Jason Alexander says actors will try
almost anything for a
chance to land
an audition, even if there's only "a
chance in hell." (ABCNEWS.com)

‘Pay-to-Play’
Does It Take Big Bucks to Get the Big Break?
 

Nov. 8, 2002 Every night, in a decidedly unglamorous part of Los Angeles, aspiring actors gather in small rooms and theaters — doing whatever they think it takes to break into the business.

They're all chasing the same dream, and doing whatever they think it takes to break into show business.

"They want to be movie stars, TV stars … and if you're out here and you're not working that day, you're going, I know stuff is happening! Why am I not a part of it? What am I doing wrong?" said Jason Alexander, of Seinfeld fame.

Their goal: the same one Alexander had before he landed the role of George Costanza on Seinfeld — to meet the one powerful person who can give them their lucky break, the casting director.

"That's what most struggling actors live for. I'm the one. I'll break through. And it's jerks like me who actually get the lucky break … make them go, well, if he can do it, it's just waiting for me!" Alexander said.

From the ‘Casting Couch’ to ‘Casting Cash’

The casting director has long been the gatekeeper to stardom in Hollywood, and the cagey relations between starlets and casting directors centered on the casting couch.

But now there's a new angle. Hollywood insiders say the casting couch is being replaced with casting cash.

"It used to be sleep your way in. And now it's buy your way in," according to Billy DaMota. He knows firsthand the power of the Hollywood casting director — he is one. But over the last two years, DaMota has become a bit of an outcast for daring to expose the little known system of casting cash.

DaMota says some actors are now paying to audition for a job. "It's graft. It's a kickback," according to DaMota. He said, "You gotta' buy your way in. … It's paying for access it's paying for exposure. It's paying to play."

Casting Directors Double Dipping

When ABCNEWS first started to take a look at the so-called pay-to-play earlier this year, we learned that it's a widely accepted, multi-million dollar practice.

A 20/20 producer, who acted in college productions, went undercover to see what her money would buy. First, she signed up at a series of what are called workshops, but what DaMota calls audition mills.

Each time she was able to submit her photo and resume and perform a scene in front of a working casting director or casting associate, an aspiring actor's dream.

The actors pay the workshops — between $30 and $50 a night — and the workshops pay the casting directors a percentage, even though they are already paid by their studios for doing much the same thing.

And many of the actors come night after night, to perform in front of as many casting directors a they can afford.

"The performance of a scene by an actor is their job interview. That's their work," DaMota said, adding, "I can't think of any other business in the country where you'd have to pay for a job interview.  In any other industry, it would never be tolerated."

Casting directors and their staff from some of television's best-known shows have been involved for years, their connections openly advertised to draw more actors in. When the biggest names in Hollywood casting show up, including Jeff Greenberg, the casting director for the hit comedy series Frasier, the price for admission triples.

DaMota said when Greenberg teaches his seminar the admission soars from $20 or $30 to $95. According to DaMota almost every network and syndicated show in production is represented in these workshops. Casting directors like Greenberg are already paid big money by their studios to find new talent. So, this workshop fee amounts to a kind of double dipping, according to DaMota.

Greenberg declined to talk with 20/20.

A Worthwhile Educational Experience?

The pay-to-play practice was a thriving business until DaMota went public and blew the whistle. The state of California launched an investigation and declared paid audition workshops illegal, something that some studios and actors said was long overdue.

"They have no business taking money from kids and giving them hope that they might get a part," said Screen Actors Guild board member Tom Bosley, who starred on Happy Days. Bosley says SAG tries to protect actors by making sure everyone gets an equal opportunity at a particular role.

But the people who run and own the workshops say they are doing nothing wrong.

David Brumer, a founder of the Actors Workshop Task Force and an Actors Workshop organizer, said industry professionals and casting directors who appear at these seminars provide a valuable educational experience for aspiring actors.

But our undercover producer said she saw very little teaching. She said most of the time was devoted to reading scenes, usually with little feedback. What she did see was aspiring actors being encouraged to keep paying.

A phone message DaMota recorded from one of the workshops last year, announced that auditions with a casting director were available — for a price. The recorded message said, "They are casting two pilots and are having a difficult time and want to come in and see people. … It is regular priced, $29."

Brumer said, "From what I just heard, that does not sound right and that should not happen." He later told ABCNEWS a temporary office employee was to blame and that it was not standard practice.

DaMota believes that the real intent behind most of the workshops is to offer meetings between casting directors and actors and says these seminars make casting directors look like pimps, brokering jobs. He urges industry professionals to stay away from these workshops. "If you're gonna impart real wisdom, teach at a real school," he said.

But many actors don't see it that way at all. Many say they're not bothered by the fact that they have to pay to meet these casting directors.

Actor Van Epperson says he has no hesitation about the thousands of dollars he's spent over the years to get parts in shows. "In order to be the one pulled out of that stack that ends up with the role, I need an edge. And I have a great edge if I've already met these people," he said.

Kathy Joosten who played Mrs. Landingham on NBC's West Wing, has no regrets about paying for her big break. "I moved to California six years ago and I have worked ever since I got here. … I still go to workshops and I don't have to," Joosten said.

Ruining a Good Thing?

Some actors who attended a popular workshop told 20/20 that DaMota is ruining a good thing by going public.

DaMota knows that he's made some people very angry. "But," he said, "I've got a lot of support and I've got support from the state of California."

Following a cease-and-desist order from the state labor department, the workshops are now negotiating a settlement to phase out practices that could be considered paying for an audition.

Thomas Kerrigan of the State Department of Labor said the pay-to-play practice is illegal, noting that it violates laws passed in the 1930s to protect California's migrant workers.

Although some actors say they're glad to do it, Kerrigan notes that it's not good for the workforce in general. He compared it to people who agree to accept less than the minimum wage. "They can't do it because it's a violation of public policy and a violation of the statutes of this state," Kerrigan said.

Under pressure from the state, the workshops have begun to phase out many of the practices that DaMota said were the same as paid auditions. State officials told 20/20 this week that a final agreement with the workshops is now being negotiated and that the days of the paid audition are soon to be over.

Whether the pay-to-play practice stops or not, Jason Alexander knows that actors will take big risks to land a role. "They're big dreamers. They believe that there's a chance in hell of getting a job this way. Um, there is a chance in hell, but it's literally a chance in hell. But it's a chance."

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