Thinking Like a Voice-Over Freak

I have been heavily influenced by Freakonomics. Whether the books, the podcast or the website (freakonomics.com), I am always checking out Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner’s latest works to give me a fresh perspective, forcing me to examine my own business paradigms.

One example of my “thinking like a freak” was motivated by an excellent blog postby Beth Melsky over the weekend.   She related a story concerning an on-camera casting job for a small market and the frustration that ensued.   In order to understand the nuances, you should definitely read the piece. But, I wanted to examine some basic tenets based only on mathematical estimations, and then put on my agent’s/manager’s hat and reconfigure the equation. Keep in mind, this may be an on-camera example but, of course, everything below applies to voice-over as well.

Here is the gist of the job: One SAG/AFTRA on-camera commercial running in a small market for a single quarterly cycle. The first question is: what does this pay? I am making various guesstimates based on dozens of factors, but in a nutshell, I think the talent should estimate they would gross roughly $750 while factoring in a 10% plus/minus on either side. This does not include any agents and/or manager’s commission, which also has to be factored in.

The next questions involve costs. Beth is very specific that the product is a very low conflict area so the opportunity costs are essentially zero. That brings us to hard costs such as travel, paying for a babysitter, missing a few hours of work etc. If you live in New York City and you do not have any additional costs, the audition is a no-brainer. The most the audition should cost is $5.50 or a round trip on NYC’s subways and buses. Talent should also factor in a Call Back so double the cost to $11.00. In the end, this scenario dictates that an actor needs to spend $11.00 to make $750.00, so it appears to be a sound investment.

What if you do not live in NYC or your costs are significantly more? For instance, is it worth to drive in from New Jersey, pay for a sitter for three hours or to skip that lunchtime shift?

Here are some of the more “Freaky” things I would think about. For instance, how many people is she (Beth) likely seeing for each role? Keep in mind, talent really can not ask that specific question for a myriad of reasons, but instead of passing or taking him or herself out of the running by asking for more money, the talent can ask how long the session is going. Assuming casting will take roughly 10 minutes for each appointment and the session is going from 10-5, the talent can assume there will be roughly 56 people seen (7 hours x 6 appointments).   Factoring in normal attrition for any audition, I would guess the actual odds are roughly 1:50 (without factoring in talent which is impossible for this exercise).

If we divide the $750 return by the fifty people she is seeing you come up with the number 15. Based on a quick calculation, that is the maximum amount that should be spent for the audition given the odds. In other words, I feel an economist would suggest passing on the job if the costs were over $15.00.

This is now where an agent’s or manager’s experience and savvy is crucial. Beth specifically mentions the director is not only an award winner but very loyal. She also mentions that the spot is comedic and takes “amazing actors.” If an agent believes an actor is truly exceptional, then those odds likely drop dramatically where they range from about 1:15 to 1:25.

Loyalty and future work with the director calls for a separate calculation, and this is where things get really speculative. If I had to guess how much subsequent loyalty is worth after an initial job, I would say somewhere between $5-10K. That’s a broad range, but using the new figure of $5K in additional work with 1:25 odds for the initial job, I think it is worth roughly $200 in costs to pursue the small market job.

In this case, without even talking actual calculations with the actor, I would suggest that actor take what appears to be relatively large risk $200 for what is initially a small return $750. In my experience (and apparently Beth’s as well), important careers are built with far greater risks, so I would recommend the audition to anyone I believe is talented.

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