Celebs in Voice-Overs Part II — The Rise of the Television Star

At the end of Part I, I detailed how the first celebs in commercials were Broadway actors but by 1990, there was a great decline in demand for theatrical voices. Scale voices were getting younger for several reasons 1) casting directors were younger, 2) agency creatives were younger and 3) younger talent was cheaper and would work at union scale. All three factors would lead to the next celeb wave, which was the rise of the TV actor in commercial voice-overs. 25 years ago, there was still a strong separation between TV actors and film actors. Occasionally, someone like John Travolta would cross between screens but generally there was a caste system in Hollywood whereby TV actors were not offered major films and film actors would rarely work in television. Neither did commercials - voice-overs or on-camera. There were exceptions but, while Martin Sheen, Donald Sutherland, Alec Baldwin and Peter Coyote bucked the system, 99.9% of Hollywood actors ignored the commercial industry with the full support of their agents and managers.

What changed? In 1990, Northern Exposure aired for the first time and John Corbett and Rob Morrow were introduced to television audiences. John Corbett’s character was a DJ and it didn’t take a Madison Avenue genius to realize that John had “an interesting voice” and he was an actor. Very quickly, John Corbett became a familiar prototype in the scale world, but, ironically, Rob Morrow was the real inspiration to the rush of TV actors into voice-overs.

There’s perhaps a lot of mythology here but I’m going to illustrate it as I remember the story. Sometime in late 1992/early 1993, MasterCard was looking for a new voice for their ''It's more than a credit card; it's smart money'' campaign. McCann Erickson (MasterCard’s ad agency) was searching for a scale voice but one name kept coming up; Rob Morrow. As the story goes, someone very high up in the MasterCard food chain had a daughter and she, had a crush on Rob Morrow. Rob, prior to landing Northern Exposure was a New York actor and like most New York actors made ends meet with commercials.   Fred Schiffman was still Rob’s commercial agent and he still had Rob’s contact info so Fred called him. Keep in mind, Rob, like most commercial actors knew that voice-overs was the gold standard of commercials but Rob likely hesitated knowing successful TV actors didn’t do commercials.   Fred got around the conflict by throwing a number out to Rob. If Fred could get “the big number” would Rob agree? Rob did and Fred threw the number back out to McCann Erickson. I’m sure Fred was told he was crazy but when the MasterCard exec discovered Rob was interested, he green lit the number.

Rob and the commercials received a tremendous amount of publicity but Rob’s performance didn’t necessarily change the industry. It was, in fact, the big number. Not only did other actors hear about Rob’s sweet gig but the agent’s did as well and they slowly began pushing for other celebrity opportunities with similar numbers.

For a year or two, interest in TV actors waned a bit due to the perception they were too expensive but then Frasier hit the airwaves.   Once again, there was a magnetic actor working on the radio and Madison Avenue had the same “ah-hah” moment they enjoyed with John Corbett… Kelsey Grammar has a really interesting voice! Remember Kelsey had already been working in commercials and I’m sure there were some initial low-ball offers trying to get him at former quotes but Kelsey was now a full-blown star not just one of several characters on Cheers.   Plus, Rob Morrow’s “big number” was still the benchmark in the industry.   By the end of the decade, the demand for Kelsey grew so large he could be heard on commercials for MCI, Honey Nut Cheerios, Lexus, General Food International Coffees and even as the original voice of the Geico gecko. Also, in another parallel to Northern Exposure, other cast mates on Frasier would successfully follow Kelsey into voice-overs including David Hyde Pierce, John Mahoney and Peri Gilpin. Couple these TV actors with some great young comedians including the Dennis’ (Leary and Miller) and you had the makings of mini-revolution.

By the turn of the century a clear-cut strata had evolved of mostly younger (20-30’s) scale actors and actresses and over scale TV celebs. The division wouldn’t last long. Waiting in the wings, were a slew of movie stars, who like Rob Morrow, experienced the New York commercial grind of late 80’s and early 90’s, and were going to change the business again.

