It's Not You...It's You: What to do when your agent blames your headshots

headshots los angeles triad.jpg

     You've come a long way since moving to Los Angeles. You've trained and improved your craft. You've pieced together a decent reel. You’ve fixed your teeth and lost your accent. You landed an agent and regularly network with casting directors. So why don't you have more auditions?  When you're not sure why you don't have more traction, it’s tempting to blame your reps or at least consult them to try to discern the disconnect between the work they’re doing and the work you’re not getting.  

     “Why am I not auditioning more?” is a loaded question for agents.  In general, agents and managers will look at that question as an accusation.  They inevitably will offer one or several reasons why you’re not getting seen, but probably not assume any responsibility.  It’s your job as the CEO of your acting career to look at the factors and variables in the submission process, assess and deliberate how each can be improved, and then take decisive steps to change or replace the variables that stand between you and your success. 

     1. Maybe it's your agent.  There are a lot of reasons why your agent might be the problem when it comes to your lack of auditions.  Are they submitting you on projects that are right for you?  Do they understand your casting?  Are they late or lazy with their submissions?  Are they distracted and consumed by other clients who work more and demand more attention?  Do they have a bad reputation in the industry, or worse: no reputation?

     Every now and then we hear a very similar story from some of our acting clients.  They’ve been in their agents’ offices, some have even interned there and helped with the submissions.  They see their headshot being submitted time and time again, but the casting directors never call them in.  When we ask who represents them, we discover the real problem.  It’s the reputation of their rep. 

     Your agent and manager are only as good as their reputations.  In my blog “Actor vs. Character-Driven Headshots” I explain the submission process your agents and managers adhere to when trying to get you auditions.  In short, the casting directors put out the breakdowns of the acting jobs they are casting.  They then receive digital packets filled with photos of the actors the agents are representing.  Many casting directors don’t open every packet.  A lot of them only open the packets of the agents they know, or who have a good reputation for quality talent.  If you’re agent is unknown, you might as well be self-submitting.

     I have a casting director friend who once told me the story of how she cast a non-union, non-paying, internet-only ad for a national brand.  Even for this non-paying gig, she got 1,600 submissions within the first 24 hours of placing the ad in the breakdowns.  I asked her how she even began sorting through the 1,600 photos.  She said she opened the packets of her two favorite agencies and found an ample choice of actors to audition after searching through only 40 photos.  The 1,560 photos from lesser known agencies were never seen.  Sometimes casting needs to be fast and efficient and if your agency isn’t popular with casting directors, you're invisible.

     2. Maybe the stars aren't in Alignment. Seriously.  Maybe it’s just a slow time in the industry.  Even though the industry is moving toward a more year-round approach to pilots and production, there are some months of the year that are busier for actors.  Pilot season from January through March and Episodic season from August through October are typically busier times.  Commercial casting is a year round business, but there are surges for holidays, back-to-school periods, and the Superbowl.  Casting and production is typically two months prior to these events.  

     In addition to seasonal slumps, sometimes the industry gets in a rut.  Ten years ago, reality television took jobs away from working actors as studios produced fewer and fewer scripted television shows.  Today we are seeing some really robust content from streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and HBO.  However, as the clout of more cinematic television rises, many out-of- work, established film actors are taking jobs from working class actors.  One year it might be reality television, the next it might be game shows.  Maybe the year after that, one of the unions goes on strike.  There is always something that will threaten your work as an actor.  It’s important to stay abreast of how the industry is changing and how that might affect your work.  And while it’s important to be informed, it’s equally important to only worry about what's in your control.

     3. Maybe it’s you?  Just as your agent doesn’t want to accept blame, you probably don’t want to admit your own shortcomings.  As an artist, you must take a genuine look at yourself and ask, "Am I castable?"  And while it’s true that absolutely everyone is castable, your look might be preventing you from getting work.  If your look is too specific, you may have a hard time finding roles.  On the flipside, if your look isn’t specific enough, casting directors will have a hard time placing you.  Until you gain celebrity status, your work will come from submissions, and your look has to clearly identify you as a type.  In doing so, you will make it very easy for casting directors to imagine you in the roles they are casting.

