Saturday, May 3, 2014

THE DUMBING DOWN OF CASTING....Actors sell out the craft, and Casting Directors encourage it...

Paying for access is 
the steroid 
of the industry. 

"There are dozens of casting directors who defend their behavior and the behavior of their staffs in the name of “teaching”.

"Actors have a unique way of justifying paying to be seen. 

"I’ve spoken to hundreds of actors, most of whom hate the idea of paying for access to a casting office by writing a check -- 
but they do it.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s the workshop industry flourished.  It seemed that everyone was getting exactly what they wanted.  Actors were getting their access, but at a price.  Casting directors and their staffs were getting paid handsomely for their attendance and for providing this access at the workshops.  Producers were saving money because they weren’t paying their casting directors -- as required by SAG Section 47 -- to meet actors for free. And the workshop owners and were making a killing facilitating the process.  But something was happening to the way casting was being done.

Much of the casting community had immersed itself in workshops, and the pay-for-access system was slowly, insidiously becoming entrenched in the Hollywood culture. Assistants were being trained by the hundreds to use workshops as a tool to find actors and according to their CD bosses, to "make a couple of bucks on the side."  Many of these assistants would go on to become casting directors themselves, and the cycle would continue as they trained their assistants in the same manner.

As a direct result of the overwhelming acceptance of the workshop system, the way casting was normally done was changing profoundly -- and changing for the worse.  General interviews, the basic casual get-together between casting directors and actors, were fairly  common before the workshops started.  Before workshops, assistants and interns in almost every casting office were sent to see theatre, observe talent at acting classes, attend as many college graduating showcases as possible -- all as a part of their apprenticeship.  In addition, they would be trained to do “pre-reads” or preliminary auditions to screen for good actors for their casting director bosses.    Even with the overwhelming number of actors in Hollywood, this was a task which interns and assistants were required to perform in order to lay a solid foundation in preparation for a career in casting.

When I first started in casting 30 years ago, I began as an intern -- an apprentice, if you will --  to a very well-known and highly respected feature film casting director.  One of the things she instilled in me early on was the basic philosophy that in order to be the best casting director I could be, I had to be intimately familiar with the talent pool in Los Angeles.  So to accomplish this end, she sent me to see hundreds of plays in the years I worked with her, sometimes as many as three plays a week.  She encouraged me to visit every acting class possible so I could scout new talent, to find those “diamonds in the rough”.  She urged me to see every new film release and every new TV show to see who was hot - and who was not. She sent me to every university graduating showcase to look for the next big thing, sometimes even to New York!  She gave me the responsibility to meet actors, in our office, for general interviews, a task which I relished.

She was not naïve.  She knew that I would see and meet lots of actors who were green or unprepared – or just plain bad.  But she also knew I would meet some wonderful new talent. She knew that this “trial by fire” would make me strong and aware and would lay a foundation for me upon which I could build a career.  It worked.   All these years later, I’m still casting, and still loving every moment.

It was not then, nor has it ever been a chore for me to meet new actors; quite the contrary, it has always been a joy.  Early on, I took great pride in knowing that every new actor I met made me a stronger, better casting director, and I still feel that pride to this day.  

Today, as I look at our industry and in particular, casting, my biggest fear is that workshops have critically undermined the true apprenticeships of the past that drove the quest for excellence in the casting profession.  I worry that the casting directors of tomorrow will mistakenly believe that being paid to meet a pre-packaged group of 20 or so actors in a workshop is a viable alternative to finding the true undiscovered talent in Los Angeles -- in theatre, in acting classes and in general interviews.

Professional Ethics

In an editorial in the May 2, 2002 issue of Backstage Magazine, then Editor in Chief Rob Kendt made some very strong and important statements regarding the workshop issue.   I wanted to include his statements here because they speak best to the controversy that continues today surrounding casting professionals charging for access to their offices.

Rob says:

"I think it's flat-out wrong -- yes, even illegal -- for casting directors to accept any money for showing up at events whose express (if not sole) purpose is to showcase/read actors.  If casting directors are scouting for talent, which is a job they're paid to do by studios and production companies, they shouldn't get a dime, either directly or indirectly, from prospective employees, i.e., actors."

He goes on to say that the exchange of money in "showcasing/reading situations distorts the casting process and is often indistinguishable in practice from outright exploitation."

Rob made it clear that casting directors who teach ongoing classes, with a lesson plan, where they "talk at least as much as actors get up and perform", and ideally,  offer classes as an "integral part of a full acting training curriculum taught by qualified teachers" should be compensated for their time and expertise.

