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THE REALITY OF CASTING REALITY

Jul 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Jane Kaplan and her partner in Powerhouse Booking and Casting, Karin Silverstein, were both on the phone, sitting a few feet apart, trying to convince an agent to allow his client, a rapidly fading celebrity who had not worked in a while, to become one of the guests in the next edition of The WB Network’s show “Surreal Life.”
The agent kept saying, “Forget it. I don’t want my client involved with that.”
“Hello,” popped in Ms. Kaplan, “a whole new generation will see your client.”
“Well, that’s not where his career is at,” countered the agent.
“Where is it at?” fumed Ms. Kaplan, hanging up the phone.
Ms. Silverstein looked back at her partner and shrugged, `Huh?”’ as if to say, “What in the world is this guy thinking?”
Powerhouse was formed earlier this year by the two veteran casting directors and show bookers because they perceived an opportunity. “We started this because we were getting calls individually about new reality shows,” Ms. Kaplan recalled. “They needed to find personalities or celebrities, and we both had a lot of experience with that, so we put it together.”
For a decade Ms. Kaplan booked talent on the West Coast for ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Before that she was at “Entertainment Tonight” and worked on the “CBS Morning Show.” Ms. Silverstein was head of talent booking for E! Entertainment Television in the early days. She spent a year booking for David Letterman, helped relaunch VH1 and worked on Howie Mandel’s talk show. She is also a producer and consultant, currently developing a project for Spike TV.
A start-up operated out of the pool house of Ms. Kaplan’s Sherman Oaks, Calif., home, now converted into an office, Powerhouse quickly found work. “There’s so much reality casting going on,” said Ms. Silverstein, “we thought let’s grab the opportunity now, because who knows how long it will last. It wasn’t like we said, `Oh, I want to cast reality stuff.’ But that was where there was opportunity.”
Powerhouse joins about 425 casting companies in California. Many have been hurt by runaway production, but Powerhouse is part of a growing niche. “Every reality show has a casting director, but it is a different style of casting. Their jobs are a lot more research-oriented,” said Gary Zuckerbrod, casting director for “Without a Trace” and president of the Casting Society of America.
CSA was formed two decades ago to help legitimize the profession. There are no licensing requirements to be a casting director. The only requirement, Mr. Zuckerbrod said, is to have taste. “Ultimately, it is that taste level that a producer is buying,” he added.
Last week, Warner Bros. TV announced it would now outsource most of its casting work. Warner was one of the last to have a traditional studio casting department. Today most casting directors are hired by the project. “Using contract casting directors has become the industry norm,” Mr. Zuckerbrod said.
The fees for casting a show can seem significant, but that can be deceiving, Mr. Zuckerbrod insisted. “Remember, we don’t get residuals. We don’t get percentages. We get a flat fee on an episodic basis,” he said.
The casting director often faces long stretches of unemployment while aggressively competing for the next gig. “Unlike every other person working on an episodic show,” Mr. Zuckerbrod said, “[casting directors] are not unionized. So we don’t get pension, welfare or overtime. We don’t get any of the perks that a location manager gets, that a set designer gets. None of that. We don’t get what the caterer gets.”
The pressure can be intense, working on tight schedules. “We normally don’t even get the script until about eight days before production,” Mr. Zuckerbrod said.
The job can be demanding in other ways. While their checks typically are cut by the producer, casting directors also must work closely with the network, often playing the role of liaison. “People look at casting directors as someone who just brings actors in,” Mr. Zuckerbrod said. “What is not known is how influential a casting director can be in making the final decision.”
The CSA has set standards for membership, requiring two years of experience on the job and recommendations from at least two current members. In TV or movie credits, you can tell their 357 members because they put the initials “CSA” at the end of their names. “I think people believe we have a very glamorous life,” Mr. Zuckerbrod said. “Most of us really love what we do, but it is far from glamorous.”
Back at the Powerhouse pool house in Sherman Oaks, things look more suburban than glamorous. Powerhouse is not yet part of CSA. Ms. Kaplan said the partners hope to have a larger company with bigger offices someday, the kind of offices that their friend, busy producer Rob Weller of Weller-Grossman, now has. He gave them their first job, casting a project for ABC Family Channel.
Mr. Weller told them that he, too, started on a card table in a garage. “We have our first dollar, which he signed for us,” said Ms. Kaplan. “He said to us, `When I started, someone gave me a dollar.’ He added: `I started in the back room, and look at us now.”’