More Zap Productions

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Posted Oct 31 2002

Corporate Events and Industrials business

Michelle Zeitlin, founder of More Zap, offers her thoughts...

The Other Industry
By Cassie Carpenter
Publication: Back Stage West
Date: Thursday, October 31 2002

Some think of corporate art as, well, stinky. No matter how impressive a modern steel sculpture is when displayed in the courtyard of a 100-story skyscraper, it still reeks of capital expenditure. Still, as odd a couple as they make, art and commerce have always complemented each other in ways that profit both.

For nearly 45 years, live industrials (also called live corporate communication, live marketing, or business theatre) have used this union to give performers the opportunity not only to profit but also to shed some creative light and entertain while delivering a message or introducing a new product to the corporate marketplace. Contrary to what many may believe about industrials, the people who produce, direct, choreograph, and perform at these large trade shows, cavernous convention centers, and stuffy hotel meeting rooms feel a certain satisfaction in the work.

The three major categories in the live industrial environment are: 1.) The heavily produced show, which takes the budget and flashiness of Broadway shows and redirects the stories to sell; 2.) corporate theatre, which consists of skits that are generally smaller in scale and use actors in roles as company employees discovering a new training procedure or product, and 3.) presentations with a narrator or demonstrator onstage delivering pages of technical information and supported by video or Power-Point slides. While it's usually not glamorous work, it can be a lucrative gig for actors.

As Bob Dallmeyer, a veteran freelance producer of industrial exhibitions since the late 1960s, said, "It's not Broadway. It's not MGM. It's not Chekhov. It's an industrial. If you look on it as yet another avenue to hone your craft and do your thing, then you love industrials."

Macbeth to McDonalds

Though some actors might assume that live industrial work is a breeze, it's not as easy as it looks. Michelle Zeitlin is the CEO of More Zap Productions and More Zap 2. Along with her partner Nancy Gregory, she has produced, directed, and choreographed a lot of the flashier, Broadway-style industrials. Zeitlin tells her actors to let their fourth wall come crumbling down. "I used to joke, 'Think bar mitzvah,'" she said. "One minute the actor is projecting to several thousand people from a podium; the next they're talking to a camera and then shaking hands with everyone." Zeitlin believes that to do this type of work, actors need the range to be able to go from doing Macbeth to talking about McDonalds. "It's a hard adjustment, but if you have a hard time with selling, then you shouldn't be in the corporate world at all."

As actors who work in industrials quickly find out, the focus is never on them. "The star is not really the performers," said Joanne DiVito, formerly the CEO of DiVito Productions, which produced industrials for such major corporations as Mazda and Apple. "The star is always the product, but for some reason that's a really good way to try your skills out—because you never feel like you necessarily fail. The only failure is not getting the account next year."

In other words, the industrial actor is also part salesperson.

"You are trying to present a product or service in a way that is going to make the attendee want to purchase it," explained C.C. Carr, a narrator for the last 10 years. "So it is sales, and an actor who doesn't understand that isn't going to be successful."

With this emphasis on selling, some actors can feel torn from their creativity and find this type of work beneath them. Carr offers a warm, cozy thought: "I like to say that it's demeaning all the way to the bank, because it's extremely lucrative."

Just how much money can an actor make in the corporate industrial world? "If you're just meeting and greeting, then it's around $200 a day," said Judy Venn, CEO of Judy Venn & Associates. "For narrating/presenting, pay can range from $450 all the way up to $1,500 a day, depending on the length and technicality of the script. The average shows run three to four days, although a big show like Conix is an eight-day show in Las Vegas."

Money is not the only reward in this kind of work. Wendy Guess, an attractive blonde actor who lives in L.A., has found that strangers often underestimate her because of her looks. However, whenever she works in industrials, she feels that she is appreciated for her intelligence, in addition to her appearance. "I love when I'm narrating, because I feel like people are giving me credit for being an intelligent woman and not some bimbo," she said. Guess also gives industrials credit for her nice car, great apartment, and zero debt. "Of course I'd rather have Jennifer Aniston's career, but that's hard to get. So the money I make narrating gives me the freedom and the money to pursue the acting."

