Back To 1/ The Journey To 1 Million – THE CASTING DIRECTOR FIASCO

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The true story of acquiring the funds for the full dance/drama/musical feature film Back To 1.

by Doug Penikas

The reason I decided to share this journey is to inform filmmakers of the potential challenges they may face making their own independent films. So many factors come into play and it is easy to get lost in the different promises that are presented to you by people willing to help for a price. I hope my experience is educational and eye-opening to others.

If there is anything my journey of getting Back To 1 funded has taught me, the following is probably the biggest lesson. The quick summary…trust your instincts. Pretty basic, I know, however, when I started down this path, I was ready to learn how to fund studio quality movies. I never ever expected to learn what I actually did and the price it would cost me, both financially and emotionally.

By this point, the importance of “name talent” was stamped in my brain from literally every person I spoke with during my quest for funding Back To 1 over the past few years. None of whom knew how to actually get name talent unless you already knew the actors ahead of time. The reason they didn’t know, I later discovered, is these people didn’t actually do any of the hiring on any of their previous films they represented.

They were credited as Producers, but they didn’t do the grunt work.

“Come back to us when you have name talent,” I had been told time and time again. By the way, some name actors cost one million dollars for one full day of work. Considering the budget I needed to raise to make the full feature, that wasn’t going to happen.

The Importance of “name talent”

Traditionally, when searching for talent you would hire a casting director, and you would discuss the kind of talent needed to best portray the role, have auditions, make the offer, and hopefully they’d accept. This wasn’t the case. Producer #1, the distributor, and even some pre-sales companies, wanted me to cast “name talent” with what I’ll call… number value.

I had heard stories of top name actors being put into a program that generated numbers which determined their value to see if they could be cast or not. This would be a form of financial projections for a return on investment. After all, the data needed to determine whether an investor would be investing on a good bet was based on the name value of the filmmakers, name value of the cast, and story genre.

Who made it? Who’s in it? Who will determine if the general public wants to see it?

The biggest factor was by far the name talent. That determined which actor best fit the role. Not the actor’s actual talent. How many theater seats could their name potentially fill. I get it. That’s why I was being asked to wait.

Deep down I knew this was going to be a huge issue. The actor’s names that were being mentioned would cost more money than the entire production. And fun fact, there are plenty of multi-million dollar movies being made with no names as the leads, and their careers get jump started.

Why Producer #1 and the distributor were even mentioning names that cost more than the entire movie to me, made zero sense. Especially, when they hadn’t produced or distributed a movie with the caliber of talent they were telling me to cast.

I hated the fact I couldn’t hire people I knew that fit the role perfectly because they weren’t a big enough name overseas. It didn’t matter that they had big social media followings either. It was all about “Name Value.”

This was mortifying to my soul and alienating of the actors, dancers, and friends I had made in the industry. Exceptional talents that are a dream to work with, some of whom had helped me get the project going in the first place. The entire point of this project was to hire people I had worked with in the past to create a new dance movie musical.

This was the wrong path and I knew it, yet still I went down it, because I was reassured “This is how movies are funded,” by Producer #1.

I will say this…and this is true. This method of casting does work when you already have the funds. However, the reason this approach to casting made zero sense to me for this project is I didn’t have any of the budget. I was still trying to acquire it, so all the necessary doors would open.

Instead, I was allowing myself to listen to these people who wanted me to do something I hired them to do. “A casting director will help with making introductions to potential name actors,” they said.

The difficulty hiring a Casting Director

Of course the casting directors I wanted to hire were working on big main stream shows, or features and weren’t available. I did a job posting on the Casting Society of America website and spent months looking at casting director resumes, and compiled a list of which ones I thought would be good to approach. Some I never got past the secretary. Others never called back.

I finally did have a few conversations with a casting director team and decided to hire them. I sent them the contract and a day later they decided they didn’t want the job as they had never seen a contract like it before. I was shocked and told by my entertainment attorney that the contract was a standard casting director contract for an independent film.

I then asked the casting director team to send me a contract they were familiar with and received a contract that was only two pages long and from the 90’s. It also stated that they barely had to do anything. So I said I was going to stick with the current standard contract, and they passed on being the casting directors.

Again, I was baffled. I was being told I had standard contracts, had some casting directors cold emailing me begging to work on Back To 1, making very desperate attempts to work on the movie, and then had others that wouldn’t take the job because it required them to work. Didn’t see that one coming.