My Theory on the History of Celebrities in Commercials (The Broadway Edition) Part I

In my 5 questions for Rafael Ferrer, Rafael mentioned an old Paul Masson commercial from the early 80’s featuring John Gielgud (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhZv8aIr55k) and the perception that serious actors doing commercials was the virtual “end” of a career. 30 years later, times have changed so dramatically that Matthew McConaughey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcGhLcVqxf0) is currently driving around in a Lincoln only six months after winning Best Actor. When did the celebrity rush to commercials begin? I’m going to lay out my trajectory on the celeb evolution into commercials but keep in mind… I’m not old enough to know what was happening day to day at the talent agencies prior to the 90’s and much of what I’m “throwing out” here is somewhat theoretical (BTW… ask anyone who knows me: I’m always willing to have a theory). Regardless, of all my conjecture and innuendo I think I’m on the right path but if anyone can fill in the gaps, please email and I will annotate it with any interesting notes.

I started in the business in 1992 at Don Buchwald and Associates and at the time, the biggest celeb working in commercials was James Earl Jones who was the on-camera spokes and voice of Bell Atlantic (the Baby Bell precursor to Verizon). At DBA, we didn’t represent James Earl but we did rep some fairly well known actors at the time; Stockard Channing, Ed Herrmann, Jane Alexander and Kelsey Grammar (prior to Frasier - the series). What did James Earl and the others have in common? Two things: 1) they spent a lot of time in New York City and 2) they spent a lot of time in New York City because they were on Broadway.

Thus begins the first migration of actors to commercials starting mostly in voice-overs. Madison Avenue was still the epicenter of commercial production at the time and the Broadway actors of the era knew there was a market for their talents. More importantly, they also knew that if they were going to even approximate the lifestyles they left behind doing television and film, they were going to have to do more than Broadway shows. VO was a very easy way to make up those earnings. The job was mostly anonymous, paid fairly well (even at scale), and took very little time. Such Broadway luminaries of the time including Lee Richardson, Len Cariou, John Houseman, Adolph Ceasar, Jose Ferrer, etc. all were performing in commercials (BTW… you probably noticed there are no women on that list… it was the time men dominated).

Around 1990, the major Advertising Agencies started dismissing their casting directors who acted as the ad agency gatekeepers and were the entrée point for all the great Broadway actors.   This disruption in the day-to-day business of voice-over casting created several dynamics, which would lead to the demise of the Broadway star in commercials.

  • Many of the established casting directors would end up sharing offices together in large loft-like spaces with shared waiting rooms. Whereby there was a prior “clubby” feel to auditioning on Madison Avenue suddenly everyone from kids to on-camera types of all sorts were thrown into the same waiting areas and the established voice actors were not happy with the new cattle call like environment. Many let their feelings become evident and soon a backlash evolved against many of these actors and their “”
  • The recording facilities were almost always rudimentary and the rich sound of these great actors was muddied by inferior microphones and sound quality. No longer could the great subtleties be discerned and the differences between voices became less perceptible.
  • Whereby creatives often sat in sessions where they could zip between floors, they were less willing to travel and many of the tried and true relationships disappeared between creatives and talent
  • Creatives began to get significantly younger as ad agencies economics changed and many of the established guard and their relationships to talent were let go and replaced by cheaper younger workers.

To wrap up Part I, as creatives got younger so did their desires for talent. 28 year old producers were intimidated by the older actors and one by one they began seeking out younger talent. The younger talent were also cheaper and it became a selling point that instead of an older talent for a $20,000 guarantee, they could have a younger guy for scale. The younger guys soon dominated the industry and by 1995, 25-35 year old actors Rafael Ferrer, Tony Hoylen, Marcus Lovett, Colter Rule, Zac Fine and David Slavin were the New York commercial prototypes of the decade.   Women also were finally getting more opportunities and combination of the new men and women led to the great Broadway actors slowly disappearing from the airwaves. The exceptions? The actors who also enjoyed a robust television career.

Next: Invasion of the TV Stars

A Day (okay, an Afternoon) with James Earl Jones

With the Voice Arts Awards last night and James Earl Jones being honored, I thought I would just tell a quick and personal anecdote of my afternoon with James Earl at Promax in 1995. During my first year as an agent, I represented (albeit very indirectly) James Earl Jones who was the crown jewel of our clients at SEM&M.   At the time, James Earl had a great on-camera and voice account with Bell Atlantic and was also the branding voice of CNN. On top of that, he had a really great run in motion pictures culminating in his legendary performance in Lion King the previous summer.

