Actors Headshots as a Marketing Tool

homeslider1The truth about how your headshot markets you the actor.

This blog is written mainly from the perspective of film and TV auditions. The auditions that I refer to are professional auditions for paid acting work.

Lets get some things straight first.

What headshots don’t do.

  • Your headshot is nothing to do with your talent.
  • Your headshot is nothing to do with your inner self. It’s not a mirror of your soul.
  • Headshots don’t get you an acting job. Acting gets you acting jobs. (They can get you a commercial though!)

What headshots can do.

  • Headshots are about your brand.
  • Headshots are part of your marketing package.
  • Your headshot can get you on a casting directors short list.
  • Headshots can get you auditions.

Headshots introduce you the actor to the casting director. It is your first impression, don’t let it be your last. Without a great headshot you limit your chances of being seen for top class film and TV auditions.

Actors have to realise that, though acting is an art form, actors are a business and any business needs to be marketed. You need to develop your brand and present yourself to casting directors professionally. CD’s are busy people. They see a lot headshots, CV’s, showreels and self tapes. They instinctively know whether you have taken a pride with your promotional material and presented yourself to the business in a professional way.

How well you are marketing your brand? You would not invent the best potato crisp in the world and then put it into a plain brown paper bag would you? see article

The Headshot.

Visual stereotyping by association. Unconscious cognition.

Here is a quote from a Spotlight interview with Casting Director Bonny Gillespie.

What are the most popular pieces of advice you’ve heard from casting directors?

“Without question, in interviewing hundreds of casting directors I most frequently heard frustrated cries of, ‘Look like your headshots!’ It wasn’t until I went into casting that I realized how overwhelmingly often actors walk in for a casting session looking nothing like their photographs. It’s because of this that casting offices are often closed off to newer actors. It’s not because casting directors won’t take risks on an unknown actor; it’s because we’re never sure we’re even going to meet an actor who looks anything like his or her headshot!” see article

Casting headshots have to achieve two objectives. They have to look like the actor and they have to be relevant to the visual stereotype of that actor. I know that the word stereotype is a taboo term as far as actors are concerned. “I can’t be put in a box” I here them cry but wether you like it or not stereotyping (through unconscious cognition and association) is a process by which we learn and recognise everything around us and this includes educational stereotyping and stereotyping through the media. The process results in implicit attitudes which shape our decision making. Your unconscious mind is involved in the process right now, recognising and associating items you are seeing and hearing and understanding the world around you. Without this your visual and aural world would be in total chaos because you would not be able to understand ‘your world’, recognise or label anything you see or hear and your decision making processes would be in tatters. Your personal education and experiences will increase the depth and influence of your associations. You may be able to determine whether an accent is Cornish or Yorkshire or music you hear is from the classical period or the romantic. You might be able to distinguish between a Caribbean or an African, a Thai or Chinese. The greater you can drill down then the greater your aural and visual literacy. The greater the depth of your associations the greater depth of your understanding.

So with that in mind when we are confronted with description of a character type i.e. 60 year old English vicar, parish in Suffolk, has been there 30 years, adored by all and has devilish sense of humour your unconscious has already a decent idea of what this person might look like. Doesn’t it?  Try looking at people opposite you on a train. Work out who you might like to talk to, are attracted to, do you perceive them as aggressive, judge what they might do for a living by what they are wearing and what they are carrying, what might their ethnic origins be.You are processing all that information through association and stereotypes and those associations are a learned process created within your unconscious. Studies from as far back as the seventies show that our brains begin to prepare for action just over a third of a second before we consciously decide to act. In other words, even when we ‘think’ we are conscious, it is our unconscious mind which is actually making our decisions for us.

“And it seems the unconscious mind is running us on its automatic pilot mode, 95% of the time! Neuroscientists have shown that the conscious mind provides 5% or less of our cognitive (conscious) activity during the day – and 5% they say is for the more aware people, many people operate at just 1% consciousness. Stanford University professor Dr Bruce Lipton. also says that the unconscious mind operates at 40 million bits of data per second, whereas the conscious mind processes at only 40 bits per second. So the unconscious mind is MUCH more powerful than the conscious mind, and it is the unconscious mind which shapes how we live our life.

The scientists show that most of our decisions, actions, emotions and behavior depend on the 95% of brain activity that is beyond our conscious awareness, which means that 95 – 99% of our life comes from the programming in our unconscious mind.” see article

The decisions made whilst viewing your headshot are made at 40 million data bytes a second. I used to call the process the nano second moment. If I showed you a large poster full of different colours and asked you to point out all the red ones then you can easily do that at speed. Your conscious action of choosing is simply mirroring your unconscious response to what it knows as red. It would do the same if the input was “point at the pensioner”, “choose 30 year old nice dad, happily married with 2 kids”, or more complicated briefs.

Your headshot will create a set of triggered responses that the person who is looking at them has little to no control of. These responses are controlled by the unconscious mirror telling your conscious mind to choose or not. This primitive process when understood can be used to help market and promote your brand to its targeted audience.

