Long-time readers (and those who have heard me at speaking engagements) might know about my “What Were You Thinking?!?” file. I know, I know, no actor loves to hear that CDs and agents keep a file of the most ridiculous submissions we receive, but we all do. Be happy that most of us keep ’em in a file. Some post ’em up on the wall! Me? I post headshots of the actors I’ve cast in my most recent projects up on the wall. Ahh… much better!

But I was thinking about gimmicks actors throw money into, considering which ones land the actors on my radar (in the good way) and which ones get the actors a top spot in that “What Were You Thinking?!?” file. What I’ve realized, whenever I show some of the more outrageous gimmicks to actor friends who visit (No, I don’t bring the file to do “show and tell” at speaking engagements. Too risky. The actor in the front row might be the top offender. Oops), that actors are both worried their “gimmicks” are too off-the-wall and amazed at how beyond their wildest imagination the worst gimmicks are.

So, this week’s column is here to assure you that most of you are doing just fine, to caution those who probably don’t bother reading this column that you’re wasting your money, and to amuse you all along the way.

Huge Wastes of Money

Ah, actors love to throw money at the “problem” of being known. I have received:

  • A plate of cookies (no thanks, I’m gluten-free.) with an actor’s headshot screen-printed on them in the icing.
  • A coffee mug (no thanks, I drink water and potato vodka exclusively) with an actor’s headshot printed on it.
  • A canvas tote bag (seriously, I have plenty) with an actor’s headshot screen-printed on one side, his resumé printed on the other. Like I want to carry that around!
  • A metal box of “1990s poetry magnets” with each word an “essence” of the actor. Fun for my fridge, but totally out of context now. Don’t even remember who sent ’em, because her headshot is long gone.
  • A roll of toilet paper (again, I have plenty, thanks) with an actor’s resumé hand-written on it. Now, think about this: What are you telling us? What message are you sending? Just, ew.
  • A box of Chinese takeout filled with… well… let me show you.

Now, while I appreciate a themed mailing, the contents of this particular mailing were a little odd. We’re talking: fortune cookies with the actors’ name and phone number on the fortune slips (clever, but expensive, I’d imagine), a takeout menu featuring the actor’s “flavors” and “qualities” (a little much), a bunch of candy I can’t eat, and a highlighter with the actor’s name and website on a loosely-glued sticker wrapped around it… all packed in a box that certainly cost something to buy, and then another two bucks to get to my mailbox. And for what? I now identify you — Caucasian blonde mid-20s actor with decent training and a huge budget for “stuff” — with Chinese takeout and a big expense to promote yourself in a way that doesn’t brand you appropriately? No. Not good.

If you are gonna spend a buttload to market yourself, make it for real. Make it vibe with who you really are. Make it sing.

Not a huge fan of stuff where actors are trying to sell me their mini-CD. I mean, I don’t know anyone anymore who actually uses a “tray” to load in a CD or mini-CD or anything else.

We all use links. Spend your money on a link to something already online. Not a mini-CD. I’m not putting that stuff in my drive, no matter how much I love your work!

Here’s another example of an actor whose work I actually love, but who spent so much money on a promotional item that CDs who don’t know her work might wonder if she’s spending enough on classes.

Now, this promotional mailing earns bonus points, with its theme. “Take a gamble on me.” There’s cards, and dice, and a chip, and miniaturized actor headshot, resumé, list of reviews, and a “cover letter,” basically. Very cute, and cost under a buck to mail. BUT… I already remembered this actor in such a positive way, having seen her work in an acting class I visited as a guest speaker. And then this kit arrived, and it’s just SO overwhelming, compared to the “taste of excellence” the actor already left with me. So, this is a cautionary tale about making sure your gimmicks further seal the deal, rather than scaring us off from what we’re already feeling.

Stuff That Costs You Nothing… But Your Reputation

So, this is where it gets weird. And I hope I’ve done a good job masking the identities of these folks, as I have to assume they had a good plan, going in. Yes, brand yourself. Yes, make sure the industry gets to know you as who you ARE. But be smart about the way you spend your money and your energy. Here’s a couple of postcards I got from an actor-slash-stand-up-comedian trying to get on my radar shortly after the Abu Ghraib scandal and during the (in his mind) always appropriate cross-burning promotional effort.

