The Business Has Become a Catch-22

 

I have not written in a while because I’m not sure what to say. I have been lucky in that I stayed busy in January, February and March but come April…

As a matter of fact, I cast the same amount of jobs this March as last. The big difference is budgets. Production budgets are getting smaller and smaller and I have to hope for volume to reach my overhead dollars and hold on to my amazing staff. I will not cut corners on quality regardless of the budget. If the work comes in, my staff is willing to work as hard as they possibly can to keep our reputation and keep the doors open.

Owning your own business, being responsible for a staff, rent, and overhead can be a blessing and a curse. Since I don’t have to rent studios or always hire freelancers I am in a better position to cut rates. That fact sometimes makes the difference in me getting the calls versus someone else (not a good reason to hire not hire a casting director but it has become our reality. I’m asked on almost every job for a discount, but I am not sure that they always need it or are trying to hold money for other parts of the production.

Everyone wants and expects HD posting of casting tapes but do not want to pay for it. I pay for the equipment to allow us to provide it; it’s not free for me. Actually nothing is free for me. I do not pay less rent when I have a slow month. My rent is not adjusted based on my billing that month and I do not ask my employees to take a pay cut because I am discounting jobs.

Casting used to be a large part of production. We created our own rates because creatives understood that without actors or people there was nothing to shoot. Not all commercials need people but most do. Years ago it was all about the casting and therefore it was the last place that got cut. Also, production companies and ad agencies never settled for a less than great cast because of money. Now in the digital age, social media, streaming, and services like Netflix, the value of great creative advertising has changed. When people only had the option to watch network TV, and then even cable, networks knew how many viewers were watching and ad agencies worked hard to produce incredible ads.

Commercials have their version of the Oscars and it was everyone’s goal to win a Clio. Now it is a divided business, not unlike film. You have your Oscar-worthy movies that rarely make a ton of money and then you have blockbusters that make a ton. Commercials that can win a Clio usually cost a fortune to make and then you can shoot a small commercial for a .com company that will only run on social media and sell a product better than an award-winning commercial. Those big budget commercials with great SAG actors are few and far between.

In a business that never settled, it seems settling is very common. When it comes to casting, there is more non-union work than union. The casting rates are lower, even though it’s actually harder to prep and cast. It is taking time for people that have been in the business a long time to change their way of thinking and have huge, if not sometimes unrealistic, expectations. If nobody can prove that running a commercial on social media is actually seen more than a commercial that runs on network television, then budgets are going to get smaller and actors are going to make less and less.

I have jobs that the pay for the actors is so low and the rights and usage they want for what they are paying is crazy. I think sometimes they are of the mindset that non-union actors are happy to work and will work for close to nothing. Actors, union or non-union, need to pay their bills like everyone else. It is not the same as doing an independent film that will help their careers.  Because non-union rates can be so low, many actors have to take day jobs to pay their bills. You can only imagine how hard it is to set up casting sessions when so many actors need to supplement their incomes. That goes for SAG actors as well. The work used to be more consistent and actors could consider it their day job. Now even SAG actors cannot rely on that as a way to pay their bills and they have had to find other ways as well. This has made a casting directors job very difficult. I go to work every day hoping and waiting for the phone to ring. Actors cannot wait. I hope and pray every day that work will get busy and I’ll be able to employ actors like I used to.

Work was the slowest I have seen it in years in April. I think actors, more SAG than non-union have started to give up. When that happens, they no longer check in with their agents and the prepping process becomes a disaster. I put out a breakdown to the agents, get submissions and then schedule the actors that I would like to see. More than one third of the actors I have scheduled have not updated their schedules and; therefore, I have to prep and prep and prep again until I can set up a casting session with actors that I think are right for the job. I will never just throw people in to hit numbers. Setting up a quality casting session is getting harder and harder. I guess the expectations from non-union actors is less but not as far as I’m concerned. The non-union actor that is diligent and responsible goes a long way in my office and will constantly be scheduled. Being good at what you do and handling yourself professionally goes a long way. If you had a job at a bank and it didn’t seem busy that week would you just take off and not tell your boss?

I honestly do not have the answers and I get scared like the next person but we need to hope that this business figures itself out. Part of that is making it worth it to cast in New York. If we cannot produce great casting sessions, then why bother casting on both coasts? Why bother writing performance-driven commercials? Why bother writing commercials with people in them at all?

