If you’re entering an established industry as a new person and looking at where you will get the most traction, it is wise to be strategic about it. It’s traction that leads to progress. Progress leads to the coveted freelance gig, the hot club’s stage, the entry-level position with serious growth potential, and eventually to the corner office (or the awards podium or to whatever else is your ultimate goal).
The entertainment industry is particularly conscious of branding. Whether referring to performers or the people behind the scenes, having a defined identity makes it easier for people to understand you and figure out where you fit into the business. Yes, you might be a multifaceted creator, performer, or professional – or simply complicated human being – but for the purposes of career growth, being definable streamlines your path to success.
Talent agents are especially known for wanting to narrowly brand their clients. They want you to write six sex comedy spec screenplays so they can say, “She writes hilarious, raunchy comedy.” If you write one script in every genre, what can they say about you? “She’s a great… writer.” While that might be true, it’s not much of a pitch for your Bob at CAA to use when trying to get you writing assignments.
Branding Yourself For Career Success
Okay, so how do you go about creating an entertainment industry brand? Find out how you can achieve career success:
Step 1: Know Yourself
Who are you? Sometimes a tough question to ask when looking in the mirror, but for our purposes, it should be fairly straightforward. Are you a history nut, a Goth chick, a writer of hilarious raunchy comedies? The clearer you can be about that aspect of yourself, the better your career choices will be.
In a recent Los Angeles Times article about the band Foster the People, band leader Mark Foster tells about being approached by A&R reps from Dr. Dre’s label, Aftermath, several years ago. Aftermath wanted to work with him, but they envisioned him as a crossover soul singer, according to Foster. He knew that wasn’t him and the opportunity fizzled.
As a result, instead of getting a record made on a prestigious label, he got a gig as a waiter at a local restaurant. If he hadn’t been clear about who he was and, consequently, what kind of music he wanted to produce, he might have made that soul record in spite of the fact that it was not congruent with his personal and professional brand.
Step 2: Find Your People
Who are your people? Once you are clear about who you are, you want to go where similar people are, or people who need someone like you. In the former case, you are speaking the same language, looking similar, and pursuing the same things. In the latter case, you are bringing qualities needed to someone or a group of someones who will appreciate them and utilize them. What you don’t want to do is be out of your element in a place where people don’t understand you and your sensibilities or value what you have to offer.
Performers usually know this. If you’re a classical cellist, you don’t book a gig at The Viper Room or the 9:30 Club. Taking this to a non-performer level, if you’re a comic book geek, you want to work at a comic book company or a company that makes movies or games based on comic books, or a company who wants to get into the world of comics and comic-based properties. In either situation, you will speak the right language and have the right knowledge and expertise to move forward.
Other examples: If you are a sports fanatic, work at ESPN or the NFL network. If you have watched every reality TV show that’s been on since you were six years old, get a job with Mark Burnett or a small company that wants to do what Mark Burnett has done. History buffs can work at a documentary channel and get a research job with a company that makes period dramas. If you don’t find your fit, your expertise and passion are channeled into relatively worthless water cooler talk.
Step 3: Develop Your Niche
So you know who you are and you’re in a place where you are valued and what makes you you is an asset. How can you take that to the next level?
If you are a performer, you create music or act in projects that are reflective of your brand and speak to your audience. When Meryl Streep was just starting out – and for many years after that – she acted in very heavy period dramas, usually where she had an accent. That’s what she was known for. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, and Out of Africa re three of many early roles she had that established her brand.
The same holds for other entertainment careers. There are costumers that work on tween comedies and marketing professionals who stay within the studio system and directors who make big action movies and producers who make indie records. The list goes on and on.
And you might think, “Why would I want to do the same thing my whole career? That sounds boring.” But once you establish your brand and achieve some level of success within it, you can branch out. Ten years into her career Meryl Streep delved into doing comedy, with Heartburn and Postcards from the Edge.
But until she was identified and gained her foothold within that her original niche, she would’ve had trouble breaking into other areas. Instead of being on the phone talking about Streep’s dramatic chops and talent with accents, Jeff at CAA would’ve had to say, “She’s a really great… actress.” A less compelling pitch, for sure.
So once you figure out who you are and find a place to use who you are to your best advantage and then exploit it until you have some success, you’ll find you don’t need to be defined by your brand. You can be your own brand because people will know you and won’t care that you aren’t just the fantastic dramatic actress with a gift for accents. Hell, I bet Foster the People might even release a crossover soul single someday.
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