Do Voice Actors Suffer From An Inferiority Complex?

Euphoric.

That’s the mood the voice-over community has been in, lately.

The reason?

It’s the release of Lake Bell’s motion picture In A World.

If you are a voice talent and you haven’t heard about this fun-filled father-and-daughter comedy, you must be living under a rock and a hard place.

This movie got so much publicity inside my professional bubble that I didn’t even want to blog about it.

The anticipation for In A World had been building for months. When it finally came out, the citizens of voiceoverland went a little crazy.

If you’re a true member of our VO family, you probably did one of three things:

  1. You posted or reposted the In A World trailer on your social media outlets dozens of times;
  2. You read reviews and listened to or watched several interviews with Miss Bell and her cast of other characters;
  3. You frantically tried to get tickets from the box office of some small artsy theater where In A World was playing, hours away from your home.

If that’s what you did, let me ask you this:

Why all the hoopla for a movie that so far has grossed a humble $321,614 in the two weeks since its release; a movie that is number 30 on the box office charts, right behind this summer’s mega-flop “The Lone Ranger” and the equally disappointing “R.I.P.D.”?

You might think that In A World deserves to be seen by millions, but apparently, distributor Roadside Attractions wasn’t confident enough to go for a wide release. Are they hoping for a sleeper hit on Netflix?

To me it’s rather obvious why the attention-craving voice-over community has embraced Lake Bell’s movie.

This comedy is about US.

Finally!

We, the masters of the spoken word, the unseen and unsung heroes of gazillions of trailers, audio books, commercials and e-Learning modules, are at last being recognized for who we are and what we do.

After decades of neglect and ridicule, voice-overs have come out of their walk-in closets, ready to be embraced for their vocal magnificence.

Thanks to Miss Bell, the voice-over world finally has a voice. Better still: It’s a FEMALE voice!

We feel validated and vindicated and tell ourselves:

“People find us interesting. Look, they even made a movie about us and talk about it in the media. That must mean we’re important!”

I hate to burst your bubble, but that’s an illusion. 

In a few days, the promotional circus surrounding this picture will fade away, and not even Joan Baker will be able to elevate our status in a world that doesn’t really care. Very soon we’ll get back to where we were before: invisible, under appreciated, and chronically underpaid.

Let me tell you why voice-over people are relatively irrelevant.

1. Voice actors run an auditory business in an increasingly visual world.

A study published on August 19th in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes that people who were asked to identify the winners of major piano competitions tend to do better when they purely rely on visual – rather than auditory – cues. 

Seeing, not hearing, is believing.

This confirms the age-old adage that a picture paints a thousand words. Images will always overpower what we play or say, no matter how meaningful the music or the script. Visual impact is everything.

That’s why movie stars are among the best paid people on the planet and voice actors are not. Keep in mind that it took a motion picture with on-screen actors and not some radio play or podcast to highlight the world VO’s live in.

2. Most on-screen actors easily transition into voice-overs.

Have you ever seen a full-time voice actor land a major role in a motion picture? I haven’t. Most of them can’t act and have to hire a coach to learn how to sound natural. The actors we know from the stage, the movies or television on the other hand, love doing voice-over work on the side, and most of them are very good at it.

When big brands need solid exposure, they turn to well-known names to get their message across. While voice actors often have to scramble for a decent rate, their on-camera colleagues can command top-dollar for that six-word catch phrase at the end of a commercial.

3. In A World is not a movie about voice-overs.

Ron Howard didn’t shoot “Backdraft” as a documentary about firefighters. The TV series ER wasn’t made to promote the medical profession. The fire station and the hospital were both backdrops that allowed human drama to unfold.

In A World takes us into recording studios to tell us about the rivalry between a father and a daughter who both happen to audition for the same job.

At heart, it is a light summer movie about relationships, and the voice-over setting is nothing but a clever prop, allowing the actors to showcase their skills and versatility. Nothing less and nothing more.

4. But doesn’t this movie have a powerful message about inequality in the VO-workplace?

It’s true. Lake Bell’s character tries to break into the male-dominated world of movie trailers. However, I don’t think the predominant purpose of In A World was to further some feminist agenda. It’s a comedy. Not a Gloria Steinem manifesto.

The male-female dichotomy at the center of In A World is a ploy that serves a plot. It creates conflict that needs to be resolved.

It’s an old theme in a new setting:

Will the underdog succeed against overwhelming odds? Watch the movie and find out!

Most movies aren’t made to move minds. Audiences across the globe like to escape and be entertained. They hate being lectured about social injustice. And let’s be honest: film studios are not some kind of philanthropic institution ready to promote an important cause. I can summarize their business model in four words:

Minimize risks. Maximize profits.

5. Will Lake Bell manage to break the gender barrier?

The short answer is NO.

I don’t think Bell will impact movie trailers the way Mary Tyler Moore changed television. Using a female voice for a movie trailer would require a revolution. Not a Sundance comedy.

