Kool K.A.T.S

(Originally posted May 14th 2013)

[author note : the projects listed in this post have now expired. However, there are now more projects for actors on CrowdFunding sites than two years ago]

In the past two months, the mainstream film industry has dipped its’ toes in the Kickstarter waters more than once. I’m going to assume that if you’ve made the time to read this, you know about Rob Thomas’ ‘The Veronica Mars Project’ and Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here Project”. Both grossed multi-millions within hours. And yet, both projects represent properties that exist within the ‘traditional’ industry model that is funded through studios and/or independent backers. Pundits and journalists have offered far more intelligent insights to the implications of this development than I could. There has also been a tirade of critical blowback, particularly for Zach Braff. But none of that concerns me for this.

Something else has been weighing on me over the past two months. The escalating cost (and ultimately debt) of a higher education degree. Despite constant rhetoric and research insisting that a college degree improves the quality of your life, the national burden of student debt has the potential to crush more people than it does to help them. There is an additional bad news if your desired major doesn’t lie within ‘STEM’ – Science, Technology (WHETEVER that means), Education and Math . Despite Yo Yo Ma’s passionate case for adding the Arts to this (and hence transform the ‘STEM’ to ‘STEAM’), we as a society aren’t responding.. But again, this is a larger issue, and doesn’t concern me for this.

What concerns me is an aspiring actor who wants the industry credibility and benefits of a well-respected college, but cannot afford either the tuition or inevitable debt.

ONE year at a top tier college Drama program averages $41000 (without accommodation, books, fees, meal plans, etc). With conservatory programs continuing to insist that it takes 4 years to complete your degree in acting, that starts you off at $164,000. Add housing, books and meal plans to that number, and it is not impossible to be staring at $200,000 of debt out of the gate. And this is before the cost of headshots, reels, ongoing singing, dancing and acting classes (which are insistedupon by many in the industry). I know former students who have loan payments of $2200+ a month. If they aren’t working in a part of the industry that is paying them at least union wage, the weight of that debt becomes devastating.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that the median annual wage for an actor hovers around$50,000. But that amount drastically rises if the actor is working in film, television, video games and voice over. So working in these mediums, rather than the theatre, seems like a financially prudent first step into the industry. Of course, the part of industry that is most lucrative is also highly competitive and ‘fickle’ with its’ aesthetics. However, this industry certainly ‘feeds on youth’, so being a young up-and-coming actor can work in your favor.

Conservatory programs at universities rarely offer more than a semester in ‘Acting for the Camera’. And that is not entirely a bad plan – core skills like movement, voice, acting and stage combat are stressed. This is usually followed up with stage productions to synthesize the classwork. And while I see the value of this approach, the elephant in the room is that Theatre is a predominantly middle-aged medium. To start with, roles are older. How many awkward fake beards and age make-up jobs have you watched during college productions? Why subject students to this? It bears NO resemblance to the industry. Theatre is predominantly populated with older actors and the audiences are often older than the actors.

A young graduate with a performer’s degree in 2013 is certainly well-prepared for the Theatre, who unfortunately wont be ready for them for another 15/20 years. But that graduate is also holding a debt of $200,000. And the single best option for them to pay down that debt and begin to establish themselves in the industry is in a part of the business that they only had one class for at College. There must be a different way

Allow me to offer an alternative – the Kickstarter Actor Training System (K.A.T.S for short). The approach is fairly straight forward : instead of a conservatory degree, invest in a top level bracket for a Kickstarter film/television project and use the backer reward offered for that level to be your training. Over two years, you can buy in (as a backer/co-producer) to a range of projects that will:

  1. Give you experience in front of the camera/microphone
  2. Give you experience working with Industry professionals
  3. Begin your professional network inside the most lucrative part of the industry
  4. Build your IMDB page
  5. Participate in the revolution of how movies are funded and will be funded over the next ten years (at least)

This will not be a program that trains you with classes. It is an apprenticeship model, targeted primarily at film and television. Rather than taking an internship making coffee for everyone on set, you instead pay to participate in the project-making process as a performer. And there’s plenty of projects to choose from. Here are some that have already come to fruition:

1. Burma exceeded their initial $10000 request. If you backed the project at the $2500 level, you got an Acting lesson, and audition lesson and an opportunity to pitch a project for the Producers. You would have been listed as a co-producer and gone to screenings and parties with the cast & crew. Burma went on to garner critical praise and awards at film festivals such as the SXSW in Austin.

2.Charlie Kauffman’s Anomalisa was a stop motion project that offered backers at the $2500 level to have a Skype conversation with Dan Harmon & Dino Stamatopoulos.

3. Star Trek: Renegades gave $10000 backers a Red shirt commanding officer role that dies onscreen!

4. Fat Kid Rules the World gave $10000 backers “ten days of filmmaking mentorship to help you create your short film. Two days to discuss and consult on script and casting. Two days of soft prep… Two days of location prep…Two days of shooting. And two days of editing.” If you are an aspiring actor and think this doesn’t sound like something relevant to them, this project was directed by actor Matthew Lillard. The movie went on to play festivals as well as getting a release On Demand, in Redbox and also on Netflix streaming.

Like all industry-based training programs, KATS has potential pitfalls. Projects don’t always get funded. There have also been situations where backer rewards have not been followed through with. These are rare, and to help combat the chances of it happening to you, I’d suggest looking for projects that are asking for a ‘substantial’ figure. This is NOT because a great film cant be made for, say,  $4000. It’s just that we’re forming your early career here. Which means you should pick and choose the pedigree of ‘teachers’ you’ll be working with.