I think we all need to stay in one place for a while and make a commitment to be professional. Give ad agencies a reason to cast and shoot here. Eventually the union non-union thing will figure itself out, but on both sides, everyone should take the process seriously and allow casting directors to do their jobs well.

I believe that if we have a great product to offer, then there will be a demand for it.

In the last two weeks, work has picked up and I have had some great SAG jobs as well as a bunch of non-union work. I had an agent yell at me and tell me that I should tell my clients to cast SAG. Casting Directors have no say in how a job is cast. That is a decision made way before we are involved. And like I have said, casting SAG is no longer easier. I do not blame anyone. So much technology has changed many lives and not always for the better. One million hits on YouTube makes you more interesting and worth more than a talented actor?

I do know that without commercials how will I know which toilet to pick? This is what I do and I have done it for a long time. I change with the times but I stick with it and hope. It would be great if all actors would give it a chance.

 

Now, here’s that famous list of insane excuses:

I thought I would have had my baby by now.

I have a flight.

I missed my flight.

My flight got cancelled.

I forgot I have a flight (I’m actually regretting not owning any stock in the airlines. Last I checked, flying was expensive).

I forgot I’m getting married that weekend.

I forgot I’m moving to LA tomorrow.

I have decided to move to Florida.

I have decided not to be an actor any more.

Oh sorry, I scheduled a whole day of doctor’s appointments.

I have to go to the dentist

I don’t have anyone to watch my dog.

 

This is when I begin to believe that this has become more of a hobby for people.

It is a job for me.

 

 

The Business Has Become a Catch-22

Really Weird Times – You Are Not Alone

Times are strange. February is usually a slow month, especially after super bowl January. Some years I am lucky and get to work on many super bowl spots. This year was one of those years. Casting directors are freelance, just like anyone that owns a small business; we never know when the phone is going to ring.

Whenever it gets slow people ask me why? I have no idea. Maybe advertising agencies know or even production companies have theories. I try and look at the year before, but never come up with much consistency.

Winter in New York is cold so it’s hard to shoot outside. Though it does not seem to bother episodic as much (thank god). It seems that when it is cold out people like to get on a plane and go someplace warm to work. I know that shooting in New York is no bargain, unless you really need a location that you can only get on the east coast. I know that there were supposed to be great tax incentives to bring commercial production back to NY but it never seemed to happen.

As far as casting directors, you really need your own space to build up your business but the cost of real estate in New York is so high and the casting rates are getting lower and lower, so it’s impossible to rent your own office and build studios. Also the traffic that casting companies have makes it hard for buildings to want to rent to a casting company.

I was in my first place for 25 years. I went there when nobody was working that far downtown. I was scared to think that clients might not want to go down to 22nd street but over years the business slowly not only moved downtown but eventually I became up town to some of them.

I got very lucky when I rented my office on Madison and 27th street. The real estate market in New York, had crashed and my building needed a tenant, regardless of the type of business I was. The owner needed a lease fast and had to move quickly and I needed a place to move and fast. It’s a great location and I was in a great negotiating position. It has not been a love affair and once the market turned around and the owner was able to get partners and refinancing, he was ready to make the building legal and start major upgrades. I spent my first five years in my building in a huge legal battle. A lot of ups and downs but finally my space was finished correctly and legally and the landlord was on his way to making it a 70 dollar a square foot building. I only have 4 years left on my lease but even if they offered me a new lease I could never afford it unless the market takes a huge dive again. I guess anything is possible but highly unlikely. Just like when I took a chance in 1983 and paved a new way. That’s what I’ll be doing in four years. Will it be Brooklyn, Long Island City, Harlem, or even the South Street Seaport? I will have to take a chance and change the rules again.

Without a full up casting facility, I cannot do business the way I want. I am a full service company with studios, staff, and all the technology to be on the forefront of casting. I will always be hands on – prep my own jobs, pick the talent I want to see, meet new people and present great casting tapes. I do not rely on a computer services to prep my jobs, but having access to pictures, reels, and resumes is helpful. That brings me to a huge “must” in this industry – casting directors rely heavily on pictures that are very recent and look like you. There is nothing worse than a ten-year-old picture that looks nothing like you. You have wasted everyone’s time and add to the problem. Yes, sometimes it’s just a look so resume might not matter but if the picture you a are using does not look like you, then it could all be a waste of time. BMC does a ton of comedy and we look at resumes. There is a lot of non-union work that is searching for actors that have had training in improvisation but it is impossible to tell from a form that has “yes” checked off under every category.

