As we discovered in last week’s article on actors’ experiences using The Breakdowns, telling your agent you read them isn’t likely to illicit shock and a call to the LAPD. Nonetheless, the agent/client/Breakdowns dance has some tricky steps and today we’ll hear from the other players. We’ll also talk to Gary Marsh, owner of Breakdown Services, and learn his tips for maximizing our online submissions.
When I got out of school and was going through all the “what’s the best way to communicate with you” rigmarole with my new agent, I asked him if it would be ok if I called him with things I “heard about.”
He said, “Sure,” and resignedly looked at the floor.
“Is that annoying?” I asked.
“Not in and of itself. I want clients to take initiative. It’s just that actors, generally, have no idea what they’re right for.”
Except me, of course. After several queries about this or that sexy young professional or worldly grad student I arrived home to see sides for an audition for a Law & Order spin-off in my inbox. Now the world will see me for the sexy D.A. I really am! I thought as I opened the attachment.
“Ursula Thorne, in a wheel chair. Raped and beaten, she suffers from a rare disease that ages her prematurely.” Oh…But hey – a guest star! And I don’t even have to wear makeup to the audition!
Paula Friend* (*not her real name – you’ll just have to trust us on this one) echoes my former agent’s ambivalence about actors and The Breakdowns. Paula currently works on the Motion Picture Literature desk of one of LA’s biggest agencies and previously spent a year-and-a-half at another office assisting one of the town’s most respected theatrical talent reps.
“It did have a tendency to be annoying,” she responded via email to my questions about actors calling in with roles to be submitted for. “Not because they were trying to be proactive for themselves, but because they would go through them on the phone with you and this would last like twenty minutes.” Remember, any time your agent spends on the phone with you is time they aren’t on the phone with a casting director talking about you.
Paula also cites another complaint common among the agents and managers I’ve spoken with in that many clients don’t take it upon themselves to educate themselves about the shows they push to go in on. “A lot of times they’d never seen (the show) or had any idea what it was, so they didn’t know that they weren’t the right ‘look’ for the show…shows like CSI:Miami and Gossip Girl have a ‘look.’ “
But Paula adds that rolling client calls with her morning latte wasn’t a total wash. “It did have some good things though, because if the agents weren’t sure about someone and if they would do certain gigs, a phone call about the breakdown would tell us they were open to it…we didn’t like to get them appointments for things they would pass on.”
The Casting Director
I expected the casting director perspective on actors using The Breakdowns to be one of unqualified frustration – along the lines of, “Before actors started using The Breakdowns I could actually see my floor and receive incoming calls from clients!” But independent film casting director Brette Goldstein (her real name!) agrees with Paula that knowing of an actor’s enthusiasm when he initiates the submission through his agent or on his own makes her job easier. While she occasionally goes straight to reps for a role, Brette “almost always” uses The Breakdowns and is actually reliant on self-submissions when she’s looking for a difficult type. But she stresses that face-time is the best way to get on her radar, either through a mutual connection or a meeting at a networking studio. Brette teaches in New York at Actors Connection and The Network and says that “a five or ten-minute general can lead to some great roles.”
So who is responsible for all this proactive calling and clicking and uploading when we could be at the beach knocking back martinis doing ‘research’ while waiting for the phone to ring?
In 1971, Gary Marsh, a 17-year-old former child actor and the son of a talent agent, was doing a little work for Mom, making the rounds at the studios and reading scripts in offices, jotting down notes on the parts to be cast. At this point there was no centralized system for collecting casting information. Every day agents (or their assistants, or their kids…) got in their cars, sat in waiting rooms and read scripts and took notes. They then drove back to their offices and culled lists and pitched. One smart agent, sitting alongside young Gary, leaned over and said, “If those notes are any good, I’ll buy ‘em off you.”
Apparently the notes were good. Soon Gary was selling them to agencies all over town for $20 a week.
Over the years The Breakdowns have evolved from several printed pages delivered to offices each morning via messenger (and Gary claims that even then he had to stop thieves at the printing press) to today’s online document that allows reps to electronically submit clients as they read it. In addition to its flagship product, Breakdown Services (BDS) also owns Actors Access, the online service that enables casting directors and producers to solicit unrepresented talent. The photo/resume/video portfolios that actors create for their Actors Access accounts are the same ones used by representatives to submit on The Breakdowns (a representative may create an Actors Access account for a client who doesn’t wish to create her own). How’s that for some vertical integration?
Despite BDS’s current marketplace dominance, BDS wasn’t first to the computerized casting table. In 1997 two software developers started Star Caster, the first system of computerized casting. According to LA Business Journal, Gary was not sure notoriously technologically-slow-to-adapt agents would ever use computers. But never one to eschew innovation, he continued to explore the idea, and, unlike Star Caster, whose system required actors’ photos to be stored on a special computer’s hard drive, Gary hired developers to make the Internet-based system we all know and love/are beholden to. Making up for lost time, the company has several products to service every step of the casting process: Showfax, Screenplay Online, and the recently acquired CastingAbout.com.
So he invents an indispensable part of the industry and navigates quantum changes in show biz and technology for over thirty years. How does Gary Marsh stay ahead of the curve? What’s the secret to his hustle?
“I work my ass off.”
When I asked his thoughts on actors receiving The Breakdowns he said, “It’s the people who are selling them that I’m after (and he doesn’t play around –check this out). They think they’re Robin Hood, but they’re just robbin’!”