Vincent Nastri, another young agent and now a very successful manager at Bleecker Street Entertainment, and I were tasked with starting an on-air promo department from scratch. We had great clients and in building one brick at a time, we created an incredible and influential department. But, we were going to Promax and we really wanted to make a big splash. I don’t know if it was Vincent’s or my concept, but we came up with the idea that we should bring James Earl to Promax in Washington DC. Neither of us knew exactly how we would get him there, but we set out to make it happen.

First we spoke to the President of Promax and sold him on the idea even before we confirmed James Earl was available. He got right back to us and offered us their “State of the Art:” James Earl would be the conference’s closing speaker. Suddenly, the pressure was truly on. Vincent and I went into Fred Schiffman’s and Marc Guss’s (my current partner at ACM) office and pitched Fred on the concept. Fred was incredibly cool but his first reaction, of course, was how much money were they paying him. “Nothing,” we told him, “but they would fly him in and put him up in a suite at a hotel.” Fred was silent – we had no idea what he was thinking. More importantly, we told him, they will credit SEM&M with a “James Earl Jones, presented by SEM&M Talent.” Fred was more interested but he asked again, “they really have no money?” “I’m sure we can get some other perks but it won’t be cash,” I explained. Fred took a beat before kicking us out of his office and telling us he’d get back to us.

In hindsight, the whole idea was ridiculous. Assuming James Earl was available and odds were he wasn’t and given Promax was giving him virtually nothing, there was nothing motivating him to go. Yet, about a week later, Fred called Vincent and me back into his office. “James Earl will do it,” he told us and then colorfully told us how lucky we were. We never asked why he was going to do it as Vincent and I knew not to question good karma. Instead, we walked out of the office, gave each other a high five where Fred couldn’t see us and went back to work.

Promax 1995 arrived a few months later and all we knew was we would meet James Earl at his suite on Saturday. The rest of the conference was a blur. It was my first Promax and I probably averaged a few hours of sleep a night and I’m sure that was at least double what Vincent had. The two of us were also coming off the conference’s penultimate night’s party: the famed Paramount Party and we had no right standing let alone escorting James Earl yet after some long showers and Advil, we were admittedly excited and ready to go.

Keep in mind, at this point, I had been working in the agency business for about three years and during that time it was rare we ever met anyone who was a real celebrity. Prior to the agency business, I had worked in sports production for a few years where Greg Gumbel had been our host and I met other sports personalities who were on the show such as Dick Vitale and Walt Frazier. At Don Buchwald (where I was prior), it was rare that any celebs would come into the office, and I feel like Roy Scheider and Stockard Channing were very briefly introduced to me although I admit I’m not really sure.   At SEM&M, my celeb experience was a tad more extensive and I even worked with Rob Morrow on a promo gig for VH-1, but, at least Rob was approximately my age.   What I would soon discover was that James Earl was a completely different level of celebrity.

When we arrived at the suite, James Earl was ready to go. We made some initial small talk and he was incredibly gracious but he really wanted to get to the ballroom. James Earl knew the plan, was totally prepared and wanted to see the venue. We had nothing to do but walk him to the Grand Ballroom where 2,500 people or so were soon waiting.

The way to the Ballroom was a hike and I’m not exaggerating when I say that everyone’s head turned as we walked by. James Earl is a big man and combine that with his natural magnetism, it felt like we were on a wave where you could feel the water coming before you heard it crash.   We could see heads turning several yards before we even arrived on the spot. I’d guess some two hundred people turned to see him but no one dared come near. Vincent whispered to me, “don’t you feel like the Secret Service escorting the President?” I concurred and we just kept walking.

Once we arrived at the ballroom, we headed backstage and our jobs were done. We handed James Earl off to the Promax people and the stage director. 20 minutes later, James Earl killed it on stage and the event itself was a tremendous boost to SEM&M as well as to Vincent’s and my career. After that, I only saw James Earl one other time in the office. He was gracious as always and the experience was incredibly brief… probably less than a minute. I remember walking into Fred’s office to shake his hand where we had a very brief conversation in reference to that Promax and was soon on my way so they could resume the meeting. As I exited, I do remember one thought…we really were lucky @#$%ers.