Resumes are important to casting directors. Even if you do not have a lot of work on your resume, training and honesty about special skills could make the difference in getting an audition. It used to matter more for legit or theatrical, but it is now just as important commercially if you are newer to the business. Of course since I have been doing this for a long time I am familiar with many actors and I do not always have to look at pictures and resumes to set up actors for a session but there are many newer casting directors that rely on this for prepping. I promise by having these things up to date, it will increase your chances for auditions.

That brings me to the odd place the business is in right now – New York, Chicago, and LA have been slower from the beginning of February and still continuing. Union and non-union are very slow. Slow times have happened before but this is a longer stretch than I can ever remember. The commercial business feels like it is changing drastically. Budgets are tighter and we are all asked to work for way less than our rates. Why this is happening is not my battle but if I refuse, I won’t be able to pay my rent or staff.

I am willing to do this and change with the times. I want to stay in business and I want to be a casting director. I truly have no idea where the commercial business is going but I have to hold on to hope that advertising will always be a necessity to sell products.

This is one of those unusually slow times that we can’t explain but we need to hope and wait for it to pass and figure out the changes and demands. We all have to be flexible and do what we can to keep working. I do not know if SAG work will have a big comeback. I do not know if there will be more and more non-union work. I do not know if the phone will ring tomorrow. I do not know if I will start to get phone calls that say we finally have a good budget. I clearly know nothing other than my landlord wants his rent in full every month and therefore I change with the times and continue to put out quality casting regardless of the challenges and hope things pick up…for all of us.

 

Really Weird Times – You Are Not Alone

An Actor’s Story

I wanted to share this letter that an actor, Chris Cafero, wrote to me.

 

 

Beth,

 

In 2005, I was a nervous 14-year-od kid who had just begun chasing his dream of becoming a professional actor. My very first on-camera audition experience was with Beth Melsky Casting. I was awkward and green and most certainly terrible. Despite that, you continued to give me a chance. In the twelve years since that first audition, I have been back to your office countless times (I’d like to think I’ve improved). I have come very close on a lot of projects, but never seemed to be able to hook the big one – until a few weeks ago.

I cannot thank you enough for helping cast me in [national network commercial]. But more importantly, I want to thank you and your wonderful staff for the patience, persistence, and faith you have shown by giving me so many opportunities. Actors are blessed to have great allies like you in this business. Thank you for helping that awkward 14-year-old boy keep fighting for his dream.

I look forward to work with you and your office for many years to come.

 

All the best,

Chris Cafero

An Actor’s Story

SAG Status

This blog is a simple cry for help. I am going to keep this short and simple. Please pay your SAG dues. It seems the new way is not to pay up until you book a job. You are not allowed to work if you are not paid up. We get your social security numbers so we can make sure of your SAG status before you work. This “clearance report” must come back perfect in order for the signatory not to receive fines. It is my job to make sure of all this.

I am responsible for this and being diligent at it goes a long way. Casting directors have no union affiliation so we cannot get fined but our clients can, and if they do then it comes back to us not doing our job properly. In my office, Nikki is in charge of this. She is very diligent and understands the importance of it. She spends hours every day on this because actors are often irresponsible about paying their dues or not knowing their SAG status. How do you not know if you are a must join? If book you on a job and it turns out you have been waived on two previous jobs, that makes you a must join. You should know this. Your agent or agents should know this. Your manager should know this. Why do I need to send your information in for you to find out your own SAG status? What happens if the job you booked does not pay close to what the membership fee is? Are you going to turn around at that point and say, “I cannot afford to join so I cannot do the job?” We all know the process to get to the point of booking a job. For me to have to tell my client they can’t have you because you can’t afford to join the union is a nightmare. I know the union offers payment plans but it is still a commitment. It comes down to the same thing I always say…be responsible. Knowing this is part of your job.

