|West June 27, 2001||
Pay Your Money, Take Your Chances
By Laura Weinert and Rob Kendt
If you've ever paid $30 to sit in the back of a dark casting director workshop for two hours, then stand up and do the same dazzling three-minute monologue you always do, only to watch the CD promptly gather up everyone's headshots and bolt out the door into the night, perhaps you've begun to ask yourself a few existential-sounding questions: Why am I here? What is the point of all this?
Not all casting director workshops are so impersonal. Some provide a bit of handy coaching or honest tips about their office's preferences. The guest casting director might do everything from redirecting your scene to simply letting you in on what styles of headshots they prefer. Other casting directors provide ongoing classes in which, over a period of time, they teach you a set of specified skills--say, how to audition for commercials. Yet the question remains, Are CD workshops truly intended as places of learning? Or are they just paid auditions dressed up in classroom clothing?
Newly created by casting director Billy DaMota and actor Roggie Cale, DoNotPay.org has launched an expansive effort to abolish what they call the "Pay-to-Play" workshop system. The group takes a radical stance, arguing that there is no acceptable instance where actors should pay a working casting director. Yet many actors have found these workshops to be places that provide a valuable service, whether it's information or simply easy-access networking that can and does indeed land them auditions and jobs. As the debate continues to heat up on actor websites such as Wolfesden.net, Actorsite.com, and our very own Backstage.com, Back Stage West decided to bring together voices from all points of the spectrum for an open discussion.
In addition to casting director Billy DaMota and DoNotPay.org executive director Roggie Cale, we invited Cathy Reinking, a casting associate for Jeff Greenberg, who teaches ongoing classes and one-night workshops; Terry Berland, a commercial casting director and author of Breaking Into Commercials, who teaches a six-week workshop and attends one-night seminars, Stephon Fuller, an actor who regularly attends CD workshops and has gotten numerous jobs as a result, and Phil Brock, director at large of the Talent Managers Association and owner of Studio Talent Group. Robert Noll, who runs the CD workshop company Casting Break with his wife, Robin Noll, also crashed the roundtable and joined the discussion.
Back Stage West: What we've always wondered about CD workshops is whether they're more about learning or more about networking. Is that line blurred intentionally or is it fluid anyway in this business?
Phil Brock: [CD workshops] originally were started by actors to help themselves and their fellow actors get in and get an experience in front of a casting director. Obviously, the ultimate goal was to help them get work, [and] at the time it was very limited. [But] it's become absolutely pervasive here. We joke in my office now about how actors really should just drop a $20 bill on my desk to get an interview. That's what's in effect happening. So it started as sort of a noble cause and has become this weed that's spread out of control.
Billy DaMota: The climate then was, as an intern in a casting office, [you] always went to see theatre, you always went to acting classes to watch graduating students. What happened, though, is that the casting director cold reading workshops started to turn into a cottage industry, where the few actors who were at first being helpful and trying to get their friends jobs became entrepreneurial workshop owners. At the beginning, they were called showcases--they weren't called workshops. [But] they started to get pressure from the Casting Society of America, from the Screen Actors Guild, who said: "Wait, that's bribery." So they called themselves workshops and provided what they considered a curriculum, with the fact that the casting director would bring [script] sides. That became "a class," so to speak.
BSW: So there's no learning component at all? But you teach classes, don't you, Terry?
Terry Berland: Well, I find that if someone is going to take a six-week class, like what I teach, they're not going to do that just to meet you. They sign up because they've heard about the reputation and the results. The real problem is these one-night things. When I go to one-night things, I kind of pick the places I want to go to because pretty good people are there that night--[where] there's some kind of screening process. It is a very quick way to meet a lot of people.
BSW: Cathy, do you think CD workshops have replaced other places you see actors, such as theatre?
Cathy Reinking: I like to go to theatre because I want to be moved; I want to see a good play. I don't think people should be in plays so that they can be seen. I think they should be in plays because it's great to be part of theatre, it's practice, it's using your muscles. I go to theatre and I happen to find actors, but that's not the reason I go. But these nights where I get paid to go, I'm there to find actors, and people have gotten work that way a lot. They put down their 20 or 30 bucks, and if they have one day of work out of that, they've made their money back ten-fold.
DaMota: So you encourage the fact that if an actor pays to meet a casting director he's got a good chance of...
Reinking: Yes. Because what happens is, 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.
Brock: And in Cathy's defense, Cathy religiously does bring great actors in if she sees them from her workshops. One of my actresses got eight auditions through her office because of one workshop. And I know Cathy goes to see theatre. That's unfortunately not the case with the other 200 associates, assistants, readers, envelope openers in town these days.
BSW: The larger issue, Cathy, is: Do you think actors should have to pay to meet casting directors?