5 Questions for Rafael Ferrer

As many of you may know I’ve been a long time rep of Rafael Ferrer.  Along with being the primary driver of my own reputation, Rafael has been one of the only voice performers in the last few decades to be successful in commercials, promos and trailers simultaneously.  In fact, he’s been as apt to work for a major advertising agency as a television network or a movie studio.  Given how tightly our careers have been intertwined, I realized there were some basic things I never quite asked him so I chose 5 simple questions and I hope you like our quick Q&A.  BTW… any parentheses you see are my own comments.
PS: I know you’ve been around the business your whole life but how specifically did you get into VO?
Rafael: About the time I was 21 or 22 my father was coaching a scene studies class at a studio in New York called the Corner Loft where I was hanging out a fair amount.  I got to meet Terry Berland (the casting director) who was teaching an on-camera commercials class and signed up.  As I worked with her, at one point she said to me, “Have you ever thought about voice-overs?”  I was open to anything and she happened to be working on a Bacardi Breezers demo and wanted me to come in.  Well, I booked it, and that was my initiation into the world of voice-overs.
PS: Was that your big break and, if not, what do you attribute your big break to?
Rafael: Bacardi Breezers was only a demo and for the next few years I bounced around New York and LA until about the time I was 26 or 27.  I was working at Joe Allen’s (the legendary New York bar and restaurant) and struggling a bit when I was sent to a casting session for a new beer - Miller Genuine Draft (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VRZjbjeC5U).  I think (the legendary) Roger Sturtevant was running the session and Diane Morrison (founder of SEM&M) sent me on the audition.  I booked it and right away it started running and running a lot.  A bunch of other casting directors and producers heard the spot and suddenly I was consistently auditioning for voice-overs.  From there, I just built one job at a time.
PS: What do you attribute your success to?
(laughs)  I call it the Bing Crosby method. I once heard Bing Crosby being interviewed about singing and he said, “it’s like golf.  If you tense up the ball doesn’t go where you want it to go so I try to relax and do the copy as I hear it."  My father also made the comment that when you are on stage you have to project all the way to the last row in the theater but voice-over is the exact opposite.  It’s more intimate.  When you are behind the mic, you need to talk to one person and only one person.  So I guess you could say I try to be relaxed and intimate at the same time.
PS: What is the biggest shift you have seen in the industry since you began?
Rafael: Definitely celebrities doing more commercials.  I’m old enough to remember when John Gielgud did an on-camera Paul Masson wines (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhZv8aIr55k). Other actors thought it was the end of his career because celebrities just didn’t do commercials. My actor friends were wrong.  Celebrities began doing voice-overs first and now they all over the air both on-camera and voice.
PS: You've done so much.  Is there anything else you specifically want to do in your career?
Rafael: I’ve thought about that a lot.  I mentioned my dad taught scene study and acting classes for years and years and I remember the looks on his students' faces when he made a break through and it was just an amazing experience.  When I was younger and having success, I never thought about teaching because my business was so dependent on running around to different studios and casting directors throughout the day.  That’s not true anymore.  My business is home studio based and I can even work portably if need be so I don’t have the time constraints I used to traveling throughout Manhattan.  Given all that, I’m seriously thinking about teaching a class inspired by my dad’s methods and how they translate specifically to voice-over.  I’m still putting the finishing touches on what exactly I want it to be but I will let you know when I’m ready and hopefully you give me some feedback yourself.

3 Necessities to Solicit a VO Agent/Manager

Okay, I admit… I was feeling a bit “crabby” yesterday.   Why?  Sunday happens to be the day I clean up and go back to all the remaining emails of the previous workweek.  Keep in mind, I personally get over 200 emails a day and obviously have to prioritize.  Within those thousand weekly emails, 20-30 talent a week will solicit ACM and my last task for the week is to listen to their demos.   So what has my “panties in a bunch” so to speak?  Simply put… the lack of effort I’m witnessing with unsolicited emails.  If someone wants ACM’s and my attention, why wouldn’t he/she want to present himself/herself in the best light?  I will admit that agency representation may seem more casual than a job interview but, in effect, they are the same so here is my recommendations so you can put your best foot forward with the majority of voice agents and managers. Here are my 3 things everyone should know or do prior to soliciting a VO Agent or Manager.