The union gives you a grace period to join (only a few days) but you must make an appointment before the shoot. If you get booked over a weekend, on a holiday or same day as shoot you must call the union from the set and make an appointment. Once you make an appointment your agent calls Nikki and Nikki confirms it with the union rep. Then, she keeps record of your appointment and follows up to make sure you went. And if you don’t go then my client gets a fine, but you still make your money. I get blamed because that’s just how it works.so I hold my breath and hope you will join. Then she needs to get the clearance report updated. Once all of this falls into place, then we get a perfect clearance sheet that the agency has been asking for since the day after the shoot. We have moved onto the next job but this lingering work is not only frustrating, it is time consuming and takes away from fifty other things we should be doing. So, dealing with must-joins, actors that owe dues, and waivers we need to file for non-SAG members is a lot of work and we need you to do your part so we can move on and do the great part of our job…casting. Think about this: for every SAG job we work on, we have to do this. If we are lucky enough to have 4, 5, 6, or 7 jobs that week and some jobs that require 20 actors, this has become a full time very stressful job. I do not think actors are all aware of what we have to go through once you book a job.. Being a casting director is not just prepping and running casting sessions (wouldn’t that be nice).

And here I go again…schedules and accountability to your agent, agents, or manager. This will probably be the last thing that comes out of my mouth before I die. What is it? We still have so any actors that do not keep their agents updated. I have to be honest; there are some agents that are so unaware of their clients’ schedules and whereabouts that after a while I lose faith in their ability to help me set up quality casting sessions. There are also so many actors that I really liked and give appointments to often but that said, three strikes and you’re out.

Anything other than an emergency, it needs to be in your schedule – work, vacations, weddings, and even the birth of a baby. The reason I say that is because I had an actor confirm an appointment yesterday and then cancel because he remembered he could not leave town because it was his wife’s due date. Having a baby is an important thing for an agent to know. You should probably book out around that time. If she goes into labor and you’re on set, are you going to walk off? Enough said.

SAG Status

Thank You

This is my last post for the year 2016. First, I would like to thank you for reading. I write this blog because it helps me vent about my frustrations. I am lucky enough to work enough to have things to vent and be frustrated about.
2016, on a personal level, was the worst year of my life. I lost my mother (which I am not even coming close to accepting), and I won’t even get started on politics. I have never been political and now I find myself actually depressed about it.
I cannot complain about work; however, I can complain that the budgets are getting smaller and smaller and that I have to hope to get twice the amount of work to meet my numbers but I am so grateful to my clients, directors, and producers for continuing to put their faith in me and my company. I have an incredible staff – assistants, casting directors, studio managers, and more. Everyone puts in 110%.
Slow times are scary. I never know when the phone will ring, so we hope and when the phone does ring, we are available and ready to work our butts off. You never know what the next day will bring so we do not take any job for granted…full rate, half rate, free. We all do what we have to do to keep everyone happy, it is also an amazing feeling to employ so many actors. It takes all of us being ready and responsible to do a great job. We are all needed to make the process work – casting directors, agents, and actors.
I cannot even imagine what actors go through. I appreciate the actors that are responsible – the actors that treat the process like an art but also a business. We have a lot of work to do in 2017. We need to find a way to have everyone understand the benefits of being more responsible to their agents when it comes to their schedules. I have said it over and over again and I’ll continue to say it, but right now I just want to say thank all the people that have made the effort to make New York casting great.
Training is important. I work with some incredible directors that love working with smart and talented actors. Never think you know it all. I learn something new every day. The last 4 months have been great – a nice amount of SAG work with quality creative and top productions. Non-union is still there and just as important. We work hard on all of it. People need to sit still. Commit your time to making our work top quality all the time. Doing four auditions and then jumping on a plane is not a commitment. Booking a job and then jumping on a plane is not taking your job seriously.
I hope for a healthy and happy New Year to everyone. I never gave much thought to that phrase before this year…a lot of firsts. A huge thank you to the agencies, production companies, directors, and producers that continue to put your faith in my team and I. Happy New Year from all of us at Beth Melsky Casting.

Thank You

Actors: Life After the SAG/AFTRA Contract

I am not a political person but it has been impossible to ignore the circus of this year’s election. I am thinking about the way the process works and the amount of strategy used. I started to think about the SAG commercial contract, when it was expiring and the  renegotiation. I never thought of two smart sides using strategy to come to a fair settlement. I actually think I was very naïve in believing it was actors on one side and producers on the other. I was very sure that actors were feeling the lack of union work and were afraid if they went on strike, the union would never bounce back. I do not think for the everyday actor that they were concerned about rates, increases, or rule changes.

