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Digital Revolution Pushes Youth Talent Agents to Change Their Game

Not long ago, kids longing for a shot at stardom had to come to an entertainment hub like New York or L.A. to get in front of casting directors. But the digital revolution has changed all that as adolescent acts from Salt Lake City to Seoul — and, in the case of “Pan” newcomer Levi Miller, Brisbane, Australia — are achieving success by way of a few simple clicks of the computer. Like it or not, this new tech-driven reality has radically transformed the pitching and casting processes, prompting veteran managers and agents to reinvent the ways in which they secure new talent.

Mitch Gossett, senior vice president at Cunningham Escott Slevin Doherty Talent Agency — he’s repped teen juggernauts Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and YouTube star Lucas Cruikshank — is still partial to old-school methods of scouting in the way of in-person meetings and traveling the globe, but he also spends a substantial amount of time trawling the Internet for social media stars on Vine, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

“The social media stars that we scout don’t live in L.A. or New York,” he says. “They’re in D.C., they’re in Orlando, they’re in Nebraska. They come from anywhere. In the last year alone there has been a marked increase of the amount of time we spend signing social-media players. It’s a very vibrant market and the scouting process has exploded. The business wouldn’t look the same were it not from the technological advances in the past 10 years.”
Over the past two years, social media stats have come to play a crucial part in terms of what kid gets what part, Gossett says.

“The casting process has really shifted toward making those social media metrics relevant in casting,” he says. “If you have two clients up for the same part and one has 6 million followers and one has 27 (followers), they’re going to give it to the one with 6 million followers because of the direct access to promotion that will cost them nothing.

“So it’s not just about looking at YouTube and Vine, it’s about listening to what other people are watching and tracking these personalities as they rise and grow in popularity. At this agency we have made a commitment to educate and grow the knowledge in this area across the board. I tell my staff here, ‘Do yourselves a favor: become experts in the social media phenomenon.’ ”

For Stella Alex, partner and part owner of the Savage Agency, the flurry of entertainment entrants — Netflix, Hulu, Amazon — has transformed the youth market for the better, giving budding young actors, who might not otherwise get noticed, the opportunity to land work.

“I’ve had three kids do series that are all from digital media,” Alex says. “They’ve had opportunities to do movies, they’ve had opportunities to do something that’s on Hulu, something that’s on Netflix. One of our biggest shows is ‘Fuller House,’ which is on Netflix. We (rep) Jodie Sweetin and it’s made a huge difference for her and for us.”
For vet Ellen Gilbert, who spent two decades at Abrams Artists before landing at her current position as a talent agent spearheading Paradigm’s East Coast emerging artist area, it’s not uncommon to book pilots for young clients who send in their tapes from out of town.

“There’s just so many more opportunities with being able to tape yourself for projects,” says the New York-based Gilbert. “The marketplace used to be much more L.A.-focused and now really anybody can have a chance because casting directors are so open to self-tapes. I have a client in London right now and she’s been sending self-tapes. We have clients that live in Florida, we have clients that live in Texas. One of our clients is in Turkey on vacation and has submitted three self-tapes and they’re all great.”

But after 26 years in the business — “I was lucky if my clients had a pager,” she quips — there are certain things that Gilbert does miss about the way the casting process used to work.

“I miss the human communication,” she says. “I miss talking to people on the phone. Now, I’m not going to lie, I don’t miss copying 20 scripts, so there are pros and cons. In this business, everybody works, all hours. It does make it easier, but it also makes it harder to shut down. I’m still one of those old-fashioned agents — 26 years after starting in this business, I still pick up the phone.”

While the abundance of digital tools and media platforms have enabled agencies and management companies to profit in ways they hadn’t been able to do before — “With all the digital now there’s so much more content and so many more needs out there to fill,” says Gilbert — nothing can replace the charge a rep gets when that special discovery walks into a room.

“In the room is always better to me, because you get a sense of the person,” Alex says. “And for me, I still love it when somebody walks in a room and you know right then before they open their mouth that this kid’s interesting.”
But like it or not, these digital tools are here to stay, constantly evolving and ushering in another era of how talent gets discovered.

“There’s an old guard out there, we’re the ones that have been around for a quarter century,” says Gossett, citing fellow veteran agents like Paradigm’s Wendi Green, Coast to Coast’s Meredith Fine and Cindy Osbrink of the Osbrink Agency.

“We’re all still in it and maybe even in our prime and in 25 years maybe we won’t be. There’s a whole new generation that’s going to have to come replace us, so I’m trying to inspire the agents here in film and television to become experts in (the digital world), because that’s the future and its being formed right now. ”

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