Decoding the Dream: What Percentage of Actors Actually ‘Make It’?

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Although he moved to LA to pursue the limelight in the 60s, Harrison Ford didn’t “make it” in the industry until landing his breakout role in “American Graffiti” in 1973. Today, the Academy Award nominee is celebrated for portraying Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and dozens of other iconic characters. As an aspiring performer, you’re likely drawn to the glitz and glamor of being a successful actor like Ford. But what percentage of actors actually make it? Here’s a rundown of realistic expectations for finding fame and success in the industry.


What are the chances of becoming an actor?

There are at least 54,160 actors in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, while getting roles technically might make you an actor, before you make it in the industry, you’re only as good as your last audition.

There’s a massive gap between being an actor and being a successful actor. So while your chances of becoming an actor are decent, your odds of making it in the film/TV industry or in theater are much lower.

What does it mean to make it as an actor?

Actor filming

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How do you define success as an actor? For many, that means getting steady work as performers and supporting yourself financially solely off acting. It’s common knowledge that making a good living—or even a living wage—in the arts is an uphill battle. While some actors get paid very well, others need to work second or third jobs to survive. Getting to the point where you can earn enough to live entirely off of your acting is difficult—but for the lucky and talented, it’s also doable.

Odds of making it as a film/TV actor

What are your odds of making it in the film industry? According to a comprehensive study that examined 2,408,501 performers, “as low as 2% of actors are able to make a living out of acting.” Note the “make a living” part—we’re not even talking about becoming the next Brad Pitt or Margot Robbie. The study shows that it’s rare for actors to maintain productive (meaning “consistent work,” in this case) and lucrative careers, especially over time. 

According to the study, two-thirds of actors wash out after their first year of acting. The pool of long-term career actors is comparatively slim, and the chances of making it in this profession drop exponentially over time.

Odds of making it as a theater actor

Finding success as a theater actor is also challenging. The pool of actors is smaller, but so is the availability of steady work with reasonable pay. You can still earn minimum rates as a theater actor if you work at an Off-Broadway or Broadway production, but even then you’ll most likely struggle to get consistent roles outside of the top group of performers.

What makes it difficult to be successful as an actor?

Actor audition

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Consistency: Consistency is key when you’re an actor. You might get a big role in a popular production, but that won’t necessarily translate into long-term success. Acting tends to be a hit-or-miss game, for the most part, like any gig-based career. You can get a great role, even one that lasts months or even years, only to find yourself out of work for an extended period. Cold streaks statistically tend to snowball, as well. The best way to avoid this is to keep working no matter what, but that’s easier said than done.  

Breakthrough issues: Another barrier in the way of making it as an actor is that success is gatekept (not necessarily intentionally) by actors who have already hit it big. In an age where brand recognition is the key to commercial success, already-known actors will be favored for the juicy, well-paying roles. This cycle puts an even heavier burden on actors struggling to get credit to their names. The truth is that being talented is not enough to make it as an actor; you also need to be persistent and good at networking. Even then, there are only so many spots at the top. 

Gender bias: Gender bias also affects the odds of making it as an actor. While female actors see more success overall at the beginning of their careers, their probability of making it drops at a quicker pace than males over time. 

So your odds of making it as an actor aren’t exactly great—but plenty of actors have made it before, so it can be done.

How long does it take to make it as an actor?

Growing Pains/Coming to America

Dicaprio on “Growing Pains” Courtesy ABC/Jackson in “Coming to America” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

There is no perfect formula for becoming an actor, much less a successful one. Some, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, make it big from a young age and ride their success for decades. Others, such as Samuel L. Jackson, don’t get their big break until their 40s. 

In all likelihood, you won’t make it big in your first role. You probably won’t get a big break with your second, third, or even 10th. It can take years or even decades. And yes, there’s a chance that you’ll never make it. If that possibility disturbs you, then you should consider whether you’re willing to make sacrifices and take chances in pursuit of this profession. Take the time to weigh all your options to decide if acting is a good career for you.

Advice to find success as an actor

Actor audition

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While luck plays a part in making it as an actor, you can always boost your chances. Here are a few ways to maximize your odds of success:

1. Go to acting school. If the cost of a prestigious acting school such as Juilliard doesn’t phase you, then consider enrolling. There are plenty of acting classes out there, so do your research and sign up.

2. Find the right connections. Networking and meeting the right people is just as important to industry success as being a skilled actor (if not more so). Social capital can make or break your career.

3. Stay persistent. No one ever said becoming a successful actor is easy. Competitiveness and determination are a must in this field. It’s a tough journey, but one worth attempting if performing is your passion. 

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