Actors getting involved in an increase of day rates, or first class airfare, or an 8 hour work day are not things the average voting actor was concerned with. I have found that most commercial actors do not know most of the rules in the SAG contract. Many do not ever know the rate for an 8 hour work day. They rely on agents or managers to inform and advise them. Agents and managers…that had no say in the negotiation. SAG actors were sitting back and watching while more than 60% of all auditions were non-union. Many actors did not care about the terms. They were so afraid that if they voted for a  strike that there would never be any SAG commercial work again. All they thought or heard about was the last strike and that if they went on strike again it was over for them.

I now believe that they should not have gone on strike because with the all the changes (digital, social media, etc.) that this contract was a good compromise.

We (casting directors, directors, producers and more) have all been hit hard financially while the world of advertising tries to figure itself out.

No matter what, when a client is dealing with a small budget to get their brand out there, they still can’t afford 8 hour work days, work outside the zone, P&W of 17%, etc. I have so many clients that actually investigate going union. It’s not the day rate, it’s all the other things I mentioned. I never thought that they were shooting non-union to prove a point. Maybe it was part of a negotiating strategy.  The buyouts for internet and social media are reasonable for now.  “Broadcast “ union commercials cost so much money in residuals that a lot of what I see is that they run one cycle (13 weeks) and then they move over to internet, where not only are they being viewed more, it becomes an additional buyout which is affordable under SAG.

The truth is, a lot of network commercials are being shot to air on a special events that will be watched live by millions of people. Commercials made for the super bowl are the best example. I felt that if they could have gotten rid of residuals and offer buyouts based on usage, then there would be more commercials running on broadcast TV. The union is never giving anything back. That would be like lowering an employee’s salary. I think continuing to fight for the part of the contract that will end up obsolete instead of trying to figure out the future would be more productive. Find a better balance. 

I hope network TV  will never go away. I watch a lot of it as well as the other available options. It seems to me that people need commercials more then they realize. You go shopping and know the toilet paper you want because you have seen an ad that stuck with you and you don’t even know that it is stuck in your head . If all our watching became ad-free like Netflix, then how would products advertise? It seems to me, as a person that can’t pay my rent without advertising, that it is necessary. Isn’t there a way or a compromise? Even Netflix advertises so people will know that they exist…commercial free. If there was no way for them to advertise then how would we know? How would we know about all the new original programing if they couldn’t promote these shows on Broadcast, cable, etc. Maybe I am completely wrong and uninformed, but it scares me. Social media is so fast and even less clear on how advertising works and how effective it is. Product clients can’t pay SAG rates when they have no idea if it is being watched or selling anything.  It was like going from print to TV. It feels like history is repeating itself when cable TV was added to the contract and the union decided there was no future in it. Having a reasonable union that understands all sides so they can work together seems so important. Talent agents, casting directors, and managers were never asked their opinions. We are on the ground living it everyday. I don’t think the people that were in a position to vote ever felt that everyone’s goal was the same.

I was convinced (since most of the casting I was doing leading up to the negotiation) that after it was over, there would continue be more non-union work then ever. I knew that all the big agencies and their signatories were doing more and more digital work and were stuck in how to move forward. Nobody knew what to do with Twitter, Snap Chat, etc. The actors won with broadcast and the producers/signatories won with Internet and New Media. Everyone knew that Broadcast was getting less and less and just had to hope that as low as the rates were, it would cut down on non union.

I think the point I’m trying to make (and maybe not doing a great job of ) is everyone made the best deal they could. Could they have gotten rid of first class? Yes. Would it have made a difference? Yes. Could they have come up with a tier system for P&W and would it have made a difference? Yes.

What I am understanding now and did not see was the strategy behind the negotiations. You do not flood the market with SAG network auditions before a possible strike. You sit back and let all the SAG actors see how much non-union work there is and they get scared. Great strategy. I actually believed going into the vote that there would barely be any union work again and three years from now everyone would jump ship. After the vote and the contract was passed, I had more union work than I had had in a year.

