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The PRO-Files: Casting Director Secrets For Working With The Talent

For lots of commercial photographers, hiring talent and working with models is not an everyday thing. So, for less experienced photographers, or those who get asked infrequently, a request to hire professional talent—working actors or models to appear in a photo or video shoot—can be a bit of a daunting task. One way some photographers handle that challenge is by hiring a casting director, or CD. This professional intermediary coordinates between the talent, or their agents, and the photographer. And for a fee that can be as little as a couple hundred bucks, the photographer now has a professional on his side to handle all the details of calling in headshots, coordinating go-sees and booking the talent—frequently with a predetermined fee set by the photographer (with help from the casting director). Working with a casting director is one great way to streamline the process of hiring professional models and actors. We asked Kim Swanson, a Los Angeles-based casting director with more than two decades of experience, for her advice for photographers who are new to hiring professional talent.

1. Recruiting Professional Help

A great place to start when it comes to hiring talent is to first hire a talent coordinator. The casting director is often mistakenly referred to as a “casting agent,” but Swanson says there’s no such thing. That’s a conjunction of two different job titles that serve two very different roles.

“One of the big misconceptions in the business,” Swanson says, “is calling someone a ‘casting agent.’ There is no such thing as a casting agent. There are talent agents, who represent the talent. It’s their job to get as much money and as good of a deal as possible for the talent—not the production. And there are casting directors, who represent the production. The problem that many newer photographers or ad agencies or production houses make is trying to save money by not hiring a casting director or by hiring their friends to model for them. The problem with that is they don’t know what they don’t know. There are legalities involved and industry standards you need a pro to help navigate. It will not only save money in the moment of the project, but it can potentially save thousands of dollars in legal issues down the road.”

A typical do-it-yourself approach to hiring talent sees the photographer calling a talent agency directly to ask who they have available for a given project. While this is typically a much better approach than trying to recruit friends to work for little or nothing, Swanson says it can limit the photographer’s leverage when it comes to negotiating rates—which can be quite expensive.

“On the surface, that sounds like a good idea,” Swanson says, “however when you do that, the agent knows they can decide the talent pay rate, the buyout and the usage—and you’re not really in a position to negotiate. But if you hire a casting director, he or she will be able to help you set a rate that works for your project, reach out to a multitude of agents, managers and unrepresented talent—giving you more options. As agents and managers realize they now have competition and that if they don't agree to the posted rates their talent are going to miss out, more often than not they will play ball and send their talent for consideration. A good casting director can also give you a sense of what rates agents will or will not send talent for as an agent only gets a percentage of what the talent are getting paid. They only make money when the talent makes money. I’ve had producers tell me that agents quoted them $2000 or more for talent that I know just worked another job for $500 with the same or similar buyouts, and by them calling the agent directly they have now put their production in the position of being at the mercy of the agent.  If they had called a casting director first, which may have cost them $200 to $500, they would have saved $1,000 or more right off the top—even after the pay for the casting director was figured in.”

2. Figuring Out the Fees

In the example above, Swanson mentioned a common approach to booking talent—simply calling the talent agent and inquiring about rates. This approach works just fine when money is no object, and when the photographer knows the agency has exactly what they’re looking for. But what about when budget considerations make taking the agency’s first offer an impossibility? Photographers should certainly work with a casting director to help set rates, but there’s more to model fees than that. Agencies take a cut, and usually add an agency fee on top of the talent’s fee. So what’s expected when it comes to talent fees? What are the standards of who gets paid, how much should they get paid and when?

“In general,” Swanson says, “I think one of the most difficult aspects is figuring out pay rates and whether or not those pay rates should include an agency fee, or if the agency fee should be on top of the talent pay and, if so, what should that percentage be. Usually, on non-union projects, agents get 10% to 20% on top of the talent rates. For a union project one allows for, and requires, an additional 10%. However, I’ve found that some clients specifically choose independent (non-represented) talent in some cases because it saves them that 20%. Think of it this way: if you have 10 models, all getting paid $500, that extra $1000 in agent fees adds up quickly. But it doesn't seem right that talent who are experienced enough and serious enough about their craft to have an agent be shut out, instead having you choose someone who is less experienced all to save $100. And remember, less experienced usually means you will spend more time on set to get the shot. When I have clients who tend to do that, I usually recommend a flat rate that includes agency fees and buyouts, so the stronger talent aren't discounted. The key, no matter what the rate, is to clearly define that pay rate, agency fee and usage. Lack of communication causes 95% of problems in business.”

3. If You Want Respect, Give Respect

Want to make the models and actors who are working with you happy? Make their lives a little bit easier and treat them right. That’s something we all want, no? According to Swanson, one of the simplest ways to make models and actors happy is when photographers make an effort to see beyond the headshot and consider what the talent is truly capable of. It’s no easy feat, but the payoff is great.

“I think one of the biggest frustrations for talent, agents and casting directors alike,” Swanson says, “is when photographers or producers or the end client have such a specific vision in their head that they cannot see the possibilities. Actors pride themselves on being chameleon-like!” When you give the talent a chance to surprise you, they probably will.

Swanson also has advice when it comes to contact with talent. In most cases, she says, never reach out to talent directly if they have an agent. Instead, any contact should go through that agent. This is especially true during the booking phase, though once that’s settled, emails regarding wardrobe and other basics are fine—just be sure to keep it above board and cc the agent. Speaking of limiting contact, physical contact is completely off limits. It should go without saying that models are not a photographer’s personal dating pool, but consider this a reminder anyway. Nobody wants to be hassled while they’re working, especially by the person they’re ostensibly working for. Avoid this at all costs.

Speaking of taking advantage, don’t undervalue the talent even if you’re working in a “trade for print” arrangement. Freebie shoots have long given inexperienced photographers and models what they each need: images to populate their budding portfolios. While many photographers are content to swap a model’s time for a handful of image files, a better practice is to acknowledge that nobody wants to work for free and pay a little something—even just enough for a gallon of gas and a fast food dinner.

“I think throwing $50 their way is perfect,” Swanson says, “and respectful. They may not be experienced but they shouldn’t be expected to work for free, either. They are not slaves. Even McDonald’s pays for employees in training. Most business do. If you expect to be respected in business you have to act like a respectful business as opposed to a college kid asking friends for free help all the time. Also, in many states it’s now even illegal to have unpaid internships unless the student is getting college credit for it from an accredited college, because the government realized that people making money were taking advantage of young talent in all areas, basically expecting them to work for free. So in many cases, it may actually be illegal.  Again, you need to know your state laws if you intend to try to the ‘work for free’ route.”

Even if the arrangement is a more typical paying gig for the talent, it’s good when photographers make an effort to provide a copy of the final images for the model’s portfolio. Tearsheets, image files and video clips are easy to send, so try to do it whenever possible.

“Technically it’s a bonus,” Swanson says, “but to offer a copy of the final photo is really a pretty common practice. And again, it just shows that you are a pro. It doesn’t really cost you anything to do that except a couple of minutes of your time. And nowadays, with being able to send things digitally you aren’t even paying for the paper to print it on. So why not?”




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