Even though you may have to wait two months to get your check, the pay is so good that those who work in this industry can easily be labeled as sell-outs. "You're doing a big show for a big company, and just because the company is selling a product, some people feel like you're selling out. But it doesn't feel like that at all," said DiVito. "It can be a very creative experience. On one show in the '80s we had a $3 million budget and we were using lasers even before they were used on Broadway. So we were inventing new possibilities and ways of doing shows."

Contract Confusion

Typically many industrial jobs fall under Equity's Live Corporate Communications contract, but there is much confusion about the union's jurisdiction over this industry. Many actors have no clue that there is a live industrial contract available, because Equity has so much trouble enforcing and policing it. "It's hard to monitor something that's not public domain. These are all private corporate things," said Don Hill, business rep for Equity. "They don't want taxes coming out, and they don't want dues coming out. [The actors] are afraid that if they approach the producer and ask where the Equity contract is, they'll be blackballed and never hired again."

For actors who have agents, it's up to the agents to ask where the contract is, and that's just not happening every time. Sometimes Hill finds out about these trade shows when the actor calls up the night before starting work to ask if the gig should be under contract. The budgets for these events generally get set months—even years—in advance, and then Hill must try to track down someone in charge when it may be a payroll company that's legally the employer, responsible for state and federal tax compliance and W2s.

Said Hill, "It would really take a full-time employee or two in each of the regions knocking on all the production company doors, and the cost to effectively do that versus the amount of work it would net for the members under contract is a questionable issue at this point."

AFTRA also has an industrial contract for its members, but it is not always enforced. Mathis Dunn, the national assistant executive director of commercials and non-broadcast at AFTRA, handles taped industrials, and he faces some of the same complications as Hill. "If [performers] don't contact the union, then the employer can pay whatever he or she wants, and they get no health or retirement contributions, earn no money toward their pension credits, and there's no protection in terms of what the employer can do with the videotape. They could take it and use it any number of ways without the performer's consent," said Dunn.

In Like Flynn

The same adjective kept coming up when people spoke of finding work in this field: close-knit. Producers and directors often use the same stable of actors each time because they know this talent can do the job and companies tend to latch on to their people with a loyalty not found in most other parts of the entertainment industry. "Every job is an opportunity for another job," Zeitlin said. "In the industrial production world everybody knows everybody, which works for you or against you depending on if you're good and have a good attitude. Most likely, people will recommend you all the time because it's a small circuit."

"It's quite an insular world," confessed Luke Yankee, who has worked for Dick Clark Corporate Productions and Mattel on a number of industrials. "But once you're in, you're in. They tend to use the same people over and over again, and it's really a matter of whether the client likes them."

If you are an actor and are interested in getting work in industrials, try to find out which casting directors and agencies specialize in industrial work. Make sure they know about your special skills, from singing and dancing to juggling or magic, because these trade shows can come up with some pretty strange requests. Venn recalls one time when a company wanted two girls—one in a space suit and the other clad in a bikini and covered in tattoos.

Since 1992 Barbara Passolt has been an actor in this small circuit. "It's an easier sell than trying to get on a movie. You just have to find the people who do industrials," she said. This means word-of-mouth, referrals, attending casting calls that you see on bulletin boards and in publications like Back Stage West, and networking like crazy. Advised Passolt, "If you see a call in the paper and you don't think you're quite right for it, you might still go anyway just to meet the people." She also recommended going to studios like Screenland and Debbie Reynolds where there are often signs on the wall advertising for work on industrials.

Newcomers who suddenly decide they want to do industrial narration will hit a wall when trying to audition for it, because there are never any auditions; casting is done through demo reels. What to do? You cannot get work narrating/presenting without a tape, yet you can't make a demo reel without doing work. Still, actors break in to this field.

Unless doing training videos, during which they can obtain a copy of their work, most actors need to get creative in terms of building a demo reel for industrial work. When Guess had her first gig narrating, she made sure to hire a videographer to record it. One clip turned into two, then three, until suddenly she had a demo reel that companies could see before making their choice on who could best represent them.

Welcome Aboard

If you think of the ideal flight attendant, you'll get a pretty good sense of what qualities many of these companies crave: someone who is corporate- and authoritative-looking, charismatic, credible, approachable, helpful, humorous, and professional. Indeed a lot of companies hire flight attendants for their industrials. "It doesn't cost [companies] any airfare. They take care of the hotel and daily rates, and that's it," explained Venn, whose agency specializes in talent for industrials. She reps a number of flight attendants, among her many clients.

