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

Thoughts From Two Casting Directors

This week’s post features a guest contributor, David O’Connor, a casting director based out of Chicago.

Hello all. Quick introduction: my name is David O’Connor. I am a casting director who lives and works and owns my very large business in Chicago. I have done this for the last 25 years. Like Beth, I’ve been around the casting block many times and have seen major shifts in the career of not only casting directors, but actors, talent agents, production companies, ad agencies, and even the union (SAG).


Beth and David:

As casting directors, like Beth and myself, we are unique in the fact that we must know “everything” without any real way of learning it. We have to know all the SAG rules to represent our producers and clients properly and now we’ve had to navigate a non-union world without any rules. It has been left up to the top casting directors to advise and guide our clients. We have tried very hard to set prices and some unified structure to a part of the business that has no rules.

We very much want to get the best deal for our clients without taking advantage of actors. The SAG (union) versus non-union situation is not a casting director’s job to get involved with. We’re hired to cast non-union and we do the best we can to keep it fair and continue to do that. We are trying to move forward with rates, not backwards.

Our business is mostly based on the commercial contract, which involves not only broadcast TV and Internet usage, but also industrial; now web video, print, and digital print. Union has defined lines. Non-union has none, so we are negotiating things that we never had to deal with, if it was a SAG job going on a SAG contract.

The floodgates for crazy amounts of usage for flat fees have been opened and I do not think there is any return. As casting directors “now,” we have to keep up the quality of the casting, but we also spend way too much time navigating budgets and negotiations. What we signed up for was an amazing creative job, understanding casting specs, fulfilling directors’ visions of what they want, and painting a beautiful portrait of talented people doing talented work. What an amazing feeling to get it right, done properly, and make everyone so happy that they come back. Our careers have been compromised by a new business. I think we always thought of our jobs as creative and now the shift in the business has changed the priorities or what is needed to get to that great end goal.

For both us, we wish we could spend more time setting up great casting sessions with quality actors that still want to do this. SAG actors cannot wait around for the union to fix things so they can learn that it’s worth being responsible to their agents and career. They are frustrated with the lack of work and, therefore, every time we get and set up a great job, we lose half of the actors we want because they have given up and even have other careers, something nobody finds out until they are called with an audition.

I think we both work the same way and take a lot of pride in our work so the lack of back up, whether it’s from the agents, agents’ assistants, or actors, is not helping us push for SAG work


David:

I’d like to backtrack. If you have not read many of the previous blog posts, you should stop reading this and start from the first post. The situation is the same in Chicago, NY, and LA. There are so many things written to help you be the best you can be. They also help you to understand this business and ways to help, as a community, to stay strong and stay functional. Ok, now back to me. I am amazed at how casting directors in the major markets all have the same issues with clients and actors.


Beth and David:

I think SAG believes that so many of their members do not care and work non-union. SAG members are very loyal and I guess hopeful in that the union will do something to help.

Actors that cannot earn a living doing SAG work file for a thing called fi-core (financial core), which allows them to work non-union. The labor laws allow for this and anyone that we know that has done this does this properly with SAG. They work non-union and if they get a SAG job, then they have to rejoin. That’s a lot of money, then they have to file again. The only SAG issue that changes for them is that they cannot vote.

We all want the best for actors and encourage their careers. We hope to see them on the big screen or TV someday. It is an amazing journey for us to have a hand in and follow careers.

Non-union has watered this process down so much. We need to audition so many actors per part that we worry that someone talented will slip through the cracks. As casting directors, we are neutral. We have no union behind us supporting or helping us. They have never tried to work towards a compromise that might help. Non-union is not going away and we would love nothing more than unified rates and rules; “almost like a non-union union.” I guess that’s an oxymoron. We battle daily with changing times and talent pools.


David:

We as casting directors have a lot of people to please and it is not an easy job. It literally has been getting more difficult every year for the past ten years. Remember, we get hired to find the best, given the parameters or rates, schedules and creative concepts. We are constantly working on tight deadlines and budgets at the same time, giving great options for our directors and creatives. That is and always will be the case.

Where the biggest issues come into play are working with actors and models when they do not take it as a business. Everyone refers to it as a business, but some get lost in the “me, me, me” aspect of life and do not realize that 99% of the time, the people paying for these services care about the job as a whole. They care about making something interesting, artistic, but mostly, they want to see their product make money.


Beth and David:

Let’s be honest. I do not think actors choose to be actors to do commercials. Commercial actors do it for the money, while they focus on their dream. One big change in commercials through all this is that commercials are not looked down upon, but can be a great stepping-stone to be seen by big producers and directors, and it can turn into very positive exposure. I think we both stayed in business by being very good at spotting and understanding talent. Chicago is a mecca for incredibly trained comedic improve actors. You have no idea how many famous actors are from the Chicago area.


David:

I am an incredible businessperson and have been able to navigate it all. Beth and I have a lot in common in that way. Basically, the words I am putting to fingers currently are just to let you understand and focus on that. To apply to every audition or project you accept and understand that we all need each other to be successful. We all need to present ourselves properly and professionally, across all aspects of your career. From being prepared for auditions, respecting each other and the people running things, the people trying to help you build your craft constantly. Do your best everyday. We have to focus, educate, use common sense, and make strong creative choices daily. Truly, these are the only things you, as actors, are in control of. Do them well and you can reap the rewards of your chosen profession. Highly doubt that some stage parent was behind your choice. You chose this wacky, strange, chaotic, wonderful business of acting and performing. In doing so, you have the responsibility of taking control of your choices. You are an individual.

Thank you so much, Beth, for letting me throw some words out there. Hopefully, they can be helpful and won’t start any acting riots or hatred for this terrific city of Chicago that I call home.


Beth:

For a majority of this post, I have chosen to add “us” and make these thoughts from the both David and I. I have a lot of respect for David O’Connor. He is a huge role model for me and for those who want to be casting directors and understand that there is a lot more to our profession. As always, thanks for reading.

Thoughts From Two Casting Directors