Sidelined! The Great (TV/Film Industry) Shutdown

Put on the Back Burner … Like Everyone Else

When an actor “books out,” it means that he is unavailable for work, or as it’s commonly referred to in the film/TV industry, a “booking.” Reasons to book out range from having an existing booking (the best reason of all!) to vacation schedules, illness, or general unavailability. Generally, actors go to great lengths to avoid booking out, in fear of missing out on a golden opportunity, a well-paying gig, or the one role that could (finally!) provide their breakout moment.

Enter Covid 19, the Coronavirus, the pandemic, instigator of the Great Shutdown. Suddenly, EVERYONE is involuntarily booked out as productions, auditions, and castings grind to a halt. Movie release dates are moved out months into the future and the talk is that the industry may not start up again until the fall. Or will it be sometime in 2021? Or perhaps slowly beginning in July 2020? No one knows how long the industry will be in limbo or how long they’ll personally be out of work.

Then an interesting thing happens. Innovation springs from crisis as people learn to adapt, and it’s been amazing to see the film/TV industry find ways to connect, create, and craft, thanks to our digital-enabled world. Within a few weeks, virtual platforms sprang up to offer emotional support, actor training, open casting calls, and monologue competitions. And a few projects, notably commercials, are being revised to deliver their same messages, but with social distancing rules in place. Instead of gathering cast and crew together in a small space for long hours, actors are professionally self-taping their dialogue at home and sending the footage to the production folks, who create the final piece from these many components. Some projects are actively searching out actors who’ve been living – and quarantining – together to film scenes that require close proximity. Still other projects are staffing skeleton crews and scheduling actors to report to set in shifts to shoot their lines individually.

Sometimes, these unusual circumstances open rare opportunities. Actors have always yearned for a chance to meet and interact with a respected casting director, and now many of these opportunities have opened up in full. Agencies have been hosting Zoom sessions with casting directors who freely talk about their career paths, answer questions about the casting process, and occasionally even “meet” actors one-on-one or in small groups. My agency expanded on this notion by also encouraging talent to share special skills with one another via Zoom workshops. I have been asked twice to provide an introduction to voice over, which I’ve tailored to film/TV actors with a “how to get started” twist. The Resources section in my blog grew out of these presentations and the follow-up questions that I’ve been receiving afterwards.

Additionally, acting teachers, coaches, and studios are finding an eager audience who want to keep their skills sharp and their boredom and frustration at bay. Teachers who work out of studios are offering classes and personal coaching directly from their homes via Zoom, Skype, and Facetime, often discounted in consideration of their students’ lack of available funds. It’s a smart way to keep in touch with students and earn a few extra dollars while they themselves are looking to keep afloat financially. The acting schools and studios themselves are discovering that a number of classes can be successfully taught online via Zoom. Students are loving this format so much that this online component may never go completely away. It’s especially useful for those who live far from a studio and wouldn’t be able to easily attend otherwise. This same advantage is appreciated by students with family responsibilities who are thrilled with the flexibility that classes from home provide.

The social isolation has been lessened a bit as actors from all over the country are networking with one another via Facebook groups, email blasts, and Instagram. It seems that just about everyone is happy to keep others informed of the large number of free classes, webinars, and fun challenges that have become available, many created and hosted by well-known acting coaches and casting directors. A fair number of actors are creating content themselves, too, and reaching out to others with “tape at home” opportunities, much like the production companies are doing.

Professionally self-taping, like the voice actor who records in a home studio, has grown from a “nice to have” capability to practically a necessity, thanks to the quarantine restrictions. And as in the voice over world, some markets are way ahead of the game than others. Self-taped auditions have been used predominantly in the Southeast and other markets for 5-10 years, which gives actors in these regions a practical and technical advantage over those in Los Angeles and New York, who predominantly have been auditioning in person. LA and NY actors are now scrambling to catch up, as the trend for the foreseeable future is the self-taped audition. This mirrors a similar situation in voice over. LA and NY voice actors are accustomed to traveling to recording studios, whereas most voice actors in other markets have been working out of professional-quality home studios for years, and have the equipment and technical skills to be their own audio engineers (to a certain degree).

With the quarantine, some of the rules for recording self-taped videos have been relaxed. Before, actors in home studios needed scene partners to be physically present; casting directors frowned upon a remote voice over a cell phone. Now, in the time of Covid 19, actors are reading scenes with each other via video (cell phones and tablets being the most popular) to give the auditioning actor a person – and a real eyeline - to play off of … and casting directors are fine with the adaptation. Everyone understands the limits of social distancing and supports the innovative ways that people are finding ways to practice their craft and ply their trade. But one thing hasn’t changed: don’t even think of recording an audition (unless it’s a monologue) without a scene partner. It’s still not acceptable to pre-record the other character’s lines and tape your audition by yourself, by playing off your own recorded voice.

If Covid 19 provides us with anything remotely positive, it’s that these innovative digital work-arounds allow everyone to appreciate that we are all human and that we can laugh at – and tolerate - the little life interruptions that we wouldn’t have had the patience for earlier. Children unexpectedly burst into view, the neighbor’s lawnmower noisily springs to life, even the occasional background toilet flushes … we’re all in this together. And we can all make jokes about whether the presenter on Zoom is wearing only boxers below his collared shirt. (Hey, sometimes he stands up to show us we’re right!) Just remember, though, if you’re going to turn yourself into a talking potato on your next Zoom meeting, be sure to know how to change yourself back. 