1) Do some research.   Everyone has the web.  Use it.  If someone want to know who or what ACM is… google it.  If you want to know the difference between an agent and a manager…try Wikipedia.  If you want to craft an inquiry directly to a specific department… go to the firm’s website and find out who is who.  Finally, if you still aren’t getting the answers you are looking for… call and ask.  Almost every receptionist, assistant and even agents/managers will answer a question or two if they pickup your call.  What does this accomplish?  You can now write an informed cover letter/email that makes me believe you are serious about being represented by us.

2) I wrote a bit about demos last week but make sure your demo is top notch.  Sounds pretty simple yet most demos are substandard.  I’ll be writing extensively on the dynamics of demos but I will reiterate this simple point… the web is your friend.  If you want to send your demo to CESD, go to their website and play the demos of their current clients.  If you don’t think your demo stacks up… maybe now is not the time to solicit them.  Either pay to put together a better demo or wait until you have enough quality spots to add to your current demo.

3) Make sure you have a positive web/social media presence.  I’m not saying that every agent/manager is going to do a background check on you but I know the first thing I do when I find a demo I like is to see if you have a website.  If I like the website, the next thing I'm going to do is check you out on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.  If there are no red flags my final step is to call and have a casual phone interview.  Only after that point, when I decide I like the demo and I like the person do I consider a performer for representation and even then, for dozens of reason, it may not be a good fit for us.  Don’t make it easy for me to eliminate you as a potential client because you like to be “provocative” on Twitter or think your 2010 week in Cancun should be posted on Facebook for everyone to see.

Finally, what does following these steps accomplish?  If I had to bet, you’ll increase your odds two-fold.  Conversely, if you can’t follow these steps, resist pressing send and be mindful you will be saving yourself the frustration of wondering why you never received back a response.

The 3 Don't's of Voice-Over Demos -- the Undistilled Version

Expanding on the 3 Don’t’s of Demos
I hope everyone has a chance to check out 3 Don’t's of Voiceover Demos written by Steve Lowell and featuring myself, Erik Sanchez from Sticky Audio and Jim Kennelly from Lotas Productions (http://realtimecastingblog.com). I want to just expand a bit on my thoughts as I’m much longer winded than either Erik or Jim.  My further thoughts are in boldface.
Here’s are my 3 Don’t's:
1. “Don’t cheap out. (okay… I admit that’s a little harsh but it’s definitely what I said).  Your demo is a calling card. Don’t cut corners on quality. Your demos should have all the bells and whistles to show your best. How much it costs may depend on where you live, but make sure if you are seeking to find an agent, make sure the quality of the demo echoes the market you are trying to work in. If you cannot afford to make a demo, wait until you can afford it. You will save money that way” (in the long run that is).   A point I have to emphasize is if you are sending your demos to agents or managers… you may only have one legitimate shot to be heard.  If you present an under-produced demo, you will be remembered as not good enough rather than for having an underwhelming demo - so don’t risk that perception.
2. “Don’t try to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a demo. Agents are looking for a signature sound. If you think you do everything, you had better know that everything you do is undeniably great. If not, it will only be a distraction.  A former colleague (Scott Linder @ DBA who definitely presented this quotation much more colorfully) once added, “Every one wants to think they can be every color of the rainbow, when they may do just as well serving one color of the spectrum.”   Here’s something else to keep in mind though: variety could and should come from the types of spots on the demo.  If it’s a commercial demo you can have a car, a fast food, a home cleaning product etc.  If it’s a promo demo perhaps a broadcast network, a sports network, a news spot, etc..  All can have your “signature” sound but you are proving your signature works with different types of spots, genres and products.
3. “Don’t let your demo go stale. Keep your demo updated every year, if you can. If you have aged out of your demo, it is time to make a new one. That one demo you find perfect will not be the one you use forever. Make sure you update your demo as much as you can with new work, even if that means once a year. Fresher is always better.  Why? Clients want to catch you in the moment when others are hiring you as well.”  A final point as well: there is nothing more problematic than having an older spot on your demo which is distinctly from that period.  I had a great client who had a spot that opened with “Coming in 2001” in the first sentence of the first spot on his website.  To make a long story short, a producer ten years later who knew that person well had no problems poking fun and, although the producer may have been amusing for a second, he made his point.  I immediately called the voice client and told him he had to change the demo.
Feel free to let me know if this is helpful and be sure to check out the original post.

