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Byte-size casting

Computer revolution hits the casting biz

For tens of thousands of union actors and their agents trying to make a living in this town, scanning each day’s breakdowns — the lists of that day’s available acting gigs — ranks somewhere between eating and breathing in importance.

And it’s been that way for more than 20 years, thanks to a revolution created by Gary Marsh, founder of Breakdown Services Ltd., the company that compiles the lists of open acting jobs from information provided by casting directors.

Through a combination of good business sense, hard work and zealous protection of his turf, Marsh has maintained a tight hold over the business of compiling and distributing the casting breakdowns. But the casting process may be ripe for another change, just as profound as the one a then-18-year-old Marsh created back in 1971, when he founded his company.

The catalyst for this second revolution should come as no surprise: It is computers and telecommunications technology such as the Internet.

These new systems allow talent agents to read the breakdowns on their PCs and, with a click of the mouse, instantly submit digitized head shots, actor resumes and in some cases, even video and audio clips to the casting directors.

“Electronic submissions are definitely the wave of the future in casting,” said independent casting director Tammara Billik, who has started using early versions of the computer casting systems. “It allows me to put out a breakdown and instantly receive submissions, so it cuts down on the lag time for us.”

For years, high-tech entrepreneurs have seen the potential in using computer networks for electronic casting, but not until last year has the advancement in computers made it practical for the casting biz to go digital.

But only three companies seem to have the right combo of money, technical expertise and market presence to make it onto the short lists of casting directors and talent agents.

CastNet, from Only Multimedia Network Inc., which has powerful organizational features that allow casting directors to easily look through actor photos, resumes and even video and audio clips on their computer, has been well-received by casting directors and talent agents who’ve tried it out.

Weighing in with a breakdown/actor submission system of its own is Star Caster Network, already familiar in the talent agency business for its accounting computer systems.

Breakdown Services’ Marsh, meanwhile, used his unique position to lock up an agreement with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences under which the two co-developed the Link, an electronic breakdown/actor submission system.

The new system works in concert with an online version of the Academy’s Player Directory, the thrice-yearly compendium of union actors that AMPAS has been publishing for 60 years.

For its part, the Academy sees the Link and its joint software development relationship with Breakdown Services as a way to help the acting community. The Link’s high-tech features can level the playing field in the intensely competitive acting business, explained Keith Gonzoles, editor of the AMPAS Players Directory, by giving actors a better shot at reading for the parts they might be able to land.

“The Players Directory got involved because we wanted to create more opportunities for actors with electronic submissions,” said Gonzales. “And Breakdown Services wanted to make it easier for casting directors and talent agents to do their part of the job.”

In his 26 years in business, Marsh has maintained a virtual monopoly on the casting side of TV and movie-making. He worked hard to reach that point, he said: It took about six years before the studios saw him as a legitimate business.

“After the studios discovered what I was doing, they all banned me from the lots,” Marsh said. “But even though the studios didn’t want me, the casting directors did.”

Over the years, a number of would-be competitors have tried to work their way into the breakdown game, sometimes by stealing Marsh’s copyrighted breakdowns. Marsh always managed to knock them out, with hardball litigation if needed.

Now, that could all change. “The computers are a whole new dynamic in casting and breakdowns,” said talent agent Anita Haeggstrom, of the Haeggstrom Office. “Gary Marsh has had a 25-year exclusive dynasty, but now there’s a real battle going on.”

Though many casting directors and talent agents speak glowingly of Marsh and his company, there have long been grumblings in the background about his unique hold over the breakdown process, with some charging that he has kept out competitors by threatening to cut off agents — who simply could not survive if they can’t purchase Marsh’s breakdowns.

“It’s a great service,” said one casting director of Breakdown Services. “The problem I run into is not the service, but the fact that it’s only one guy running it who has put the fear of God into a lot of people.”

Marsh said there just isn’t room in the business for more than one provider. But to work most efficiently, the new computer systems should carry the breakdown needs. That means casting directors must do something they’ve never done: give their script breakdowns to someone other than Marsh.