     Does your resume look professional, or does it look reaching?  It’s tricky when you are first starting out.  You need to be truthful with your resume, but if you don’t have a lot of credits, it can be hard to book those first few jobs.  Student films and independent films are a great way to build your resume and accumulate clips for your reel.  Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a lot of experience, just be persistent and find work that matters to you and will help you get the next gig.

     Do you have training that would set you apart from your competitors?  While training isn’t the first thing that casting directors look for when casting, a theatrical education can help give the casting director an idea of your acting style, your commitment to your craft, and a sense that you are capable of delivering on set.  If you don’t have training, get some.  You’ll be better prepared when opportunities arise, and it will look good on your resume.

     4. Maybe it's actually your photos?  Sometimes when your agent says you need new photos, you might actually need new, better photos.  It might be a combination of getting a more specific look to submit, or it might be that your photos simply don’t look professional or competitive.  There are so many reasons why a headshot might not be working, but here are some of the most common reasons why headshots don’t get the attention you want:

     You must have a professional headshot if you are to be viewed as a professional artist, and professional portraits begin with great lighting.  It doesn’t matter if it’s natural light or studio light—but it must be high quality light that is captured at the correct exposure.  Great headshot lighting can be evenly lit, or directionally lit but must always have a great dynamic range if it’s going to pop off the casting website and beckoned to be viewed.

     Great post production work can also help your photo stand out.  Use your photographer’s post production recommendations to punch up that already great photo.  Slight adjustments to contrast, color and tone can give your photos a little more edge.

     Framing is something a lot of inexperienced headshot photographers and actors don’t understand.  Actor headshots must be framed so your face fills the frame of the photo.  That being said, the shot can’t be so close that the cropping distorts our perspective of your face.  On a technical note, most headshot photographers shoot with 35mm camera sensors—the end result is a photo with a 2x3 ratio, but many of the casting websites display thumbnails with different ratios like 2x2.5.  This requires your photo to be cropped slightly to adhere to the dimensions of the thumbnails on the website.  Without getting too technical, there really is a sweet spot when it comes to framing a headshot for the Los Angeles market.  A great headshot should be framed tight, but still leave a little room for that last bit of cropping that casting websites do to fit within their templates. 

     Your headshot should have context. Remember the adage: a picture’s worth a thousand words?  Every great photo, even a simple portrait, tells a story.  The clearer that story is, the more you can communicate to the casting director in the short time they gaze at your mug.  The story of a photo doesn’t need to be elaborate, in fact, it should be concise.  But it’s important to remember that all successful headshots should have a point of view. Styling and atmosphere can help, but ultimately the story comes from within the artist. The end result can convey an emotional state, a socioeconomic status, or simply reveal your unique spirit and charisma. 

     Connection is also incredibly important in a great headshot.  A portrait of an artist should be commanding and demanding of attention.  When you are center stage in your own photo, is the audience engaged and watching, or are we easily distracted and ready to move on to the next performer?  There’s a magic formula to great portraiture that combines confidence and accessibility.  When both are present in your headshot, you appear poised and ready for anything.  Your photo is more compelling and the audience wants more.  If you lack confidence or accessibility in your shot, connection to you and your inner truth is impossible.

     As you can see, there are so many factors and variables that determine the amount and frequency of your auditions and castings.  It’s a collaborative process, like everything else in visual media and the entertainment industry.  There might be one component in your strategy or member of your team that should take the blame, or it might be a combination of some or all of the above.  Part of your job as an artist is to drill down and make your marketing and submissions as efficient as possible.  It’s a numbers game afterall.  The process is ongoing, but a well-oiled marketing machine will result in more opportunities and auditions, and more auditions result in more work.