In film or finance, typecasting could offer a path to success

April 2003, MIT Sloan home page

Employees may believe that moving from job to job helps prevent placement in narrow career pigeon holes, but an MIT Sloan School professor's study of the film industry — where the word “typecasting” was born — finds that the practice can actually offer real advantages. Niche players, it turns out, often do better than generalists in the labor market.

“If you read People magazine or Entertainment Weekly, typecasting is presented in a generally pejorative way,” says Prof. Ezra Zuckerman, who teaches strategic management at MIT Sloan. “It's seen as a barrier to the full expression of an actor's skills. But in reality, typecasting is a boon for the vast majority of those who make a go of it in Hollywood.”

Tough business

The overwhelming majority of acting aspirants never get their names on the big screen in any kind of role, Zuckerman says. But of those who do, being cast in a certain type or role helps them to maintain their precarious foothold in the industry.

“Typecasting provides a route into the industry by conferring the minimum level of recognition necessary to continue to obtain work, even if this recognition involves the adoption of a generic identity,” Zuckerman's study says. “The advantages of typecasting consist largely in the foothold that it provides to aspiring actors by giving them a viable, if generic, identity to assume. The main drawback is that the identification with a particular character often prevents typecast actors from being considered for other roles.”

While some actors have been able to break out of initial character identities — Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, for example — others, such as Sylvester Stallone, have proved far less able to expand beyond their original character molds.

And if stars with such big names and box office revenues find it hard to break the type cast, the burden is even greater on entry-level actors. Indeed, Zuckerman found that fewer than one third of the actors who actually get a film credit for a role will find any further film work over the next three years.

Beyond Hollywood

Zuckerman said his research carries labor market implications beyond Hollywood and the film industry.

“There's a tendency in the media and among academics to look at what's called the boundary-less career replacing the old image of the organization man moving up the hierarchy,” he says. “And it's true that there can be greater opportunity for the individual to craft something unique and get more variety in their careers by moving from engagement to engagement. But what is underemphasized is that hiring tends to be very category- and skill-specific.”

And job applicants unable to demonstrate that they have the skills to fill such categories can have a hard time.

Ironically, Zuckerman says, young workers and others may have a greater chance to take on new jobs and functions within a particular organization than within the labor market at large. That's because an individual employer may be more willing to take a chance on a worker who has already proven her ability to do a job well than on an unknown. In other words, the bit part can lead to a better part within an organization.

“A great example of this is GE's practice of moving managers across industries-something that is very hard to do on the outside,” he said.

“People have a preconception that the overall market provides greater opportunities [for workers] than organizations,” says Zuckerman. “Our paper suggests that this isn't necessarily the case.”

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MIT Sloan founder Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. was dedicated to the innovation ethic. “Too often,” he said, “we fail tribute to the creative spirit.”