Usually, Hollywood doesn’t like to try something that hasn’t been done before. Playing it safe is the name of the game. That’s why the same actors and actresses, screenwriters, directors and composers are hired again and again.

The fact that female voices aren’t chosen to promote blockbusters has nothing to do with sexism. It has everything to do with movie moguls testing every aspect of a motion picture to see if it will appeal to an audience of average Americans. Words are weighed and endings are altered based on feedback from the all-important focus groups. 

Without being derogatory, it’s fair to say that Joe Six-pack is the most important movie ticket buying demographic. If a focus group of Joe’s agrees that a booming male voice has more gravitas, that’s what studios will choose. Forget feminism or equal opportunities.

Thus, the cliché continues.

One last thing.

6. The rest of the world isn’t nearly as interested in our profession as we are.

If we do our job right, the listeners will pay more attention to the message than to the messenger. We serve the script and make it shine.

Unlike on-screen actors, we stay out of the limelight. We don’t appear in tabloids or on talk shows. Our private lives are blissfully boring. There is no glamour in voice-overs. For a majority of celebrity-watchers, voice-overs are positively uninteresting.

So be it.  

In our small and isolated world, Lake Bell’s movie might be a big deal; a victory for voice-overs, even. The rest of the planet falls for blockbusters about zombie invasions, promiscuous vampires and kids playing Hunger Games -all of them promoted by Don Lafontaine sound-alikes.  

Just because we don’t necessarily get recognized for our work, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take professional pride in what we do. We might not make millions of dollars and live in huge mansions, but there’s no reason to feel inferior. 

In real life, a lot of great things happen under the radar. Those things can be far more profound than anything the gossip shows will ever report on. 

Think about those who have dedicated themselves to helping others. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Most of them will never be acknowledged or honored, and they’re fine with that. 

These people are in it for the music. 

Not for the applause.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet! 

PPS “Hello Lonesome” is the voice-over movie you have never heard of. Click here for my story about this movie.

  1. Pingback: The Voice-Over Movie You've Never Heard Of | Nethervoice

  2. There’s a bit of decent thinking in here in spots, but mostly it’s just one person’s vaguely informed opinions and speculations about a medium (the entire voice acting industry) in which you would like to appear to be an expert. After all, isn’t that the whole purpose of blogging – to convince people that one is an expert and therefore worthy of partaking of the greater opportunities available within a world about which one purports to know all there is to know? The question about “inferiority complex” is clearly self-directed, even though it’s put out there as if it were something voice actors should examine more deeply than anyone else in any other field of endeavor. The bottom line is that this blog just churns up a lot of argument for the sake of argument and offers next to nothing in the way of an inspired point of view.

    Your flip mention of Joan Baker is an interesting symptom of your own self-loathing and inferiority. As such, you completely miss the opportunity to connect on a higher level moving the conversation forward. Joan Baker is an inspired person and she inspires others – not by pretending to know more or to be more but by putting her best self on the outer edges of achieving something that encourages others to do the same.

    I’ll can agree with one thing to which you allude: The movie, In A World, is crap. Maybe it could win best student film somewhere but it’s mostly a overdone, under-produced, spectacle of sophomoric ranting about trying to please daddy, and bear no resemblance to the voice over industry.

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    As the author of this blog, I welcome a wide range of opinions and I’m always open to new ideas and well-founded feedback. I have to admit that it’s been very interesting to read Jackie Taylor’s perspective.

    Intrigued, I tried to find out more about Jackie, but as you can see, one cannot click on the name because Jackie didn’t give any information that would be translated into a hyperlink. Click on names of other commentators, and you’ll be taken to their websites (Susan Hadash is a Facebook friend of mine). Jackie, however, remains virtually anonymous.

    What I find particularly interesting is that Jackie seems to know a lot about my motivation and the inner workings of my mind, even though I’m pretty sure we’ve never met or otherwise been in touch. Of course any reader is free to read into my words what he or she would like to read into them, but those perceptions often tell us more about the reader than about the author. I could even go as far as to categorize Jackie’s assumptions as “vaguely formed opinions and speculations.”

    As my returning readers know, I never shy away from a spirited public debate. However, I hesitate to respond to unknown commentators who falsely believe to know what makes me tick.

    Speaking of the movie that inspired the article above, “crap” is not a word I would use to describe it. In fact, in analyzing the movie itself and the response of the voice-over community, you’ve seen that I didn’t go any further than to call it “a light summer movie about relationships.”

  3. A few months ago I had to travel to the Stoke-on-Trent to collect a car. On a flight from Aberdeen to Manchester I found myself sitting next to a movie producer from LA.

    We chatted about aeroplanes, dogs and family. He mentioned being a movie producer because I said I’d stayed at the hotel in Century Plaza LA and he said he could see it from his office. Work chat started and stopped there. It was his day off and it was my day off too!

    I live “In a world” where no one gives a flying toss what I do for a living except for me and my Bank Manager ..as it right and proper.

    The film? I’ll let my mother have the last word.

