Try this. Take your parents out to lunch and say, “Hey, Mom, Dad. I’m going to become an actor.” Watch their expressions. See what happens when you tell them your new plan for the future is to become famous in Hollywood. Nearly everyone knows that moving to Hollywood to become a famous actor is… well, it’s insane. No one actually does it.
Or do they? This first chapter is about the importance of taking action – just do it, as Nike would say – and the real chance of succeeding at impossible dreams. So let’s start with a classic example of the impossible. If you got up from reading right now and declared that you want to be a famous actor, how likely is it that you’ll make it? How likely is it that someday I’ll see your name in a big screen production?
One way of looking at this question is to ask yourself, “Who do I have to beat to get the job done?”
A study by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 found that 1.4% of the population in the United States were writers, or artists, or actors, or employed in some form of creative work as their primary job. That’s about 2 million people in a country of 305 million, with an additional 300,000 that work in the arts, but make a living some other way. Almost half of those are designers and architects, which means the remaining 1 million people account for the vast majority of everything you read in a book, magazine, or watch on TV.
Aside from this rather amazing example of a very small portion of the population affecting great change, this has a direct impact on the question of your and my chances of becoming a famous actor. So here’s the point of this chapter. Of all the artists working in the U.S., about 2% are actors, or 39,717 people.
Half live in California, with New York claiming about 20%. So let’s take a look at this historically risky thing to do: Moving to Hollywood to become an actor. The first step is defining what is considered “famous”. Let’s define famous as having one of the top 200 acting jobs in Hollywood. I got that number by looking over a complete list of TV shows on Wikipedia, and counting every show in the last five years that would be considered a hit, or at least familiar enough that people would recognize the lead actors on the street. I stopped when I reached about 200 shows, and wasn’t all the way through the list. If each show has at least one lead female and one lead male role, that leaves us with about 200 top roles that you qualify for by gender. We’ll not worry about movies at the moment. So how many people do you have to beat out in order to get one of those top 200 spots?
Well, sitting at home thinking about becoming an actor, you’re competing against all the millions of others that would like to be rich and famous, just like you. The odds are hugely against you being successful, because it’s one vs. millions.
But here’s the magic bullet. As soon as you make the decision to become a full time actor, you’re no longer competing against the millions that want to become rich and famous, you’re only competing against those that are actually doing something about it. And according to the NEA, that’s about 40,000 people. If you take yourself very seriously and move to California to act as your primary occupation, you take a step that most wannabe actors never take, and now you’re competing against the 20,000 actors living locally.
Half of the roles will be for one gender or another, cutting your competition in half again.
We’re now at 10,000 or so competitors. These are the people that really take this seriously; like you, they’re here chasing their dreams. But now we look at you, and your skills. Let’s say you’re a good actor, and a good networker. In fact, at these two skills – which is what you need to get off the ground – let’s say you’re in the 80th percentile; you’re better than 80% of the actors out there.
So, really, in auditions, you’re up against the other 20% who are as good or better than you, and the 10% who are worse, but have the right characteristics for the role. 30% of 10,000 is 3,000 people competing for those top 200 roles.
3,000 / 200 = 15 people per role.
There’s a lot in there that we can’t account for, like luck. We also can’t help that those top 200 roles may only be for beautiful people, and that you and I look like lumps of coal. But if you’re good at what you do, and you look at yourself and say, “Yes, I have the characteristics needed as qualifiers in the industry,” then your odds of being successful, of being one of the 200 most successful actors in Hollywood, is about 1 in 15.
This means that right now, sitting in your room reading this, there are a series of known steps that you can take that improves your chances of succeeding by thousands of times. Great odds? Not really. That’s only about a 7% chance of pulling it off, after all. But as bad as you would expect? To become the next Julia Roberts or George Clooney?
I don’t think so.
After all, if I put your name in a hat along with 14 other people, and told you I’d give you 10 million dollars if I picked your name, you’d be pretty excited.
But here’s the point: It’s all a chain. It’s a chain that starts with you sitting in your living room thinking about how cool it would be to be rich and famous. And the actions in that chain – the things that you start in motion – are what separate you from the millions.
Stop for a moment and think about how powerful that is. Thinking about becoming an actor makes you like millions of others, but becoming an actor makes you like only 2% of the population. All that means is that when someone asks you what you do for a living, you say you’re an actor. That’s it. You don’t have to be a good actor or a bad actor at that point. From that point out, taking a chance and going to the places where there are acting jobs with national fame potential available eliminates all but 1% of the population. What’s interesting to realize about that is that we were able to eliminate 99% of your competition before we even asked one question about your skills and abilities. Being able to judge your own skills and abilities is vitally important to your success, but the biggest differentiating factor between you and that guy acting on TV is that you’re reading about doing something, and he’s doing it.
If you’re talented and good and willing to follow through, your odds of becoming a famous actor right now are 1 in 15. But no one will ever really pull your name from a hat and declare you famous. They won’t come to your house and pull you out on their own.
And if you actually get done reading this, stand up, and become an actor – or whatever your dream is – then you really are on your way to success. But if you just nod after reading this, think it’s interesting, and then close the book and go make yourself lunch and that’s it – then welcome to the millions.
Your odds are entirely determined by your own next moves.
Note: I should also add that the biggest problem in acting, really, is not that hitting the top 200 spots is impossible, but that hitting lower doesn’t make much money. According to the survey, most actors are better educated than the rest of the world (strong competition) and earn less than their peers at about $23,400 annually. When people say that acting is a hard business, they don’t really mean that getting to the top is impossible, just that getting to the middle is far easier. And the middle in this industry is not as lucrative as others.