Rob's editorial was the strongest statement made by the magazine which has become the industry standard for actors.  The  casting community would do well to take his words to heart and recognize its responsibility as professionals, and make the same commitment which Rob makes in his letter's closing, and that is:

"We stand with the actors."

There are dozens of casting directors who defend their behavior and the behavior of their staffs in the name of “teaching”.  But watching 20 actors perform in a single session, 2-hour showcase, even with the minimal feedback which is occasionally offered - from casting assistants with sometimes mere months in casting - is not teaching.  Why don’t casting directors see this as a problem and accept it, and do all they can to change it?  How could they ever let themselves and their profession be viewed in such a manner? Money has a funny way of clouding people’s good judgment.  And the workshop owners themselves have done everything in their power to misrepresent the workshops to the public, and hide what they really offer: a paid reading -- an audition -- with a working casting director or one of their employees.  Workshop providers have even convinced casting directors that using workshops to scout talent is an important tool which benefits everyone.  This could not be a more erroneous appraisal of the workshop scheme, especially as it relates to the casting process..

A friend of mine is a very popular scout from a major league team in the South who travels the country (and beyond) looking for great new players for the team.  He is paid -- and quite well -- to look for talent in high schools and colleges.  Familiar with my ongoing efforts with the workshops, my friend made the analogy that it would be crazy to be paid a penny from those he scouts.  

He told me, "First of all, this would get me fired in a heartbeat. No gifts, no fees, no nothin'.”   He told me he avoids even the slightest perception of impropriety -- these are, after all. the Big Leagues!

And secondly, as my friend noted, “I’d never take the risk of passing up a young player in Puerto Rico with a 100 mph fastball because he didn't have the scratch to pay a bribe or give a gift to be scouted. I want the best team with the best players, not the best team of kids who can afford to be considered. That ain't what wins pennants."

The point by this is that the side-effect of the “talent scout” being paid to find talent in workshops is the dumbing down of the casting profession, whose team -- in both ethical reputation and excellence -- suffers.

More Access…or Less?

Over time, as the workshops continued to gain an ever stronger foothold in Hollywood, there was a much bigger change taking place which nobody in the casting or acting communities had been paying much attention to.  And the implications of that change have been  profound. Workshops professed that their services were bringing those two communities closer, but in reality, exactly the opposite was happening.  The chasm which existed between those two professions has become wider by the day.  For the thousands of actors who have chosen not to pay for this access in workshops, their opportunities to meet and perform for casting directors have become fewer and farther removed.  

Once the workshops took root and became the norm, the very things the actors had hoped for from casting directors quickly slipped away.  The general interview has become a thing of the past.  “Breakdowns” (the daily list of available acting jobs sent by casting directors to agents) for many of the smaller roles are being replaced by “pre-reads” being done by assistants in paid casting director workshops all over town – and it’s advertised as such!  

"Last season, our office used 170 workshop actors. You can imagine how many more got auditions! We NEED workshop actors as we don't have time to have endless pre-reads at our office. The workshops are your pre-read for us. More often than not, you will go directly to producers for us." 

--Todd Sherry, Patrick Rush Casting

In an ironic twist, while access to much of the casting profession under the workshop system has actually increased, actors are now paying a dear price for the privilege.   The doors to free access to casting directors are slamming shut all over Hollywood.

And at the same time, much of the casting community which has relied on workshops to find actors may well be missing out on the true undiscovered talent in Los Angeles, which has often been found in theatre or acting classes.

The Rationalization for Pay-to-Play

In preparing this book, I interviewed a number of working casting directors, some who I knew did not participate in workshops, as well as many who I knew were workshop regulars, paid to attend these events. Not surprisingly, I got some distinctly different answers from those who were paid to meet actors and those who were not.  

The first question I asked every casting director was, “How do you meet new actors?”  From those in casting offices which were not paid to meet actors I got pretty much the same reply.  

“We do generals when we can and go see lots of theatre.”  

Many of these offices also cited acting classes and the occasional college graduating showcase.  Several casting directors spoke of their relationships with agents and managers, and that they depended on these relationships to meet new actors.

To be clear, these casting offices who did not do workshops told me that they were often busy with several projects, but added that they always made time to see theatre and do generals.  

I asked the “workshop” casting directors the same question.  They told me things like, “Occasionally, we’ll go see theatre” however most also said “but we’re pretty busy and don’t really have time to go out and see a lot of plays”.  I asked about generals and mostly got a variation of the same reply:  “We’re just too busy to do generals.”  

They blamed the fact that their schedule and/or workload – a couple of features or slate of pilots – made it impossible to do generals and that they often worked too late to get out and see theatre.  

“How many requests do you get for generals each week?” I asked.

