An Open Letter to the Casting Society of America (and casting directors in general)

TRUE NORTH

Dear CSA;

You asked for members' advice on how the CSA can move forward in a positive, constructive way - 5, 10, 20 years hence and beyond.

Well here's one idea that will not only increase our visibility and ethical standing as a profession, it will help us in our longtime goal for recognition by the Academy for the most coveted prize possible.  As a casting director for over 30 years, and a CSA member since 1992, I hope you'll take this advice in the spirit in which it is given.  My pride as a casting director and my love for what I do informs this note to you.

Here it is:  Casting directors and their staffs must stop accepting money from actors in so-called "workshops" immediately.

As an organization we must stop rationalizing this practice as "training" or "education" or "demystifying the casting process".  Paying a casting assistant or associate to demystify the casting process is like paying a hooker to be a better juggler.  We all know that if that casting person were unemployed - not working on a TV show -  that their "classes" would be empty, no matter what kind of training or advice is offered.  We all know why actors pay and why CDs are paid.   It's a conflict of interest, plain and simple - no matter what we call it.

As I write this in May of 2015, even with recent new laws and CSA guidelines, even after a quarter century of casting director "workshops", actors are for the most part still paying for little more than a showcase opportunity in front of a working casting director, and more likely a member of that casting director's staff.  Casting people are still accepting fees for providing this "service". The only real difference in the workshop racket is that casting associates are being paid a lot more today than ever before to watch actors perform for them, and actors are paying more for that access.  Actors are still subsidizing many in the casting industry in Hollywood.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Law enforcement has for the most part failed to do its job in making certain that hundreds of reported violations are investigated and that the law is enforced to the extent it should be.  But other than just the law, SAG-AFTRA has neglected to enforce guidelines created to protect actors - Rule 11, Section 47 and Article 15 - and the union continues to allow its members to pay for job interviews in workshops across the Southland and the Casting Society of America has basically turned a blind eye to the problems the workshops present, saying they have no say in the behavior of its members.  "It's not job to police our members". I have heard this a half dozen times from several CSA presidents.  If not us, then who?  Will we be singing the same tune when workshops and casting directors - including our members - are prosecuted for violating the law?

All the rules and laws in the world cannot stop a scheme which the casting community has actively engaged in for over 25 years, and continues to condone, support and encourage. And as we’ve seen, whether we would like to admit it or not, such is the case with casting director workshops today.

And it is a scheme - one which must be recognized for exactly what it is in order for the laws, rules and regulations to work, and in order for the studios and networks to do their job implementing and enforcing employment policy.   And most importantly, the CSA must see the scheme for what it is - however legal and innocuous it may seem - and recognize that this is a big reason that our profession is not regarded with the level of respect we so rightly deserve.

Too many casting directors care more about their ability and that of their staffs and colleagues to earn a handy second income by exercising their right of “free trade” -- as it has been referred to by CSA board members in the past -- than they care about protecting actors. Most casting directors who do workshops, and many who do not, are still promoting single session, two hour workshops as "education" and "training" when they know full well why workshops exist and flourish. There's a pathological need to rationalize their behavior, to justify making a buck off the back of actors. It's embarrassing to admit the truth of their actions, so over the years they've made up convenient reasons - in collusion with the workshop industry - to continue getting paid by the actors, actors who are the reason casting directors have a livelihood.

Casting directors and associates who have done even a handful of workshops know they're wrong.  They must. But they just can't stop.  Maybe it's because as blatant as it is to neutral observers, casting directors continue to find reasons to deny behavior as wrong.  As Upton Sinclair once said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it."

While there are dozens of workshop providers today, and hundreds of casting assistants and associates doing business with those workshops, to be fair, most casting directors and most CSA members don’t do workshops and are generally unaware of the way these events operate.  But that’s not an excuse for ignorance. Over the years, the powers that be at the organization which was created to set a standard in the casting industry have said it's not their job to tell casting directors how to behave.  Huh?  It’s the undeniable responsibility of the Casting Society of America to protect the professional reputation of the organization and at the same time support venues where actors can gain access to the casting community – without paying a fee.  Failing to do so simply makes the CSA's Mission Statement irrelevant.