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Choosing a different Casting Director

As an actor I had been attending casting director workshops for a few years. I certainly hadn’t met all of them, but I did hear of some others I had yet to meet, including one whose name came up that had been circling among my actor friends.

This person also came recommended from a different casting director I highly respected. Their vouch for the casting director I was about to hire meant a lot, plus the fact I was hearing good things about this casting director from my acting friends. They had even worked on other projects my entertainment attorneys worked on. So this was already starting to feel part of the same circle.

I called this casting director, left a message, and then heard back about two hours later. I told this person the truth about the project, and that I was looking to hire them to contact the representatives of name talent actors in order to attach them to Back To 1. They said they were up to it, and I sent them the contract for review. They asked for more money than I was offering at the time. So I negotiated a partial up front payment to begin, and the rest upon completion.

I asked the casting director to review the contract in full, and to get back to me in the next couple of days.

I called Producer #1 and said I found a casting director. They said, “What are you hiring a casting director for? The movie isn’t funded yet.”

This is the moment in movies where time slows down as the main character realizes a mistake has been made. I literally felt my jaw drop at how stunned I was at this comment from Producer #1. I knew it. Deep down I knew this was going to happen.

The entire time I had been “working” with Producer #1 I made it clear that I needed help getting funds in place before making official offers to anyone. Now Producer #1 had completely voided anything they had told me.

“Because that’s what you’ve told me to do for almost a year!” I replied.

That was the moment I knew that Producer #1 and the “distributor” hadn’t been doing anything to truly help get the project going in between our conference calls, and in-person meetings. I ignored my gut feeling and said, “Well, I’m going forward with this based on everything you’ve been telling me for the past year.”

The Casting Director set a meeting at their place and I drove to their house to be greeted by their assistant, whom I knew! The assistant had gone to school with the crew of my first movie. The casting director was on a different call that had been running long, and so the assistant and I caught up a bit.

Finally, the casting director joined us, we discussed the project, and why I had chosen the following actors I wanted them to contact.

“Oh this actor’s agent is a friend,” they said. “Oh that actor’s agent is a sweetheart.”

On December 8th, 2016 I hired the new casting director.

I watched them sign the standard contract and wrote the check to initiate their services. It was over half of the $11,150 I had raised from the Indiegogo campaign. I remember saying a quiet prayer to myself, praying this worked as I wrote the check.

This was the beginning of one of the toughest lessons I learned producing this movie so far. It’s obvious, but at the same time, after years of meetings, I went down another path I knew I shouldn’t.

A day later I got an email from the casting director with the utmost of praises, calling me all kinds of positive things, because the check went through.

And then it got weird…again.

Every meeting that was set up by the casting director they were late to. Luckily, most meetings were phone calls, but I wouldn’t hear anything for a week. I’d check in and then get a response asking to reschedule.

I did receive a document with a list of actors as potential backups for the two lead roles of the dancer and composer. My top choices were included, and to my surprise over half the Avengers were on the list. Each one would be a dream to work with, but any of them would cost more than the entire movie.

I asked if there was anything I could do to help the casting director with my top selects to get a response from their representation.

“You could write a letter to the actor that I could include in the email.” The casting director said. So I did that, and the pitch was sent off to the agent or manager of the talent.

I waited…and waited…and waited. I know legally, agents and managers have to contact their talent about a job offer. So why wasn’t I hearing anything from anyone?

I did get an email from the casting assistant with a question about the offer for the ballerina role, but never heard any follow up response to it from the agent.

Then the casting assistant ended up leaving the casting director to work on another project. A few weeks later, I drove back to the casting director’s house to meet the new casting assistant for lunch, to which the casting director was late…again.

The assistant gave me what looked like a rehearsed speech. “I LOVE the script. It’s the best script I’ve read of the projects that have been submitted to us. I love movie musicals.”

“Oh, great. What’s your favorite scene?” I asked. To which the new assistant dodged the question. The casting director finally showed up, and after basic chit chat we talked business. I asked “Why isn’t anyone getting back to you? I thought these agents were your friends.”

“This is normal.” I was told. “It can take months to hear back.” I couldn’t believe it. months to hear back? It’s amazing anything gets made if this is normal.

For four months of the casting director continuing to be late to meetings they set up and not hearing from a single representative of any of the talent, I had enough of this. I felt I was being strung along. It was 2017 for crying out loud.

The Run In With A Name Actor

I happened to be on the lot at Paramount Studios visiting and to my surprise one of the actors I had worked with in the past, and had asked the Casting Director to contact their agent, was there. We were still waiting for a response.