“From agents, managers and actors, sometimes as many as 15-20 requests” was the typical reply.

“And how long would it take to meet these actors?” I queried.

“Two to three hours total” was the average response.

Strangely, while these casting offices couldn’t spend the 2-3 hours to see 20 actors in generals, and they didn’t have the 2-3 hours to see a play, they or their assistants were magically able to squeeze out of work early and find the 2-3 hours to meet 20 actors -- in workshops -- when they were paid for it.  Many casting offices were able to attend as many as three paid workshops a week!  In fact, there's one casting associate for a popular TV medical drama who consistently does as many as a dozen workshops a month, pulling in the industry standard of $300.00 per workshop.

And most of the time, these casting directors made no bones about the fact that they and their offices were paid to meet actors.  I often heard, delivered in a very blatant way “It’s a great way for my assistant to learn the business, meet lots of actors and make a few bucks at the same time.  Hey, he doesn’t get paid that much anyway.”  

The question I always wanted to ask -- but never did: “Why doesn’t your assistant get a second job then, maybe waiting tables or doing temp work – like the actors who pay to read for him?”

Cathy Reinking, a former casting associate on the hugely popular TV show “Frasier” commented in a roundtable discussion about workshops in Backstage West magazine,

“…they're in a play, and they go, ‘Oh, now everyone's going to come see me,’ and no one comes. Is that really the reason to do it? I don't think so.  It's easier to pay your money [for a workshop] and you're guaranteed you're going to meet a casting director.”  

What these workshop casting directors I spoke with were doing was condoning a behavior that was putting cash in their pockets to meet actors in these well-organized audition mills! At the same time, they were sending a message to actors that doing great work in theatre was unlikely to gain the attention of casting directors, but a well-placed payment certainly might. And these casting directors have been responsible for lowering the standards of excellence in casting by relegating the training of their staffs – the casting directors of tomorrow -- to the casting director workshop scheme.  

Too many assistants are now getting paid by actors for their apprenticeship, and the quality of tomorrow’s casting directors will suffer as a result.  A larger problem for the profession may be that casting directors have allowed workshops to damage the image of the casting profession, which for so many years has worked to gain a legitimacy and acceptance by its peers in the industry.  The CSA, charged with maintaining the professional standard for the casting industry has, until very recently, done little to address the pay-for-access issue.

In fact, for years, the official CSA website actually condoned the illegal activity that went on in workshops.
Casting director and CSA member Matthew Barry was in charge of responding to questions from actors in the “Mailbag” section of the CSA website.  Here’s how he answered an actor who was curious about the pay-to-play issue.  Emphasis is mine.

"The biggest question asked by actors has been 'How can I get SEEN by a casting director'. As I attended the State Senate Hearings last Friday, SAG President William Daniels himself exclaimed that '70% of its members don't even have an agent'. So obviously, if an actor has the chance to perform in front of a casting director, the only way to do so is to pay for a class/seminar/workshop. Many of you have written to express your dissatisfaction of having to go through such measures. Having been an actor, I feel your plight. However, we cannot control what people (let alone casting directors) choose to do with their free time. I've heard many arguments from the actors 'You pay to see a casting director, and you get their assistants', and from the casting directors 'Actors think we're all out to get them, but as a matter of fact, when I'm casting three TV shows a week and I need to find a good actor, a lot of them come from these showcases attended by my assistant'..."  

It was not simply ignorance that allowed this statement to remain on the CSA website for years.  I brought it to the attention of the board of directors on several occasions, but my concerns fell on deaf ears.  It was the arrogant and self-serving behavior of an unconcerned CSA leadership that allowed this irresponsible advice to remain on the site for years.  The fact that the CSA believed then that “no one can control what  casting directors choose to do in their spare time” is a ludicrous notion and presents the crux of the problem the CSA faces today.  It’s not a matter of restricting casting directors or prohibiting them from engaging in “free trade”.  It’s a matter of promoting the responsibility and accountability which every professional organization must demand from its membership.  Without specific standards from the CSA to which all members can aspire, the organization will continue to travel down a path which attracts less and less respect from our peers.  Ignoring the problem, or evoking some flawed philosophy that says “anything goes” in a member’s free time can only steer the casting profession away from credibility and a standard of ethics it needs so greatly to uphold.

At a time when casting directors are struggling for respect and recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for consideration for the coveted Oscar, you’d think that the CSA would stop rationalizing the behavior of its members as “free trade”.  One would expect the CSA to be outraged by what goes on in workshops, yet the organization has been strangely silent. As I discovered, over the past five CSA administrations, dozens of board members, their associates or assistants were engaged in the practice, getting paid to watch actors perform in workshops.  It’s hard to come down on the side of free access for actors when the people who make the rules are getting paid a fee to provide access.

