Little guys get 'Frozen' out of lucrative voice-over market

Still from the movie "Frozen"
Source: Disney

In the competitive market for voice-over actors, there's good news: With more animated features being made than ever before, the market is booming.

Now here's the bad news: It's getting increasingly tough for regular actors to land plum roles on Hollywood's animated projects. In other sectors, voice work can pay well, but work is less than steady.

Industry players say the trend has been clear for the past decade, as animated movies turn away from no-name actors in favor of marquee name celebrities. Those fortunate enough to snag a role may find themselves sharing the plight of Spencer Lacey Ganus, a 15-year old who was tapped to provide the voice of a young Elsa in Disney's 2013 mega-hit "Frozen"—yet took home less than $1,000 for her trouble. The movie itself went on to gross more than $1 billion worldwide.

Ganus' case highlights what insiders say is a growing trend in animation: The odds of a non-celebrity landing a leading role in a major animated film are slim to none.

Sandie Schnarr, co-owner and head of the animation and interactive division at AVO Talent Agency said that will most likely remain that way indefinitely.

"Celebrities are willing to do publicity for animated film the way they will do publicity for a live action film," said Schnarr "[The studios] want to make money, and when you have celebrity actors that will push your film for you, they will use you."

This of course makes things difficult, if not impossible, for non-celebrity actors hoping to land their big break in animated films, which are becoming more lucrative by the year.

The top five animated movies of all time—which include names like Toy Story 3, The Lion King and Despicable Me—have grossed more than $5 billion combined. Those box office champs have a major element in common: They featured mostly well-known actors in the leading roles.

Schnarr noted voice actors can land incidental roles in animated films, sometimes playing two or more different characters. However, virtually all of the main roles go to celebrities and, given the big budget nature of computer graphic imaged movies, is unlikely to change.

'Business' is booming

Still, all may not be lost for upstart voice actors. In fact, there may be more opportunity than ever—just not in the movies. Some of the more competitive pay rates appear not in television or movies, but in the business and corporate sector. According to Voices.com, rates for a corporate voice over can run as high as $2,000 for just over an hour's worth of work.

Bruce Kronenberg, a voice over instructor at Abacus Entertainment, said the business sectors of Internet and cable television have created a huge advertising influx. The pay is actually competitive and the amount of voice over work has exploded, yet so has the competition.

"Voice over work has been split between union and non-union jobs, and the non-union market has grown tremendously in the last 15 years," said Kronenberg. "Now a housewife in Minneapolis is able to compete for a national TV or radio campaign, given her recording system is up to [specifications]."

A typical entry-level voice over job may be a local commercial or a corporate training piece that may may range between $300 and $600 per spot, according to Kronenberg. However, if an artist books a network commercial that is an organized labor position, the financial rewards may be enhanced by residuals that provide a continual stream of money every time the commercial is played.

Union-sponsored work for voice actors also include video games, which can pay upwards of $800 per session, AVO's Schnarr said. Television and radio are comparatively cheaper at $472 per session and radio spots pay around $278 per session, she added.

Work available in the audio book market has also increased as publishers boost their audio book offerings. That means the market for non-celebrity voice actors isn't entirely "Frozen" over.

"There is still so much more out there," Kronenberg said. "Sometimes a company or a product wants that celebrity associated with them, but more often than not, they just want to find someone who can get the job done."