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New Hollywood Economy: Pay-for-Play Auditions for Actors Gain Dominance

While these workshops are a gateway for those hoping to secure a coveted role (with "students" landing jobs everywhere from ABC to Hulu), critics say they flout a law that no one enforces: "It's so easy to exploit" actors, says casting director Billy DaMota.

This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It’s dusk in Burbank, and the hopeful have paid to hear a homily beneath false ceiling tiles and fluorescent light. “When you became an actor, you went into business for yourself,” a casting director tells the assembly of close to 20 at The Actor’s Key, which hosted 160 such sessions in January, at the height of TV’s pilot season. “There are more of you concentrated in this town than anywhere else. They want your job. And you want their job.”

On any given night, hundreds of struggling actors dole out cash for the privilege of reading brief scenes in an attempt to impress many of the town’s gatekeeper casting directors and their assistants. An enterprising aspirant could spend an average of $50 on a session, helmed by casting directors on shows including CBS’ medical drama Code Black, NBC’s soap Days of Our Lives or ABC’s Emmy-winning Modern Family — all of which were held on the same recent night.

These aren’t auditions, the actors are perfunctorily told. They’re called “workshops,” a chance for entry-level and other actors to show their skills to a casting professional and get constructive criticism. Workshops have been part of Hollywood’s casting system for decades, but as TV and streaming production has ramped up in recent years, and studios and networks have trimmed or eliminated in-house casting departments, the workshops have metastasized into a cornerstone of the industry’s de facto human resources policy. They’re now so pervasive — more than two dozen companies offer more than 450 sessions in a month’s span during pilot season — that many in the industry presume the practice is entirely aboveboard.

But exchanging money for the prospect of employment remains illegal in California. The Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act, which was passed in 2009, specifically outlaws workshops and casting directors from charging or attempting to charge an artist for an audition or employment opportunity.

Since the law was enacted in 2010, there have been no prosecutions. While numerous operators follow the rules and stick to an educational focus, more than 65 interviews with industry professionals involved in the workshop realm suggest that in many cases, both the spirit and the letter of the law are being ignored. 

Generally speaking, actors grumble about the existing system (but refuse to be named for fear of reprisal), while many managers and agents openly acknowledge the transactional nature of most classes as they either passively or actively support them. Nearly all casting directors and workshop owners defend the educational nature of the classes on the record, but privately, some point fingers at colleagues in the industry for dubious practices.

Both the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, and the Casting Society of America say they are aware of concerns about the workshops. Yet both guilds position themselves as powerless to effect change and say they repeatedly have lobbied the Los Angeles city attorney’s office to prioritize the issue.

The result is a gig economy in which temporary labor pays to be “taught” by independent contractors, who in many cases are staffing programming for media corporations. Cost-conscious networks and studios offload a burden once held by productions to cast their shows onto the labor market itself. Millions of dollars previously spent on casting have been cut from balance sheets, and tens of thousands of aspiring actors have been stuck with the bill.

“I disagree with it — it’s payola to meet people,” says veteran manager Darryl Marshak, who follows up with casting directors after clients take their classes. “But as they say, ‘You can’t fight city hall.’ It’s not going away.”

Gary Marsh was photographed on Dec. 2 at Breakdown Express in Los Angeles.

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The classes are linked to original productions on nearly every broadcast and cable network as well as prominent streaming services. When approached to discuss the practice, nearly all chose not to respond, with FX and HBO specifically declining to comment by reasoning that their lack of an in-house casting department absolved them from answering policy questions.

Many observe that more than half of new actors give the system a shot. A typical aspirant might spend $1,500 a year on two to three workshop classes a month in the hope of landing an entry “co-star” role that pays about $1,000 for a day’s work.

“They’re seen as this laughable commodity,” says casting director Billy DaMota, an industry dissident on the issue since the 1990s. “So it’s easy to exploit them.” The actors who subsidize the system understand the game. “Everyone going there knows exactly what it is,” says one actor who asked to remain nameless. “Everyone knows it’s not educational.”

But nothing has happened. “Half the people that are on network television today paid for their job interview — the one-liner roles,” says casting director Dea Vise, a business partner of DaMota’s and fellow heretical voice on the issue. “It’s that prevalent.”

The casting profession has undergone a transformation in the past three decades from a realm defined primarily by staff positions to independent contractor roles. Now that they’re hanging their own shingles, casting professionals must maintain a frenetic pace of booking assignments. “Instead of Suzie Smith doing one or at most two shows, they have to do several to remain viable,” says Bob Rumnock, an employee at the Culver City-based workshop ITA. “The demands have gotten crazier.”

Adds Joy Sudduth, managing director of JB Casting Networks, a workshop company in Culver City: “How many casting directors do you talk to with a hiatus now? None. They’re working on a midseason replacement, an independent project, a streaming thing. Those 15-minute blocks, that time for those generals” — industry jargon for general meetings, in which casting directors get to know actors without auditioning them for a specific role — “just doesn’t exist anymore.” The Savage Agency’s Stella Alex, who has repped stars such as Shailene Woodley on their way up, says, “The general may not be dead, but you have to be at a certain level for it to still happen.”

Scott David was photographed on Dec. 3 at The Actors Link in Los Angeles.

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And forget casting directors schlepping to 99-seat theaters to check out plays, another once-common, now nearly extinct form of assessment. “Productions aren’t paying for them to make discoveries on their time,” says manager Alan Mills, a partner with Marshak.