UPDATE:  2010 has seen new guidelines issued by the CSA, under the strong leadership of current president, Pam Dixon.  Still, there is little enforcement of these guidelines and most workshops operate pretty much as they always have.  More on the recent changes to the laws and the CSA guidelines in an upcoming chapter.

As I mentioned before, most casting directors do not do workshops.  However, it’s those who do who put the profession in a precarious ethical position.

The workshops have always been quick to provide their own brand of rhetoric.  “A casting director’s time is valuable” or “Why shouldn’t they be paid for their time and expertise after work?” Normally, this would be a reasonable question.  But the fact is that working casting directors and their staffs are receiving payment from the same people who they are in a position to hire -- for the privilege of meeting them.  This throws a completely different light on the situation.  In no other profession would the practice be tolerated.  

And “valuable time”?  

Casting directors and workshop providers seem to forget about the actors’ time -- the struggling single mom or the college kid who works part time or the cocktail waitress who has just worked 10 hours – only to  pay half of their daily salaries to meet a casting director – or more often, an assistant.  What about these actors’ time?  Is it not just as valuable?  Of course it is.  

Workshops kowtow to the casting director, and workshop actors worship the ground they walk on, but somehow the actor always seems to get the short end of the stick when it comes to the casting director/actor relationship.  I believe this attitude signals a growing disdain and lack of respect for actors by the casting community, an attitude which has become more disturbing in just the past few years.  This is rather twisted in the scheme of things, considering that without actors these casting professionals would be unemployed.  What  angers me is that workshops pretend to empower actors when really they accomplish exactly the opposite, relegating actors to the role of supplicants -- second class citizens, forced to beg for even the tiniest of casting crumbs.  And sadly, too many actors consider this normal.

And Actors Rationalize, Too!

Actors have a unique way of justifying paying to be seen.  I’ve spoken to hundreds of actors, most of whom hate the idea of paying for access to a casting office by writing a check to Muffy The Casting Assistant -- but they do it. There are also the selfish actors, who are less concerned with the ethics than with getting a foot in the door at any cost.  There are those who are just plain delusional, and believe that workshops are classes.   But over and over again, I hear that the reason actors pay is because they want to be able to compete on an equal footing with other actors.  If he’s paying then I guess I have to pay so I have the same shot as he does. This is what I like to refer to as the “workshops as steroids” analogy.  

A few years ago, an actor  posted on an internet message board that if actors wanted to pay for workshops, they should be able to do so.   Here was my reply.

Yes, actors pay. But I guarantee you that actors, by and large, don't want to pay. They don't want to have to pay. They pay because they have no other choice if they want to compete. Some actors are idiots, some are naïve, some are uninformed...but most are smart, well-informed professionals who actually do have the facts. It's just that the facts tell them that they have to pay. 

It's the old steroid argument. Professional athletes don't want to use them -- they're deadly and have negative physical effects that last a lifetime. But they use them. They use them a lot. Because if they don't, they'll be at a distinct disadvantage in any real competition. Would they like to be able to compete in a world without steroids? You bet. That's why the Olympic Committee and all major sports organizations say they're a no-no.  Not fair.  But if anyone does them, everyone is going to break the rules.   Because everyone is doing steroids, everyone does steroids. 

Apply this to the workshop world. Paying for access is the steroid of Hollywood. Actors would LOVE the free access guaranteed by their union. But they don't get it. So one person pays, and everybody who wants to truly compete hops on the bandwagon. The only difference is that the "committee" -- charged with protecting actors -- ain't enforcing any rules or laws which would even the playing field. SAG-AFTRA doesn't care, the CSA doesn't care and the lawmakers don't have nearly the resources to investigate and prosecute the most blatant offenders.  It's an extremely unhealthy environment with little protection for actors, so they're forced to buy their own protection, insurance that they can get a foot in the door.   The irony is that eventually, everyone is paying and the playing field is even again. The only difference is that the actors are paying casting directors on this playing field.

Even actors who LOVE workshops don't love to pay.

If you think actors are sheep, maybe it's because they have shepherds who charge them to be part of the flock.

As workshop actor Van Epperson said in his interview on ABC’s 20/20 regarding his reason for doing workshops:

“In order to be the one pulled out of that stack that ends up with the role, I need an edge and I have a great edge if I’ve already met these people, if they already know me.”

Sadly, many talent agents have allowed the workshops to run the way they do their business and these agents encourage their actors to enroll in workshops in order to create and maintain relationships with casting directors that the agent has been unable to facilitate.  This is a lazy and exceptionally selfish game plan, and speaks to the extent that workshops have infiltrated the business of access.

