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The Lowdown on Using The Breakdowns: Part 1 – Actors’ Perspectives

Once upon a time actors did plays instead of casting director workshops. They had soulful black-and-white photos they chose after looking at paper contact sheets with a ‘loupe.’ And each morning agents on both coasts would stand by their fax machines and wait for The Breakdowns, the daily list of roles currently being sought by LA and NY casting directors sent to licensed representatives who subscribe to the service. Once this magical document appeared, Ms. Agent looked at her client list and made little notes above each role with the clients to submit. Ms. Agent procured appointments by sending pictures and resumes by messenger to the casting director. She waited for a phone call telling her the appointments she had received. She called the answering service (!!) of the client with an audition appointment, and the client would walk up hill both ways through snow to pick up her sides.

Things changed. Enterprising souls realized that instead of spending thousands to mount productions of The Cherry Orchard in dank NY basements in the hope that harried casting directors would venture downtown, they could offer them money to watch scenes in an office after hours and everyone would be home in time to walk the dog. The advent of digital photography ushered in a more spontaneous headshot aesthetic (and knocked photo reproduction costs way down – see progress isn’t all bad!). And Ms. Agent’s overworked/underpaid assistant discovered she could make a few bucks by surreptitiously forwarding the now-emailed Breakdowns directly to actors for a monthly fee.

Actors started calling their agents with things they “heard about.” Actors started banging their heads against walls because now they knew exactly which roles they weren’t being seen for. Actors sunk into existential malaise realizing their agents weren’t lazy idiots and there simply weren’t any parts for them right now.

Ah, wasn’t ignorance bliss?! To believe the auditions would magically appear once we switched agencies! To not have to worry about what color shirts we brought to our headshot shoot! And just maybe the 1970s were the Golden Age of American Acting because actors spent their evenings in basements doing The Cherry Orchard instead of a page-and-a-half of October Road we’ve been given ten minutes to prepare…sorry, was just brushing the snow off my boots.

It’s not 1975

It’s The Information Age, and who wants to be the actor without the information? With fewer and fewer agencies with larger and larger lists, most actors want every edge, and more and more are making reading The Breakdowns a meaningful part of their budget and daily work-hunt routine. Here we’ll look at why and how two Los Angeles actors use The Breakdowns to further their careers.

But, Wait, Isn’t Getting The Breakdowns, Like, Illegal?

Yes. Putting cash in an envelope each month and mailing it to some girl/guy you’ve never met with an anonymous PO box in Van Nuys in exchange for a daily email copy of The Breakdowns = buying stolen property. As much as Minerva loves you, she will not facilitate your life of crime. Though, she suspects that if you are in a professional acting class or networking group in LA, getting the BD’s is an inquiry or 2 away.

Gary Marsh, owner of Breakdown Services, has been contending with people taking his proprietary info since founding the company in 1971 (and that’s quite a story – more on that next week). He busted his first thief (an agent!) in 1977. With the switch to an email format in 1997 things went crazy, and in 2002 he put a lawyer on retainer to sue the people he catches selling them. Mr. Marsh contends that the lawyer is busy and successful in his endeavor and more than pays for his retainer in proceeds he wins for Breakdown Services. At present, Mr. Marsh has chosen to focus his litigation on those selling the BD’s, not the actors buying them. At present.

Working with Your Agent

Ellis Morton* (*all actors’ names have been changed) is in his early 40s. He moved to LA last year after having spent nearly a decade in NY with a couple of exploratory stretches out west. Ellis has an Ivy League education and graduated from one of the nation’s best MFA Programs nine years ago.

Soon after graduation, a classmate told him of a yahoo group where the Breakdowns were anonymously posted each day. Although he was represented, at the time he didn’t think of bombarding his agent with submission suggestions from his ill-gotten source.

Instead, he says, “I was really just trying to learn the lay of the land. I was back in New York after graduate school and wanted to know what percentage of work casting was in town versus out of town, musical versus non-musical.” Eventually the free BD’s on yahoo disappeared and his classmate pointed him to a for-pay source.

Ellis considers one of his strengths to be his ability to nurture professional relationships. He struggled with how to use the BD’s without annoying his agent. As his resume and contacts grew he saw more projects on the BD’s to which he had a connection – he had worked with the director before, he had played a role before that was currently casting, etc., and he began emailing and/or calling his agent with roles he, yes, “heard about.” But, he did so only if he could add value to his submission by giving his agent concrete information that would strengthen his pitch to the casting director (“I’ve always wanted to play Hamlet!” doesn’t fall under that category).

When Ellis moved to LA last year, now with several co-stars, guest stars and roles in New York and regional theater under his belt, he cut to the chase with his new agent at the bicoastal boutique where he’s represented. “I said, ‘I get The Breakdowns. Is it okay if I call or email you when I have specific information that can help you position me?’”
His agent said, “Yes, I can use all the information I can get. But you have to trust me in how I decide to use it.” He knows it’s up to his agent to discern whether a particular casting director is going to be impressed that he did the director’s thesis production of Pains of Youth or married his wife’s college roommate.

