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Will Actors Fall Through the Net?

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e Web is a vast frontier full of financial opportunities for the actor, right? The Web is where television shows, commercials, and films are about to end up, right? Not necessarily. These were some of the issues addressed at a recent panel discussion organized by the Conference of Personal Managers, held on Nov. 14 at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City.It may seem late to be asking the question "What is this thing called the Web?" Yet one look at the titles of a few recent articles in popular tech journals such as Red Herring or the Industry Standard will reveal that this is one question Hollywood has yet to answer. Pieces with such titles as "The Sorry State of Digital Hollywood" and "Hollywood's Funk: Dumb Money" stress one hard truth: For the most part, the publishing-based World Wide Web reigns, and Hollywood still hasn't tapped into it."The future of Hollywood is intrinsically tied to the development of the Internet," said personal manager and panel moderator Betty McCormick Aggas. "The problem is, no one really quite knows how."Marc Glaser, technology editor of Daily Variety, echoed her concerns. "You have to think-people don't want to go to their computers, turn on the computer, and see a movie. Their TV already works, their DVD player works fine. So it has to be something different. And I don't think people really know what that difference is."The panelists stressed that while everyone in Hollywood seems to have a script in their pockets for a film or television show, not many have ideas for an Internet project. At the moment, these Internet projects are something quite different from what writers and actors are accustomed to working on. They are three- to five-minute "webisodes," often animated-meaning that the bulk of the work for actors is in voiceover. Because the current quality of video streaming on most sites is less than excellent, and because many Web users don't have high-speed DSL connections that allow them to watch video easily, live-action content is simply not what producers are focusing on."The stuff out there right now that's live action looks like crap," said Glaser. "You don't want to watch it. If you're somebody who's going to a site for the first time and the first thing you see is this awful, awful video, you're not going to go back."Added Scott Cherrin, founder of Brand Management, formerly head of planning at Endeavor Talent Agency, "That's why a lot of the stuff on the Internet, I kid around, it's Barbarian Babes With Big Boobs, it's South Park on Steroids. These people are targeting college students because those are the people who are wired."Some Web companies have abandoned traditional linear entertainment altogether and are looking strictly at interactive gaming. They're following the money, and at this point in time, that might just be where the money is."Look at Shockwave for example," said Cherrin. "They spent a lot of money making a lot of deals with a lot of big-name actors and a lot of big-name writers, and they realized that the traditional, linear entertainment content wasn't getting them what they needed."Another important piece of news for the actor is that the pay model for Internet work may be startlingly different from traditional media. For one thing, webisodes have much smaller budgets, as they are simply less expensive to make. More money for the actor then, right? Not necessarily."Bear in mind, these webisodes are not costing $75,000," said Cherrin. "They're costing $5,000 to $7,500, and the majority of that goes to animating these things because most of the stuff on the Internet is animated."To give a sense of how technology companies view talent, an article in Red Herring recently lamented, "Hollywood is still dominated by two forces over which technology has had little sway: overpaid talent and control of distribution."So how much are actors making for Web projects? Panelists estimated $300-$1,000 per webisode, which can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to make. Until the Web companies themselves begin to see profits from Web entertainment, those numbers are unlikely to increase."That's the problem," said Cherrin. "People don't know how they're generating revenue now. They're generating some from advertising, but it doesn't come close to the costs for operating and producing these webisodes."Because there appears to be so little money on the Web, many companies are looking at it as merely a place to showcase projects. Said Cherrin, "A lot of these companies are banking on selling the webisodes as TV series or as feature films or licensing with merchandise and apparel."This is an important factor for actors to keep in mind when negotiating contracts. The money is still in traditional, off-net (not on the Web) entertainment. "Off-net rights are more important than on-net rights," said Cherrin, "because we know that there's not going to be much money on the Web. You're not going to see any money in revenue sharing on the net side, because if they are not making money, how are they going to break even to then pay you? So essentially, you're giving it to them for free for the Web, and then you want the money on the off-net. It's about positioning clients on the Web, to take them into traditional media."When it comes to negotiating contracts for Web work, most panelists reinforced the fact that we are still in the "Wild West." The most important thing, therefore, is: "Do not sign anything in perpetuity. Just make sure that there's a defined limit with what