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Monday, March 7, 2016

Progress at VO ATLANTA 2016

VO Atlanta 2016 was the most heavily hyped voiceover conference in recent memory, and it did not disappoint.

With a vast array of presenters, panels, breakout sessions, exclusive X-sessions, a Spanish Day, a Kid's Day, and hundreds of attendees from across the country and the world, VO Atlanta was a testament to the vision and organizational skill of founder Gerald Griffith and his dedicated team.

In addition to seeing many friends, students, and colleagues, I had the privilege of conducting my usual breakout session on Success in Online Casting, as well as an X-Session delving deeper into the subject of how to effectively utilize sites like Voices.com, Voice123.com, and bodalgo.com.

It is always rewarding to get thanks from the attendees for the insight they glean from the information I present, and seeing them book in the future makes it all worthwhile.

This year, I was honored to host two groundbreaking panels which allowed the talent community to hear from, and provide feedback to, the leadership of the four leading online casting sites.

On Friday, in the Grand Ballroom, (and streaming live online,) we had an elucidating conversation with decision makers from bodalgo.com, Voice123.com, Voices.com, and RealTime Casting. CEO Armin Hierstetter of bodalgo stole the show with his personality and candor, pulling few punches and repudiating the tactics of bargain basement sites like Fiverr. The word, "rockstar," was repeatedly used to describe his appearance, and appropriately so.

Margarita Rueda, Voice123's CEO, exhibited poise and class representing her site, advocating for their simple no-middleman premise, and hopefully putting paid to my recurring nightmare about any takeovers by a bunny!

Jim Kennelly of RealTime Casting painted a picture of a future where voiceover jobs would be cast and completed almost instantly, (hence the company name,) and gave hope to those who would like to see more union work make the transition into the online casting space.

Of course, much of the buzz driving attendance centered around Voices.com, and the controversies that have raged around the site over the past year.

Jennifer Smith, Director of Talent Sales at Voices.com, handled herself with grace and dignity under a series of very challenging questions.

Jennifer clearly and unambiguously stated that Voices.com has addressed the primary source of controversy by adding prominent disclaimer language to written and verbal communications with clients utilizing their Professional Services department, informing them that the quotes they receive represent a mix of talent and service fees.

Jennifer further asserted that clients requesting detailed breakdowns of how fees are distributed between Voices.com/Professional Services and talent will be provided those details clearly and without resistance.

Together, these two promises, if indeed implemented in practice, represent a substantial and laudable move forward towards the transparency the community has demanded.

Citing client confidentiality, Jennifer also stated that talent members of Voices.com would not be provided with the same level of detail. This was disappointing, if not unexpected.

Another highlight of Jennifer's comments was her guarantee that talent who book public and private jobs not managed by Professional Services will continue to receive the full contact information of the client, and vice versa, meaning that the site will continue to be a potential source of long term relationships with clients independent of Voices.com.

While it is unlikely that Jennifer's answers satisfied all comers, they nevertheless represent a step forward, and I applaud Voices.com for sending her and co-founder Stephanie Ciccarelli to engage with the talent community.

While we must maintain our vigilance at all times as we protect the collective interests of ourselves and our fellow actors, we must also accept that the answers we get won't always be the answers we want. We cannot ever hesitate to call out shadowy practices, but ultimately, this is a business, for all of us, and so long as the facts are on the table, we are responsible for making our own decisions as professionals and adults.

The dialogue in the community surrounding online casting controversies has too often strayed into the realm of personal attacks and acrimony in recent months, with talent at the throats of their fellows in more cases than I would like to count. This is not the community that we have all come to love.

It is my sincere hope that this weekend's discussion will represent a first step in re-setting the conversation onto a more positive track, which will allow all of us to prosper and thrive together.

Saturday featured a panel of industry leaders reacting to Friday night's session, and discussing not just online casting, but the future of the industry as well.

I had the pleasure of hosting Melissa Exelberth, World Voices Vice President Peter Bishop, Edge Studio's Graeme Spicer, Anne Ganguzza, David Kaplan, and Beau Stephenson as they offered a wide variety of perspectives on the issues of the day.

There was a consensus on the need to push for continued engagement and transparency from the online casting world, strong commentary about the union's level of commitment to voiceover, and general agreement on the premise that lowball sites don't pose a threat to professional talent. Ultimately, they demonstrated that talent from all sides of the industry can come together to address the concerns of the community, and do so in a passionate but dignified manner.

It was, in short, a weekend of substance. Few events have addressed the issues that our business is struggling with so comprehensively as VO Atlanta 2016. In addition to my panels, there were discussions featuring agents, casting directors, and other opinion leaders on every topic challenging us today.

Gerald Griffith, Ron and Susan Minatrea, A.J. McKay, Kerri Donovan, Roy Yokelson, and so many others worked tirelessly to make everything come together. They should be proud of the profound success of their efforts.