Researching this article, I learned that some casting offices demand that Breakdown Services only send their projects to a select list of the agencies that subscribe to the service (more on that next week). So it’s indeed possible that the girl/guy in Van Nuys with your cash envelope is not on the A-list.

“How do you know,” I asked Ellis, “if your Breakdowns are from…”
“Endeavor…” he said, knowing where this was going.
“Or,” I said, “’Bob’s Talent Factory’?”

Recently, Ellis had a tough couple of weeks in Breakdowns Land. “I saw some things that I thought I was spot-on for at offices where I’ve been planting seeds and no appointments…oh, and definitely ‘Bob’s Talent Factory’. My agent got me an audition for a show I’ve been keeping my eyes out for. He emailed me the breakdown along with my sides and it totally wasn’t on my copy for the day.”

So much for the Information Age – it’s kind of hard to ask that PO Box if it regularly sees listings for Heroes.

Getting to the Source

Mary Wen* is an actress in her mid-twenties who also graduated from a rigorous conservatory program. She too is represented by a well-respected boutique agency, but although the firm has a great name in the business, she doesn’t feel like she’s a priority for her agent amidst all the series regulars on his list.

The Breakdowns are just one resource Mary uses to market her work. She regularly attends casting director workshops, is a member of a networking group that meets monthly, and strategizes with a career coach. With her coach, she’s assembled a list of fewer than ten television shows to focus her energies on. When she sees a breakdown for a show on her list she does a drop-off if the office accepts hard copy submissions. She recently got her first audition for one of her ‘hit list’ shows after her tenth drop off at the office!

Mary will call the casting office if she’s previously met the casting director or associate and/or the role is very specific for her (eg, if her special skills or ethnicity are specified), and she practices her telephone pitch with her coach. She usually opens with a reminder of when she last met the cd (“…we met last month at Reel Pros” or “we met last May through a referral from…”), the role she’s interested in, and why she’s right for the part (“I play guitar and have great comic timing…”). “It’s terrifying,” she says, “but money’s tight and I can’t afford many casting workshops right now, so I’m trying to get over my fear of the phone.”

She recently transcended that fear when she called an office and pitched herself for a guest star she’d spotted on the BD’s. She was asked to email her photo/resume, but ultimately wasn’t brought in for the role. The office did call her, however, to read for a co-star for which the office hadn’t released a breakdown. She booked the job.

“Basically, I act like I don’t have an agent,” she says. But she admits there are critical times when having a well-respected agent comes in handy. She booked two co-stars this pilot season and her agent was able to negotiate a much better rate than had she accepted the initial offer at scale.

As much progress as she’s making in her television goals, however, Mary has found another use for The Breakdowns that she finds very gratifying. “Most of us get into this business because we like working with other artists. Casting directors are the gatekeepers, and sometimes they inhibit that exchange between artists. I often use The Breakdowns to get around casting directors. A lot of directors and producers are on Facebook and LinkedIn, so if I see a film on The Breakdowns I’m interested in, I’ll try to get in touch that way and send a link to my website and reel. The other day I saw a short film and I don’t know the casting director. I googled the director and found her production company’s website and sent her an email.”

Means to an End

Many working actors I spoke to feel no need to monitor The Breakdowns, and those who do stress that it’s only one component of their work search routine. They also warn that it’s not the end-all of what’s out there. As we’ve seen, many roles aren’t released and certain offices don’t release to certain agencies.

Mary said she plans to use The Breakdowns until she feels she’s on enough casting radars or her agent relationship is strong enough that “I don’t have to.” However, when I spoke to her she seemed most excited about a contact she’d made the (kind of) old-fashioned way. “This year I really, really want to work at The Sundance Institute. So when the directors were announced on the (Sundance) website I googled them and found one who got his MFA at Yale. I found him on Facebook, and, thinking we had something in common both coming from conservatories, I reached out making that connection. We exchanged some really nice emails about what we’re working on!”

As Mary demonstrates, once you focus on the projects you want to do, there are a multitude of ways to get (free! legal!) information about who’s doing what and how you can be a part of it. Let us know your tried-and-true and/or out-of-the box methods for getting face time with producers, directors, and casting directors and booking the work you want.

Next week we’ll hear the agent and casting director perspective on actors using The Breakdowns and sit down with Gary Marsh, owner of Breakdown Services, Actors Access, and and a true authority on the LA Actor Hustle. He’ll tell us why getting the ‘illegal’ BD’s is a waste of our time and money, and he’ll give us tips on how to make our (legitimately procured) submissions pop.

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  1. Gary Marsh on Wednesday 16, 2009

    A must read for all actors.

  2. […] The Lowdown on Using The Breakdowns: Part 1 – Actors’ Perspectives […]

  3. […] The Lowdown on Using the Breakdowns Pt. One and Pt. Two […]