Showbiz Kids Roundtable
VIDEO: The exploding youth market is changing the way young actors' careers are handled. Five insiders share their wisdom.
What does it take to create a lasting career for kids in show business today?
The Hollywood Reporter's Matt Belloni and Noela Hueso asked five people with first-hand knowledge:
Danny Bonaduce, best known for his role as Danny Partridge on "The Partridge Family," who has found a new career as a radio talk show host and producer of the VH1 reality series "I Know My Kid's a Star"; UTA's Mitchell Gossett, who counts Miley Cyrus, Taylor Momsen (the CW's "Gossip Girl") and Victoria Justice (Nickelodeon's "Spectacular!") among his clients; William Morris Agency's Bonnie Liedtke, whose youth roster includes Corbin Bleu (the Disney "High School Musical" franchise), Taylor Lautner (Summit Entertainment's "Twilight") and Cole and Dylan Sprouse (Disney Channel's "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody"); Judy Taylor, vp casting and talent relations at Disney Channel; and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, whose acting and directing career has thrived, years after he starred in "The Cosby Show."
Hollywood Reporter: How has the kids' side of the business changed in the past five years?
Danny Bonaduce: A few years ago (in 2005), Entertainment Weekly did a "most powerful actress in Hollywood" piece. And you know who it was? Dakota Fanning. According to them, she had the most power to greenlight a picture -- and she was making $3 million a film. For "The Partridge Family," I got paid $490 a week, 26 weeks a year for four years, no residuals. Kids didn't fare very well financially back then.
THR: The stakes have been raised so much in the last decade. How does that trickle down to the way you interact with the kids?
Bonnie Liedtke: The concept of kids being brands is much more real now. When a client comes in, we also have to discuss digital areas, like Web sites, digital platforms, publishing and clothing lines. That's something I would have never thought of 15 years ago. We have an entire plan. Many different departments come into play. It's constantly changing.
THR: Has that raised the expectations for young performers who want to be the next Miley Cyrus?
Liedtke: We're realistic. If there's not a clothing line that's interested in having a deal with the artist, then we tell them. But we can usually figure out the ones who are going to sell clothing in Target or do the Got Milk campaigns.
THR: Can you tell if a kid wants to be an actor or if it's the parent who is doing the pushing?
Judy Taylor: Definitely. You'll always have those kids who come in and feel uncomfortable -- and then there are the ones who feel like there's nothing else they want to do. (To Malcolm-Jamal Warner) I'm sure you felt that way when you were starting.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner: For me, honestly, it was a hobby. I was never groomed for the business. Community theater was really something to keep me out of trouble, to keep my mama's foot out of my ass. She was always looking for things for me to do outside of going school and hanging out with my friends. It was years later that I finally got an agent, so my whole perspective is different.
THR: Was it important that your mom was your manager?
Warner: It was very important. She actually didn't become my manager until a couple years into "The Cosby Show." When "Cosby" first hit -- and it was a phenomenal success, even in its first year -- my mother sat me down, and I'm 13, 14 years old, and said, "You know, baby, it's really great that this show is doing so well, but you know how this business is. This show could be over next year. What are you going to do when this show is over?"
THR: How important is it for someone you're interested in to have a strong support system in place?
Mitchell Gossett: I don't want to get into business and not be working with the family. I'm not here to exploit young people. I want to be a facilitator, so it's important to see that level of support from parents. I watch out when the parents want it more than the young actor, when they want the "momager" career.
THR: How do you filter out potential problems?
Gossett: When you get a certain level of success as a representative, it's: Life is too short.
(I essentially tell them) "You're going to be wonderful and have a terrific career -- good luck." With young talent, you want to build good examples; you don't want a cancer in your midst.
Bonaduce: People do certain motions when they've got a bad hand or a good hand. There's a tell from parents with actor children that sort of tells you, "Hey, I'm a psychopath." When the parents come in and start performing, they are coming in to sell their kid -- that's their product. When the child who should be singing and dancing hasn't spoken in an hour, that's a pretty good tell.