Many casting directors say they’re happy to release their breakdown info to legitimate organizations. But there are pockets of intense allegiance toward Marsh.

“Gary had started the whole breakdown business, and I don’t feel someone should come in and steal that aspect of the business,” said casting director Nan Dutton. “It’s a matter of loyalty.”

With the Link, Marsh is gearing up with his own computer casting submission system, but it remains to be seen whether Breakdown Services manages to retain its primacy or whether one of the computer-savvy challengers manage to glean some of the business.

And though agents and casting directors have only begun to use the electronic systems during the last few months, all seem to welcome the new technology that can make their job faster, more efficient and, for those sickened by the sheer waste of paper their business perpetrates, more environmentally friendly.

Paper cuts

Since casting directors can simply download and print out actor resumes and headshots from their computers, the electronic systems dramatically slash paperwork and the costs of headshot reprints and messenger costs — costs frequently borne by actors themselves.

“I get literally thousands of pictures every week,” said Billik. As does just about every major casting director.

There are about 225 talent agents, each submitting several actors every day, according to Karen Stuart, executive director of the Assn. of Talent Agents. The cost of reproducing all those resumes and photos comes out of the actor’s pocket. Messengers cost agents even more. Digital submissions, on the other hand, are virtually free.

The computer systems won’t eliminate every piece of paper, and they won’t replace the intangible skills and intuitions that agents and casting directors use as they try to find the right actor for the role.

“The key issue is we don’t want to dehumanize the agenting business,” said ATA’s Stuart. “We enjoy the personal contact with the casting directors.”

Of course, no amount of technology is going to save actors from the not-so-humanizing process of rejections, cattle calls and casting-couch invitations.

But the computers will give casting directors and agents unprecedented capabilities, such as the power to search through databases with thousands of actors — asking the machine to provide, for example, all the teenage actresses who play tennis, tap dance and speak French.

Agents and casting directors reach Breakdown Services’ Link through the Internet’s World Wide Web. There, agents can read Marsh’s daily breakdowns and can click on their own clients to submit photos and resumes. All of the actor info in the Link comes from the online version of the Academy’s version of the Players Directory, which currently holds about 19,000 actors.

Casting directors can then easily organize the submissions they receive and print out the photos and resumes that they want.

Multimedia’s CastNet system has a few different features when it comes to its software interface. But its key distinction from the Link is its use of a dependable and fast, private “intranet” — a kind of casting industry AOL — that the company provides for agents and casting directors, who reach the online system through special high-speed ISDN digital phone lines that CastNet installs, free of charge, in its users’ offices.

CastNet’s system also allows agents to store Quicktime video clips, which can be submitted electronically, as easily as a photo, and viewed by the casting directors on their personal computer. CastNet also faxes free slides to actors.

The Star Caster Network has yet another approach, leveraging the accounting system it has sold to many talent agents.

Instead of running on ordinary desktop personal computers, the Star Tracker uses a private, dial-up network and a separate, dedicated computer that the company installs, said Richard Brauner, VP of product development at Star Caster. All of the information about the actors — photos, video clips, etc. — resides on a hard disk on those special computers.

A non-distinction between the Link and CastNet is money. CastNet charges actors $70 per year to be included in its electronic system, and gives the computers and network access to casting directors and agents for free.

Marsh, however, charges only agents for his Breakdown Services information, to which he will eventually add weekly charges for use of the Link. Actors don’t pay for the service, but the actors can’t be part of the Link unless they’re listed in the Academy Players Directory — for $75 per year.

But the systems will only be really useful and efficient if all the agencies and casting directors get comfortable using them. Each has a different technical approach, with their own pros and cons, but the systems are also evolving as more users try them out and give feedback to the makers.

“If everyone were on the electronic submission program, I potentially could do all my casting for a job in a day,” said commercial casting director Arlene Schuster-Goss. “I could post my breakdowns and within an hour and a half, I’d have all the information from all the agents in town.

“I truly believe that within two years this will be the major way you cast,” said Schuster-Goss.

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