Protege Reinvents the Demo Tape | Catch My Job


John Ford told a teenage Steven Spielberg where to place the horizon. Jane Fonda helped Meryl Streep find her light when she was making her first movie. Denzel Washington paid Chadwick Boseman’s tuition for a summer drama program. If you want to break into show business — and you’re not related to a celebrity — it helps to have a mentor or at least a close encounter. For some aspirants, that means waiting outside the stage door with a demo tape. Or you can go online and pay a small fee to get your foot in the virtual door. That’s the idea behind Protege, a startup that combines the pedagogy of MasterClass (where you can watch Itzhak Perlman teach the violin) with the personalization of Cameo (where you can buy a birthday note from Kirstie Alley). On Protege, you upload a sample of your talents and get video feedback from “experts” like DJ Khaled ($300) or Scooter Braun ($250). The site launched in February, with experts in music and acting, and recently added painting and sculpture.

Protege is the brainchild of Jackson Jean, a twenty-seven-year-old from Houston. Growing up, he wanted to be a rock star, he said the other day, but “the only musical contact my parents had was my piano teacher. In high school he joined a jazz band and played heavy metal. (His friends called him DJ Jhin and Tonic.) “I probably practiced guitar and other instruments, five, six hours a day,” he continued. “Did the whole thing on YouTube. But I never managed to get in touch with the right person.” After college, he moved to Chicago to work in venture capital. On his third day at work, he stayed up late and wandered through the company’s workspace. Eventually he met some entrepreneurs who told him about the company that would become Cameo. Jhin would end up as CFO

A few years later, together with entrepreneur Michael Cruz, he founded Protege; both were concerned with what Jhin calls “the democratization of access to opportunity.” Cruz grew up in Guam and struggled to break into startups. “It wasn’t a skills gap,” he said. “It was an access gap.” Cameo’s CEO became an angel investor in Protege and introduced Jhin to a well-connected Bitcoin influencer; eventually Lionel Richie and Will Smith invested. The team got DJ Khaled to become an expert by asking him how much an hour of his time would cost. “He was, like, ‘I don’t know, ten thousand?’ Jhin said. “So I said, ‘It’s only a hundred and sixty dollars a minute!’ ” There were success stories: a young hip-hop artist named Joshua Bryant uploaded a video for evaluation by 9th Wonder, a producer who worked with Jay-Z; he invited Bryant to collaborate with musicians from his label.

That’s fine, but how about a trial run? Recently, an aspiring sitcom star (day job: writer) sought virtual tutoring from Jason Alexander, protégé investor and expert. The protégé filmed himself performing a monologue from the Seinfeld episode “The Marine Biologist,” in which George Costanza describes the rescue of a beached whale. (“The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to return soup to a deli.”) Four days later, Alexander sent an eleven-minute critique. “So far, you’re the only person who’s sent me a piece of material that I’ve actually performed myself,” he began. “It was both very flattering and deeply strange.” He cautioned against using a scene that a famous actor performed in an audition, in case “the casting director thinks you don’t compare well.” The whale talk also suffered out of context, he warned, as the TV audience was familiar with George and “knew he was in over his head because he had to deal with a sea creature”. Play the subtext, he advised: George’s motivation isn’t to tell a funny story, but to “humiliate Kramer,” who was hitting golf balls into the ocean, one of which got stuck in a whale’s hole. Overall, Alexander said: “I think you have real possibilities as an actor.

The protégé came to Alexander by phone and admitted that he was a journalist. “I had the odd inkling that maybe you hadn’t quite earned your first professional credit in the industry,” Alexander admitted. He had about fifteen submissions on Protege, he said. “Granted, the average struggling actor doesn’t have a hundred and fifty dollars to give up.” (Scholarships are available.) But he believes in mentorship. When he was a theater major at Boston University, a professor named James Spruill called him into his office. “I envisioned myself as the next Olivier, I was five-foot-five, twenty-five pounds overweight, and I was already losing my hair,” Alexander recalled. “He said, ‘You might want to look in the mirror and develop a sense of humor.’ That fifteen-minute meeting was incredibly impressive. I think that’s what Protege wants to do.” ♦


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