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Changing Channels

NOTE: I recently wrapped the "virtual book tour" for SUB-LEBRITY. It was a fun four weeks -- thank you to Goddess Fish Promotions. Part of the tour was writing "guest blogs" for select book blogs. Near the end, I was running out of ideas for all those blog posts!

Luckily, I had a few chapters I cut from the book that I was able to repurpose.

Here is the original final chapter to my book, written before Indy Shorts and Heartland Film came along to honor Old Dogs & New Tricks (and gave SUB-LEBRITY a new, much happier ending), edited slightly for one of those blogs.

Recent, rapid technological advances have been huge game-changers in show business. Yes, it’s made exposure more accessible to all. It even helped me finally create my own sitcom after over twenty years in the industry.

But it’s altered film and TV as much as the publishing and music industries, in ways large and small. Sometimes I barely recognize my industry at all anymore.

Television had already changed drastically since the 1970s, when it first inspired me to be an actor. But advances in just the past decade are mind-boggling. When we first launched Old Dogs & New Tricks in 2011, Amazon was just a place to buy CDs and books. Netflix was still in the DVD rental business.

Now, every company short of the Waffle House has its own “network.” Netflix, Hulu and Amazon dominate the Emmys as HBO once had. Literally hundreds of shows come and go. It seems next to impossible to keep up with so many shows, harder still to accomplish “market penetration.” Small loyal audiences are now just as impressive to advertisers as casual large audiences.

There is a plus side. Once the bastard stepchild of Hollywood, the television industry is now more respected than the feature film industry.

On the downside, it’s harder than ever for unknowns to break in.

When I grew up watching TV, there was a stable of journeyman actors, respected in the industry but otherwise unknown – actors you’d recognize in the supermarket without remembering their names – who made their careers in guest-starring roles, season after season.

Those days are long gone.

With so many former “big names” now scrambling for work – any work – those one-and-done episodic guest roles now go to them. It’s called “stunt casting” and it gets ratings. I know; I’ve done it myself when casting guest stars on Old Dogs & New Tricks.

Perhaps the biggest alteration in the show-biz fabric? You’re holding it in your hands. Its social media.

To stay relevant, stars and wannabes alike must post constantly – fab photos on Instagram, witty political bytes on Twitter, upcoming appearances on Facebook. (And even more apps this old fart doesn’t use.)

Producers, networks, casting people want “influencers.” Now, the number of followers an actor has is often as important as the amount of talent s/he offers – sadly, sometimes more important. It often makes the difference between who gets the part and who doesn’t.

Some young “actors” make mint not by starring in some sitcom or releasing a hit song, but by simply posting photos of themselves drinking this energy drink, wearing those sneakers, checking into that hotel.

Speaking of social media, there’s a reason your favorite A-List movie stars are lining up to star in TV series on cable and streaming services, and not just because the quality now exceeds films, or because the seasons are usually shorter than network shows.

In today’s blink-and-the-conversation’s-moved-on era of total media saturation and one million channels, stars (and their managers and agents) realize starring in one big-budget film every 12 or 18 months isn’t enough to stay in the dialogue longer than a week or two. By next week, everyone will be talking about something else. New product is needed constantly to keep fans engaged, and you need to be in as much of it as possible.

It’s all just too exhausting to think about.

Laurence tells me, I’m a better actor now than I’ve ever been. And he’s right. I have chops. My emotions are fluid. I no longer require “prep time” to “get into character.”

The irony is, while I’m better than ever, I’ve never had fewer opportunities.

I’ve also never felt less ambitious to chase after them – which may be the biggest seismic change (at least personally) of all!

But even auditioning is completely different now – altered even before COVID-19 sent us all home. Self-tape? Seriously? That’s no fun! I don’t like taking selfies!

I’ve also been spoiled rotten by working with a thoroughly prepared and professional crew and cast on Old Dogs & New Tricks. It’s much harder to bite my tongue now when new colleagues don’t match the professionalism to which I’ve grown accustomed. Sometimes I don’t bite my tongue at all – not the best way to generate work or a reputation. Case in point:

Huddled in a shadowy North Hollywood storefront to avoid the blistering sunshine, actor Wenzel Jones and I waited for our extremely late director to show up for rehearsal. When the director arrived some twenty-plus minutes later, he informed us he lost the keys to the theatre. We’d have to rehearse on the roof, he said, until the theatre owner showed up.

“I am not rehearsing on the roof in this heat!” I snapped. And I didn’t stop there. “I expect my director to be inside the theatre, waiting and ready to start rehearsal on time. Why should we care about being punctual if you don’t?”

Rightly cowed, the director scrambled off. Feeling instantly guilty, I turned to Wenzel.

“Why can’t I be one of those actors who can go off on a director without immediately feeling bad afterwards?”

“There’s a name for actors like that, Leon,” Wenzel deadpanned. “They’re called ‘stars.’”

One thing I know: I am not, never have been, and never will be a “star.” I know what I am. And I’m quite happy with my obscure status of “sub-lebrity.” Perhaps now more than ever!

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