Cast Away

Swift currents of change have charted a new course for Hollywood's armada of casting professionals

Like many of today's top casting directors, Victoria Burrows got her start when personal computers were nonexistent, FedEx was in its infancy, faxes and videotape machines were rare, and black-and-white glossies were everywhere.

"It used to be hard-copy pictures, then sit down and meet an actor," Burrows says with little nostalgia. "You would just read them and do call-backs."

Now, working on such motion-capture films as Disney's

"A Christmas Carol" and "Mars Needs Moms!" she spends her days in casting sessions with partner Scot Boland, calculating how actors' performances will translate in neoprene wet suits covered with white dots and subsequently rendered by 3-D animation software. The auditions are uploaded to a computer and stored with other information on the servers of Cast It, a popular database management system that allows them to be viewed instantly by anyone with a password to the company account, from a Beverly Hills agent to a director on location in Bulgaria.

It might be hard to fathom for twentysomethings raised on text messaging, but even such free sites as IMDb and YouTube have brought drastic changes to the casting business, according to Marcia Ross, senior vp at Walt Disney Feature Casting.

"People say, 'Have you heard of such and such actor?' and I can YouTube or Google them and see their scenes in 10 seconds," Ross says. "Or I find out about an actor in Mongolia, and within 24 hours I can scan and e-mail the sides to that actor or their representative; then, they can tape themselves in a little room and I can see their audition on my computer."

Ross' scenario is not an exaggerated theoretical example.

"We are expected to look at the global market," Casting Society of America president Gary Zuckerbrod says. "Even when we start doing a television pilot, we're expected to know the up-and-coming actors in Australia."

But while technology streamlines the process and broadens the scope for casting directors, it also combines with shifting economic realities and audience tastes to frustrate them creatively. With a multitude of gadgets and games competing for consumers' shrinking entertainment dollar, Hollywood is pouring more money into fewer high-profile, effects-heavy movies. Desperate to secure these huge investments, studio executives demand an increasingly deep level of cast approval and use audience research to justify their decisions.

"You'd be shocked," casting director Mindy Marin says. "At some studios, it's right down to the day player. They say, 'Let's put that person in that role because they mean something in the youth quadrant between 15 and 19.' It's all about covering your ass, as opposed to doing what our business used to do so well, which is make the best movie."

While technology and economics are forever altering the way they work, one thing remains the same for casting directors -- their lack of recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Emmys added casting awards in 1989, and the Independent Spirit Awards followed suit in 2008.

"We're the only main title billing that is not recognized with an Oscar," Zuckerbrod says. "For years, the complaint was that the director decides who is cast. That's like saying the costume designer tells the director what dress the lead actress is going to wear."

While Oscar remains indifferent, Hollywood studios have shown a degree of respect. In 2005, more than 300 casting directors and casting associates in Los Angeles and New York voted to organize under the Teamsters banner. Threatened with a strike, the AMPTP -- which had discouraged their unionization efforts -- caved and signed its first collective bargaining agreement with the group, establishing basic working conditions for members along with coverage through the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans. While it was far from a home run -- minimum salary rates were left to be negotiated on an individual basis -- casting director Cathy Sandrich Gelfond says it was "huge" for her field.

The casting directors inked a new deal with the AMPTP in September, which includes a small increase in health and pension contributions, according to Zuckerbrod.

"The reason we were able to threaten a strike (in 2005) is nobody else does what we do," Zuckerbrod says. "You need knowledge of actors and diplomacy. You need to understand budget structure and relate to producers, directors and execs in a way that very few people in this industry can."

There is no clear-cut path to acquiring these skills. People can attend NYU, USC and other institutions to study acting, directing or cinematography, but there are no schools for casting directors.

Many are former actors. "I don't think I would be good at my job had I not been an actress," says Sarah Finn, whose casting credits include 2004's "Crash." Others, like Avy Kaufman, started at talent agencies. They all learned ins and outs of the trade as they rose from assistant to associate to full-fledged casting director, and the education continues with each project.

"It's always a different world," Gelfond says. "On 'Patriot Games' and 'The Good Shepherd,' we learned about the CIA. On 'The Kingdom,' we learned a lot about (Arabs) so we could properly depict them."

If one is looking to make big bucks, it's certainly not the safest career choice. A top casting director can make up to $10,000 per week on a big studio picture. But the economic downturn, WGA strike and looming SAG threat have greatly reduced the number of those films going into production. Even some of the biggest casting people spend a large portion of their time on independent films in the sub-$5 million range, where the pay is exponentially lower and the talent more difficult to secure.

"As soon as a studio movie is announced, the agents offer up all their talent because they know it's getting made and distributed," Burrows says. "You can get actors to be in much smaller roles because they want to be in business with power directors. You work harder on the smaller ones, because there's no guarantee they will be distributed."

In spite of the long hours and lack of appreciation, most casting directors enjoy their niche profession.

"I'm doing what I love most for a living," Ross says. "Someone actually pays me to watch movies, go to the theater, meet actors and sit at the front row for the very best acting in the world in my very own office."
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