Circling Back: VO's Giving Back Part II

I had some great comments on my LinkedIn discussions re: Voice-Over performers giving back and I wanted to share a few quotes and add some thoughts to their points of view. Chris McHale, who I’ve known for a decade and is one of the great creatives in the industry, remarked, “your personal performance is the only one you control. Which means the only competition you have is yourself!”  He’s right and I’ve echoed this same thought thousands of times except I believe this advice is much more nuanced.   Chris’s point is spot-on for the audition process and for jobs but Chris mentions too that “so many elements play into it” (getting work) and, as a long-time agency creative/executive, very few have seen more.  Now I admit, choosing talent is subjective but what I see more often than not is the “elements” combine in a manner where the “best” talent(s), don’t actually get the work.  An obvious example of this is when we receive a commercial breakdown for a “trailer voice”.   There are only a couple dozen performers who actually make a living working in trailers, and they have honed their expertise over countless sessions and several years yet when that commercial comes to air… rarely will you hear the actual trailer voices.  Instead, there is an imitation of the trailer voice usually by a local actor despite actual trailer voices auditioning for the same job.   What happened?  It doesn’t really matter. The elements have “come into play” and someone else besides a "trailer voice" is working.

Another comment came from Howard Ellison who lives in UK who said among other things… “It’s amazing what you learn from helping others.”  I couldn’t agree more. In my line of business our “helping” or “teaching” is the same as “development.”  I know from personal experience that despite being in the very enviable position of working with amazing talent with great track records that unless I somehow consistently engage in “development,” I am leaving a vital part of my skills and expertise fallow.  What development is for me can be anything from working hand in hand on a new demo or focusing one-on-one on a new read but I admit I reserve my development for my clients so I can’t truly claim I’m being altruistic.

Dave Pettitt, who is an exceptional talent (and a client), comments “Unless I see a real talent and think I'd be willing to devote some time to mentoring that person, I say nothing. Then, it's up to them to take the bull and wrestle the hell out of it.”  I can’t tell you how much I support this line of thinking.  Any advice I give to new talent is often very linear and entails a handful of steps.  At the end of the conversation, I always give the talent the option of reaching back out to me once those steps have been taken.  Unfortunately, very few actually take the steps I suggest but the one’s who do, I know are serious and I’m keeping an eye out on them.

Finally, Joan Bogden (also an exceptional talent and a client), mentions her secondary career as a coach.  Joan begins by saying “true I get paid…” but explains that the “whole process continuously adds to my knowledge of the business, and I really enjoy and value collaborating with these folks.”  I enjoyed this comment so much because Joan is so transparent in that she is receiving dual value in her coaching career; 1) she is being paid for her expertise and 2) she receives personal fulfillment doing it.

Now let me be clear and say I’m not encouraging everybody go out there and coach or even pursue financial gain in offering your voice-over expertise, but I do believe in a system of quid pro quo and strongly encourage anyone helping someone else in this industry to consciously understand what the “return” is for them in providing their assistance.  Dave Pettitt and Joan Bogden both are clear about what they expect but what about everyone else?  What is the appropriate quid pro quo for your assistance in someone else’s career?  Let me know your thoughts.

The Hollywood Reporter Drops the Mic

I don’t know who saw this article last week in the Hollywood Reporter (http://tinyurl.com/ke5wehk) but it definitely has my hackles up. Beyond a very interesting projection of my own income, the article quotes the salaries of voice-overs starting with celebrities...

“You can do it on bad hair days, and it pays great. More and more top stars are lending their voice to TV and radio commercials. Robert Downey Jr. for Nissan, Morgan Freeman for Visa, Jon Hamm for Mercedes, Tim Allen for Michigan Tourism, Kevin Spacey for Honda, Lisa Kudrow for Yoplait, Queen Latifah for Pizza Hut ... the list goes on and on. 'The trend in terms of celebrities doing voiceover has been distinctly upward,' says Jeff Danis, president of DPN Talent, an agency that specializes in commercial voiceover work.”