But what harm does it do to an actor to pursue projects from The Breakdowns? “They’re just making problems for themselves. By the time an actor gets The Breakdowns, talent reps have had them for several hours if not at least a day. By that time hundreds of actors have been submitted for a role and appointments – at least for TV – have almost always already been booked…If a casting director wants to open up a project for unrepresented talent they can use Actors Access.” And he adds that the major advantage for cd’s (and actors) to use Actors Access instead of another online casting service is that cd’s view the submissions of unrepresented talent alongside those submitted through The Breakdowns.
The rise in the leaking/reselling of The Breakdowns and consequent increase in self- submissions has made several casting offices (as we discovered last week) demand that BDS deliver their breakdowns to select agencies. But doesn’t that infuriate some of the representatives who subscribe and are left out of the loop? “What can I do?” asked Gary. “Otherwise, those casting directors would bypass the service completely and just contact agencies directly.”
To illustrate his point about the time line, Gary logged onto the system. Pulling up the morning’s releases we landed on a co-star for Breaking Bad. The breakdown had been out for less than three hours and already there were over 400 submissions. Ugh. So that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about time being of the essence. If one’s ‘illegal’ BDs source is a day old, television casting has likely moved way on.
We then viewed individual projects and submissions and he shared his thoughts (38 years in the making!) on how to help your submission become an appointment.
Searching the submissions scheduled to audition (a whopping nine of hundreds) for a guest star in an upcoming pilot, Gary pointed out that all the chosen actors’ photos a) were really good photos (great lighting, composition, color palette), b) had the actors looking directly into the camera, and c) were cropped close to the face (3/4 shots don’t pop so well on a page of thumbnails). When we then went inside their portfolios, their credits were (surprise) notable, but I noticed that of the slimmer resumes none were “filled out” with non-notable credits. This made the meaningful roles that did appear more prominent at first (and likely only) glance than if they’d been competing for resume space.
Most surprisingly, their photo portfolios tended towards 2-5 photos. In recent years I’ve heard actors insist that they need tons of photos in super-specific ‘types,’ so their agent can submit the one as close to the role as possible. Throughout the session, Gary demonstrated that there were seemingly no instances in which an actor’s four photos (if they are good!) could not capture the essence of any particular part. In many cases two direct, contrasting, and expressive photos seemed as if they could cover all casting opportunities, and, Gary pointed out, by only uploading two photos “the actor would be completely free (of charges)” (Actors Access charges a per photo upload fee after two photos).
An actor may keep many photos in his Actors Access account as long as he wishes. While there’s no financial incentive to remove photos, I noticed that I found portfolios bursting with outdated photos (not to mention the just plain weird ones – is there any need to have a ten-year-old picture of you with a tiger to prove you’re good with animals?) to compromise the professional image of the actor.
Video is another important component of your Actors Access account. You can upload video clips for an additional fee. While you cannot link to another website directly in your account, you can write the address of your website or wherever you are hosting your reel in your resume section to give casters a chance to see your wares without paying the upload fee. However, if you do upload your video on Actors Access, you’re submission will be in the cd’s queue ahead of those without video.
Actors Access gives actors the options of having short clips of different work available to view that may be pertinent to a particular project. This enables the cd to cut to the chase and not have to slog through four minutes to get to the comedy or procedural role that caught their eye on the resume. In several of the clips we watched, Gary pointed out that often the actor chooses material in which he doesn’t appear until several seconds in. While that may seem like a trivial amount of time, if I consider how many clips a cd might be perusing to fill an appointment within the day, I now see the importance of doing everything I can to streamline the process of viewing my work.
The Girl in the Haystack
Scrolling through pages and pages of tiny photos I wondered if I could find any trends that made a photo jump out from the page. Perhaps a red shirt could double my audition rate! Uh, no. “But, wait, what is that?” I asked as we scanned submissions for a co-star of a restaurant hostess. Enlarging it we found a dead-eyed attractive woman in her 20s lying prostrate on a haystack covered in feathers. Feathers. On a haystack. “Why would anyone choose that?” I asked. The submission was, unsurprisingly, in the “not scheduled to come in” pile.
I assumed she had self-submitted and made a beginners mistake of thinking attention any which way possible was the surest route to an audition. But her manager had chosen the picture. Unfortunately (or fortunately), upon opening her account, we saw several attractive professional photos that would have made me interested in checking out her resume. Don’t give your representation room to hang you, I thought.
Gary went one better and reminded us not to partner with representation that would hang you. “In all my years in the business, I’ve seen the great, the good, the bad and the ugly as far as agents and managers are concerned. There are great ones out there, but be careful. When you are interviewing an agent or manager remember that they work for you!”
And at that he excused himself from our meeting. It was time to work his ass off.
Technological innovations have put many more items on our marketing materials checklist (check out Sarah’s article for info on demo reels). But online casting also gives us the chance to cast a wide net and show our wares to agents, producers, directors, writers and casting directors at their (and our) convenience. I hope our exploration of perspectives on The Breakdowns has given you practical tips on finding casting opportunities and positioning yourself to make the most of them. Whether you are represented or not, as career coach Dallas Travers says, “You are the best agent you’ll ever have.”
Don’t be shy! Let us know your methods of maximizing your online submissions and experiences with different casting products below.