Casting Brass: Studios

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Think being on staff at a big studio is easier than roughing it as an independent? Think again. A typical day for a studio casting chief includes countless calls from agents about talent availability, several get-to-know-you meetings with actors, monitoring the anticipated casting needs of films in development, preparing cast budgets and, most importantly, serving as liaison between filmmakers, casting directors and the studio execs who have final approval.

"We have our antennae up looking for new talent constantly," says Julie Hutchinson, senior vp of features casting at NBC Universal. "We scour magazines, go to movies, go to the theater and track talent overseas."

Hutchinson circulates an in-house bulletin titled "People Are Talking About," advising her department of up-and-coming talent. At Walt Disney Studios, senior vp feature casting Marcia Ross regularly undertakes "talent projects" in which she and her staff research and document acting pools around the globe. The focus can be a country like India or a cable outlet like ABC Family.

"When we did the India project, I looked at the top 25 boxoffice movies of the last five years and (noted) where you would see the same (actors) over and over again," Ross says. "Then we consulted people over there who do international distribution, and producers I know, and put together a list of the biggest stars in India. (After that) we collected their pictures and DVDs so we could watch all their work."

For Ross, research also includes visits to film festivals (Sundance, Toronto, Palm Springs) and regular sojourns to New York and London to check out the latest stage actors. She even has someone in her office watch every single TV pilot so they're up to date on all new TV thespians.

One thing casting execs don't do much is conduct auditions.

"If there's a reshoot or added scenes, rather than rehire or re-engage the casting director, I will step in and audition actors," Hutchinson says. "Or there might be a casting director in London and if they need someone here to run auditions, I'll do that, but there are other films where I don't get into auditions at all."

Despite this abstention, Paramount executive vp features casting Gail Levin says her job isn't so different from that of her freelance counterparts. "The end result is similar: You're looking for the best talent out there."

Some studios (Sony, MGM) don't have casting departments, and the ones that do keep them rather small, employing an average of three to four people including assistants. Filmmakers usually come to a studio with a casting director in place; if not, the in-house casting exec will help them find one.

A few studio feature casting heads -- including Ross, Donna Isaacson at Fox and Lora Kennedy at Warner Bros. -- still cast some films themselves. Ross says it's creatively satisfying and "also makes me better at my day-to-day job, because the casting directors know I've had whatever problems they've had and I have the resources to help solve them."

Ross takes a hands-off approach on films she's overseeing, stepping in only when there is a problem. Others, like Isaacson, involve themselves every step along the way.

"We take a certain amount of hits for being as hands-on as we are," Isaacson says. "Sometimes (casting directors) tell me to back off and sometimes they say, 'Thank God you're helping me on this horrible search!' "
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