I’m sorry. No bonus points for using a Black History Month postage stamp on your postcard. I don’t know how funny you might be as a comic, but you are now officially on my radar as a racist actor. Yay. When I need one of those, I’ll let you know. Oh, wait. No, I won’t. I’ll cast an actor I respect to play the part of anything else. You, right now, have told me you’re not welcome on most sets I populate. Good for you.

Don’t draw on hair you don’t have. Don’t draw on braces you don’t have. Don’t black out teeth. Don’t create unibrows for the sake of being creative. Just, no.

Oh, and how do I love the naked photos I receive? So, so, so very much (not). It’s hilarious how many times actors will send me emails filled with attachments of photos of their naked selves. Why? I’ve cast — in 400 speaking roles thus far — a grand total of eight roles that involve even a “side boob,” for the love of all that is holy! So, why are you sending me emails in which you reveal your… um… everything? I mean, that’s SO not casting. Uh, I mean, thanks, but no.

Costs You Nothing, and Better!

In the exact opposite direction (AKA, where it’s GOOD) is that you should consider signing off on the release form when you get your photos taken and then again when you get your photos processed. Yes! You can give someone the rights to include your headshot on their website, in their promotional material, on their business card as an example of how much they rock… and YOU rock!

Less cool ideas include doing lifesize posters of yourself or sharing clippings of body parts (*shudder* I wish I were kidding) of yourself.

Good Gimmicks

There are “good gimmicks.” They’re very simple, cost-effective, and wonderful in terms of branding. Because, in the end, you do want to put yourself on others’ radar as someone who will always be “that guy.” And there are ways to make that happen without spending all of your lunch money.

For example, brand yourself with a font, with a color, with a feel, a vibe that is felt through your headshots, your cover letters, your resumés, your websites. It’s all about showing the industry how to get you, but it’s not important to spend a ton of money in order to make that true. In fact, the more money you spend, the more you creep us out. Really.

I do like creative stuff. For example, I received a really great “It’s my 35th birthday and now I can run for president but instead I’m gonna throw myself a party in support of candidate so-and-so,” party invitation postcard. That’s a wonderful way for an actor to land on my radar, show me his life is bigger than his acting career, and also make me laugh. Even if I’m not into being there, it’s funny and that’s good. Believe me, we do love the funny. 😉

I really like useful items, like letter openers. Pens are good too. Also notepads on which your headshot is a small part of the pad. Expendable items are always popular in casting offices and agencies. Because if we can use something every day that you provided, that’s gonna be a “yay you” in that respect. Sure, we can also buy it from Staples (and probably will) but, bonus points for trying, just the same.

Passive “gimmicks” are okay (like photo postage stamps) because that’s more like subliminal advertising and it’s not going to be seen as offensive or desperate, nor will it usually be seen by the CD herself. Useful items like letter openers, pens or pencils, stress balls are all good.

I love the idea of an actor showing off where her latest film will be screened. Check this out!

What a smart use of marketing dollars! You’re going to be at Sundance or the collective other film festivals going on over there and you have something showing up on the radar. Why not spend the three months before that letting folks know they can get to know your work, just by showing up to a screening they might attend anyway? Great idea! I love it! Brilliant use of bucks!

Closing Tips

Remember that when you’re using a gimmick (especially one that’s expensive or way over the top), you’re giving us the opportunity to ask ourselves, “What is this actor overcompensating for? Is it a lack of talent? Is it lack of confidence?” Doesn’t matter if you have all the money in the world to throw at gimmicks; you’re going to make us wonder what it is you DON’T have, if you really overdo it. So, aim for the right level. Choose marketing plans that help you stand out for what you’re great at, that help us see how right you are for one particular role, that help us GET YOU. But don’t over-spend. Don’t overdo. And definitely, don’t overcompensate.

We’ll thank you. Even as our “What Were You Thinking?!?” files get thinner.

Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!

Originally published by Actors Access at Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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