As I am knee-deep in production this week, I thought I’d take this week’s article to share an experience outside the normal photography realm that still has lessons to teach for every small business owner.
I am both a still photographer and a film director/cinematographer. I mention this upfront because, at first glance, it might not seem as though the task I’ve dedicated the bulk of my hours today to would have a great deal to do with photography. If you don’t shoot the kind of photography that involves human subjects, it probably is not a situation you spend much time thinking about at all. But if your career centers on telling stories with fully fledged characters, whether they be portrayed by models or actors, you know that casting can make or break an entire project before you’ve even had a chance to shoot a single frame. Cast your story poorly and no amount of production value is going to be able to paper over the large cracks created by pairing the wrong performers with the wrong roles. Unfortunately, I speak from experience.
I want to make it clear that this essay is not meant to bash performers. It just so happens to be what I’m dealing with today, so casting is on top of my mind. And a bad film or bad photograph’s failure rarely rests solely on the shoulders of the people in front of the camera. A great performance can be equally squandered through bad writing, bad photography/cinematography, or simply a shoddy production. You can’t have a great product without a great script and concept. You can’t have a great production with a mismatched cast. And there’s no such thing as great photography if you don’t have a great subject to shoot in the first place.
This is why I’ve spent the entirety of this rather long day pouring over headshots and demo reels for potential actors for two new film projects I have in the works. I won’t lie. This is usually my favorite part of the process. At least it’s enjoyable for the first hour or so of sifting through submissions, after which things can get a bit, shall we say, tedious. I won’t tell you how long it’s been since I cast my first project, but let’s just say that it was long before internet submissions were a thing. In those days, the real joy was when the mailman could no longer deliver all the submission headshots one by one and instead opted for leaving behind multiple tubs filled with submissions every day. Every afternoon, I would grab the tubs, bring them inside, and dutifully go about opening each envelope and trying to make a monumental decision about the suitability of this person to carry my movie with nothing more to go on than a glance at the headshot and whatever the resume might say printed across the back.
The digital days have made this both easier and oddly more difficult. Because submissions now come via email, the usual headshot is also often accompanied by a demo reel of the performer, well, performing. It’s a great advancement as it gives me far more information to go on when deciding who to call in for an audition. But, timewise, it does give me that much more material to review at a time when email has also made it possible for me to receive more submissions than ever. I love the submissions. But it is time-consuming to review every applicant. And, at a certain point, sheer practicality dictates that you have to find certain ways to eliminate applicants quickly so you can focus your full attention on those candidates that might be right for the role.
There’s the gut reaction. No matter how sleek the headshot or how much experience a performer has, there is simply no substitute for taking a single glance at someone and having it be immediately apparent that she is right to play Scarlett O’Hara. But, of course, lightning doesn’t always strike when you want it to. So, most of the time, you will spend hoping for just a healthy enough amount of “close enough” so you at least have something to work with.
After the gut reaction, you quickly move on to the practical concerns. Does this person have the right look to sell the product or convey the right emotion? Do they have the right voice to match the character voice I had in my head when writing the part? Are they the right age? Are they perfect for the part, but not a great match for their co-star? If all of this sounds incredibly arbitrary, it’s because it is. I stand in consistent awe of people who dare to become actors or models. It’s a job where you can spend your entire life training to acquire the skills to be the next Meryl Streep and then, in the end, you don’t get the part because some moron like myself simply didn’t spark to your vibe. It’s incredibly tough sledding. And it’s incredibly hard to stand out.
Whether I’m casting a movie, a commercial, or just an unpaid short film, I will likely receive an overwhelming number of submissions. This is not a reflection on me, but rather an indication of how many performers are out there looking for work. This makes it a real buyer’s market where super talented people can often be added to your team for the cost of a free meal.
On larger projects, I would often have a casting agent sorting through all the submissions for me. But not on every project. That’s what led me today to find myself sifting through several hundred submissions and counting for a casting notice I just placed three hours earlier. One of the film projects is shooting this week with a very short turnaround, so I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to do a full deep dive into every applicant. But after that wholly subjective gut feeling, how do I start whittling down the submissions to a manageable number?
Well, step one, if they don’t have a professional headshot, they are out. No iPhone snapshots your mother took in the backyard. No group shots you’ve Photoshopped yourself out of to make it look like it was a solo portrait. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this because I am both a professional filmmaker and a professional photographer, the quality, or lack thereof, of the photography, just sticks right out at me. And, if you are a professional actor, I feel like you really should have a professional headshot. I realize it’s an investment. But as someone who spends an insane amount of money investing in projects, gear, and marketing materials to run my business, I also feel like, if you want to make money, you have to be willing to spend it (within a spending strategy, of course).