they're showing, and then renegotiate down the line if it's a success," said Marc Levey, head of development at Dream Theater and chairman of the new media committee at the Producers Guild of America.Panelists encouraged personal managers to think of the net more as a place for clients to get exposure-rather than income-which will possibly launch them into larger, more traditional, more lucrative projects. The Web is almost like a place for actors to advertise themselves, or "brand" themselves, with the goal of becoming popular enough on the Web that they will be in demand off the Web."This is a key thing for clients to understand," said David Walsh, owner of Walsh Media. "I'm a voiceover actor myself, and I talked this over with my agent, and I was saying this to SAG during the entire strike: It's all about us redefining the talent and redefining the brand. Each writer, each director, each actor is a brand, and to be able to cut through the noise of the choices that you'll have, you need to create, to define, and to hone that. It's not all about your clients giving you the responsibility to promote them. It's also their responsibility-especially in this new environment."While some may feel that any exposure is good exposure, there is the sense that actors and their agents and managers must strategize in terms of how they want to be seen on the Web. "The Internet-it's like television," said Cherrin. "Typecasting could happen. With writers, if you wrote an Angel, or a Buffy, or a Practice, it's a hot thing to have as a writing sample. If you wrote a Walker Texas Ranger, a Martial Law, or a Moesha, you might be perceived as hacky. So you have to decide: Are you a soap actor or are you a movie actor? It's about positioning yourself and then making the changes, as far as where you're going to expose yourself."Because of the half-million websites currently up, overexposure is hardly a concern at this moment. There is such a limited audience going to each site that the ability for sites (and therefore performers) to generate revenue is miniscule. Yet this may change if sites begin grouping themselves together into a limited number of "portals," a bit like networks on television. "If you congregate all of this product on a handful of portals," said Walsh, "your audience increases because the brand is that much more visible. That gives us the ability to negotiate better contracts for talent. Once you're able to get a mass audience, that's when you're going to start making money. That's when you actually see some kind of a model being created."At the moment, there are essentially two business models for creative talent to be thinking about. One is where you bank on one specific site being successful, and your work is exclusive to it. The other is that you decide to own your work 100 percent. You then take your work to a company (called an I-syndicate) that distributes your work on thousands of websites. While, in the second case, you will get less money up front, you are gaining greater visibility and building the value of your "brand" instead of somebody else's. Besides, there is nothing to guarantee that you would get a good deal even if your work were exclusive to one site.The last thing actors need to keep in mind is that the Internet is not the be-all, end-all of entertainment technology. Some of the platforms no one is talking about might just prove to be the more lucrative mediums for actors to work in: interactive and enhanced television, digital cable, video on demand. "It's not just Internet," said Walsh. "It's talking about a lot of different digital applications. All of these things we've read about in the trades-they're very real. They're maybe even more real than these projects for the Internet, because they are combining a format that already exists and adding an interactive element to it."Because of the multiplicity of these mediums, "pay per play" may be a thing of the past. Said Walsh, an actor himself, "The business model has changed. There are so many digital cable networks that are going to be available. There are so many platforms to run content on-whether it's a commercial, or a movie, or whatever else-that an advertiser is not going to pay an actor or a writer every time a commercial is run on 10 different platforms at one time. It just won't happen." What may happen is that contracts may begin to limit the number of platforms that a spot or film can run on, or limit the number of months it can run.These issues will no doubt be much debated in the upcoming SAG contract negotiations for film and television. Another question will crop up: If parts in a film or series are run on the Internet, should an actor get residuals? The feeling seems to be, if it's merely a clip being aired as promotion for the series, then no. If it's a full episode, then that constitutes an ancillary market, and actors will no doubt want residuals in some form.The best things an actor can do, in this "Wild West" scenario, is to stay informed, make sure his or her agent or manager is also well informed, and, again, never sign anything in perpetuity. Word on the street is that it will be awhile before Hollywood and the Web have worked out a smooth relationship."Television and the Internet are married," said Walsh. "Is the Internet replacing television? No, it's not. It's an interaction of the two mediums. Internet is a very real thing, but two years ago, we thought that you'd sit at a PC and that would replace the television. Well, you sure know that no one is going to put a PC in their living room. That's a very real part of this whole conversation

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