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A Matter Of Casting And Cash

March 08, 1987|DEBORAH CAULFIELD

For actors everywhere, the name of the game is To Be Seen. In Hollywood, the game is particularly intense, especially when it comes to being seen by casting directors.

As one casting director put it: "If actors have to stand on their heads, deliver singing telegrams, deliver flowers, send you pictures with cookies or ask to park your car--they'll do anything to be seen by you."

And with 63,000 Los Angeles actors vying for the attention of about 150 casting directors in film and television here, the numbers alone give casting directors an inordinate amount of power. Sometimes that power is abused. The legendary actor/casting director tussle involved sex and the "casting couch." The '80s version concerns cash--actors paying to be seen by casting directors.

Nowadays, job-seeking actors can meet many Los Angeles-based casting directors at operations known as showcases--as long as they're willing to pay for it. At these sessions, actors pay the showcase operator (usually another actor) so that they may perform a short scene from a TV series, a play or a movie before a casting director, who is paid to attend.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and many actors deplore such a practice as being exploitative of actors; the Casting Society of America (CSA), a national professional group of 185 casting directors, calls the practice educational.

But other actors say they pay for these showcases so that casting directors may see their work and, hopefully, call them in the future to audition for a role. Last year, approximately 10,000 job-seeking actors in Los Angeles paid more than $1 million at about 3,000 individual showcase sessions, according to estimations made by Calendar based upon weekly showcase schedules and interviews with showcase operators. An estimated $500,000 ended up in casting directors' hands.

One anonymous letter writer to a Hollywood trade newspaper suggested that showcases were not unlike "a job applicant putting $200 in an envelope, attaching it to his job application and passing it to the personnel director."

Many casting directors agree and shun fee-paying showcases. They said in interviews that they think it's unethical to take money from actors (although the money actually comes from a third party, the showcase operator). It's a job that casting directors are already paid by producers to do, they said.

However, the Casting Society of America has taken a more curious stand. Although the CSA has publicly postured itself as a leading force in responding to SAG's complaints about showcases, its officials have fought most attempts by the actors union to ban showcase payments to casting directors.

Calendar explored the issue of showcasing in interviews with more than 100 actors, agents, casting directors and guild officials.

Few individuals wanted their names used: actors, because they feared that being quoted--even innocuously--in this article would mean they would "never work again"; casting directors generally stayed anonymous because they feared alienating the powerful Casting Society of America. Talent agents demurred because their clients might lose work.

Calendar found:

SAG wanted to regulate, if not ban, fee-paying to casting directors at showcases and proposed as much during its contract negotiations last year with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Instead, SAG accepted a less stringent producers' counterproposal for regulating showcases--a proposal that had been drafted by CSA.

The Casting Society guidelines forbid casting directors to take money at showcases, but the CSA also changed the definition of the word showcase. CSA officials claim the word was a misnomer when used to describe the kind of event that paid casting directors $150 to $200 to attend--the primary target of SAG's efforts. CSA officials insisted that those showcases were, in fact, "classes" and casting directors were "teachers." Hence, their right to collect fees.

A second type of showcase, which paid casting directors only $50, was the only one affected by the ban on fees in the final contract. However, CSA members had already been boycotting the $50 showcases for a year prior to the contract negotiations.

Many actors, agents and even some CSA members regard the teaching designation as a sham, claiming the CSA invented it to prevent negative perceptions of casting directors within the industry and to protect their showcase earnings.

Some dissenting Casting Society members report they were told that any divisiveness on the issue would hamper the CSA's primary goal--to establish an Academy Award for casting.

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