This was inspired by a friend who asked me about moving to L.A. I will probably break this down into smaller pieces in the future, but I've had all these thoughts and need to get them down on paper...
In terms of having a degree, it certainly can't hurt to have a B.A., unless getting it precludes you from doing actual film work or lands you in inescapable debt. The value of the whole college experience is mostly in terms of life expereinece stuff (responsibility, follow-through, etc.), which turn out to be vital in this industry. However, if you know for a fact that all you want to do is act, there is not necessarily a compelling reason not to move to the big city and pursue your dream. Just know that doing it that way will be just as hard, if not harder, than going to college, and shoudl probably be approached with a similar mindset.
That said, I definitely did the whole 4-year college thing, but didn't know at the outset that I wanted to be an actor, and I was on scholarship so it wasn't a financial burden. At the same time, it's tough to judge when having that little piece of paper makes a difference or not, and my guess is that it matters slightly more for a director-type than an actor-type, though I still believe it all comes down to the actual work you produce.
In my first few (going on 4, now) months in L.A. I've realized a number of things about what you need to move here and be successful. I continue hearing fellow actors from all over the country say that they've heard not to move here unless they have an agent and a manager which is absolutely ridiculous for the following reasons:
You need to go where the work is. If you're not getting paid for the work you're doing in another city, then perhaps it's time for a move
It's not actually that hard to get an agent and/or a manger if you come prepared (see list below)
80+ percent of the actors here have no idea what they're doing
Those same actors are getting cast, so why can't you?
Ok, it's not exactly that easy, but the whole "I don't have an agent" thing is just an excuse to keep you from following your dreams. Here are the things that would be best to have when moving to L.A.:
Up-to-date (read: look like you) headshots
A full resume (pretty self-explanatory...the most experience you have in films, theatre, improv, commercials, whatever, the better)
A (good) reel. Having even 60 seconds (ideally you probably want 2 - 4 minutes) of footage that was clearly professionally done, that shows your range and type of acting is a must if you want a theatrical agent. This will also help you leapfrog the mass of actors here
If you're really ready to start competing professionally, it helps to be a member of SAG, but it is pretty rare to have the opportunity to do this, and being a SAG member in most any town you move from is probably a bad thing. Just know that there is nowhere on the planet with more opportunities to join SAG than L.A.
The right kind of "day job" (see below)
Ok, so you don't have one or all of those things. What should you do? It should come as no surprise that it totally depends on your situation, but I would say that if you're missing any of those things, you can easily acquire them in L.A. if you have the right mindset and work ethic. Having any or all of them will just help you leapfrog to the top of this proverbial heap.
The Day Job
So, when I was in school all anyone told me was that I needed to focus 100% of my time on whatever it was that person was teaching/passionate about. This is terrible advice, even in the acting world. I can't tell you how many times someone told me something to the effect of, if you can see yourself doing anything besides acting, do it... The idea was that any time you spent not acting or perfecting your craft was a waste of time, and showed you lacked the passion for it.
Why this is good advice
It turns out that making it (i.e. actually earning money, getting big roles, fame, fortune, etc.) in this industry is extremely difficult. Duh. So is being a doctor or a lawyer or a Senator. If you don't have what it takes to put in the work it would take to be a doctor, then you won't make it. Again, I'm talking about really making a solid career, not just spending lots of time on an awesome hobby that will indeed enrich your life, but actually "making it." To do that, you will have to have an insane (truly) passion for the art, the craft, the business.
Why this advice is a total crock
Great. I've moved to L.A. I have everything I need, I've had years of training, am extremely talented (more on that word later), and ready to go! Sweet. All done, right? Unfortunatley, no. Because you see, there's that whole "pay the bills" thing. It turns out that no matter how great you are, how prepared you are, whatever, it will take a good 5, 7, probably 10 years before you really start to make it (go look up any actor on imdb, and you will see that there is generally ten years between their first acting credit, and their first major movie/TV show). So what the heck are you going to do for those ten years to pay the bills? Great question, and it's why spending all of your time on acting is a bad call.
Here's the thing, you need a source of income to pay the bills, buy you new headshots every 12 - 18 months, take acting classes, go to networking events, blah blah blah. So what should you do? That depends on your strengths, but the ideal "day job" (I put this in quotes because often these types of jobs have very weird hours...see below) has the following qualities:
It actually earns you enough money to pay the bills
It is flexible! If you're going to make it as an actor in this industry, you have to be able to go to an audition in an hour's notice. Very few jobs allow you to do this. Get one.
It doesn't destroy your soul. Whatever this job is will probably take up at least 30 or 40 hours of your week. That's a TON of time. If that time makes you tired, grumpy, whatever, then you won't have the energy to spend another 20 - 40 hours per week (that's right, in this scenario you end up working close to 2 full-time jobs...sorry) on your other career (that fame & fortune thing)
Jobs that might fit this description are often based online, and is one of the reasons so many actors work in the food industry. It's not that we're all idiots, it's that we're good with people and working in a place where a bunch of people could cover your shift at any given time is a must. However, I see most actors working in food service not following #3 above.
I think this is probably the most important aspect of making it in this business, which is why I will discuss it at much more length in another post. Basically, though, “You have to have your bags packed when opportunity knocks on the door.” More on that later...