Technological disruption has changed the landscape, too. Perhaps the most significant change occurred in 2003, when Gary Marsh’s Breakdown Services, which has a virtual monopoly as a clearinghouse for casting notices for upcoming TV projects, went from messenger delivery to digital. This has been a boon for efficiency but cut a key human element out of a human resource function. “Breakdown streamlined a ton of things,” says Scott David, who casts CBS’ Criminal Minds and also owns a workshop studio, The Actors Link in North Hollywood, where he runs classes. “Agents used to come to people’s offices and discuss their clients with a book of their clients. Now you can get a reel on somebody in seconds via online.” 

In this environment, where a breakdown for a generic small role can yield 3,000 digital submissions in several hours (up exponentially from a decade earlier when previously inhibiting aspects like the cost of mailers and time to drive across town were factored in), everyone is seeking ways to handle the deluge. Those in casting want an approach to cull the herd, and workshops are a winnowing mechanism — that happens to pay. Casting director Ty Harman, a frequent workshop presence whose résumé ranges from BET’s The Game to Disney XD’s Crash & Bernstein, sees the sessions as crucial. “I probably do them about twice a week,” he says. “There used to be time for general meetings. Now I can see 30 people in two hours.”

Agents and managers have adapted to the tactics of the new normal. “It’s become common to call a casting director and tell them the client came to see you [at a workshop],” says Chris Manno, recently at Frontline Management and now at Arsonhouse Entertainment — the inference being “they paid to come see you.”

Owners and practitioners defend workshops for their utility and educational value. Some tout classes as offering auditioning skills, while others justify them as empowered networking. “It’s a cost of doing business,” says workshop vet Gary Zuckerbrod, who casts TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles and is former head of the Casting Society of America. Adds Doug Morency, a co-owner of Connect Studios and actor who has landed small roles on sitcoms (a driver on CBS’ Mike & Molly, a sergeant on Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine): “If I’m a product, which I am, I should be able to market myself in any way.”

A 2002 decree from the state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement issued guidelines for the industry that, among other things, prohibits workshop providers from advertising that “attendees have been successful in gaining auditions, interviews or employment as a result of meeting a casting director through a workshop.”

It remains common for workshops to aggressively market the success of its students and tout what instructors are presently casting. For instance, in February, Act Now!’s website enumerated alumni who have booked gigs on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder and Hulu’s The Mindy Project or have been called in for Fox’s New Girl and HBO’s Silicon Valley. (Act Now! recently took down this language and declined comment on the matter.)

The 2002 decree specifies that workshop providers should list an instructor’s experience and current credits. Some companies publicize sessions with enthusiastically suggestive language. ITA published a quintessential example of the genre ahead of the Feb. 6 appearance of casting associate Allison Bader, who works for Alyson Silverberg (The CW’s Jane the Virgin): “Currently casting 2 EPISODICS, 1 is a CW Golden Globe Winner! Also casting 2 SITCOMS for ABC Family & MTV! Does lots of PILOTS too!” ITA’s Rumnock insists the practice is useful to actors: “Our intention is to inform our folks what they’re doing.”

It’s difficult to differentiate practices that break guidelines from those simply pushing their limits in the absence of regulatory enforcement. “There are too many casting workshops out there that aren’t following the rules,” says SAG-AFTRA COO and general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. “There are more violations than there should be. We want the law to be enforced to prevent that.” Adds CSA president Richard Hicks, who argues that his organization, which has one staff employee, has no means to police its membership: “We have been in communication with the city attorney’s office as things come up. At the end of the day, it’s up to them to enforce.”

L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer declined comment on his office’s lack of prosecutions under the 2010 law, but his spokesman Rob Wilcox tells THR: “We will continue to be vigilant and will follow up on any case referred to us and pursue enforcement actions including prosecution when we can. We look forward to continue to collaborate with our partners in the entertainment industry and law enforcement to find innovative ways to put an end to these scams.” (Wilcox asserted that the L.A. County Department of Consumer Affairs was responsible for building would-be workshop cases, but Rigo Reyes, that agency’s chief of investigations, did not respond to requests for comment.) Former State Assemblyman Paul Krekorian, who sponsored the bill that carries his name and now serves as the L.A. City Council member representing a section of the San Fernando Valley, which is filled with workshops, declined an interview as well. “It’s just not something he deals with on a regular basis,” says his spokesman Ian Thompson.

Labor scholars and diversity advocates say the workshop issue reflects poorly on Hollywood’s declarations about pursuing structural reform for the less advantaged. “The opportunity costs are already very high in this business, and these workshops aren’t helping,” says Professor Nelson Lichtenstein, director of UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. Observes National Hispanic Media Coalition president Alex Nogales: “It’s pernicious, and it’s predatory. This is why you’re supposed to have oversight.”

Yet nobody with clout appears eager to address the practice, which has left many actors feeling hopeless. “I don’t think they’re bad people with malicious intentions,” says one of the industry higher-ups, who’ve let it persist. “But it’s become a systemic thing — paid job interviews — and it’s taking a lot of money out of a lot of people’s pockets who don’t have it to begin with. It’s profoundly demoralizing.”

March 30, 4:30 p.m. Updated with Bob Rumnock’s correct title. He is an employee, not a partner, at ITA.