Reinking: Again, they're guaranteed that. In my heart, I feel like they really shouldn't have to pay. But there are only so many hours in a day that we have to give. And it does motivate us to go out to workshops. That's why I actually like my ongoing class better, because I feel like I'm giving something to them that's not just finding people. I'm teaching them a skill of how to get work.
BSW: How does it look from the workshop owners' perspective, Robert?
Robert Noll: I'm only sharing for our company, not for workshops as a whole. We started our company because my wife [Robin and I are] actors ourselves, and we started this company to help actors. Honestly, if we could do this for free, we would.
BSW: So you wouldn't characterize yourself as part of this cottage industry--it's not a big profit for you, necessarily?
Noll: I read somewhere--I think Billy wrote something about the millions and millions [workshops] make. I would love to see the millions--I mean, see where it is, not see it myself.
Reinking: Are people making lots of money?
Brock: Absolutely. Quick example: 20-25 actors per night. Most average workshops are at $30-$35 a night. Let's say you have two classrooms going, that's $1,200 per night. You pay a casting director or associate $150, $200 max. So $1,200 per night, times six days a week. Now you figure that out, you're at about $7,000 a week, $28,000 a month, times 12. You've got a big business going.
Stephon Fuller: I don't think there's any secret that people are definitely making money on it. I don't really have a problem with that. [And] I can tell you that I always learn something. I don't know whether I'm extra-receptive or what it is, but I've learned countless things, and not just for me. I have a lot of information to impart to my friends.
BSW: Then the question for you, Stephon, is: If you had only learned a lot from these workshops and hadn't booked any jobs, would you still consider them worthwhile?
Fuller: For me, that's never been the case. I started getting results.
Reinking: If you're good, you will get work.
Noll: These workshops do not change the fact that you need to be a good actor. They're offering you more opportunities to be in front of people. They're not teaching acting, that's true...
Berland: That's not true in all cases.
Noll: Some are, but what I'm saying is that we're not expecting that. You're paying for a service to get more involved in the industry.
DaMota: The point is that there's no other profession where the people who are in a position to hire the people that they're meeting are put together [for money]. Casting directors are in a direct position to hire actors.
Noll: Facilitate their hiring.
Berland: This is a little different than every other profession anyway. And to start counting how much money someone is making--this is America, and they can start a business, and as long as they're not ripping someone off... Communications change and business changes. There's no time anymore for the leisurely general interviews, and we have to change with the times. So perhaps the real solution would be, How do we keep it so it's clean and people aren't getting ripped off?
BSW: Are actors being "ripped off" by some CD workshops?
Brock: What I hear today from actors is: Casting assistants, associates, and casting directors have stopped teaching. I am extremely disturbed when a No. 3 assistant at an office who does dramas at 20th Century Fox who just walked into that office is now doing workshops and getting paid for them. He cannot do anything except open envelopes and hope he doesn't get a paper cut. He should not be doing a workshop because, indeed, you [Robert] are facilitating him ripping off actors by letting him come into your office. And this casting assistant who should never be at workshops [has] been making $1,500-$2,000 a month doing workshops. That's wrong.
Reinking: So you're saying that the workshops should screen who they hire to come in.
Brock: Yes. But none of [them] screen anymore.
Reinking: Well, maybe actors should do more research on what showcases and workshops they pick.
Brock: Or we need to bring enough public pressure on some of the workshop owners that they do what they did 20, 15 years ago when they started, and bring in wonderful casting directors who really care and really will bring in actors. It's gotten to the point that there are so many workshops struggling to keep their doors open, they have to take lower and lower assistants on the totem pole to stay open.
Reinking: There are assistants, though, that can bring in people. And they move up.
Fuller: As someone who's done a lot of workshops, I really don't differentiate between partner, owner, associate, assistant. I've been called in by all of them, and I've been not called in by all of them. But looking at [a workshop claim that one casting director] "usually calls in half of every session"--I've got to be smart enough to know that's bull.
BSW: So your advice to actors would be to...
Fuller: Do your homework. On everything, not just workshops. Classes, workshops, pictures, unions, everything.
DaMota: Because workshops exist, it's up to actors to do that kind of research. Right now they're being represented as a tool, and frankly, they are. But when money changes hands--that dynamic is what we're opposed to. Casting directors should be doing their jobs, and [this issue of] their "valuable time" of two hours in the evening... I hear that argument all the time. What about that single mom who had to wait tables all day to give half of her salary to a casting assistant? What about her valuable time?
Reinking: Wait a second. Everybody's choosing to be in this business. I mean, I spent nine months getting no pay as an intern. I was a single parent at the time; I still am. We make sacrifices to be in this business. If you really want something, if you're talented, you will get it. You will go to a workshop. You will get work. And if you're not that good, you're not going to get work.
