agent isn't going to get you all the work you need, what do you do? The answer is simple. In your featured role as Top Talent Marketer, write letters, pound on doors, go where the elite gather, make phone calls till your ears drop off. People who manage to get known are people who get work. Period. End of story. The winning formula: Be an actor 30% of the time; market yourselves 70% of the time. Get yourself to meetings where people in the industry gather; always carry your head shot and resume with you and don't be afraid to pass it out to anyone who shows the slightest interest. Take down the names and addresses of everyone you meet, then write them a note on your head shot postcard about how much you enjoyed meeting that person (even if you don't remember what they look like.) You've seen actors who do this, and you know it works. You know it works because you often see their names in the Blue Sheet. They blow their own horns loudly. Blow yours even louder -- but with as much class as you can muster. Never work a job without sending "thank you" letters to everyone from the producers & directors to the dog groomers. Strange as it may seem, almost no one does that. Those who do tend to get remembered & tend to get rehired for subsequent jobs. When your mother told you about how courtesy always pays off, this is what she was talking about.
#6. THE ACTOR IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON ON THE SET. ACT LIKE IT! Make demands, never requests. Operate on your own time, not the production's. Take outward offense at anything that doesn't fit into your star image of yourself. Do all of these things & start looking for another job. There was a time, when movie people ran studios & stars were important to getting a picture funded. Prima Dons & Prima Donnas were tolerated then. Now studios are run by accountants who look only at the bottom line & who will fire without hesitation anyone who costs them money not budgeted for. Successful independents have learned from the lessons of the studios. The act of dumping the rude, obstreperous, demanding, discourteous actor, has filtered down to all levels of production -- it's especially true on commercials. If you've forgotten what it takes to be a lady or a gentleman, it might be a good idea to take a course in etiquette and get a book on good manners.
#5. DON'T DO ANYTHING TO MAKE YOUR AGENT MAD OR YOU WON'T GET PAID, AND YOU WON'T GET ANY MORE WORK. Few actor notions are dumber than this one. Nevertheless, many actors believe it. I once did 15 radio commercials for a group of Saginaw Valley automobile dealers. I was supposed to be paid $75 each (not too bad for 1953). The ad agency that booked me not only took a 10% commission from my pay (legal in Michigan then), but didn't pay me when it got paid. After 30 days I became anxious; I was a college freshman with insufficient funds for an adequate social life. After 60 days, I began calling the agency, only to be stalled at every turn. After 90 days I got mad & got yelled at for my trouble. After 120 days, I'd had it. I went to the court house, threw myself on the mercy of a kindly court clerk, and, with her help filed a law suit against the agency for the $1,125 they owed me plus the expenses of filing the suit. (Small Claims Court, as it exists in most states today, was relatively unknown in Michigan in 1953.) I paid a deputy sheriff $10 to serve a summons on the agency head. You could hear screams the length & breadth of the big mitten. He called me in fury & vowed that I would never work again for any ad agency in America. I told him I'd see him in court. Apparently, he talked to his lawyer, because less than a week later I got my money, less $112.50 & a note saying never to contact them again. But I did contact them, demanding the $10 I'd paid for the deputy. I got it by return mail. And the kicker: When General Motors contracted for the next set of 15 spots, they specifically stated that I was to do them. I extracted an apology, an agreement to be paid after each spot, & a waiver of commission. It was just (pause) swell. If you make it clear to your agents in the beginning that you won't be pushed around, guess what? You won't be pushed around.
#4. ANSWER CLASSIFIED ADS IN YOUR LOCAL PAPER, THE BACK OF SUPERMARKET TABLOIDS, OR IN SOAP OPERA MAGAZINES. Be especially open to ads that invite you to "model" competitions, that say they'll get you jobs without any experience, and ads that say "swimsuit" or "lingerie." If ever there was a route to career ending disaster, it is biting on the one of these too good to be true ads. Often such ads are recruiting devices for prostitution, especially if the address is in the Tampa or Fort Lauderdale area (where so many of the pornos the world knows and loves were shot, including Deep Throat.) It's easy to get sucked into this business, and once hooked, its tough to get out. While a moral midget can get away with turning the White House into a set for a pornography film, the public is far less forgiving of actors, even in this liberal time so far removed from the decency and civility of the Victorian Era, my time. If in spite of this warning, you still think it's okay to answer classifieds from companies you've never heard of, please call me first. I've got some wonderful Last Chance #2 Gold Mine stock I'd like to sell you.
#3. SAVE UP A LOT OF MONEY, OR BORROW A LOT OF MONEY, OR STEAL A LOT OF MONEY AND "INVEST" IN A MODEL SEARCH EVENT. Nothing is more worthless than a talent/model search. It is worthless to you if you seek to make your modeling fortune though these rip-offs. It is worthless to your children. You know your kids are perfect. And you want to believe it when an "expert" (the con artist running the scam) tells you they are perfect. I know this lady from Tampa (I wrote about her in an earlier Blue Sheet) who ignored everyone's good advice and gave scammers more than $11,000 to take her three kids and herself to New York with one of the sleazy model search frauds that come into Florida with considerable regularity. She mortgaged her house to pay the bill. She was conned. You will be too, if you participate. I've never heard of her or her kids again. No one will hear of you, either, if you adopt this route. "Pilot Season" promos fall largely into the same category. First, regardless what agents, managers, and even a few producers may tell you, there is no such thing as "Pilot Season." It's a gimmick to extract money from doofusses, like you and me. Several highly reputable publications and professionals have fallen for this fraud, including a couple of entertainment trades that are almost as important as us. TV pilots are shot throughout the year, though the level of production may go up slightly during the summer when actors and crews can be got cheaper. But if someone tells you they are recruiting for Melrose Place or Brisco County (curse the Fox Network for their idiocy in canceling this show) or some other show that's already been canceled, and you fall for it, go to the nearest police station and have them arrest you for stupidity.
