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Casting directors to seek benefits

Times Staff Writer

April Webster, Ronnie Yeskel and Vickie Thomas have been casting directors for more than 20 years. Which means that for more than 20 years, each has assembled the talent for films and television shows without receiving the benefits -- health insurance, a pension fund, timely payment, consistent working conditions -- secured for virtually every other employee of a film or television show, from the director to the on-set caterer.

Casting directors are not unionized. These three women, along with almost 500 of their colleagues in Los Angeles and New York, want this to change.

Enough to strike if they have to. This week an ad campaign designed to explain their plight kicked off in the Hollywood trades.

“We are not asking for anything outrageous,” says Webster. “We’re just asking for the basic benefits.”

“We don’t want to strike,” says Yeskel, “but we will.”

For two years, casting directors and associates have been working with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters through Local 399 in North Hollywood, which also represents drivers, location managers, animal handlers and prop housemen. The Teamsters are prepared to represent them in collective bargaining.

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Late last year, Teamsters representative Steve Dayan joined with casting directors in a meeting with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Dayan says there have been hints that studios might offer some benefits to some casting directors. But AMPTP President Nick Counter has refused to recognize Teamsters representation of the group; casting directors, he has said, are independent contractors rather than employees, and any attempt by them to organize or strike would break antitrust and contract laws, putting his group in a position to sue.

Teamsters argue that casting directors are no more independent contactors than are costume designers or production designers or cinematographers, all of whom have union contracts.

“This is a group that has a hard time organizing because they are physically so spread out,” says Dayan. “But they are certainly entitled to the same benefits that other Hollywood crafts enjoy.”

Meanwhile, the Teamsters have called for and received the support of other industry unions, including the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild.

The union recently hired a public relations firm, and an ad campaign in the Hollywood trade papers, meant to call attention to the situation, kicked off Thursday. The casting directors themselves are calling on directors, producers and actors for statements of support.

“Most people don’t know we aren’t union,” says Thomas. “The directors and actors think since they have a group protecting them, we must too.”

They also are trying to raise public awareness of what exactly a casting director does. Like screenwriters, whose guild ran a campaign several years ago reminding Hollywood that “somebody wrote that,” casting directors have a visibility problem. The iconic image of Central Casting -- some vague warehouse of head shots and resumes -- haunts the craft.

“No one grows up thinking ‘I want to be a casting director,’ ” says Webster, who is currently working on “Lost” and “Alias.” “But we are as much a part of the creative collaboration as the set or costume designers. In ‘Lost,’ ” she says, “there was no script for a while, so it was really about who we brought in; parts were created for the people I found.”

Webster came to casting through the theater, in New York and Los Angeles. With a long list of credits -- including feature films such as “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Eight Legged Freaks” and “The Patriot” -- she is high enough on the food chain to sometimes negotiate a $600 a week fee for an assistant -- the salaries of any other staff she might need come out of her own pocket.

“I was just asked to make a whole production deal,” she says. “And a third of my fee will go for my own staff.”

Unless an actor is already attached to a project, it is the casting director who is in charge of finding all the talent, including leads, for a film and television show.

This involves auditioning hundreds of actors and delivering pared-down lists to the director.

“Every movie is different, but it is always a collaborative, creative process,” says Thomas, who “fell into” casting when, as a film student at UCLA, “Repo Man,” a class project she had cast, became a feature film hit. Recently, she cast for “The Last Samurai,” “The Clearing,” “After Sunset” and the upcoming “Beauty Shop.” “It’s not like we’re secretaries taking notes from the directors.”

Yet while their names appear prominently in the credits, that recognition rarely extends beyond the screen.

“The SAG Awards has an ensemble award,” says Yeskel, whose recent credits include “Blade: Trinity,” “Igby Goes Down” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “and rarely do you hear an actor or director thank the casting director. But who do you think put those ensembles together? The director? No.”

“I laugh when I read about the ‘amazing cast’ some director has assembled,” adds Webster. “I think, really, when exactly did [the director] do that?”

The nature of the job -- casting directors compete with each other and rarely work together -- has been a stumbling block for attempts to organize in the past.

“We are a very timid group,” says Thomas. “But I think now we’re just sick of it. After 20 years, we won’t be the ones seeing the benefits of a union, but the ones coming up will.”

“This is a very determined, very organized group,” says Dayan. “They will take action if that is what is necessary.”

The Teamsters plan to hold a news conference toward the end of January to announce further plans, including the possibility of a strike. Dayan believes AMPTP is underestimating the importance of the casting directors and the effect such a strike would have.

“These are people who are often casting several shows at once, seeing hundreds and hundreds of actors,” he says. “Who is going to do that?”

Some industry insiders wonder if the recent breakdown in Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists negotiations will hurt or help the casting directors.

The demands put even more pressure on the studios and networks; but an actors’ strike would make a casting directors’ strike pretty much moot.

Dayan is not worried. “If SAG did go out, the studios would need to start ramping up production. And if casting directors are in the midst of the job action, that would just make it more difficult.”

The casting directors hope it will not come to a strike.

“It’s ridiculous that we have to demand the benefits everyone else gets,” says Thomas. “But I guess we do.”


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