First of all, what is a window? In show biz, a “window” is usually defined as the time frame for an actor to achieve a respectable body of work or major credits to establish him or her as a viable product in the entertainment industry.
A time frame for your window could be 5–10 years or longer. Windows are larger for guys. Character actors may have 20 years to get established. Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall didn’t really have major careers until well into their 40s. But for women the window is usually mercilessly smaller—5–7 years, with 30 definitely a cutoff. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful career in your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s—like Kathy Bates, Sharon Gless, and all the Desperate Housewives. It just means you need credits before that age to be competitive. Otherwise, industry pros wonder why you haven’t worked professionally for a decade. “What have you been doing?” they’ll ask. “Showcases?” Yes, in the early stages of your acting career performing in nonpaying showcases, student films, and low-budget indie films is OK, but you have to move on, quickly, to credible paying work.
Most actors think they have a lot of time, years, to become a “star”—on Broadway, in a prime-time series, or in a film. They don’t. As you get older it’s more difficult to get an agent or even smaller, supporting roles. Your competition has credits. All major players—agents, film producers, network execs—judge actors not just on their talent but on their “credibility.” A multimillion-dollar TV series or film cannot hinge on an unknown without a track record. Execs would lose their jobs if the show wasn’t a guaranteed success. And they always have a dozen finalists for any role—their A-, B-, and C-list choices. It’s narrowed down to those actors who are known, exceptional, beautiful or very attractive (or perfect for the character), amazingly talented, and experienced.
Finalists usually have at least one guest-starring credit, several featured or co-starring credits, or even a series regular on a previous show. You need those credits or must be the one-in-a-million actor who is perfect for the part. Don’t count on that.
So the concept of
1. I just need an agent to submit me;
2. Once in the door, I’ll blow them away with my great talent; or
3. I’ll book a major role because I’m so good!
is a delusion.
Where to Get Credibility Before Your Window Closes?
Soaps Daytime dramas used to provide credibility and be great springboards for young actors, especially if they had contract roles. Unfortunately, there are only two (on the Internet) in New York and a handful in L.A. Still, roles are high-paying and professional. Very credible.
Develop relationships with casting directors, writers, producers, execs, and creators of series so they will think of you, ask for you, and write you in their pilots. Even a day player—that’s a credit.
Don’t keep doing roles on sci-fi, student, horror, or badly produced indie films. Research and aim for at least a tiny part in an A-list film. Find out who is on the team for an upcoming film and contact him or her. Make connections at organizations such as the Directors Guild or the Writers Guild. Build a network of people who know, like, and trust you. Good strategy!
These provide credibility. If an actor books a major market or network spot, the income can be staggering—$50,000 or more. There is great visibility, and agents and producers take note. When you make money, you’re credible and recognizable.
Decades ago, doing quality work in a new play on Broadway would provide credibility, but with increasing costs for production, most of those “newbie” roles now go to TV or movie stars with box office appeal. Potential audience members won’t pay a small fortune to see someone they don’t recognize from their favorite TV show or film. And it’s a rare new play that goes from showcase to Broadway or Off-Broadway.
Your Own Project
Webisodes are the new venue for young actors. If your comedy spots are really good and have a gazillion hits, you might be picked up for a prime-time sitcom or at least auditioned for one.
Join a respected troupe or company. Many successful actors on “Saturday Night Live” and comedy films were discovered in this medium.
Write your own script or hire a writer to create something for you showing your best prototypical role and personality. Promote with an aggressive marketing campaign.
Hire someone to open doors and advise you on all of the above, help upgrade your marketing package, create an effective campaign, and refer you to a top agent.
Most important, don’t be complacent. Time is your most valuable commodity. Everyone has a window. Keep moving forward with your training, marketing, and networking. If your agent isn’t sending you out, move on! If your headshot doesn’t get you in the door, get a new one. If your demo reel doesn’t get you a slew of auditions, re-edit or re-shoot. Website? Get one. Bite the bullet. Invest in your career—you’ll break through!
As the founder and executive director of The Actors's Market, Gwyn Gilliss provides free monthly info seminars, agent/casting director interview tele-seminars, weekly marketing tips, as well as many coaching programs to help actors break into both the NY and L.A. industries. Gwyn has tremendous success with her private career coaching clients. More than 90 percent get agent representation launching their careers with performances in feature films, Broadway productions, and Emmy-award-winning primetime TV series, such as "The Good Wife," "White Collar," "Grey's Anatomy," "NCIS," "House," "Law & Order," "30 Rock," "Criminal Minds."
Email her to request a free 15-minute career session: firstname.lastname@example.org.