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Advice on Launching an Independent Career: an Open Letter to an Actor

07.21.11 @ 2:25PM Tags : , , , , , , ,

I heard recently from an NYC-based actor friend who is undergoing an internal debate common to his profession. Should he move to LA to pursue an acting career (uprooting himself in hopes of getting cast in a major TV show or film), or stay where he is and do what he can outside of Hollywood? As someone who runs a web site focused on DIY/independent careers, I thought I’d write him an open letter explaining why I think 21st-century performing artists should forget about putting their careers in the hands of others, and instead take the reins — and responsibility — themselves. Here is that letter:

Dear Friend,

I realize there are countless stories published every day about an actor moving to LA and making it big. “So-and-so was waiting tables and then got cast in ______, and the rest is history.” But I think that story is as old-fashioned as it is rare (when you consider how many aspiring actors there are, and how many of them ever truly “make” it). Here are some things I think you should keep in mind as you consider moving to LA.

Recognize the opportunities of the era

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell talks about the opportunities specific to a particular era. Of the richest 75 people of all time — and I mean of all time, as the list includes the likes of Cleopatra and Nicholas II of Russia — Gladwell finds that a disproportionately high number are Americans born in the 1830s. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan… part of their success was due to being in the right place at the right time. More importantly, their success was also due to recognizing the new opportunities inherent to their time and place: the industrial revolution, transcontinental railroads, the emergence of Wall Street. The businessmen who were most successful weren’t the ones who tried to duplicate the success of a previous generation — they were the ones taking advantage of new opportunities. Here’s Gladwell on the importance of timing:

If you were born in the late 1840′s, you missed it. You were too young to take advantage of that moment. If you were born in the 1820′s, you were too old: your mindset was shaped by the pre-Civil War paradigm. But there is a particular, narrow nine-year window that was just perfect for seeing the potential that the future held. All of the 14 men and women on that list [including Rockefeller, Carnegie, et. al] had vision and talent. But they also were given an extraordinary opportunity.

“The potential that the future held.” “An extraordinary opportunity.” You know who else these things apply to? Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Apple’s Steve Jobs. They’re all the same age, they came up during the same era, and they managed to capitalize on a technological revolution that they recognized earlier, or understood better, than their peers.

Okay, I know, you’re not a businessman or a tech CEO, you’re an actor. But the idea of recognizing new opportunities applies just as much. Plus, we all wear a lot of hats now. We’re multihyphenates, and so it’s a good thing you’re multitalented. Because here’s the other thing: if you get a part on a TV pilot (and then that pilot, against all odds, actually gets picked up for a full season — much less a second or third), how many of your talents will you get to use on the show? Just the acting part. But you’re more than that.

The online opportunity

Let’s take Andy Samberg, for example. Ten years ago he could’ve gone around auditioning for TV shows, crossing his fingers. Maybe he would’ve found his way onto a long-running, well-paying show. I doubt it, as he’s not exactly a master thespian. Instead, he started the comedy troupe/web site The Lonely Island, which allowed him to use his full repertoire of comedic talents outside of acting — in his case, songwriting and singing/rapping. He was able to build up his online audience and turn that into an SNL gig — an opportunity he never would’ve had if he walked in off the street and auditioned, without already having showcased his abilities online.

Andy’s a good example for you, since you’re also a musician and a comedian. But for other performers, the same opportunity applies. Hell, let’s take newscasting, for example. Just the other day I was reading about those guys that started a news show on YouTube in 2005 and have now garnered 500 million views and $1 million in revenue. You think they would’ve reached that many people — or that level of success — if they’d spent their time auditioning for TV stations?

Let’s talk about my own experiences, too. To this day I can’t tell you where I might be if we’d done things differently with our Webby Award-winning web series The West Side (pictured above). What if we’d built an audience across multiple video sharing services, instead of keeping it bottled up on our own site? What opportunities might have arisen if an exponentially greater number of people knew about our show? What if we’d taken advantage of the just-launched (though we didn’t know about it) Kickstarter and crowdfunded our way into completing the season? Instead, we got an agent, went to Hollywood, and put our fate in the hands of others. And you know how that worked out for us (and what it meant for our show).

I’ve learned about (lack of) control. I’ve learned about doing it yourself. The question then is, what exactly do you do next?

Find and build your own audience

My very first recommendation would be to go grab a copy of Fans, Friends And Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age. You’d know about this book already if you were a studious reader of NoFilmSchool, but I get that you’re not a filmmaker and so I’ll forgive you for not being a regular around these parts. Scott Kirsner’s book is a couple of years old now, but it’s only gotten more relevant since he published it. As I wrote in a post about holiday gifts for filmmakers:

If I had read Scott Kirsner’s book a couple of years ago, I’d be famous by now. I’m only half-joking!… Half of the book is a terrific overview of the state of independent, creative careers, and the other half of the book is filled with practical interviews with creatives who have managed to build a career and support themselves, outside traditional corporate structures.