Here’s a letter which was forwarded to me by a client of talent agent Kristene Wallis shortly after the Backstage West Round Table article came out.  There was much controversy swirling around the workshop issue because of the article.  This was letter she sent to all her actor clients.

From: Kristene Wallis 

Several of you have sent me emails about this anti-CD workshop "movement". Please don't send me any more of them; once is more than enough. (If you haven't a clue as to what I'm referring to, all the better -- and don't ask!) 

The word from here is: I do not agree with their cause. Although I, too, wish that there were no need for these workshops, there is. In no other way would most of you become known to the casting community. Until someone comes up with a way to force the casting people to audition a minimum number of new (to them) actors for the projects they're actually casting on a daily basis, this is the only surefire way it's going to get done. 

No one is forcing actors to do this, any more than they're forcing them to get new photos every year, or take classes, or have beepers, or anything else that an actor must do or have in order to be competitive. It all costs money. I don't know of any CD who's getting rich this way. I figure that out of the, say, $35 you pay for a workshop, about $10 actually goes to the CD. The rest covers -- are you sitting down, cuz this may come as a surprise!?! -- rent, phones, insurance, advertising, and yes, even personnel to make arrangements for all that stuff. Did ya think that was all donated by the elves and fairies? (Watch it...!) Would actors be happier if only the people running the workshop, but not the CDs, received money for doing it? I don't think so. 

The workshops are, indeed, paid auditions as far as I'm concerned, too. But if I were an actor, I'd rather have the opportunity to pay someone to notice me than sit on my you-know-what waiting and praying and hoping that out of the literally thousands of photos that cross a CD's desk every day, mine will be the one that stands out and gets them to bring me in for a "real" audition. 

Now, if anyone is really up in arms about all this, I suggest he and/or she start his/her own workshop. Find a space that doesn't charge rent. Get the phone company to allow you to use their lines without charge. Do it all through word of mouth. Make each actor who comes bring food or beverages for the CD. Spend (unpaid) hours on the phone enticing CDs to come, free of charge, to see you and your chums. If it works, great! As I've told you all many, many times: There has been a huge amount of auditions and bookings that have come through our office simply because of these workshops. If someone comes up with a better, cheaper way to do it, I'm all for it! 

Now, please do not respond to this. The whole idea is for you to stop emailing me all the time. We are very busy in the office (thank god!) and will be for the rest of the season, So please: Only email me personal messages or really important general info. Gossip and silly stuff (both of which cover this workshop situation) just get my dander up -- and you know what happens when an agent gets dandery! 

  - K. 

Maybe someone should tell Kristene that the “better way” is for casting directors to do the job they’re paid to do and meet people in their offices without the benefit of a second paycheck.    By the way, it seems that even to this day, years later, she continues to encourage her talent to pay to meet and read for casting directors in workshops instead of doing what agents are meant to do, and that's to open doors of opportunity for their clients.    I’m not an actor, but if I were, this is not the kind of agent I would want representing me.

So therein lies the problem.  The workshop scheme has become such an acceptable part of doing business in Hollywood that casting directors, actors and talent agents have been brainwashed -- or bullied -- into believing that workshops are the way to cast, and to be cast. Much of the casting profession and a large segment of Hollywood actors have accepted workshops as a viable shortcut to success, and have allowed them to replace a genuine work ethic with special favor.  And talent agents like Wallis, instead of fighting the workshop system, and complaining about the fact that she cannot get her clients in to read for casting directors without first having them go through the toll booth,  has simply acquiesced to the pay-for-access racket.  It’s not surprising considering the workshop blackballing is not reserved only for those actors who complain, but for the agents who don’t toe the workshop line as well.

Fast Forward

The controversy generated by the original “showcases” which sprang up three decades ago continues. Workshops, in the past few years, have come under fire yet again by the unions and state labor officials for facilitating the violation of state laws and union regulations.

When the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement issued cease and desist orders to fourteen workshops in February of 2002 demanding they stop charging actors for what were basically job interviews, many of the workshops hired attorneys and formed a coalition to fight the state.  

The majority of workshops in Los Angeles are now required to operate under guidelines issued by the DLSE and most recently under the new California law AB1319, The Paul Krekorian Scam Prevention Act of 2009.  In the following chapters, we’ll examine how things have changed and how well these businesses are complying with the law.  We’ll also outline the events of the last few years, and the details of the workshops’ legal battle with the state, with SAG-AFTRA, and with the Los Angeles City Attorneys’ office.

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