Casting: the currency of characters

With great characters being the make-or-break ingredient in unscripted programming, realscreen looks at how networks and production companies are increasingly using casting companies as creative collaborators. (Pictured: History's Down East Dickering)
February 25, 2015

The concept of casting for reality used to be relatively simple, so to speak: find a character that is photogenic, has a personality that pops, throw them into some interesting situations and watch the magic unfold.

But as unscripted programming has evolved over the years – and public taste has also transitioned along with that evolution to favor more relatable personalities – so has a casting company’s role in the eyes of a production company and/or network. Many network executives are realizing just how crucial strong casting is, and many are now recruiting that expertise for development inspiration, to the point of partnership.

“Pretty much the success of any show has to do with casting,” says veteran Sheila Conlin, president and CEO of The Conlin Company, whose 14-year résumé ranges from roles as producer of Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares and Hotel Hell to casting director for all 16 seasons thus far of Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, all featuring charismatic and colorful celeb chef Gordon Ramsay.

“It’s become more and more important, and especially now with the networks wanting so much of the cast figured out before they even buy it.”

By contrast, Conlin recalls the origins of the U.S. version of Hell’s Kitchen, which she has worked on as casting director since the U.K. show’s arrival in America in 2005.

“We had the format and our biggest challenge was, how were we going to adapt that format to the sensibility of the U.S. audience? That all came about based upon the people that we found. So that was a really fun process.

“Nowadays, a lot of production companies come to me and say, ‘We have this idea that we want to develop, but we want to know, can we find these people?’ So a lot of my work revolves around taking their idea and then going out and doing a sample casting: finding the people, and then putting together a casting sizzle reel, showing them the people that would make the show work.

“Production companies then take that to the network and say, ‘Here’s our idea and here are some people who will be on the show.’”

Eli Lehrer, Lifetime’s senior VP and head of non-fiction development, agrees that casting companies are playing bigger roles when it comes to pitching ideas and becoming creatively involved.

“When I started doing this with casting producers, you were looking for something specific; you were casting competition shows – Top Chef, Project Runway – and you would go to them to beat the bushes and find people.

“More and more of these casting people are actually coming and pitching us directly with concepts – and more to the point, characters that they’ve uncovered. They’re sort of intermediary: they’re not quite production companies, and they’re clearly not purely casting people at this point.”

Danny Passman is founder of New York City-based Crybaby Media and is currently enjoying success with Down East Dickering (pictured), produced by Pilgrim Studios for History and cast and developed by Crybaby, and is developing Brainstormers with Outpost Entertainment for The Weather Channel. He maintains his company has carved its own niche with its diverse approach.

“We’re very different from other casting firms,” explains Passman, a former development executive at VH1 and Fuse, and global head of programming for now-defunct Internet TV service Joost.

“Production companies pay us to develop projects for them on a monthly basis, where we’ll develop all sorts of talent-based ideas. Networks also pay us to go out and find specific areas and we find talent that fits those areas. Thirdly, we self-generate ideas, sell them directly to networks and they partner with us for production.

“I’ve always approached what we do from the development perspective, as opposed to flat-out casting. There are a lot of casting people that go out there and find the families on Love It Or List It, or episodic casting – we don’t do any of that. We do the initial finding of the talent.”

Lifetime’s Lehrer says he welcomes such casting company diversity. “Characters are the currency we all deal in with unscripted, so whoever has access to those characters has a very valuable commodity. We’re finding casting companies are bringing us these characters on an increasingly regular basis.”

How each casting firm finds that all-important talent to exploit an idea usually includes a lot of social media, Skype, and more conventional means of contact and communication.

“We don’t have a Rolodex that we’ll just e-mail,” says Passman, who also brought Thieves, Inc. to Food Network in 2013. “We cold call. We Google search. I call it ‘rabbit hole’ testing, because you go down one rabbit hole, and then you end up in another. You’re usually down in a bunch of deep rabbit holes when something pops up. So it’s all about trying to reach as many people as possible.”

Both The Conlin Company and Crybaby Media bill themselves as full-service creative development and packaging shops, with Crybaby Media’s six-member staff including two directors of development.

Different projects call for different levels of involvement. In those cases where the show has originated from a prodco, a network or a combination thereof, the process of finding the people who bring the idea to life – the cast – can get shortchanged in terms of time and resources. On her end, Sheila Conlin says she usually interviews between 2,000 and 3,000 people per project, and says the amount of time that should be allotted to cast a show properly is much different than the time she often ends up with.

“When a production company and a network lock down their deal, business affairs takes so long to finish the terms that casting is left with four weeks at the most – and sometimes as little as two weeks – for what should be a 12-17 week process for putting on the show,” says Conlin, currently working on the resurrection of Fox’s Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? “Unfortunately, casting can’t start until the deal is done,” she adds.

Ultimately, if a great idea is married to a great cast, the project should find its audience. If one company can provide both, effectively acting as a one-stop shop for development, casting and possibly execution, so much the better. But as Fay Yu, director of development and executive producer at Destination America points out, finding the right character helps the rest of the equation fall into place easier.

“It seems that the audience appetite has been less about process or format and more about just seeing real people,” Yu explains. “If you can’t find the right person, it isn’t worth it to make a show around them.”
With files from Barry Walsh

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