As most of the attendees at industrials are men, imagine what things looked like 30 years ago. "When I first started, these companies were using modeling agencies and had these girls in hot pants and go-go boots to draw people in," Venn recalled. "Our motto is: We're there to sell your product—not her products. Especially as the years went by and more and more women were becoming buyers and attending these conventions, it would turn them off completely. They were not going to buy from those companies that had the sleazy model look versus the professional look, which I tried bringing into it over the years."

Most people familiar with the industry will tell you that the look needed varies, depending on the business searching for talent. Companies are looking mostly for people in their 30s or 40s who can act like they know what they're talking about—whether investment banking, medical devices, airline technology, or the newest computer gadget. Like any role, actors hired for industrial have to pass the believability test. "You honestly cast it like you were going to cast a movie," Bob Dallmeyer said.

Tools and Skills

While experience helps in industrial gigs, companies always welcome newcomers—at least those who fit what they're looking for. Still, do our homework if you want to work in it.

"You don't have to be experienced. Someone will give you a shot, but you've got to do the groundwork," Carr explained. That means having the specific tools and skills needed in this profession.

But Zeitlin insists actors have a better chance of getting work if they're techno-savvy to a degree. "If they don't have a cellphone and they don't check their e-mail, then you generally don't want to work with them, because the industry is very gadget-friendly, very international, and very globalized. So you want someone who is at least comfortable using a computer," she said. Zeitlin also recommended getting a three-quarter shot instead of a headshot, so the hirers can get a sense of the body and movement. She also said the picture will work best if it is more like a commercial headshot than a theatrical one.

In addition to building a demo reel, you'll also need to purchase an "earprompter," a subtle device that fits in your ear and functions as a soundtrack to guide you through pages and pages of technical jargon and marketing lingo. They cost $300 to $800—wireless is the more expensive. But according to Carr, who teaches an earprompter course in Las Vegas, you can easily make that money back on the first day of a job.

Not every company views the earprompter as a standard tool of the trade. Said Luke Yankee, "They don't allow people to use earprompters [at Mattel]. In fact, it's frowned upon here. I did one show for Fisher Price, and there was this woman who was an absolute master at it, and when they found out she was using one they did not like it. They wanted her to memorize the copy. They were afraid it would sound automatic, and they had a prejudice against them."

Carr sees this as the minority opinion. "Some people don't like it because they've worked with talent who are robotic on it. I think clients don't care if you get the material beamed down from the Starship Enterprise," she said. It's a good idea to lay off the earprompter and memorize the script if you're doing a presentation that requires quick repartee with another person onstage, however.

Economy's Ebb and Flow

Because this industry is so business oriented, the amount and scale of work nesessarily depends on the world economy. In the 1980s, everything was booming, and industrials were big budget and absolutely everywhere. Then in 1991, when the recession hit, there was a major dip in the amount of work out there. The dot-com phenomenon brought younger, more techno trade shows to the fore, followed by the technology crash, which brought it right back down. Because of 9/11, many people said proposals were dropped and events were either cancelled altogether or postponed, particularly because the industry rests heavily on traveling.

"Companies are cutting corners all the way around, and we're usually the first thing to go," said Holly Kennedy, a producer of industrials for the past six years. "They still have their sales meeting and teach people about the new stuff, but they don't need to hire Tina Turner to do it,"

Carr has seen one of her clients drop the trade show venue entirely and hold smaller, more targeted sales meetings or "vertical meetings" instead. "They pulled out completely because of the cost, the economy, and the fact that they would be more effective with a smaller space and more targeted audience," she explained. "Trade show managers are always under the gun to prove that sales have been made because of the trade shows."

Many companies are also now using their company websites to stream live footage of industrial presentations or training videos online. This technology has allowed companies to deliver information to their employees without having to rent a convention center, fly their people across the country, or set them up in hotels.

While the economy has affected the industrial business and forced companies to be more cost-effective, there is still plenty of industrial work to be found.

Said Yankee, "I don't think work will ever totally dry up for actors in this regard because [companies] have to promote their products if they want to sell them." BSW

 

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