This is a tale of two girls who had dreams of growing up to be professional actors. It’s also a blog post that was requested by BizParentz, one of the few (and probably the best) resources out there for kids in the entertainment business that tells it like it is; you’ll get real information on their website, not a sales pitch or a bunch of pipe dreams. I think it’s worth noting that this webpage is run by two women who receive no compensation and whose kids long ago grew up, meaning it’s truly a labor of love (so if you see some things that appear out of date, that will explain why… they still do regular updates but not as often, although nearly all the information on there is still accurate from when it was originally posted).
Here’s the thing about child actors who grow up: You typically only hear about the ones that are super famous, particularly if they engage in outrageous (I’m looking at you, Miley) or even dangerous (I’m looking at you, Lindsay) behavior. There are very few stories about “working actors,” those kids who have been consistently building a career in a more quiet fashion. And I’m pretty sure there are zero longitudinal studies on how these non-tabloid-fodder kids have developed their careers.
Without naming names, a discussion recently came up regarding a young woman (now an adult) who was featured in an article as a “newcomer” that has managed to snag a $65,000 payday for an upcoming film project. First things first, this actor is not a newcomer; she has been working professionally in television and film for more than 10 years. Secondly, her pay for this project is not a lot of money or a particularly big deal. The Screen Actors Guild mandates minimum pay for its actors; “scale” is typically based on working a limited number of days on a set. For longer shoots, there’s what is called a T-65 contract, which is—you guessed it—a $65,000 contract. So, this “big break” is actually just a step above scale.
As it happens, this is not the first time this young woman has been profiled in the press (whatever else, she has a great publicist, something for which I’m sure she pays a lot). She was also profiled 10 years ago, and a lot of personal information was given out at that time as a kid “chasing a dream.” I personally am acquainted with this actor because she and my daughter have gone head-to-head three times in the past. I decided on a whim to break down the differences between these young ladies (now both in their 20s) and look at where they started, the investment that was put into them, and the outcome today.
It turned out that there were some very interesting results when I looked longitudinally at the two girls (now women). Let’s look at their parallel careers:
- Age of first major credit: Actor 1 = age 10; My Daughter = age 14 (so “A1” had a four year jump on “MD”)
- Credits per IMDB: A1 = 18 with 4 in development; MD = 16 with 2 in development
So, on the surface, A1 has nothing my daughter doesn’t have; a couple more projects in development, which could be accounted for the additional time spent in the business (my daughter is a year older, so the net difference is A1 has worked professionally three years longer than my kid).
Now, let’s look at some educated guess work:
- Childhood expenses for A1: A1’s parents decided to split up the family and live in two households (one in their home state, the other in Los Angeles). While in LA, A1 took a ton of classes and workshops (for all of which she’d have to pay). She also became somewhat infamous for unsolicited (and expensive) gift baskets that she would send around to casting directors (keep in mind there are hundreds of casting directors in the LA area). During this time, she never booked a lead in a television series, meaning she would have a low-average quote if any quote at all (so, probably earning between $2,000-$10,000 for a television spot). Since she only recently was bumped to a T-65 contract, that means she was earning scale for film, as well. With two households to support, plus all those classes, CD baskets, etc., and only earning scale, she probably broke even at best. Alternatively, her parents shelled out tens of thousands on their daughter’s “dream.”
- Childhood expenses for my daughter: We never lived anywhere without a parent’s job being in place. Thus, MD’s living expenses were none (because she was living with us and no additional household expenses were incurred owing to her acting career). We never sent unsolicited gifts to anyone (only standard stuff to people who either work for her—agents—or got work for her—a few CDs over the years). Because she has been contracted to three series regular roles (on failed stuff), she has an above average quote for television; she makes scale for films. She never took any acting classes, because she attended arguably the best public performing arts high school in the country. Aside from a couple of trips we took that required us to fly in for an audition, my overall parenting expenses were nil. Of course, my daughter took classes (ballet, music lessons) that many kids do, but she never enrolled in anything because she wanted to be an actor; these were early years when we put kids into all kinds of activities (she was also a Girl Scout and played ice hockey for awhile) just to see what they take to. If you added up every last incidental expense, I maybe shelled out $10,000 over the course of 20 years.
- Quality of Life Issues: A1 = never attended regular school; she also took on some “questionable” roles in childhood so she probably has stalkers/predators from her youth (this is very common, so I’m not taking a leap here to assume this!). MD = After being in a private elementary school (not acting-related), she attended regular public school through HS, and she has a Bachelor’s degree in STEM/non-acting majors to fall back on (didn’t pay for either of these things other than tax $$; she received a full scholarship at college).
- Intangibles: A1 has a lowish IMDB number, meaning she is arguably more famous and better known. My daughter? Well, she can walk down the street without anyone recognizing her! This is a good thing, believe it or not!
- Booking the Film: As I mentioned earlier, A1 and my daughter have gone head-to-head on three different film projects; A1 has come in first each time to MD’s “bride’s maid” second place finish.
So riddle me this: Which parent + kid took the wiser path? Because just looking at the results, there are not discernible differences in these women’s careers to date. I’m guessing that A1 and her family spent tens of thousands every year trying to get this kid on the fast track, whereas my daughter had a fairly normal (if special) childhood. Oh, and my daughter has saved every non-direct-expense (i.e. headshots, union dues, commissions above scale, taxes… and now she’s in an acting class that sets her back a “whopping” $200/month) dollar she’s ever made. She is saving to buy an apartment here in NYC, but if she had to move out on her own today, she has ~4-years’ worth of living expenses. That’s a long time you can audition without having to wait tables!
Maybe the next couple of years, A1’s career really takes off and MD continues to book pilots that no one ever gets to see. But at that point, is it really their formative “child actor” years to credit? I’m not saying that I did it better simply because I want to justify myself. I think this breakdown illustrates that THERE IS NO SHORT CUT. Chances are A1 would be roughly where she is today if she had “bloomed where planted” and gone to a good drama program for college.
And this is the key point to this post today and why BizParentz asked me to put it up: Every year thousands of parents spend millions of dollars on scams and “short cut quasi-scams” to get their child into the crazy wacky world that is “Hollywood.” Some end up like Lindsay Lohan. But many many more end up like my kid, someone gradually and quietly making her way in the business.
Look at Brie Larson, who just won her first Oscar and is only now becoming a “known” actor. She has 58 projects under her belt and has been working consistently since the age of 10, the same age that Actor 1 above started down this path. Fifty-eight projects! No short cuts were taken there. That’s just good honest hard work. I don’t know the sacrifices Ms. Larson took to get where she is; perhaps she shares more in common with A1 than my daughter. Even so, it was only after years of hard work that her star has finally begun to shine in a substantive way.
Because, again, you can’t get there by trying to game the system. And anyone who tells you something different is selling you something.