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Recession and the Revolution

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For Susanna Dalton, a New York–based actor who also works as a voiceover teacher and on-camera coach, the recession has been both boon and bust. With the local unemployment rate at 9 percent, its highest level in more than 15 years, people who can afford to re-evaluate their careers are giving acting a try. But for many who have been acting awhile, classes have become a luxury.

"I've had a definite increase in people who are newly pursuing acting," she said. "But the actors, many of whom have been regular clients, are cutting back for budgetary concerns."

Including her acting jobs, Dalton's income over the past 18 months or so has not been "dramatically negative," she said, adding that she might even be ahead of last year's pace. But she has had to consider diversifying her business by pursuing nonactor clients, such as those who want to improve their interviewing skills: the recently unemployed and high school students applying for college. Utilizing "the communication skills that we actors have in other areas has become important," she said. "People are looking for an edge."

For many actors and the small-business owners who cater to them, an edge has been hard to find for the past few years—and not just because of the economy, which began to contract in December 2007 and rapidly faltered when the banking crisis started last September. For one thing, the downturn has coincided with a long period of labor unrest in Hollywood: A 100-day strike by the Writers Guild of America was soon followed by a yearlong stalemate between producers and the Screen Actors Guild, which slowed film production.

After the writers strike ended in February 2008, "things just started to get back on track, and then the rug was pulled out from under me," said Karen Soltero, a photographer in Valley Village, Calif., who shoots actors' headshots. "It's kind of been screwy for the last year and a half."

And unlike the downturn at the beginning of the decade, this recession has been made more difficult by the new-media revolution, said Brad Buckman, a photographer in Hollywood who has been shooting headshots for 12 years. "Along with the recession, the big thing affecting businesses is digital and online media," he said. "It's defining how people work and what business they've been in.... So many businesses are having to evaluate what they're doing and where they're going."

Adapt or Die

Fortunately for Buckman, he made the necessary adjustments 10 years ago, when he converted his entire business to digital technology. It wasn't easy. There were few industry standards, and he had to develop some of his own computer programs. "I used to shoot three rolls of film and drop them at the lab.... Now I'm a software company," he said. But "the increased flexibility and amount of control that I had were definitely worth it."

Down the street from Buckman's studio stands Argentum Photo Labs, owned by Ajay Jhaveri. He not only converted to all-digital processing at the start of the decade; he diversified his business. In addition to making prints, he retouches photos and helps actors with their websites. "We have to make sure we don't become archaic by just being a print lab," he said. "Unfortunately, a lot of print labs in L.A. remained print labs, and they're just not around anymore."

Though he has put himself in a good position to withstand the recession, Jhaveri said some of his customers are not nearly as well situated. Bartenders who used to go home with $200 a night in tips now take home $25 to $40. The downturn has created "a lot of uncertainty," he said. "They don't want to make any big decisions when there's so much uncertainty."

Soltero has experienced much the same thing. "A lot of actors decided, 'I'm going to hang on to the headshots that I have for as long as I can,' " she said. "So there was definitely a drop-off."

In response, Soltero has made a few adjustments. She lowered her price from $350 to $275 and purchased an additional camera that will help her shoot better pictures in dimly lit settings. Though it won't improve her headshots, it will assist her at weddings and parties—assignments she has accepted more of thanks to a 30 percent drop in headshot customers.

Still, she hopes the price reduction will spur hesitant actors to upgrade their photos now: "People say, 'If the price goes back up in September and I didn't get my headshots in July when it was down, I'm going to be kicking myself.' "

Recession? What Recession?

Not every business owner has struggled during the recession. If anything, it has helped photographer Rod Goodman, who moved to Manhattan from Los Angeles four years ago. In 2007, before the downturn began, he started a promotion called "Mondays Suck": Actors get a half-hour headshot session for $99. The offer caught on slowly at first but picked up speed when the stock market began to crash last September.

"It works brilliantly, if I do say so," Goodman said, because it serves a whole range of actors. Novices like it if they're not sure they want to invest in one of his regular sessions, which cost from $450 to $750; veterans appreciate the opportunity to adjust their pictures if their weight or hairstyle has changed significantly. "Plus," Goodman said, "they get a free T-shirt."

Others may not have prospered, but they have held steady amid the uncertainty. An actor and theater owner in North Hollywood, Calif., who requested anonymity, said he is unfazed by the downturn and the labor unrest: "I know the thing that affected us most is whenever there was a strike. Any strike in the industry affected the whole industry, and things would fall off. I thought this would be pretty bad too, but it's maintaining. I still have teachers teaching, and I still have some show rentals. It's maintaining an even keel at the moment."

Nevertheless, the theater owner conceded that the downturn has affected some of his regular clients, teachers in particular. "One of them I had to lose," he said. "He's been teaching for 30 years and now he can't find enough students. I lost him, and someone else took over the space. Another teacher is kind of on the verge of having to leave because he's got fewer students."

Missing Manners

Melissa Skoff, a casting director in Los Angeles who teaches a cold-reading and audition class, can relate to the drop-off in attendance. "It's harder to get people into class," she said. More distressing for her, however, is actors' inability to keep their word: "People are just disrespectful to call up and say they're starting and then not even show up. I don't want to know these actors, because I only want to work with actors that have a professional work ethic."

Unlike some other business owners, Skoff won't adjust her prices. "I can't raise them in this kind of economic time, so I leave it alone," she said. "I can't lower my prices. I'm not making anything as it is. The cost of advertising keeps going up, and the cost of my studio is expensive. I'm not about to lower my prices."

Despite systemic changes and the recession, Buckman said it is important for businesses to maintain their values. "Sometimes something like this feels very personal. You're really evaluating the marketplace and what you're doing and where you fit and what you want to do and where it's all going, and then everybody else you talk to is doing pretty much the same thing," he said. "As far as promoting our business, the very first time somebody asked me to take their picture, I knew that their pictures were really important and the process was expensive. It's really a commitment. I really valued that. That's something we've carried all the way through ever since."

Jhaveri chooses to be optimistic. For one thing, he is relieved that the labor unrest has finally subsided. The day after SAG members ratified the TV-film contract, his store was flooded with actors. "On an average day, we have 75 to 80 people walk through our doors. We had close to 200 people" June 10, he said. "There's no logic to it...but there's definitely a better mood now. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Last year at this time, I don't think I would have said the same thing."

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