Aseismic shift underway in the theatrical casting software business, which for decades had been dominated by Gary Marsh’s Breakdown Services. The casting community was shocked last week when Fox — 20th Century Fox TV and its division Fox 21 TV Studios, as well as movie studio 20th Century Fox — dropped Breakdown and replaced it with Casting Networks, a primarily commercial casting service known by its operating brand LA Casting, which is newly merged with self-tape audition platform Cast It.
Fox TV Group EVP Sharon Klein had been an early adopter and big fan of Cast It, a paid application used by several studios and networks. Since Fox started using it a decade ago, the company has been rechecking its security system each year. While Casting Networks had been talking to Fox about a possible collaboration for a while, when POV Partners recently acquired the company and Cast It in short succession, they made a pitch about a secure end-to-end platform.
“It was a way to make a streamlined process for our casting directors so everything is all in one- briefs, sides, headshots, résumés, demo reels, auditions and all in a secure system,” Klein said.
The switch has been abrupt and bordering on chaotic, leading to confusion and frustration among actors, talent representatives and casting directors. Actors have signed up to pay $15 a month for each one-photo profile; agents and managers have been put in queue, waiting for days to be uploaded into the system with no luck and no access to Fox breakdowns; and Fox casting directors have been struggling to get their breakdowns out and do their job.
The Chaos: How It Started And How It’s Being Fixed
A shockwave went through the casting community November 13. After calling its casting directors on Friday, November 10, Fox followed up with an email Monday to tell them that effective November 20, 2017, Fox “will be using Casting Networks (in partnership with Cast It Systems) exclusively for the distribution of project materials, including project briefs, role descriptions, and other casting-related information.”
The same day, at 1:16 PM, Marsh, founder and owner of Breakdown Services, which has been creating and distributing breakdowns on behalf of all networks and studios for free for the past 41 years, received a brief email from Liz Paulson, 20th TV SVP Casting, confirming to him that the company was going with a new provider. It was followed moments later by an identical email from Ronna Kress, Fox film EVP Casting. Breakdown Services proceeded to immediately shut out all Fox projects, leaving 20th TV scrambling to cast all series that were currently filming.
Fox TV and film studio and Casting Networks had planned a slow rollout, with the aim to have the system up and running completely and glitch-free by pilot season. Instead, the platform went live right away last Monday, before it was ready, leading to the slew of problems. They are being fixed, according to Rafi Gordon, co-CEO of Casting Networks/Cast It and Managing Partner of co-owner POV Partners.
“What was going to be an extremely organized process became kind of a free-for-all at the beginning of the week and started to stabilize by the end of the week as we started rolling out special processes and procedures,” Gordon said.
Asked why the company did not spend more time preparing Casting Networks and integrating it with Cast It before the Fox deal was announced — so the company would be ready in case Breakdown Services pulled the plug — he said, “I don’t think we were prepared for everyone to be shut off their existing platform. That’s certainly not the way we intend to treat our customers.”
Marsh said he removed all Fox breakdowns from his service because he perceived the email from the Fox TV and film studios, which he described as “terse,” as a termination letter. (Breakdown Services’ partnerships with studios is based largely on a gentleman’s agreement, and I hear there are no formal contracts in place.) The three-line letter, after notifying him that Fox had chosen to work with Casting Networks, concluded with “Should we need your services in the future, we’ll be in touch.”
“The wording and the manner (receiving the exact emails from both Ronna and Liz, receiving no other indication of their intentions regarding our service and no other communication from anyone else) left little room for doubt that they were terminating our 46-year relationship,” Marsh said. “They told us they no longer needed our services, so we stopped providing those services.”
What ensued the following few days was a mad dash, with thousands of reps trying to get access to Casting Services. That appeared to overwhelm the vendor, with a long wait for the smaller agencies and all management companies, and actors fuming that they were being prompted to fork over $15 a month for every representative profile if they have more than one rep — agents in multiple cities, plus manager(s) — submitting them for jobs.
“I wanted to express to you my frustration as an actor with this decision that Fox made to officially or unofficially switch their breakdowns from Breakdown Services to LA Casting (Casting Networks),” actor Colbert Alembert told Deadline. “As you may already know, LA Casting charges us per photo, per profile, and with two theatrical agents under my belt (one in LA and another one in Atlanta), it is simply too costly for me to set up a replica of a theatrical profile on LA Casting to mimic what I have on Breakdown Services, thus allowing my agents to continue to submit me on suitable breakdowns from this studio.”
The issue has now been rectified, Gordon confirmed, with each actor set to receive multiple free profiles on Casting Networks if they have Hollywood representation, mirroring the conditions on Breakdown Services, which also only charges non-represented thesps. This was very important for Fox, which had made it a top requirement.
“Our intention is that an actor will never pay for things that I need from them, a casting director will never pay for things I need for them, we will continue to pay for the service,” Klein said. (Fox continues to pay for Cast It as it has in the past. Casting Networks is a free add-on service the way Breakdown Services has always been free to studios and networks.)