    “I’m sure it’s lovely, dear one”

  4. Thank you, Paul, as usual for yet another thought-provoking, and entertaining blog post. I have heard good reviews for “The Way Way Back,” and enjoyed the trailor. Before it ends its run, I hope to get to see it with my wife.

    I do wonder how much better “In A World” would have done at the box office had it been released at least a little wider than just 75 screens nationwide so far. I mean, the voice-over world is a small pond, but I remember being a fan of Mel Blanc as a kid long before I remember hearing people call voice actors “voice-over” talents. In other words, I do believe that appeal for this movie is wider than just to those who are voice-over talent or even aspire to be, and those who love them.

  5. Thanks for your perspective, Kevin. It’s the big fish in a small pond effect. The VO world is a small pond and thanks to all the publicity, this charming movie was turned into a big fish.

    Like you, I am a fan of independent films. In fact, my favorite movie of the year was “The Way Way Back,” written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

  6. Not to counter the points you make, I just want to point out that, given its limited release, “In A World” is doing remarkably well.

    It’s $3,786 avg. revenue per screen is what brings it up to 30 in the box office in spite of playing on only 75 screens nationwide. The per screen avg. for “We’re The Millers” the #2 movie these days is $3,787. Of course, it’s playing on 3,445 screens, hence, the #2 rating overall.

    It opened the Dayton Film Festival (which I, unfortunately missed on an otherwise fully-booked weekend at Chalet Scheuller). I only hope I’ll get to see it before it goes to video. Hopefully the arts theater that hosted the Dayton Film Festival will play it again before its run is over. Of course, it is a romcom with a voice-over subplot. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll take a well-written and directed independent film over a over-hyped, overblown blockbuster any day of the week.

  7. “Have you ever seen a full-time voice actor land a major role in a motion picture? I haven’t.”

    Exactly what I’ve just done. Released solely in the Netherlands, but still. Check out Feuten het Feestje starting October 23rd if you’re around Paul. 🙂

  8. I really enjoy your writing, Paul.
    Regarding the movie in question: Here in Israel I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it, and I have no idea if it has been released here or will be released here. If it does make it here I would like to see it and I’m sure I would enjoy thinking “I do that” while watching. However, as you write, voice acting is not glamorous, unless we’re talking about a movie star voicing an animated feature film.

  9. Joe, Cliff, Larry and Frankie, reading your comments was so much fun and very flattering. As long as there’s ink in my virtual pen, I will keep on writing!

  10. Ding, Ding, Ding . . .and Paul, once again qualifies for the Bonus Round! Once again your insight and ability to put in such “active” words, what is on my mind; and say it so succinctly is amazing.

    Keep on writing, informing and entertaining.

  11. Well played Paul, well played!

    I love how this piece evolved. I did all three of those things and loved doing every one of them, not because I was seeking “applause” or any of my colleagues were suffering from an “inferiority complex” but because it was fun. I didn’t go into it thinking we were going to change the VO business over night and start a revolution. It was just fun to get together with close friends who happen to have the same profession.

    Do I think this is going to make big waves in the trailer world? NO..not yet at least..and not for a while. I worked for a movie studio before so I completely get your point there. But I do believe anything is possible and we can’t rely on one event to rewrite the current state of the business.

    Anyways, Really nice piece- thanks for sharing as always!

  12. Great Paul. So many quotable lines in this (my favorite to date) blog. Looking forward to seeing the film and hoping to enjoy it. For fun, I’m gonna try to break out of my “VO Only Life” and ask my completely-void-of-VO-knowledge friends if they have heard of the film and if they plan to see it. In OUR world, you’re the man, Paul. Thanks for a great morning read.

  13. Spot on, as always, Paul!

    Like Mike, I’ve been silent about “In A World”. (disclaimer: I haven’t seen it yet)

    To me, it’s as much about VO as “Indiana Jones” is about archaeology…

    Thanks,
    Joe

  14. Thank you, Tami, Mike and Helen.

    Whether or not a second wave of hype will hit the UK, depends on the budget a distributor or studio is willing to spend on promotion. They’ll probably base that on how well or not well the movie is doing in the U.S. In that respect, the tidings aren’t good. “In A World” is still in limited release and as such, it isn’t given a chance to make a mark. Even if all the VO’s in the world were to watch this movie, it wouldn’t make much of a dent.

  15. You have a fantastic knack of putting things into perspective Paul …

    ‘In a World’ hasn’t hit the UK yet … it goes on release here on Sept 13th I believe, by which time all the hype will have died down. I doubt it will have any more impact to the fate of the voice actor here than it will have in the US. Recent research about top management jobs and wages in the UK reveals that despite all the equal pay / equal opportunity legislation, discrimination, whether based on gender, age or race is still rife in most areas if work as far as I can see… and being a VO is just a job after all!

  16. “If you’re a true member of our VO family, you probably did one of three things:”

    I did none of those things. I did, however, watch the trailer. Then went back to my work.

  17. Yes, I enjoyed IN A WORLD, but no, I don’t think it’s a movie most of my friends or family would be interested in. Thanks for saying what I’ve been thinking.