Roggie Cale: The exchange of money cannot be overlooked as a major ethical violation. There are state laws in every state in the union against [paying for an interview]. In the one-night things I have attended... it's an audition. That's why the actors are there, and as Cathy said, that's why she's there. The point is, an exchange of money between an actor and a casting director simply cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.
Reinking: Why are they flourishing, then? Why aren't they closed down?
Cale: We're working on it.
Reinking: But if actors did not have those, what would they do?
Cale: We'll come up with something. Let me finish on this: There are two problems on the exchange of money. One is that it's an ethical violation. The second reason is because it [creates] an unfair competition situation.
Noll: In what sense?
Cale: In that you have some actors who will have paid money to a casting director, and others who will have not. So in that case, the actor who has not paid money to a casting director has a right to feel that the actor who has paid may have an advantage.
Noll: Well, the actor who doesn't have money can't have pictures, he can't have an acting coach, he can't have a car.
Cale: Don't be ridiculous. The thing is, clearly casting directors have time to meet actors and do these things, because they're doing it now in workshops. All we've got to do is take the money out.
Brock: And you know, a perfect example of that is that Talent Managers Association [TMA] started doing a series of free workshops last August. Actors, strangely enough, didn't pay. Managers, strangely enough, didn't get paid.
DaMota: And both benefited.
Berland: I don't think that just to meet people a casting director should get paid. When I do go, I'll always teach them something. Because I agree with you that I think it's part of our jobs just to meet people; we shouldn't get paid.
Noll: An actor's job every day is to meet casting directors as often as possible. When we started [our business], that was at the forefront of our mind. Now when Phil says he's done plenty of free workshops, that is awesome. But I guarantee you if all of a sudden [paid workshops] all stopped, you would not have a proliferation of people seeing actors.
DaMota: When that workshop stops, [what's a casting director] going to do? Is she going to say, "Oh, well, I don't know how I'm going to be able to find any actors now"? Of course she's going to be able to find those same hundreds of actors. The casting directors' need to meet actors doesn't change. Things will replace a workshop system.
DaMota: It's not our obligation to figure out what actors will do after a bad thing goes away.
Reinking: But can't we just clean up the system we have?
DaMota: It would be a good place to start.
Noll: I want any solutions we can find, because I do want the actors to benefit from this. I'd like an open conversation with those who are in opposition to [the system], rather than posting things [on websites] for the general public just to have it out.
BSW: Final words from each of you?
Reinking: An actor has a pool of money and they come to L.A. How are they going to get seen? To me, it's a really good way for them to put down their 20 to 30 bucks and go in front of a casting director--if they're good. To me, it's better than mass mailings, which is a lot more expensive. It's better than hundreds of dollars to do showcases. Sometimes it's better than being in a play to get seen--God forbid, I'm going to say this--because what if the industry people don't go there? So you're guaranteed to meet a casting person. To me, it's clean and thorough.
Berland: I would like to find a solution to keep the industry healthy. Actors need to meet people and market themselves, and I'm all for cleaning it up and keeping it healthy.
DaMota: I'm also for cleaning up the business and keeping it healthy. Our organization is not trying to take away options from actors [or] keep actors from working. We're trying to remedy a situation where actors necessarily must pay the people who are in the position to hire them in an effort to get a chance at working in L.A. We don't believe that it's right in any instance for an actor to ever pay a casting director in a position to hire that person.
Cale: Cathy, what you said about actors having a pool of money and how they spend it is a really major issue, because the money that's being spent on workshops should be spent on classes, on improving themselves as an actor. There's a tremendous amount of anger and frustration in the acting community that they have to pay to do [workshops]. And although every one of us has done workshops, we're doing it simply because it's become the only opportunity out there. It has to be stopped.
Brock: [CD workshops] began as somewhat of a noble way to increase visibility of actors to casting directors. Unfortunately, it's become one of the few ways for actors who are not "names" to be seen. We have to have some sort of balance in the system. Agents and managers should not do workshops for money. Casting assistants, associates, CDs, if they do workshops, it should be a last resort, and they shouldn't be doing three to four a week. It's not meant to be their second income. At TMA, we advocate doing free workshops, we advocate the owners of these workshops policing themselves for the protection of actors in this industry.
Fuller: I think it is important that the industry clean itself up. By the same token, as an actor who has attended a tremendous amount of workshops, I have yet to feel disrespected or dirty or anything like that. Workshops are not the only thing I do. I also do headshot mailings, postcardings, I'm in a dance class, a voiceover class. So I don't just sit home and wait till 7:30 so I can do a workshop. BSW