After you’ve worked your way through that book, I’d check the comments here — hopefully other readers will have suggested their own books/resources/strategies/links about making it as an actor (or any kind of independent creative).

Next I’d recommend Robin Schmidt’s great series here on building an online video following through YouTube. He covered how to grow an audience, cultivate relationships, and motivate YouTubers to subscribe to your channel. “Audience relations” is almost a full-time job, and it might not be something you want to do as an actor/comedian, but someone on the team has to do it. If you want to have what other people don’t, you have to be willing to do what other people won’t. (I’ve said this before).

You know what else about “playing the YouTube game” is important? It’s an opportunity unique to our generation, because the space is still nascent. The people making it on YouTube are our age (or younger). It hasn’t been corporatized to the point where there’s no room for the little guy. At the same time, it’s maturing to the point where people are finally making a full-time living through ad-supported videos, which wasn’t the case when Zack and I launched The West Side. In a lot of ways, I think we were too early — that whole “timing” thing Malcolm Gladwell talked about. But in the three years since, web series have started to actually make money. Think about the history of what we’re talking about here — making money with online video is at a very particular juncture. Video creators are getting much higher ad rates than they were a few years ago. The opportunity wasn’t there three years ago, but it is now. And it might not be in a few years once all the “old” media companies take over the home pages of video web sites and home screens of mobile devices.

Make your own luck

I’m not saying that you won’t make it if you move to LA. If you do, you absolutely have my blessing. But I see all of your talents that don’t fit into a neat little “LA actor” box and I want to see you use all of them. Create your own online presence, you own show, your own YouTube channel (hint: I’ll help). I’m not talking about a personal web site, I’m talking about a bona fide series (hint: I’ve talked with you about this in the past). It’s not going to be an overnight success. But I have 100% confidence that, with time and effort, it can lead to a truly independent, creative career. And once you’ve showcased your talents and built an audience online, you might end up on a big ‘ole TV show anyway.

Of course, it’s possible that if you move to LA, you’ll catch a big break and end up on a network or cable TV show. I don’t doubt your individual talent, but if it does happen, it won’t be solely because of your abilities — it will also be because of luck. And because you need talent and luck, a large part of your ability to succeed falls to someone else. You’re not in control in LA, and that means you might fail. Don’t take what they give you — make your own luck.

[Letterbox image by Paul Simpson, horseshoe image by egazelle]


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 29 COMMENTS

  • An excellent article, mixing real ideas with some fact based information. Thanks for all the (continued) hard work and well wishes to the community, Ryan.


  • Nice piece to put things in perspective for a lot of people (something I need, to motivate people over at my network). I’m sharing this on Google+. Keep them coming :-)

  • Just wow! Very nice, I will share it with a friend of mine. It totally fits his situation.
    P.S.: nofilmschool rocks!!!

  • This is a great article and a must-read for any modern aspiring actor.
    My girlfriend has been pursuing acting in Vancouver for the last three years. Up until last year, she hadn’t seen much success. Last year she finally caved and became a producer(to help me) and produced a webseries that I am directing.

    In the last eight months, with a close friend of ours (Edwin, the bard in the series) we have filmed and launched most of the first season. Last weekend Joanna got to speak on her first panel at a convention (Polaris) and she’s been asked to speak on more upcoming panels.

    Actors cannot afford to sit around and wait for someone to discover them. You need to be working on creating your dream roles, not waiting for them to show up. I have seen a fundamental shift in how people treat Joanna once they discover she is not only an actor but a producer. She has earned the respect of talented acting coaches and agents as well as many other actors.

    It’s unfortunate but many people who call themselves actors are unreliable and flaky. If you can manage to produce something as well as star in it, other filmmakers notice that, it means you bring a lot more to the table. There are a lot of aspiring filmmakers out there like me, many of us need people to team up with on a scale larger then just “show up and act in my stuff”.

    We may not have made any money making Standard Action yet, but we’ve helped a lot of crew and cast better themselves, further their careers and made a lot of new friends. We also didn’t spend very much money making Standard Action (less then a new car)


  • Awesome article. This is the kind of inspiration and information that I needed.

