How do you help aspiring actors and actresses break into the film industry? Gary Beer is a longtime film industry insider, having been Managing Director of the Sundance Film Festival from its beginnings until 1999 , and founder documentary cable programming service Smithsonian Networks, which he started while he was CEO of the business enterprises of the Smithsonian Institution. Beer and his co-founder saw that promising, talented actors and actresses did not have a good way to truly break into the industry, and decided to combine the world of digital video with Hollywood to give some of that talent a chance to break into the industry through his new startup, StarCast Auditions (www.starcastauditions.com). Beer told us a bit about the startup, and how it compares with starting up a cable channel like the Sundance Channel.
What is StarCast Auditions?
Gary Beer: We launched in December, and the premise of it, is to use video auditions to vet up and coming actors. These range from young kids, aspiring amateurs, and up and coming professionals, who are looking to get a foothold in the industry, and either need an agent, a talent manager, or want to get exposure in front of casting agents, directors, producers, and others who might engage them in their first role. It's really both a career tool for aspiring actors, as well as an asset for the film and television industry to continually refresh the base of talent they can draw on.
The key is we're focused on professionally vetted actors. Now, anyone with a digital camera and access to the Internet to Hollywood. The way we do this, is we publish twenty four scripts every two weeks, with age demographics from tots to seniors. Most of our users are millenials, who are from their tweens to 24 or 25. The scripts are sixty to ninety second scenes, comedy or drama, and male and female. The way it works, is the aspiring actors takes the scene, records themselves doing the scene, and they upload it to us. We then have a group of professional casting directors, some of the best in the business, take a look and choose those that they believe have a performance at a sufficient level that they would recommend them to their peers to be considered in a variety of different types of roles, or who should be looking for an agent. The evaluation is made efficiently, because the casting people are evaluating people all doing the same scene. They are judging from each of those 24 scenes, and figuring out those who they think have what it takes to be in the trade.
It's really those that we consider to be the best. There has been lots of great response so far in this beta, and lots of submissions, but we've actually been highly selective of individual performances, and have only selected around sixty four people.
What's the advantage of this for an actor or actress over in-person auditions?
Gary Beer: There's a couple of different answers to that. One, is they would have to get to an audition. We're not auditioning them for a role, we're auditioning to give them some basic credibility in the industry, and putting them in front of casting directors, producers, and others to get them an audition, or to get an invitation for someone to represent them as an agent or manager. Those that might be lucky to live in LA or New York City, and can go to an open call or audition, certainly do, by the tens of thousands, but that's a number's came. Usually, the actors are selected not from those 10,000 people, but a couple hundred. The opportunity to actually get a role in an open audition is somewhat limited. In this case, we actually have one success, from the University of Michigan's drama school, who is graduating, got a manager, and is about to announce their first role on a pilot. It's really a different thing. It doesn't take the place of a live audition, it's just a step in getting to an audition.
There are millions of young people, probably 10 million amateur and aspiring actors, who don't have that opportunity. My partner, Jules Haimovitz, worked with me on the Sundance Channel, and it was really his idea. My take on it, having run production companies, and a cable network, is that there is no way for an actor to really break in easily. We started to look at what we could do with digital video. The breakthrough was when we figure out that casting professionals were able to validate that they can determine enough about a person's acting in about 60 to 90 seconds of a scene, and figure out whether that person has merit or not, and because of that we can do this at scale. We spent several years developing the software to do it, and we have had all the scenes and scripts professionally written for us, and launched in December.
Why did you decide to get involved in this startup?
Gary Beer: My partner, Jules Haimovitz--it's really his idea--he came to me, because we had worked together while starting up the Sundance Channel cable network. He knew what I had done as an executive at the Sundance Film Festival, which is basically a platform for discovery and promotion of writers, producers, filmmakers, and producers. The idea was that we could create a brand and platform for aspiring actors. It's an area I was especially interested in, so I took it on. I believe in startups, have done them before, and it just seemed like a good idea, and we thought it was something that we could easily and find out if would work.
How big is this as a market, and what's the business model behind this?
Gary Beer: Our initial concept had been that it would be a tool for the trade, based on charging actors a small fee for their evaluation or additional evaluations. It was not a subscription; it was strictly a fee-based service for actors. We're continuing to build on that. We found, however, that the idea and the experience is something that a much broader market is responding to, so the number of times people want to use it, and the nature of the social interaction is quite interesting and impressive. We're going to be adding more functionality and a community aspect to this as we go along, and maybe down the road we'll have some social advertising revenue. However, the current model at this moment for revenue is based on fees for actor services.
So it sounds like you're getting lots more interest for this than you anticipated?
Gary Beer: We've gotten lots more people who maybe have taken an acting class or two, or young people who are aspiring to acting as a career. We also seen many tweens and young teens, who we really weren't looking at as an initial market. Some of them may have some acting experience, and some have not. For them, it's really an introductory experience. One thing that we did--which might have caused that interest--is we've initially provided everyone with evaluations. That's proven to be one of the drivers at this point, which is people are able to get feedback.
What's the next step for you, now that you've launched?
Gary Beer: We've got around 5,000 users, and that's kind of where we thought we'd be. We have about 50,000 followers on Facebook and Twiter, rather more than we expected at this point. We are seeing repeats of 50 percent and climbing, and the rest of conversions are moving. We're almost at the point of doing StarCast 2.0, and rolling out new features in August or September and to start charging. I'm assuming we'll have tripled our user base at that point.
How would you compare and contrast your experience starting up the Sundance Channel and in the cable world with starting your own online business?
Gary Beer: From a marketing perspective, dealing with the viral component, and how you make things work has been the most interesting aspect of it for me. Obviously, that's critical as we continue to expand, and it's completely different than anything else I've ever done. I've done direct marketing, and a whole business of licensing content to cable companies. The content creation is similar--user generated content is not really all that different from any other content I've been involved in making--but the big difference is how you market, and how you spend those marketing dollars.
It's also been very interesting in how you build trust. That's one of the biggest surprises. Frankly, we found that there are lots of people, both online and offline, who try to appeal to parents and young people with the Hollywood dream. It took awhile to get across the fact that we had credibility and a pedigree on our casting team, and that this is real. As we've gone on with that, it's been a very positive experience, as users are telling their friends, and their friends are becoming users. Beyond that, it's kind of the same as other startups. What resonates for me, is the passion from the young people who are getting something out of the experience, and the success stories. We're getting four more kids signed up with managers this week, and they are literally people that have never been seen before by the industry. We are actually starting to see it making a different in someone's life. For a variety of reasons in my career, and in my partner's career, that's important to me.