I walked up to the actor, and told them I was about to visit one of our mutual friends. I also asked them if they had gotten our submission…They had no idea what I was talking about. Not a clue. Yes, I know they were an excellent actor, but this didn’t come off as a lie at all.

I had paid thousands of dollars to this Casting Director who was bringing zero results to the table. The original assistant had been more productive. I should’ve just hired them instead. I had nothing to work with or negotiate with, nothing. No introductions were made.

The Test

I ended up directly contacting two representatives of name actors that I thought would be a good fit for the ballerina role. This was a test just to see if I’d hear back at all. One had just become an Oscar winner and was rumored to have ballet experience.

The other was a big TV star, and had a fantastic musical theatre background. A manager of the Oscar winner responded to my email right away and asked me to send the script. They asked when did I need to hear back by and I gave them five days.

In five days I got a very kind and very professional pass as the Oscar winner had just booked a big action movie, and was told to keep her in mind for future projects. The second actress was also a pass because they were booked for another year on the TV show and then a broadway musical after that.

That was fine, because all I was looking for was a response. Guess what…I got TWO and it didn’t take months to hear back. I was literally doing what I hired the casting director to do.

So I contacted them about meeting the name actor at Paramount and that the actor hadn’t had a clue about the project. They were stunned, and said the representation had the submission. It didn’t matter to me. It turned out that I had paid this casting director thousands of dollars to get nowhere. Plus, the casting director’s contract was running out of time, and I had nothing useable to move forward.

I asked them what they thought of holding auditions to get name talent interested. I had seen as an actor on casting breakdowns, certain projects asking for “Name Talent Only” submissions all the time.

“Well, it will cost more, to hold auditions,” the casting director said.

More?…They hadn’t fulfilled the first half of the contract, and they had the gall to ask for more money? They even said they had access to a casting location for free. Why the hell were they asking me for more money?

I had enough of this. I spoke to Producer #1 letting them know I was going to let the Casting Director go. They hadn’t fulfilled the first half of the deal, and I wasn’t about to waste anymore money on them. Not when I was hearing back directly from agents and managers.

I let the casting director go and asked for half of the money I paid to be returned. I figured that was fair as they didn’t even fulfill the first half of the deal, and the other half was used for whatever time they spent working on the project. All I got in return to my request was… “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

I did find out that this casting director was actually being sued by another producer for not fulfilling services. I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t worth it.

I learned my lesson the hard way, and it cost me over half of what I had raised in the first Indiegogo campaign. This is something I will learn to forgive myself for when the movie is completed.

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Again, my summary to any aspiring filmmaker getting their movie off the ground is the following…

Do your research on every person you’re considering to hire. Don’t fall for the amount of films the person’s name is associated with. Find out exactly what they did on the movie. If you have access to watch the movie, check and see if they are indeed credited.

If you don’t have the money to hire someone to do a certain job, try it out yourself and see if it works. You could save yourself thousands of dollars. Trust your gut. Trust your gut.

Now I had waisted four more months of time, and money I could’ve used on creating music. I still had the same problem as before. No name talent, and no funds raised.

I decided that I would hold auditions myself, and once again prove, this time to Producer #1 and the distributor, that I could get name talent that was right for the roles.

In the same day I let the casting director go, I set up online submissions for five roles. The two leading ladies, and three main supporting roles all seeking “name talent only.”  I even asked my dance agency to submit all their ballet dancers that could act. There were over 3,846 submissions total, and I looked at every single one, to narrow down my selects.

I directly contacted the actor that reached out to me at the beginning of the first Indiegogo campaign to play the role of Jack. I told him everything that had gone on up to this point and asked him if he’d be interested in attaching to the project to help me prove to these “number people” he was perfect for the role.

I personally never needed him to audition for me. I knew he could do the role. I did need him to help read with my top selects for the ballerina role. He agreed and even put himself on tape for me to use to show Producer #1, and the distributor.

The actor’s name is Drew Seeley.

The biggest thing I learned from the experience so far, was that due to the years it was taking to get Back To 1 going, I became desperate, and was making big decisions I knew weren’t right. I wasn’t listening to my gut anymore, I was listening to outside sources. If only I had calmed down and was able to assess what was really happening, I could’ve have avoided all these mistakes I made.

The Journey To 1 Million continues with THE AUDITIONS AND THE RETURN OF CROWDFUNDING.

For more about Back To 1 be sure to check out backto1film.com