  • MARK GEORGEFF on 07.21.11 @ 9:00PM

    YES!!! Agree with you all the way on this letter. Here’s why…and I’d like to write a few pages on it.
    In this digital world…and that’s what it is — sorry film — but it all comes down to the chip, and whatever next form that foundation is going to take. because it is the foundation of all you’re talking about in this digital world.
    As the digi-tech gets better, and the chip gets faster and is able to hold more info without burning out, and therefore do more things…the technology, as in equipment, is going to get better and cheaper as well.
    That goes for the editing and color correction and focus correction software, etc.
    Those that go with this flow, will make their success on their own and will HAVE TO take it to the masses.
    The audience. And that audience is and will be global and diversified. And digi based products of all types, movies to sitcoms to dramatic shows, to animation, video games, etc., will be delivered more and more via the digi streams. and this scares the hell out of the former and still lingering Hollywood Studios’ ways of distribution.
    Where film and film processing and printing used to be, and will soon…no longer be king. And all the little companies and middle people who have been living on the gravy train of film for those same, many decades.
    The more work you do on your own from research and rehearsals, to test shots and lighting tests with the ever changing equipment…the more control of your own success you will have. Is it going to be easy?
    For me, yeah. Because I love doing the work; taking the action and staying out of the result. Which is a whole other platform of work on itself. To others…it won’t be easy. Because they’re used to that old model that’s been in place for decades. Distributers need projects with attachments because of the high cost of film processing and therefore, film distribution which has always been geared to theatrical release and the major networks tv distribution. These attachments — actors who become stars — need agents to get them going and stay going, and the agents won’t touch them unless they have some break through, which the rest fo those involved in the film gravy train approve of.

    But in this digital world…all that’s changing. Be part of that force in that new change in this new world.
    Own it all.
    Create on…right on.

  • Very nice. Sums up and crystallizes many of my own views…

  • I couldn’t agree more. And I have found it hard to find actors who understand what you are saying here. I feel like we should put together a directory of these actors, pair them up with us filmmakers by city, and start our own network of web shows!

  • Absolutely fabulous and very much what I needed to read right now. I moved to LA from NYC for more than just acting reasons, but I agree you can approach the new market from anywhere. There was so much satisfaction in writing/producing/directing my own live work. Now that I am doing more on screen work I realize that I can apply the same approach and not waste excessive time on trying to make it through the ‘front door’. I joined a writers group and have written the first two scripts for my first web series. I also worked on a friend’s web series that got into ITVfest here in LA ( I have even put my hand to some editing of my own reels and a spec commercial for competition. It was a very freeing experience to be able to craft a final product rather than be a cog in someone else’s wheel. The quote you referenced from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success is so spot on as timing is a huge part of what can work for us here. Rock on – much success to all those who reach further.

  • great article, with lots of insight and some great pointers to books and such
    you know I’ll be coming back

  • wow man…. This is a very helpful and inspiring article…I mean this should be on filmmaking books…nowadays people need this kind of advices! Thanks so much!

  • While I appreciate the overall message you promote, I found it slightly offensive that you used Carnegie and other robber-barons of the 1800′s as examples to follow in any way. Their “successes” were built on the backs and lives of thousands of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian immigrants, and others who were underpaid slaves, basically, enabling the rape of a continent. I’m sure that, without those paragraphs, your article would be much less ethically compromised :^)

    • Well, they took advantage of what was available to them — that was the point. I’m not suggesting actors do anything ethically compromised…

      • Create your own online presence, you own show, your own YouTube channel (hint: I’ll help). I’m not talking about a personal web site, I’m talking about a bona fide series (hint: I’ve talked with you about this in the past).

        How do we contact you to discuss the opportunity to collaborate / employ your “help” in creating a “bona fide series”.

    • Slaves were never paid.

  • If you knew me and the choices I have t make when my performing contract is up in 8 months, you would know that this was exactly what I needed to hear right now. Sometimes it’s hard to trust your career to yourself when really you have the most capable and motivated hands for it to sit in. No one wants to help your career more than you!

    Thank you so much for your blog,

    your friend in Japan

  • Wow, it’s like you scoured my brain, took all my random and diluted thoughts, arranged them in order and wrote this article. So brilliant! Thank you!!!

  • I must say by far this opened my eyes to what I am doing. You but thing in a real light and not some fake thing that television wants us to see. I’m Going to buy those books this weekend. Thank you so much for posting that letter. When I feel like I cannot do it, I will read this letter and push myself past the wall I put in my way. Thank you again for that.

    • This is great information for anyone starting out and feeling alone or overwhelmed by the industry. The opportunities are endless now via the web. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great article! I love this kind of thinking, it’s just the kind of thinking that we like at Maverick Movie Making. I think that more people should put there own fate in there hands and make it work for themselves. There is plenty of room in the viral market and I think we haven’t even seen the full potential of YouTube and the likes of video sharing. Wouldn’t you like to be on the steps of something like that when is actually does take off to it’s potential? Exciting times!

  • You hit the nail on the head.

  • Keep in mind, that in film and TV, if you hit it big, you’re gonna end up in LA anyways (so did all my teachers say ay NYFA). I don’t mean big necessarily like Denzel Washington, but maybe like Jesse Heiman. I’d be happy with that.

  • Alexandre Almeida on 10.19.11 @ 11:30AM

    It strikes me Koo that over the years you’ve accumulated lots of information and best strategies about online presence that I’d love to read in a e-book guide well put together just as you did for DSLR video. But I’ll probably be left longing since you must be focused on your feature film…