While it is true Robert Downey Jr. et al are doing a bunch of voice-over work and Jeff Danis’s (my esteemed former colleague) assessment is dead on… here is where the inaccuracy lies…

“Big names like Freeman and Allen can command more than $1 million for an ad, which usually requires only a day's work.”

While I’m sure somebody has been paid $1 million or more for a single ad, the truth is with money that large, the clients are looking to create a campaign (ie multiple spots).  The examples of both Tim Allen and Morgan Freeman don’t account for the fact they did multiple spots for their main sponsors (GM and Visa respectively) and multiple spots usually come with multiple sessions.  In fact, every celeb negotiation I have been a part of consists of two main factors: number of sessions (days) and money.  Our job as agents has always been to get the money up to the highest and the sessions down to the fewest possible.

Then the article makes the following point...

“But major stars account for only about 20 percent of the voices you hear in commercials."

20 percent!  Maybe 20 percent of SAG/AFTRA work on network television but there is no way that celebrities account for that large of a percentage.  Watch an hour of Lifetime or VH-1 and you can go several commercial breaks without hearing a celebrity.  I’d guess the percentage is actually under 5% even accounting for a broad definition of celebrity.

“The other 80 percent — non-celebrity voice actors — don't make nearly that kind of dough. Typically, they'll earn scale, which works out to about $3,000 to $5,000 an ad.”

As anyone in commercials knows, a single ad can make $500.00 or in extreme cases $50,000 but the assessment of between $3,000 to $5,000 is at least in the ballpark.

Finally, while the heading within the article was for a “Commercial Voice-Over Actor,” Voice-Actors generally do voice work beyond just commercials.  Whether trailers, promos, narrations, political advertising, animation etc., there are more ways to be successful in voice-overs than just commercials and that kind of work (with the exception of animation) neither has been inundated with celebs nor likely will ever be because they are volume jobs with incredibly tight schedules that can’t wait for a celeb to get off the set to finish a project.  In other words, there are plenty of jobs for Voice-Over actors who aren’t celebrities.

I’ve now taken a few deep breaths and have calmed down.

Voice-Overs Giving Back

On the Friday before Labor Day, I had the pleasure of having a drink (or two) at Rafael Ferrer’s house in Connecticut.  Rafael and his wife are incredible hosts and whenever I have an excuse, I make a point to stopover (even if my intentions are obvious). We got to talking about the SAG Foundation’s gala the prior weekend which benefitted the Don LaFontaine Voice-Over Lab.  My colleague, Andrew Atkin, and I were both there (as well as several ACM clients) and I was telling Raf some stories from the event (it didn’t surprise me but Robert Hays is a great guy!) when I realized Raf was suddenly lost in thought.  Rafael knew Don fairly well and admired his skill, charisma and charity.  He was also one of the few voice-over performers who legitimately competed with Don despite Don being twenty years his senior.  As I continued speaking, Rafael finally just stopped me and asked an incredible question which I wasn’t prepared to answer: “Can voice-over performers give back to other voice performers without sacrificing their own careers?”

I fumbled about for an answer until finally I threw my hands up and asked, “why?”

Raf paused for a minute, reflecting in a manner I’ve rarely seen from him, until finally he said: “I’ve always wanted to give back myself but I’ve never known how.  From the moment I got into the business I was always competing for the same jobs against other actors.  It just seems too contradictory to want to work and help others at the same time.”

Rafael then went on to tell me a story about having to re-audition for the announcer on a 90’s Miller Genuine Draft campaign.  MGD was Raf’s first real job and the campaign launched his career while he was in his early 30’s after a decade of struggling like most New York actors.   The night before the re-audition, he got a call from his brother, Miguel, who called to say he was auditioning for the job in LA.  If that wasn’t bad enough, when Rafael walked into the casting room the following day, who does he see first waiting to read…  his own legendary father.  “All's fair in love and war,”his father would say and Rafael knew if he was in his father’s position, he would have said the same.

Jose Ferrer, the actor, was absolutely correct in that moment but my question is…is there a better way?  Is it possible to compete and even dominate at the highest levels in voice-overs while still encouraging/helping/mentoring other performers who aspire to similar heights?  Let me know what you think?