"CSA Mission Statement

The Society shall be dedicated to:

~Establishing a recognized standard of professionalism in the industry;

~Enhancing the stature of the profession in the industry;

~Freely exchanging information and ideas among members;

~Providing the opportunity to honor the outstanding achievements of our members;

~Providing members with professional support and resources."

So what happened to the goals that the organization set for itself 30 years ago?

Until 2010, the CSA had consistently refused to restore the teaching guidelines it removed when I was on the Board of Directors in 1996.  They did this in the name of "free trade", citing the original guidelines as "too restrictive".  It’s a good thing that the CSA has finally recognized that there is a problem and has created new guidelines - in large part because of the passage of recent California law, AB1319.  Hopefully, the CSA has started down the path of making changes which will protect actors as well as promote the high professional standard which the CSA was founded to uphold. But it's high time they saw the workshops for what they are, and do something to change them, rather creating guidelines to regulate nothing more than a well-entrenched Hollywood racket.

The casting associates of Los Angeles (especially those who do as many as a dozen workshops a month at $250 - $400 a pop) will not like my advice or suggestions here - but it's time for the CSA and the casting community to recognize casting director workshops as exactly what they are:  a way to charge actors for access to a casting office for consideration for work.  The emperor really has no clothes at this point.  Actors know it; talent agents and managers know it - it's time for casting directors to hop on the "get-real" bandwagon.

There are reasons to be hopeful.  Even though the abuse goes on and new workshop companies seem to pop up daily, I’m encouraged by the awareness I’ve been able to generate over the past few years.  Actors know more about the scheme than ever.  DoNotPay.org has generated over a million hits and more people view the archives daily.  The new CSA guidelines have helped to check some of the abuse. The new law has put workshops on notice and most have at least posted the required bond with the state.

However, the workshop issue is more than just following rules or the law.

It's bigger than 20 actors in a room paying to get in the good graces of a casting associate or assistant. There’s a much more profound lesson to be learned from the entire casting director workshop story, if we choose to heed it.

It’s a lesson about human nature, about our true selves, about greed and power and selfish ego. It’s about brokering our ethics. It’s what we allow ourselves to do, and where we draw the line, the way we rationalize our behavior to make a few extra dollars.  It’s about how we invest in ourselves, how we feel about ourselves, how we respect ourselves.  It’s about neediness and insecurity and fear. It’s about self-esteem – or the lack of it.  It’s about the way we believe we can selfishly accept a paycheck at the expense of those who have provides us with our living.

In Hollywood, the credo is often “dog eat dog”.  In the casting director workshop scheme, in a sick, symbiotic relationship, casting directors and actors feed off each other to get what they want.   And what they want is not necessarily a bad thing -- it’s how they choose to get there.  It's the exchange of money that changes the dynamic.

Workshops leave many victims in their wakes.  Casting directors undermine their credibility and accountability when they trade their professional reputations for a paycheck.   Sorry if you don't like hearing that, but being on the forefront of the issue, I hear this from actors - thousands of actors.  Respect from professional peers slips away and the CSA's longtime dream for Oscar consideration slips away with it.   Actors lower themselves to beg and grovel, spending money they don't have to vie for a part – not necessarily for fame or wealth, but for acceptance.  But what satisfaction can there be in paying for that acceptance?  And all of those actors and casting directors who have chosen not to play in the ethical mud pit tend to get muddy nonetheless.  We all benefit – or become ill – by each others actions.  It's the law of the connected universe and it's never been more relevant than Hollywood in 2015.

Actors paying for a workshop is not investing in their careers; it’s offering a bribe.  It’s not earning what they get; it’s buying what they believe they deserve.  It's selfish and hurts other actors.  And it shuts the doors tight to any real opportunity that doesn't include writing a check.

Casting directors, accepting an "honorarium" to meet and audition an actor does not enrich you.  It doesn’t make you a fuller, more informed casting director.  It makes you corrupt when you abuse and exploit your power as the gatekeeper to acting work at the expense of actors.  It's a shameful way to run your life and your profession.