#2. GIVE NO THOUGHT TO YOUR SOUL OR THE BOX IT COMES IN. Stuff your nose with white powder, pump nitroidiocy into your veins, fill your stomach with strong waters that do bemuse a man and make him even as the wild beasts, sit back, mellow out & watch whatever chance you had for success in the entertainment business go right down the toilet. There is almost no end to the list of actors who did themselves in by doing stupid things with their bodies, their minds, and their souls: John Belushi, John Barrymore, Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, Karen Carpenter, Judy Garland, & hundreds of others, some, like Belushi, cut down at the top of the game. The temptations are enormous to be sure and so are the stresses and strains of getting to the top and then staying there. With even minimal success, the financial rewards can be extraordinary, bordering on the obscene -- so much money that it loses value, and all purchases become trivial. We tend to assign value on a thing based largely on what it costs us to acquire, not only monetary cost but social, political, and personal cost. If it all comes too easy, if money is never an object, if there is no pain in the decision making process, then nothing has value. If nothing has value, then you have no value. And if you have no value, what difference does it make what you do? But it does matter to some, to almost everyone who knows you -- family, friends, even your enemies. You may not pay much of a price for destroying yourself and turning your future into a sewer; but to your friends and family the cost will be terrible. If you were a concert violinist with a rare Stradivarius as your instrument, you wouldn't for an instant consider tossing it casually about, or letting your kids use it as a toy, or use it to drive small nails into a wall, or use it as a paddle for a canoe. You would cherish it. Guard it. Keep it safe at all times. Treat it with respect. Honor the craftsmanship that went into its construction. Well, your instrument is your body. It's a work of art, far more complex than any violin and far more valuable. If you are any good at all, you owe it to everything you have ever held important to show your instrument as much respect and honor as you can. And if you don't think you're any good, get out of the business and don't ruin it for the rest of us.
And here it is: The #1 thing you can do to wreck your career and your life. To destroy yourself absolutely, to ruin everything you would like to work for, to fail to achieve the high level of success you know is your due -- whether you function in front of a camera, behind a camera, or in an office somewhere, wheeling and dealing, just do this: TAKE ADVICE FROM THE WRONG PEOPLE. My dad was about as smart a guy as I've ever known. He was an electrical engineer who spent his entire working life with the Michigan Bell Telephone Company. Ma Bell frequently loaned him out to companies & government agencies who had communication related problems they couldn't solve. In his field, his accomplishments were legion. Much as I admired him, much as I loved him, I never asked him for advice about my career in the entertainment industry. He didn't know anything about it. For that I turned to Harry Graves Miller, a superb Director, Actor, & Writer. (Besides being the last basso profundo successfully to play Lady Mac Beth on Broadway -- NY reviewers loved the "lady" with the beautiful, rich voice; besides coaching his friend Laurence Olivier on Harry's "Gray Ghost" technique for Olivier's 1948 film Hamlet; besides co-authoring plays with the likes of Helen Keller, he was also a fine teacher.) I went to the best to learn. I like to think I learned relatively well.
The best set designer I've ever known was a guy studying in the theater department at the University of Michigan. His teachers were excellent (as you would expect at Michigan -- people like Ralph Duckwall, Clairabelle Baird, & so on), but Rick decided he wanted to learn from the best. He took a couple of years off, traveled all over the world, & did just that, becoming eventually the only Set Designer/Art Director viewed by film industry bankers ever as a bankable element (Norman Bel Geddes was his own bank, & Busby Berkeley was bankable but for his staging, not his set design).
It's probably not necessary for you to go to Rick's extremes, but you should never seek guidance or advice from anyone who knows less than you do. Like they say about gunfighters: There is always someone faster & a better shot than you are. If you've got a brain in your head you'll search them out! Find out what they know that you don't!
Everyone who is better than you has something to teach you -- and there is always somebody better than you.
When Lawrence Kasdan decided he wanted to be a Hollywood screenwriter & director & producer, he made his way to California (from the real U of M, I might add) & sought out folks like George Lucas. He just wasn't satisfied with lesser lights. He virtually forced the cream of the crop to teach him. And wouldn't you like to be Larry Kasdan today?
When John Carradine decided he wanted to be an actor, (David, Keith & Robert's dad, you Philistine -- he appeared in more films than any actor who ever lived), he hitch hiked to L.A., took a bus tour that showed him where John Barrymore lived. Then he went to Barrymore's house, rang his bell, got no answer, & walked around to the back. He found Barrymore sitting by his pool, sipping strong waters. Carradine introduced himself, said he wanted to be an actor, & asked what he had to do. Barrymore was so intrigued by Carradine's chutzpah, that he picked up a phone & arranged for his "new best friend" to work the following day. That was 1936. For the next 50+ years, John Carradine was never out of work.
Amateurs will give you amateur advice. Professionals will give you professional help -- even if you have to pay for it -- just be sure they are more of a professional than you are.
You can learn editing technique at any number of film schools & film departments; but you won't become an editing genius like Bob Wise (Citizen Kane) or John Jimpson (A Fish Called Wanda, Kelly's Heroes) without starting to learn just some of the stuff that Robert Wise and John Jimpson have forgotten.
You can learn the basics of acting in an acting class or even by doing lots of theater & emulating other actors. You'll never be regarded as a great actor without significant contact with great actors. Everyone you know has a stupid opinion about everything having to do with the entertainment industry (and that includes me). Unless they are better than you, unless they are faster guns than you, their opinions are worthless. Ignore them.
- Gersh Morningstar
Reprinted from The Blue Sheet