The Casting Process

Of course a casting director is not considering any of the above. They don’t need to, these processes are automatic and out of their control. Unless they wish to cast against type then a conscious effort to rethink is necessary. Their unconscious is then re programmed to see differently and carries on making the decisions.

There are many ways that casting directors choose to audition actors, but headshots are generally the first item of publicity that a casting director will see.

In a very interesting podcast with 3 casting directors one of the most important things that they look for is the way you present to casting directors. The headshot, the showreel and the self-tape all need to be look and feel professional and appropriate for purpose.

I run this exercise in the studio with actors. I get them to think of casting i.e. a nurse, 30 something, single with a drug problem. I then get them to look at headshots and ask them to pick ones that might fit that brief. I’ll do the same with a male casting. At the end of the process I will tell them that they have just been a casting director. (Most actors then give out a nervous laugh at this point as they don’t want to believe that this is part of the process.) I also inform them that they have also looked through 100 pictures in around 30 seconds and made their decisions. The process they went through to make those decisions have been instinctively governed by their unconscious mind.

Energy and Communication.

Secret tools in getting your headshot noticed.

What will set your headshot apart from others is the power of communication.

When your unconscious ‘sees’ something that lives and breathes it makes decisions based on primitive responses.

In the early stages of recognition it determines wether (among other things)

  • Is it a threat
  • Is it the same species
  • Do I want to mate with it

Sexual attraction is an important tool in getting people to look at you but flirtation does not have to be obvious “come on”. We are naturally attracted to the finest specimens of our species but a less obvious but equally powerful tool is our innate curiosity to get know others. This can be linked with sexual attraction but not always.

I am not here talking about beautiful, handsome specimens. This is not a literal translation of attractiveness. It’s a mixture of charisma, energy and engagement that communicates with person that is looking at you.

Flirtation – Energy – Interestingness.

These are metaphors for attraction and if something is attractive you are bound to notice it.

In another experiment I run in the studio I flash two pictures of the same person and ask the viewer which one attracts them. The pictures are visible for only a second. Both pictures have identical lighting and they are both good pictures of the clients. The only difference between to two pictures is that one is slightly more flirtatious than the other. The results show a preference for the more flirtatious one (70% and 62%). I also flash a control where both pictures are identical. The results for that are 49.9% and 50.1%. This substantiates the belief that attractiveness (in this case flirtation) is favoured above other looks.

How to market you the actor through your headshot

You can’t afford to miss auditions that you know you are right for. It might lead to your big break. If you have an agent get them to give you a submission to audition ratio list for the last 2 months. This will tell you two important things. One is whether your agent is submitting you for role types you are suitable for and whether your headshot is working for you.

Let say that you have been submitted 10 times for the right type of roles but you have not got a single audition. Guess what is going wrong? Well, it is not your talent because no one has seen you act yet! The headshot is not getting you seen. The answer is to change your headshot with one of a different style that says something different about your brand. Give that another 2 – 3 months and see how you get on. Experiment with different styles and moods but still encapsulating your visual stereotype.

If you are a student performing in your 3rd year showcase try and tie in the your performance piece with your visual stereotype. Then use a headshot that represents that stereotype. e.g. Lets assume you have a great 1930’s – 40’s period drama face. Then perform a piece that represents that era and have a headshot that reflects that mood. It’s a double whammy in marketing terms. Remember the whole point of a showcase is marketing yourself to agents and casting directors. You are selling your talent both aural and visual so stick those talents in a box and put a great label on it.

If you have a great headshot then use it to introduce your show reel and self tape. It only needs to be on show for 2-3 seconds along with you and your agents name. The visual impression made by headshot can influence the unconscious mind in making decisions about your showreel. See Peter Hardy’s Showreel here.

Headshots are marketing tools and these need to be replaced regularly to keep your brand fresh. Small businesses (yes you are a business!) should be spending around 7-8 percent of their gross revenue on marketing. So if you earn £10,000 pound as an actor you should spend about £700-800 on your marketing. Most importantly that would include headshots, showreel and membership fees to the The Spotlight, Casting Call Pro and others. Most actors would not dream of spending that much, but without successful marketing you are limiting your chances of getting auditions and if you can’t get into auditions then you can’t earn a living as an actor. Invest your money wisely. You can get headshots and showreels done very cheaply but would you hire an acting coach whose only experience was a walk on part in a soap commercial? In a survey conducted by CCP only 2% of actors earned above £20,000 per year (with Equity members the figure is higher). The biggest barrier to work, the survey reported, was being seen by casting directors, agents and employers. With a limited number of jobs available targeting your brand to industry professionals is even more important to get your slice of the cake.

“It’s only a headshot”….Is it?

For more information about this and workshops contact me here

For bookings contact me here

For my headshot forum please join here  Headshot photographers reference.   Equity Survey .This article distills info gained from academic research.

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  1. […] Actors Headshots as a Marketing Tool […]


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