The casting profession is at a turning point.  It can, by way of our professional organization – the Casting Society of America -- take the initiative to change the way we are perceived by our peers in the entertainment industry or it can continue to tailspin into the ethical quagmire that is the casting director workshop scheme in Hollywood today.  We can prattle on about how "we can't police our members" or how "we can't take legal action."  That is not, nor has it ever been what I have suggested.  But we can change - individually - how we approach actors and the workshop dilemma.

Certainly, the path to professional respect and credibility can be filled with obstacles. However, a roadmap in the form of simple yet strong and enforceable standards is, in theory, so easy to negotiate – and to follow. The CSA need only take the initiative and do what it must to protect itself and the casting industry.  It has been handed the opportunity on a plate a number of times. It’s time for the casting profession to embrace the opportunity – and accept the responsibility -- to change. The key to longevity is flexibility.  The casting profession has adjusted to survive in the past and must do so again – now more that ever – to maintain its credibility and command the respect it deserves from its peers.

I believe that the ethical compass for the casting profession has a True North.  It's time to move in that direction instead of allowing money to pull us off our paths.

At a time when meaningful industry recognition (read: Academy) and respect is so close we can taste it, shouldn’t all casting directors behave in a manner which is above reproach?  Shouldn’t all who cannot operate in a manner which adheres to the standard set many years ago be excluded from the great gains of those who play by the rules?

Can the CSA count on its board of directors to make the decisions which will benefit all members instead of kowtowing  to special interests, allowing them to continue to direct the policy of our profession as it has for so long? When over the years, so many members of our own Board of Directors have either done workshops or have staff who have done them, it’s hard to envision an organization where common sense and the insight to pioneer real change will prevail over the lure of special interests.  Many of those who are charged with creating policy for the CSA have been compromised.  The casting community and the workshop industry have formed an undeniably unhealthy relationship, forged strong over nearly 30 years.

The casting director workshop industry is poised to undermine the years of progress the casting profession has made toward commanding the respect they deserve, and achieving the recognition within the industry they so strongly desire. The only real possibility for altering this course will come when all of those casting directors who don’t engage in workshops see the dangerous direction in which the casting profession is being led -- and decide to do something about it.  These professionals must speak up and demand a change.  That’s what I have decided to do, with this note - and by my actions personally.  After 30 years as a working casting director, that's just how important the casting profession is to me.  I can only hope that other casting professionals  who read this feel this way and will follow my lead.

Right now, workshops own the "casting access" business, lock, stock and barrel. It's time for casting directors to step up to the plate and say enough is enough.

No matter what the Labor Commission, the City Attorney's office or state laws decide, and no matter what CSA guidelines are presented which will allow workshops to continue, the problem will not go away until casting directors take the reins and make it go away. It's time for casting directors to stop acquiescing to the workshop industry. They've proven they don't care about us, and we owe nothing to them. Every casting professional must admit there's a problem and vow to tackle it head on before it's just too late. And that point is vaulting toward us at warp speed.

If you are a casting director and agree that actors should never have to pay to meet you and read for you, please voice your opinion, and then call the SAG Foundation to sign up for the Casting Access Project and call SAG-AFTRA to donate time to their speaker program at the SAG Conservatory.   Look for other venues that offer you the opportunity to meet actors for free. They're out there.  And encourage you staff to do the same.  If they have time to be paid to meet actors in workshops, often a dozen times a month, they surely have time to open their doors, and their hearts.

Actors, talent agents, talent managers and casting directors have all been royally screwed by the workshop industry. Many of the day player and co-star roles are being cast directly out of workshops. Access to most TV casting offices by the majority of rank and file actors is nil -- unless you decide to pay. It's time for a change; not just a cosmetic one, but a permanent change which will benefit all actors, not just the few who have supported a system which pays the workshops and CDs millions of dollars each year and denies free access to casting directors for the majority of the acting community.

It's not "free trade".  It's not "being compensated for your precious time after work".  It's not "effective networking".  It's charging actors for access to our offices.  It's a clear conflict of interest.  And it's just plain wrong.

We are at a tipping point.  Over the past ten years the foundation has been laid.  The violations from the workshops are glaring and everywhere.  And it's casting directors who can make a difference. Now is the time to take action.

Thanks for listening.

Billy DaMota CSA