I was thrilled, but surprised. It would be nice to be able to do every job on a SAG contract while still allowing agents and casting directors to meet and employ new people without the fear of penalties. Creative changes all the time and, often times, we need to search for new types. If we are shut down then creativity will not move forward. Also, the membership amount is higher than actors can afford, since most internet or social media ads pay much less. This negotiation made actors afraid to become union members. Less auditions with more bills. The union said, for the commercial contract, that it was their highest revenue year yet. My answer to that is “celebrity endorsements.” How much of that money came from that?

This strategy (after watching the nonsense of a presidential election) became very clear to me. It was a very smart way to go and I truly think we have a chance of merging the gap even more if people involved would be honest, acknowledge the future, and consider a way for actors to work on union contracts and the advertisers can afford to offer them.

If I am lucky enough to be busy casting, I see they need to try and work together to make things better for everyone, not get political and out strategize the other side. Let’s stop the CIRCUS mentality and in 3 years, maybe ask the opinions of the people who are knee deep in it.

As my mother said, there are 3 sides to every story…yours, mine, and the correct one.

You can’t get there if you don’t ask everyone.

Actors: Life After the SAG/AFTRA Contract

Help Your Agent Help You

Now it is time to defend the agents and reach out to seasoned actors, as well as new. July and August were not only very busy, but most of the work was SAG. If there is ever a time that casting is going to be busy in New York, it is the summer. I have been doing this for 30 years; summer is busy.

I am going to give a major tip on how actors can make their relationship with their agents better and create less stress between casting directors and agents. I am going to start with Abrams Artists and the agent that I work with there, Tracey Goldblum. She works 20 hours a day and only cares about doing a great job. She will also defend an actor even when they have not done their part, so help her do her job.

Now for the most important tip and the thing that is making our jobs the most difficult – stay in New York and be available to work in the summer. Come November when there are no auditions, it is not fair to complain to your agent.

On top of so many actors wanting the summer off, you do not inform your agents of your schedule and the agents learn that you are unavailable after I have spent the day prepping and scheduling you. That means I have to do my job twice, sometimes even three or four times. I am so confused as to why sending your schedule is such a big issue. If you had a full time job you would have to put in for vacation. Also, how many e-mails does everyone send in a day? This is just one more and it is part of your job as an actor. Give your agent your schedule. It doesn’t matter if it is work related or not. For an agent to take their time to submit you and push for you, get an appointment, and then find out that you are not available is unfair to all of us.

Your commercial agent should be made aware of any pending legit work, booked work, readings, vacations, etc. In this day and age, keeping your schedule up to date is easy. If an agent submits you, thinks you are available because you didn’t book out, calls you with the appointment only to find out you are not available because you “forgot” to book out, it will not only be remembered but the agent might hesitate to submit you the next time.

It does not matter if you have not gotten an audition in a month. Agents still need your schedule so if an audition comes up they are prepared. If you have a secondary job and can only audition part time, it is so important to inform your agent. You are not just another body. We are all working hard to do great casting sessions, but lately the lack of responsibility has made it very difficult.

Doug Kesten at Paradigm and Carol Ingber of Ingber and Associates, will get a breakdown from me and check everyone’s schedule before they submit. Actors that have not updated their schedule will not get submitted. Doug, in a lot of cases, will pick up the phone (I know…a new concept) and check in with some actors that he thinks will be perfect, before submitting them…very time consuming. Other agencies, like Don Buchwald and Associates, that have a much larger client list do not have the time to do that, so it is really important to update them with your schedule.

Agents want appointments and do not want to take a chance on someone that hasn’t checked in. I don’t give an agent a time slot or a time span. I give an agent an appointment for a specific actor. If lose the actor, the agent loses that appointment time, and has less of a chance of booking the job.

The lack of responsibility is costing actors auditions and making me hesitate on scheduling you again. You are also driving your agents crazy.

Please, all actors, even if you have more than one agent, keep your full schedule up to date with all of them. Do not assume your legit agent is communicating with your commercial agent or that your manager is keeping your all agents in the loop. We are all grown ups and need to be responsible for ourselves. Please help this business; become responsible again. It might make casting easier and create a situation where we don’t have to set up such big casting sessions to make sure we are covered.

One last request, give Tracey Goldblum a hand. She has more scheduling issues than anyone and I think her clients need to help her out.

 

Help Your Agent Help You