Also, in film and television, an actor’s calling card is their ‘reel’ of previous appearances on camera. Straight out of a university, you’d be lucky if you have a couple of professional projects and a varying amount of student films. With KATS, every single ‘class’ is another scene for your reel. If you choose your projects carefully you can shape a really strong reel of respected projects.

I need to stress – to provide an actual ‘education’, KATS will require ‘augmentation’. One option is to take an acting coach – something all actors will at least entertain after they graduate. So why bother going to university when you can learn from graduates of those schools for free in an acting class? And why acquire a $200,000 debt taking acting lessons when you’re only going to go out into the world and pay for more? An acting coach is another option. A coach can give you one-on-one training, tailored to your own needs. And it costs significantly less than college.

There are also online options – below I’ve included a YouTube curriculum that runs in tandem with your KATS. There are acting classes with masters like Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner available online, as well as voice classes with Patsy Rodenberg and even memorization coaches who can teach you how to learn your lines (a skill most universities do not teach at all). Be careful, though. Stay away from INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO…

The final component is a meaningful reading list. If you are backing a significant number of Kickstarter projects, you will be acting a LOT. So you need to supplement your activity with skills and craft from the best in the world. However, most books on acting fall into one of two camps: a) Memoirs where actors describe (at length) how great they were in past roles or b) wishy-washy so-called ‘practical’ guides which simply recount exercises that all vaguely resemble all the other exercises in the book. So keep it simple. My recommendations are:

  1. Routledge’s ‘Basics’ Series (Acting: The Basics by Bella Merlin, Stanislavsky: The Basics by Rose Whyman and Theatre Studies: The Basics by Robert Leach)
  2. The Actor & The Target by Declan Donnelan
  3. A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Bruder et al
  4. Auditioning by Joanna Merlin

KATS strives to balance real-world experience working on productions with industry professionals as the ‘instructors’, with online ‘virtual’ training provided by industry giants (like Sanford Meisner) who are quoted by university conservatory programs across the world. You can tailor your syllabus to best suit the elements of the industry you are most excited by. Whether you want to be involved in stunt work, voice-over, comedy, science fiction, or something else, there are enough projects on Kickstarter that need investment that can suit your needs. And as more high-profile projects come to Kickstarter, more online traffic comes to the site which in turn brings more projects for consideration by that online traffic.

And the numbers are less daunting than a university degree. My initial investment suggestion has a bill of $48250 over two years. Granted, you wont be eligible for Student Loans for this curriculum. But this amount will get you an appearance/involvement in 10 projects over two years and ten IMDB professional listings. The professional network you will accrue over that two years could prove invaluable, not to mention the experience of working as a performer in the industry. You will be well poised to flourish as a performer in Film & Television with your 10 project reel. Most importantly, though, by learning through Kickstarter you have entered the business at the leading edge of the industry as it changes radically over the next five years. It give you experience in the new funding model that, though resisted by many studios, is certainly not going to go away anytime soon.

Rather than $250,000 of debt, you have under $50,000. Rather than playing characters twice your age in school productions for embittered faculty, you have worked with industry professionals and had your work circulated and consumed by the world at large. And rather than the most lucrative part of the industry for a young performer being mysterious, it is actually the most familiar environment, as it has been your classroom.

Here’s the syllabus:

Kickstarter Campaigns

*top levels of investment ALL include Producer Credits, which will reflect on your IMDB page

Veronica Mars Movie

$5,702,153 of $2,000,000 goal

$10,000 – speaking role

Wish I Was Here – Zach Braff

$2,459,348 of $2,000,000 goal

$10,000 – speaking role

Cyanide & Happiness Show

$770, 309 of $250,000 goal

$10,000 – 2 day voice over role

Video Game High School

$808,341 of $636, 010 goal

$3000 – Film making Boot Camp. Curriculum designed for you and your needs.

SAVE Blue Like Jazz

$345,992 of $125,000 goal

$1000 gets you onset and a minor role in the movie

Cowboys & Engines

$114,758 of $100,000 goal

$5000 – speaking role in the film (with Malcolm McDowell, Walter Koenig & Richard Hatch)

Basic Adventuring 101 LARP Webseries Pilot

$6781 of $5,300 goal

$1500 Combat training and role in an episode.

The Origins of Wit & Humor

$6,580 of $17,000 goal

$5000 – speaking role in the film

The Frontier

$37,779 of $50,000 goal

$1,500 onset for 20 days. Credit in the film & IMDB page

The Discoverers

$53,902 of $100,000

*already a movie, needs a theatrical release

$750 gets you video chat with Oscar nominee Griffin Dunne

$1,250 gets you session with Casting Director Patricia DiCerto

(Wood Allen’s Casting Director)

 

Online Classes – sample

Patsy Rodenburg (voice): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ub27yeXKUTY&list=PL6677FEE9579B65CC

Kristen Linklater (voice):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrrwXHcwz_A

Memorization:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c_sxO2ih58

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c_sxO2ih58

Uta Hagen (acting):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7v5zB-jg40

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpzLLv-7_JE&list=PL28BEDACC5E38DB3B (series of 5 videos)

Michael Chekhov (movement/acting): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjooI15cOZE&list=PL98C28414886B42BE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPOk7rd8HFU (7 parts available)

Sanford Mesiner (acting):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNuFSrsYfpM (7 parts available)