In the last few months of 2015, an article published through ProjectCasting made the social media rounds and sparked a number of important conversations between folks from all aspects of the Industry. The article and its follow-up “revealed” that prominent Casting Directors and Producers are no longer prioritizing talent, and in fact, that talent makes up a nearly-negligible portion of the final casting decision. To quote the article: “Acting talent […] may only account for 7% of the reason a particular actor would be cast in role, citing other factors ranging from age and ethnicity to ‘box office value in China’.”
These articles triggered an immediate–and varied–response from the Entertainment community: actors raged across social media and even conventional media about how “unfair” and “restrictive” this casting practice was for aspiring artists, and other casting directors jumped in to decry that this was only true for huge studio productions (big pilots, blockbusters, etc.), and that the so-called experts in the articles were just trying to get headlines. After a month or so of seeing these articles and their detractors pop up in my newsfeed, they disappeared. The acting world kept turning. And then went on hiatus for the holidays.
I found, though, that I couldn’t get this conundrum of The Seven Percent Postulate (yes, Chuck Lorre bestows titles to the speculative narration rattling about in my brain [penned by Aaron Sorkin, narrated by Emma Watson & Benedict Cumberbatch, depending on my mood]. Your judgement is noted), out of my mind. I’d heard from CDs and Execs in the past that Social Media klout was a considerable factor in booking lead roles in independent films, because this indicated to studios that the actors name would help with the international market. So, I wondered–assuming this was true, couldn’t the SPP (Seven Percent Postulate) be true, also?
Cue my anxiety. I’m relatively Social Media savvy–in fact, I freelance, successfully, as a SM manager in my Bruce Wayne hours–but I don’t have nearly the numbers that YouTube stars and the like have that make them potential leading-lady material. I’m a good actor; I take classes regularly, and I work hard to prepare thoroughly before each audition. I’ve had some measure of success in TV and VO and on stage, and I’ve garnered good will and good reviews along the way. But what does that mean in the face of metrics that essentially removed me from the casting race before I’d even entered the room?
I let this bother me for longer than I’d like to admit. It stayed in my thoughts through the holidays; during my run as Kevin McCallister in The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Home Alone at Hollywood’s Rockwell Table & Stage; as I prepared to get back into the game for the dreaded and revered Pilot Season. But then, towards the end of my time in Home Alone, I turned a corner in my thinking about the SPP. Alright. Maybe those articles had been utterly correct, and acting talent only accounted for 7% of the casting process. And maybe the articles were right in spirit but not in fact, and talent is simply less of what accounts for our fate in casting than we’d wish. In either case, the numbers seemed to leave us, the actors, behind the 8-ball, up against an impossible situation, and better-off giving up, or settling for what we could get, rather than trying to change the system.
But who says, after all, that all percentages–all values–are created equal?
In economics and the quantitative sciences, there is a concept known as Relative Value, or Relative Change, wherein two quantities are compared taking into account their relative sizes or maturity/value. As explained by the almighty-Google, “The comparison is expressed as a ratio and is a unitless number.” Applied to the SPP and in laymen’s terms, this means that we can’t take the ratio of 7/100 at face value; while talent may “only” be 7%, it may also be the most crucial 7%–and a percentage that is more important than the remaining 93.
To arrive at this view of the situation we can and must extrapolate from all other knowns: We know that talent matters. That projects that use lesser talents generally perform more poorly in the box office, and international sales feel that, in the long-run. And CDs whose choices are overrun by the metrics presented in casting meetings keep bringing back actors whose work they love for future projects–we know this to be true, as well.
We know, too, that talent as a verb–as the work we put into a role–is enduring and that it can take a tremendous toll; that it is the source of the greatest rewards for an actor, as well as of our greatest moments of self-doubt. As the brilliant, late Alan Rickman said quite rightly, “Whatever you do as an actor is cumulative […] You have to start learning about courage, I think. […] After all, the punishing part of acting is taking your body into this strange place that it finds it hard to recover from.” To simplify, if it is true that our talent (as a verb) demands our courage and pushes us beyond all else in our work, then can’t it be true that this same verb’d-talent also outweighs other facets of our lives as actors? You would not, for example, put the time you spent rehearsing or going to the gym or with friends, on par with the same amount of time spent vegging in front of the TV. (I might make an exception for The Fall.) Not all things can or should be measured equally–so, let your talent matter more than much of the rest. Especially since it is an element you can nurture and control and maintain, where other elements most often are not.
After all, all acting is essentially playing the lottery–but at least it’s a numbers game where you can put in effort to win.
Not convinced? Let’s get there another way: Think of the 100% not as a single unit (e.g. one audition), but as the cumulative game: In this formula, 7% becomes the sum of your auditions, the impression you make and the effort you give and the final performance in an audition. And the other 93% then can account for any number of things–positive and counterproductive: the efforts put forth by your creative team to get you the job; your suitability for a given role; the studio/network’s opinion; the 7% of all the other actors up for the job; your SM standing; your cumulative credits…the list goes on. But the ratios aren’t fixed, and that’s what matters. Your talent remains 7%–the most important, controllable 7%, and everything else: movie magic, babe. How the sausage is made. And sometimes, it swings entirely in your favor.
So keep on giving to that 7% and watch it become the most important ingredient in the cake–the spice that dominates. After all, once it’s baked, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to eat it, too.
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