THR: These days you're not only managing a client, you're managing a brand. How has that changed the way you operate?
Gossett: There's a responsibility for any actor to protect not only their brand, but the brand that's protecting them. That's a big thing for a 14-year-old to understand.
THR: Then what happens when you go on YouTube and find your biggest client, Miley Cyrus, talking trash about Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, two other Disney Channel actresses?
Gossett: They're friends, they're teenagers, they're playing around. It's the media frenzy searching for the (next) Lindsay Lohans and Paris Hiltons. They're spending 24 hours trying to find stuff on Miley, or any Disney or Viacom star. That's (the media's) job. They don't earn money unless they find something to feed the machine.
Liedtke: I had two young adults book a major feature at a studio. In light of the recent YouTube situation, the studio sent them to a three-day media training course. The first thing they had to do (after they were hired) was take down their Facebook and MySpace accounts. They were taught how to deal with inappropriate questions that might be thrown at them. It was the first time a studio addressed that, and I believe the actors really got a lot from it. They're definitely more poised.
THR: Mitchell and Bonnie, you both have clients that are on that cusp of adulthood. How is that transition handled?
Gossett: It's a question of being able to represent your client. Part of why we're good representatives is because we're able to discuss with them quality of scripts, tone and character. Everyone is going to hit some sort of bump in the road.
Liedtke: I have clients who know they'll be attending school, and that at some point they'll give up on acting. But at the same time there are those who have no plans on doing that. We recommend that they stay in some types of classes, to stay involved and be around other kinds of people so they know about other situations, and to be educated and have other things to talk about.
Gossett: This notion of "transition" is also a little misleading. Actors transition in every phase of their lives and career.
Warner: I knew early on that the transition from being a child actor to being taken seriously as an adult actor might not be smooth, so I started directing. By the time I left "Cosby," I had several episodes under my belt as a director. I had done enough stuff to keep me involved in the industry, but also kept myself in the position where I never had to make desperate acting choices.
Bonaduce: That should be almost mandatory. Child actors need skills to fall back on. The studio almost has an obligation to teach kids about the business they're in. I had a dry spell that lasted from 1974 to 1988 -- and then it ended in a different venue completely. As a kid, I didn't know how television worked.
Taylor: One of the things that excites me the most about working at Disney Channel is that it's nurturing. We make a concerted effort to expose kids to other things. We introduce (the actors) to the feature and animation people. We want them to experiment and see if they have a talent they didn't even realize they had.
THR: Are you looking for triple threats now? "High School Musical" has upped the ante for what people expect.
Taylor: Of course, but you have to know, at the center of it all, that they can act and ultimately carry a show -- and hopefully have great comedic skills, because most of our programming is multicamera shows.
Bonaduce: The whole triple threat thing is overrated. It's a genre that comes and goes. It's happening right now with "High School Musical" and happened 20 years ago with breakdancing movies, and before that it was the disco movies like "Saturday Night Fever."
THR: What's the hardest aspect of being an actor?
Warner: The best thing that can happen to you is also the worst thing: You become special. No matter how old you are, there's no handbook to tell you how to handle success. The job of living in the public eye is very different than the job of being an actor.
THR: What advice would you give to young people trying to make it into the business?
Bonaduce: You have to persevere. I was homeless for two years. I would shower at the gym down the street without a membership. Never, ever give up.
Gossett: It has to be the only thing that you want to do. The commitment is extraordinary.
Liedtke: Stay true to who you are and stay close to your support team.
Taylor: Start small. Make sure it's really what you want to do. And if it is, then diversify, and keep learning throughout your career.
Warner: There's going to come a point in your life where you have to ask yourself, "Do I love this craft enough to the point where even if I will never become famous or rich, do I still have the passion and dedication? Will this craft still bring me joy?" And if the answer is no, then find something else to do.