The Face Of Tech
Tech Is Turning Commercial Actors Against Themselves
A version of this story appeared in the June 28th, 2017 issue of SF Weekly.
Meets The Eye Studio in San Carlos is a sea of green. A massive slime-green wall gently slopes down to a slime-green floor. It feels like the bottom of a pool. Tennis balls hang from tethers all across the ceiling. They’re for computer mapping. We’re working with some special effects today.
I’m here for a commercial shoot as the principal talent. I have no real idea what we’re shooting. I never do. But, I wipe the bottom of my shoes with a clorox wipe and step into the pool. I pantomime swiping a phone, standing up from a chair, putting a jacket on, and walking off camera. We do five or six takes. I go to the craft table to drink my 4th cup of coffee, careful to not get any on my shirt.
There’s a whole class of actors in the Bay Area that near exclusively service the tech industry. They are comedians, musicians, entrepreneurs. They’re fathers and wives. They’re writers and climbers. And they all make a living being the smiling faces of the tech movement.
“You have to take it super seriously to make it full time.” That’s Andy Strong, 33, though you’d never guess it. He’s a compressed ball of energy; he can’t sit still. He’s a musician, and does marketing over at Pianofight. He’s done everything from HP to Intel to Salesforce. “The people doing it where it’s their full time hustle — you’re always doing it.”
That it, essentially the real job and hustle of these commercial actors, is auditioning. Endless auditioning. A barrage of standing in front of tripods at one of the Bay’s many casting offices — Nancy Hayes, Beau Bonneau, International Casting — and trying to convince a faceless stranger that you’re charming.
That’s the life of actors everywhere, it’s the reality of auditioning. You keep an open schedule and criss-cross the city going from casting to casting. But, one thing is quickly separating San Francisco from places like LA and New York — there’s more work than ever, but the money seems to be drying up.
“Industry wide, no matter what city you’re in, there’s a mentality of ‘You should just be thankful to be working. You should be thankful that we picked you.’”
James Carr-Nelson, 27, is a Bay Area personification. He’s an entrepreneur, business consultant, and a handsome hippie that spits solid business ideas at weekday parties like I spit movie references. He’s worked with Apple, Google, HP, and is currently at the center of a social media campaign for Gusto. You may have seen it on Instagram, it’s everywhere.
Carr-Nelson’s Gusto ad falls under a contract called “New Media.” Basically, it means ads on the Internet. New Media contracts are the Bay Area actor’s bread and butter, but it’s a complicated relationship. Traditional commercial work — the stuff you see on TV — is generally run through the Screen Actors Guild, and pays on usage. If you, as an actor, book a gig under “Traditional Media,” you’re going to get paid based on how long the ad runs, how many times it runs in that span, and how many days you worked on it. In New Media, you’re going to get paid for your time that day, and that’s it. In exchange, the production company receives unlimited usage across all New Media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, banner ads.
“The concept they’re trying to push,” says Carr-Nelson, “I believe, is that, ‘Well, we don’t really know how to rate it in terms of how much usage we’re gonna get’… But, with New Media, that’s the easiest to track exactly how many plays, exactly how many views. You can see how many clicks there were and see how successful the actual ad was. And so all these things could be tied into the revenue and residual stream, and should, way more than a normal TV’s thirteen week usage.”
They could, but they’re not. To their credit, the Screen Actors Guild is trying. They’re currently on strike with eleven major video game companies over a new contract. Video games are a massive market in 2017, and are becoming increasingly dependent on real actors using motion capture technology. SAG is working to get talent the contract they deserve.
“Most actors in the Bay Area don’t know how to stick up for themselves, or don’t feel empowered enough…”
One of the companies they’re striking is Take 2 Interactive. Take 2 owns 2k Games, responsible for a huge series of games including Bioshock, Mafia I, II, and III, and the NBA2k series. 2k Games, despite the strike, held open auditions in Petaluma this June. Plenty showed up.
“Industry wide, no matter what city you’re in, there’s a mentality of ‘You should just be thankful to be working. You should be thankful that we picked you.’” That’s Michael Abts, 35. He’s worked with everybody: eBay, Samsung, LG. Notably, he was featured in an motion-capture animated short directed by Spike Lee for NBA2k16, put out by 2k Games. He’s a husband and a father. He has a big red beard and takes his business seriously.
“People will sit there and say ‘Oh my gosh I can’t believe you made a thousand dollars for a day,’” says Abts. “And it’s like, well, the thing is, the market determines what I make, ultimately. If a company tried to offer a computer engineer in Silicon Valley $80,000 a year, he would say ‘Fuck off, I can go down the street and make $220k.’” That engineer would have every right to do that. So, why don’t actors?
“Most actors in the Bay Area don’t know how to stick up for themselves, or don’t feel empowered enough to do that,” says Abts. And he’s right. There is a certain amount of guilt involved with acting. Trying to make it as an actor or artist in a city as expensive as San Francisco is really hard. Sure, part of you might know that $1,000 for a starring role on a production budgeted at $70,000 with an unlimited usage clause is questionable, but that’s $1,000 in a day. When most of your friends are clocking in at coffee shops and internships, you can’t complain. So, the common consensus is keep your mouth shut and be grateful.
A $1,000 day rate is pretty high, by the way. Generally, you’re looking at $400-$800, but it can go as low as $75. Considering that agency fees take 20%, plus taxes, plus all the auditioning that doesn’t pay, it’s not a lot. But this attitude of grateful humility is creating a real market effect.
“For some reason,” says Abts, “The market in the Bay Area has said that you can get a good actor for $200. And that’s bullshit.”
Acting, of course, is not the only industry experiencing this effect. Uber, Lyft, Task Rabbit, Wag!, Post Mates, and scores of other sharing economy services advertise on the basis of how working for yourself equals freedom. Ads and testimonials about stay-at-home parents making a living by driving are everywhere, and these ads are all, essentially, saying the same thing — Thank you, tech company. I am now free to live my life on my own terms.
Anybody that works with these services knows how strained they can make you. I was a Task Rabbit for a while, and spent most of my time waiting in lines at some expensive brunch joint for tech-rich thirty-somethings. It was terrible. People were rude to me and I was reminded how poor I was all day long. However, it was $25 to wait in a line and scroll Instagram. It’s not like it was hard. Who am I to complain?
The tech industry — for actors, drivers, and most of San Francisco — is like a cartoon king sitting on a mountain of gold and graciously passing out single coins to his servants. At a certain point, we’ve all looked around, watched sandwiches cross $14 and the skyline get staked, and realized that we really, really need that coin. So we accept it, and complain amongst ourselves in the kitchen, and then go out and accept another one.
The San Carlos ad ended up being for luxury apartments. They transposed my body into an animated schematic of a home office with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the San Francisco skyline. It was a home I could never imagine living in.
The editors of the ad must have decided that it would be best if the viewer could imagine themselves in the apartment, the way a mannequin allows a person to see themselves in an outfit. At my animated desk, I swipe my phone, and the house lights dim. It’s a smart house. The camera angle goes wide, and I am silhouetted by the skyline. My face has been completely cast in a computer generated shadow. I throw on a jacket, and walk off camera into the San Francisco night a couple hundred richer. The added shadows, in order to generalize, have left me unrecognizable.