Because Casting Networks had been geared toward commercials actors, its basic free profile package has consisted of a photo and a résumé. Plus, in commercials, agents and managers are regarded differently. That had carried over to the theatrical side, with actors repped only by managers treated as unrepresented.
In part after inquiries by Deadline, these glitches are being fixed. Each actor who has any Hollywood representation — agent and/or manager — is now able to create free profiles for each of their reps in multiple cities that consist of two shots and a demo reel. All actors who had been charged for uploading profiles last week will be reimbursed, Gordon said. There is currently a charge to change a profile photo, but the plan is to introduce unlimited changes to 2 photos by June 2018.
As of the end of last week, 30 casting directors, 80 agencies (with their clients’ profiles) and thousands of free actors have been onboarded, Gordon said. (I hear that, because of Casting Networks’ inherent disparity between agents and managers mentioned above, management companies still cannot signed up.)
The company sent out 15 briefs (the word used by Casting Networks for breakdowns) last week.
“Despite the frustration out there that we totally understand, we do have 50 (customer service) people working at any time on the phone — it’s a pretty robust operation,” Gordon said. “Everyone is going to be on before end of the year if not sooner, he said, adding that the goal is to have most set up in the next two weeks, with the company’s team working through the Thanksgiving holiday to help meet the demand and iron out the kinks.
There also has been confusion over agents fees. Breakdown Services charges agents and managers $256 a month in Los Angeles and $146 in New York, distributing 400-600 breakdowns a week. There had been speculation that Casting Networks also would be charging reps, which would create double billing because they also have to pay for Breakdown Services as it works with all other studios and networks.
Would Casting Networks refrain from charging reps until it grows its footprint? “Absolutely, that’s why we are waving a lot of fees in the upcoming period until this is all sorted out — we didn’t think the agents would end up wanting to double pay for it,” Gordon said.
Right now, if Casting Networks agent or manager clients opt to get emails on new projects that have begun casting, they are barraged by info on Fox film and TV projects as well as a wide range of union and non-union commercials. A filtering option, allowing reps to only receive theatrical casting information, will be in place by pilot season, Gordon said.
As for the somewhat controversial filtering practice Breakdown has been using in the past year or so, allowing casting directors to send particular breakdowns only to a select group of agents and managers, excluding paying reps, “I’m not sure where that will end up; we would probably want the industry to dictate the direction we take,” Gordon said.
While actors get free profiles, there are premium services offered to them too, which some agencies pay for on behalf of their clients, while others don’t. Casting Networks hopes a mechanism for that to be in place in time for pilot season. “If not, the whole system will be overhauled and rebuilt for next season,” Gordon said.
Despite rumors stemming from Casting Networks’ previous setup, there is no annual fee for repped actors, unless they opt for premium services (such as unlimited media hosting for $4.95/month, which the company is now offering as a free promotion so actors can upload reels free of charge — as many videos, up to 4 minutes in length and 50MB).
Here is a FAQ feature Casting Networks launched following our story that aims at troubleshooting the signup issues.
There had been some anecdotal information about possible security issues at Casting Networks where allegedly client lists and actors’ phone numbers had been improperly accessed. “This is top priority for us as well both from data security and facility security perspective. That process is ongoing and will be in place for casting season,” Gordon said.
One other early issue in the switch has been the fact that Casting Services has no footprint in Canada. The company is currently uploading Canadian actors profiles and signing Canada-based talent representatives and casting directors, Gordon said. There is only one show affected, Fox/20th TV’s The X-Files, which is currently wrapping its season in Canada.
Despite the rough start and growing pains, Fox executives are optimistic about the prospects of Casting Networks, though they reserve the right to evaluate its success in the future.
“I am trusting that this is going work,” Klein said. “If it becomes a huge failure, casting directors are unhappy and actors have to pay, we will reconsider. But we expect this to work.”
Now that we have addressed the burning questions about the transition to the new platform, let’s dive deeper into how the switch from Breakdowns to Casting Networks was implemented, Marsh’s reaction, and POV Partners’ business plan for Casting Networks and their end game, which may go way beyond casting software services.
The Fateful November 13
Marsh said that he’d heard a rumor Fox may be changing its casting services provider and had reached out to executives at the company repeatedly, trying to speak to them. He did not get a response until those November 13 emails from Paulson and Kress.
Marsh then sent an email to his clients informing them of Fox’s decision, in which he included Paulson’s email to show clients that it was not him terminating Fox, he said. Marsh also emailed top executives at the different Fox divisions including film studios’ boss Stacey Snider and TV bosses Peter Rice, Dana Walden and Gary Newman. A copy of the exec email was obtained by Deadline.
In it, he talked at length about Breakdown Services’ history, the company’s range of services, its vast database that includes 1.1 million actor- and agent-generated talent profiles, and the fact it is only service endorsed by the Casting Society of America. He also attached a spreadsheet of all Fox 2017 projects that Breakdown Services have been involved in casting and requested a meeting to discuss the issue further. (Casting Networks is also currently working on obtaining an endorsement from CSA.)
