These are heady days for young performers and the adults who represent them: Streaming services are ratcheting up demand for youth programming even higher than it has already been under the peak TV era.
In-demand actors are using their growing clout to secure producing credits before they get a driver’s license: Mckenna Grace joined “Black-ish” co-star Marsai Martin and “Stranger Things” breakout Millie Bobby Brown in that select club this past year. Martin, known for playing bossy Diane on ABC’s hit series starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as her small-screen parents, also signed a first-look deal with Universal in February, a couple months before the release of “Little,” for which she received an executive producer credit.
And YouTube discovery Halle Bailey became a certified crossover star when she landed the plum role of Ariel on Disney’s “Little Mermaid” redo after a few years on Freeform’s “Grown-ish” with her sister and partner, Chloe, and with Beyoncé’s record label backing.
“There’s about as much opportunity as there’s ever been if not more because of all the buying,” says Mitchell Gossett, a manager at Industry Entertainment Partners and former agent who started as a child performer himself. He attributes the buyers’ market to the evolution of the streaming market.
“There’s so much content being looked at now and bought, there are so many companies that are investing so much now in having these streaming platforms that need content, content, content, that it’s a great time for a young actor,” he says.
He’s noticed a surge even in the past few months, as Disney Plus and other emerging services gear up their programming.
“I represent some young actors that haven’t done that much that are getting series leads in the last two to three months, for instance, where 10 years ago that would be really rare you had somebody that hadn’t had real television credits on their resume get a series lead on a streaming service or a network.”
Emily Urbani, another veteran dealmaker for young talent, got a total newcomer a role on the Disney Plus series adaptation of “Love, Simon” within weeks of signing him this summer. Now Mateo Fernandez is moving out from Texas “and his life is going to change,” says Urbani, VP, film & TV, for the Osbrink Agency. “It’s crazy.”
She concedes that Fernandez’s experience is not normal, but concurs that streaming services — and the content boom in general — are fueling demand for young talent.
In the past year Urbani has placed a pair into the leading roles for the Disney Plus reboot of “High School Musical” and the two young leads in Fox’s “Fear Street” trilogy.
Client Asher Angel, meanwhile, squeezed in “Shazam!” filming between seasons two and three of “Andi Mack” on the Disney Channel.
“I love that there’s just so much more content now,” says Urbani, who joined the agency as a receptionist 17 years ago, working her way up to head its theatrical division. “Everybody over the last five years realized what a big business this is.”
What’s more, the quality of the roles has improved beyond supporting junior family members or sidekicks.
“I’ve seen a growth in great youth roles,” says Jamie Pillet, an Abrams Artists agent who discovered “Young Sheldon” and “Big Little Lies” star Iain Armitage on YouTube when he was not yet 5. “It used to be that a great role would come around once in a decade for a young person. And now we really see an uptick in creative writing for younger people because there are a lot of stories to tell there.”
On “Young Sheldon,” the entire series is built around his character.
In the second season of HBO’s star-studded “Big Little Lies,” for example, Armitage’s character grappled with the discovery that his father was a rapist and he had two brothers he didn’t know about. The second season of “BLL” also gave Armitage’s young castmates more of a chance to shine as well, perhaps paving the way for even bigger roles in the future.
Netflix, meanwhile, revitalized the romantic comedy genre last year with movies such as “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “The Kissing Booth.” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” an adaptation of Jenny Han’s popular YA novels, turned young leads Lana Condor and Noah Centineo into stars virtually overnight.
Now 23, Centineo, a veteran of shows such as “The Fosters” on ABC Family, began interviewing agencies for new representatives before the Netflix rom-com debuted.
“You could just tell on the page that everyone was going to have a moment from the movie,” says Danielle Shebby, a CAA agent who saw an early cut of “Boys” and is now part of Centineo’s team. “You watch it, and it was the biggest no-brainer: He’s a star.”
Once CAA signed Centineo, it was a matter of waiting to see if “Boys” matched expectations. Agents didn’t have to wait long: Overnight his followers on social media spiked and they kept growing; he now has 17.4 million Instagram followers.
“We could watch consistently and for weeks after the launch he would get 200,000 to 400,000 new followers a day,” says Shebby.
By March, he was closing in on the role of He-Man in Sony’s “Masters of the Universe,” due in 2021.
Immersed in another project, Condor wasn’t paying too much attention to the rom-com’s August 2018 launch until her phone started blowing up with reactions. And she started getting recognized at the grocery store.
“The whole thing was a surprise,” Condor says. “When we made it, Netflix hadn’t even bought it yet, so I think we all just loved the story, but we had no idea that it was going to be received as well as it was.”
Her social-media followers “grew really, really fast, and for a moment there I was kind of addicted — I couldn’t look away because it was so shocking how many people all of a sudden took an interest,” says Condor, who has 7.1 million Instagram followers. “When you get your first million, you’re like, ‘oh my god, that is a lot of people.’”
Condor has already wrapped the sequel to “Boys,” where Asian-American fans dressed up as Lara Jean waited for her when she leaves the set.
“There’s so much content that’s being looked at and bought.”
One key to the original rom-com’s breakthrough success: its crossover appeal to an adult audience that is far older than the teen characters Condor and Centineo play.
Youthful ensemble shows such as “Stranger Things” have also become popular with adult Netflix viewers, and that popularly in turn has helped turn its child performers into stars.
Ava DuVernay’s limited series “When They See Us” also provided an acting showcase for its non-adult performers in late May and received 16 Emmy nominations for Netflix, including lead actor recognition for Jharrel Jerome and a supporting acting nom for Asante Blackk.
But the streamer is also making a concerted effort to woo preteen viewers in programming specifically targeted to them. Two years ago, it launched “Alexa & Katie,” a show about a teen with cancer and her pal, and has since released programs such as “No Good Nick” and “Family Reunion.” An adaptation of the popular “Baby-Sitters Club” lit franchise is also in the works.
“There’s a lot of love for that property so I’m sure we’ll get some moms as well as new kids,” says Jenna Boyd, a Nickelodeon vet who came to the streamer two years ago to develop comedies for the kids and family audience. Her team’s sweet spot: 9- to 12-year-olds.
“It’s definitely a demo that is already streaming, it’s a demo that has adopted new technologies completely and doesn’t know any different in a lot of ways,” Boyd says. “As the landscape shifts and Netflix continues to grow, this is a huge audience.”
Gossett expects other emerging streamers to follow suit. “I don’t think that any of these billion-dollar enterprises that are springing up in the streaming space are thinking of discounting that audience in any way, shape or form,” he says. “It’s critical for the long term development of these streaming services: You’ve got to get your audience established, ideally when they’re young.”
For now, the talent side is benefiting. “You have to be really behind the eight ball to not be selling something for young people,” Gossett says.
“If you’re young talent, it’s just the best of times right now.”