As much as it adds to my workload, I also prefer if submissions come with some form of reel attached. Practically speaking, this allows me to hear someone talk and see how comfortable they are in front of the camera. While models just have to have a portfolio that shows they look good on camera and can bring creativity while posing, I will likely be putting words into an actor’s mouth. I’d like to have an idea of what those words will sound like coming out. While not all actors will have demo reels because not all of them have had enough experience yet to accumulate the footage for a reel, I also look at their having a reel as an indicator of experience. It’s so common for actors to have reels these days that not having one gives me the impression that the actor is just starting. This might be right for the part or might not be. But, just having a reel isn’t the end of the story. If the footage on someone’s reel is of less than desirable quality, it can also affect my first impression. Actors aren’t in charge of production values or cinematography. But the better the projects they associate themselves with are, the more likely I am to mentally categorize an actor as being on a certain level. It’s unfair, because, again, the actor does not control the production value of the projects he or she is in. But having been a part of great projects can affect your perceived value. Just like having a shot for a prestigious client can help a photographer land the next job with an even more prestigious one.
That last concept, perceived value, applies to every entrepreneur trying to market products to an oversaturated marketplace. And if your goal is to make a living as a photographer, you best believe you are entering an incredibly oversaturated marketplace. Just like I receive hundreds of emails each day while casting a new project, photographic customers also find themselves bombarded with potential options. No matter how creative and intentionally crafted your email promo, you can be rest assured that the art buyer you have so carefully targeted with your mailing list has received thousands of such emails already this week before yours even lands in their inbox. Whether they spark to your work or even open your email in the first place, can often be as arbitrary as me opening a submission envelope and deciding in a matter of seconds whether a performer is worth any more of my time.
Just like the actor can’t control the randomness of my mood at that moment, you can’t control the way a potential customer will react to your attempt to contact them. But, you can assume, just like me opening submission email number three thousand and twenty-two, that whoever is opening your email would like nothing more than to be given an excuse not to have to read it. And just like actors hoping to get booked for a role, you have to try to reduce the number of red flags that will eliminate you before you even have a chance.
What are those red flags? Well, those can vary depending on the type of photography services you provide. Not knowing those red flags for your particular type of work is a red flag in itself. Like an actor submitting a wide shot of them in a field staring off into the middle distance instead of an actual headshot. Sure, the shot might be nice, but it’s not a headshot and it makes me think that this person might not have taken the time to know what a professional headshot actually is and thus is likely just moonlighting for fun rather than being serious about their craft. Some general red flags for photographers? For starters, have a website. A social media feed is not the same as a portfolio. Two, focus on first impressions. Going back to my casting example, it’s not that I don’t want to dig deep into every submission and give them a full 360-degree review. But, the truth is, I simply don’t have that much time. I need to be able to open your submission and know inside of 30 seconds whether or not you are right for the part. And if I’m claiming to be short on time, you know an art buyer has even less of it to waste. When they land on your website or see your promo, they will decide for you in around 15-20 seconds. It’s not that they wouldn’t love to spend the rest of the afternoon ambling through all the work on your website. But between answering the hundreds of emails from their boss and their boss’ boss, producing multiple other projects, hiring photographers for multiple other projects, dealing with invoicing issues, and everything else on their plate, spending any more time with your work than is necessary is likely not an option. So, if your strategy, for example, is to bury some of your best work later in your portfolio for more impact, it’s highly likely that the art buyer, even if they like your work, will never make it that far. Trying to prove you’re a jack of all trades? Well, likely, your clients are really after a master of just one. So, seeing a mass of work unrelated to their immediate need could also be a reason for them to skip ahead to the next photographer in line. And just like me potentially missing casting the next Marlon Brando because I just didn’t connect with his headshot, it’s not necessarily a reflection on the quality of your work. It’s sheer practicality. Your clients are busy people. You not only have to have great images, but you need to present them in a way that shows you understand the business, are willing to put in the time and investment to develop the best possible product for your client, and that you respect your client’s time.
Okay, I’ve already rambled on long enough. Time to dive back into a pile of new submissions to find the right faces for my projects. But as the clock continues to roll along and my eyelids get heavier, leading me to start looking for any reason available to reject an applicant just to save time, it will remind me once again of the way that my customers are often forced to treat the marketing materials I send to them. In a digital world where the delete button is always one click away, we have less and less time to grab our audience’s attention. Presentation matters. And you only get one chance to make a first impression.