Marsh did not get a meeting. He said instead he received a call from Fox legal affairs executive Carol Genis, who told him Fox had made its decision to switch casting services providers after research. She asked him to no longer contact Fox executives, and to apologize to Paulson for including her email in his letter to clients, which Marsh did.
“I have not received any reason why the decision was made,” Marsh told Deadline. “Quite frankly, I’ve been at a complete loss to understand why Fox would throw the industry into chaos like this.”
Sources said Fox film and TV studios’ decision did not stem from any issues with Breakdown Services. It was about the opportunity to have Cast It, a service the company loves, as part of an all-encompassing casting software platform to streamline its casting process in one, secure place. Fox is believed to have no financial interest in Casting Networks, and sources say the company made the switch for its own casting needs, regardless whether other networks and studios would follow suit or not.
Breakdown Services had approached studios — but not Fox — with a proposal to pay for services. (For instance, Cast It is paid, while Breakdown has a similar service for self-taped auditions, called Eco Cast, which is free.) He said the studios weren’t interested, and he did not pursue it. “There are no current or future plans to charge the studios or networks for the services we have provided for the past 46 years,” Marsh said. The company is prepping a premium enterprise solution paid product, and is in talks with a major network about implementing it.
Marsh also had recently floated a request to get billing at the end of shows and films. “It was merely requesting some form of respect and acknowledgment that we are important in the casting process,” Marsh said. That also was met with resistance by studios, so he dropped it.
I hear neither of these initiatives played a role in Fox’s decision to discontinue its relationship with Breakdown, and they never reached the decision-makers at the company. Neither did any potential security concerns about Breakdown, which Marsh had listed in an email to clients as a possible reason that he had heard from independent sources.
“Our security is amazing,” he said. “We invest an enormous amount of resources to protect the intellectual property of the studios. We vehemently protect the interests and the information of all clients.” He added that the company’s security system had been successfully vetted by other networks and studios, but Fox had not requested a test.
With Breakdown Services no longer distributing Fox breakdowns, would the company consider lowering rates for reps?
“We work with every other major network and studio,” said Marsh, whose business is being threatened by the upstart. “I don’t think I’m in a position yet to answer this question, it’s too soon. I still think Fox could realize what a terrible mistake they have made and decide what is best for the industry and tell casting directors, ‘use whatever service fits your needs’.”
POV’s POV On The Future
Gordon and and co-CEO Alex Aminn, who met as students at UCLA, previously built another data-based platform for the entertainment industry, Studio System, and ran it for 16 years before selling it. He said the duo, who “ultimately view ourselves as builder-operators,” per Gordon, always has been interested in the casting space and tried to build a system there 10 years ago, “but all the existing players had done a pretty good job, we thought there wasn’t room for us to play.”
“Looking at everything that was there, it felt like the casting software industry, with things like Breakdown, LA Casting and Cast It, had been supper innovative 5-10 years ago, and had really improved efficiency that enabled some of the proliferation of content that you see,” Gordon said. “Flash forward 10 years, and we felt that everything was a little bit Internet 1.0-ish, there was an opportunity to raise capital, you could consolidate some of the space, bring in professional management, bring in a real technology development team.”
With that idea, the duo, who also have launched a product placement joint venture with WME-IMG, were able to secure backing from private equity groups and started parallel acquisitions, first of Casting Networks, which controls 95% of the commercial casting market, immediately followed by Cast It.
“From our point of view, Casting Networks had the best technology for scheduling management, audition management, video editing, video uploading, and what we liked about Cast It was that it had the studio customers,” Gordon said. “We thought the technology, capabilities, customer basis of the two meshed really well.”
Is the goal for Casting Networks to become a formidable rival to Breakdown, which has dominated the theatrical casting software marketplace for decades?
“No that’s a baby step, our ambitions are much greater than that,” Gordon said. “We view the whole software industry that supports the entertainment creation ecosystem as something inefficient and broken, and if we can build upon it, the casting space is just a small piece of that.”
How will Casting Networks differentiate from Breakdown — which had billed itself as “the only company that provides complete integrated services from submissions to auditions” — as both now offer full-service casting platforms for film and TV?
“What would differentiate us is going to be the level of technology and sophistication and professional management that we bring into this. We feel like it’s been a cottage industry which we are elevating into properly run, best practices, best technologies; we are bringing a lot of capital, a lot of talent,” Gordon said.
As for Gordon and Amin’s big-picture, long-term goals, “we are going to have large studios and networks paying for premiums services as they do now with Cast It, and we have a whole suite of additional applications we think they would be happy to pay for that reflect the heavy technology we are doing for them,” he said. “We will have a version of Freemium model not dissimilar to LinkedIn where talent and reps will have a very robust free offering capabilities and there will be a premium offering, kind of like LinkedIn, on top of that.”
One idea the company is considering is to expand the video auditions application Cast It to also handle trailers.
“Overall what we think the big business opportunity specifically in the casting space is to build an actor-facing brand,” Gordon said. “In the eco-system all the participants, we think think the balance has been focused on casting directors and representatives. We don’t think you have to take away from that but I think you can do more for the actors than it’s historically done, to make them a lot happier and give them tools that would help them.”