Art Center College of Design grad student Ellen Houlihan says she thinks it's better for actors "to have clips that demonstrate their ability to carry a film." She adds, "If you can work with a student director, you can find something that really fits with your identity and get a kick start on your career." And Los Angeles has a plethora of film schools. Each operates slightly differently from the others, but all have one thing in common: The students need lots of actors for their films.
Most Los Angeles film schools where student projects are cast are two-year graduate programs, but UCLA offers a four-year graduate program. According to Dallas King, a second-year MFA studying directing at UCLA's film school, each student does about six films per year. Multiply that by the 13 students in his program, and there are more than 70 student films being shot at the UCLA directing school alone. Rukmani Bachal, Acting Department coordinator at New York Film Academy, says the academy's students shoot approximately eight films of varying length per year. And the Art and Design College of Pasadena has about 20–30 students entering the program each year, each of whom completes approximately 10 films a year, says Houlihan. According to the deputy national executive director for contracts at SAG, Ray Rodriguez, USC and AFI have contracts with SAG. And AFI casts exclusively out of the SAG Conservatory for the first year, says Quijada. Other area film schools include LMU/LA, Los Angeles Film School, Hollywood Film and Acting Academy, and Cal State Los Angeles.
How to Find Student Films
At some of the schools, the student director or producer may do the casting, but some programs, including AFI, have casting directors for their projects. Some of the schools have databases of headshots and résumés, like NYFA and UCLA, and actors are welcome to drop off their headshots and résumés. King says most schools also have bulletin boards where actors and student producers can post information. The students casting the films also use a variety of outlets to post their casting notices, including Back Stage. King also recommends that actors learn the schedules of the various schools. He says, "Come second week of January, we're out there scouting for talent for our big projects."
With all those projects, choosing the right one—one that will provide quality footage for an actor's reel—can be difficult. Actors should research the filmmaker. Bachal says, "If an actor does their due diligence in checking out a filmmaker's reel and previous work and reading the script for what their role entails, they can be certain to get good footage for their reels and spend less time and effort on films that won't necessarily provide that." King suggests the actor ask the director questions about the background of the character. "That's an actor's way of kind of like figuring out how serious these directors take it," he says.
What to Expect on a Student Film…
According to King, UCLA encourages its directors to work like the industry does—which means that actors get craft services, wardrobe, and a dressing room. Actors aren't used as crew and are not expected to work past a certain time. Because student films are run as professionally as possible, directors often want to do table reads and rehearse. King says, "We really enjoy actors who are very much interested in doing the whole nine yards—because it's good experience for them, it's good experience for us." Student films move faster than union projects. King says, "A lot of times we have like 10 days to cast it, rehearse it, and then we're going to shoot on the small projects."
…And What is Expected of You
"We're serious about our craft, and a lot of work goes behind it, and we expect the same amount of commitment to come from anyone that joins our production," says Quijada. So actors should prepare for the audition. Though most directors don't expect actors to be off book, it shows that an actor is a professional taking the project seriously if he or she has at least read the script and is able to identify with the character.
Bachal says, "Actors should always conduct themselves professionally on any caliber of production. An actor's professionalism and demeanor greatly enhance or hurt their chances of being cast on a film. Even students prefer not to have high-maintenance cast on their projects." King says, "Do not take student films lightly, because they are run professionally. I would definitely encourage new actors coming to town to take student films more seriously, because there's great opportunity in the long run and you just don't know the networking and the people you're going to meet."
Tips for Getting Footage for Your Reel
Rodriguez recommends that actors have a written agreement to ensure they will receive their copies, but he warns that there are cases in which students don't complete the project and the actors will not receive their copies. At AFI, Quijada says, actors usually receive their copies at the premiere of the film. She says the best way to ensure you get your footage is to keep in touch with the producer. Bachal agrees, "Make sure you have the filmmaker's contact information and follow up with them diligently."
King and Houlihan also suggest that actors have realistic expectations about how quickly they will receive their footage. Houlihan says, "Be respectful that sometimes postproduction can take as many as a couple weeks to a couple months to complete, but it's okay to keep following up." King says, "Student films have a negative reputation, which is you do a project and you won't see the finished project for a year." But that's because the whole year of school is designed to work on the project, he explains. He often has actors bring their external hard drives to get the raw footage of themselves and suggests that actors ask the director if they can get the raw footage while they are waiting for the finished copy.
Understanding Deferred Pay
Deferred pay basically means that actors will not be paid for their services initially; but should the film make money in the future, the actors will be the first to be paid what they should have made initially. Rodriguez explains, "The SAG Student Film Letter Agreement has a deferred compensation rate that is only payable to the professional performers if, with the permission of the professional performers, the project is sold, distributed, or exhibited outside the permitted uses, which are (1) in the classroom for a grade, (2) at film festivals, (3) before the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for possible award consideration (the Academy requires the student film be exhibited for at least one week in a paying movie house to qualify for such consideration), and (4) as a visual résumé to demonstrate the student filmmaker's capabilities before established members of the entertainment industry." Most students don't bother with deferred pay and instead just offer copy, credit, and meals. However, AFI offers deferred payment for second-year productions. King says a lot of UCLA directors like to get in the habit of registering their projects with SAG, but because that requires them to get liability and workers' compensation insurance, sometimes the costs are prohibitive. He says, "Actors doing student films should not expect to get paid."