COVID-19: talent agencies pivot amid production shutdown

Agents say virtual auditions are becoming more commonplace, but to expect a flurry of activity when production ramps up again.

Talent agencies across the country were sent into crisis-management mode less than two weeks ago as the COVID-19 pandemic brought domestic production to a shuddering halt.

As the dominoes started to fall and sets across North America closed down, Canadian agents received phone calls from anxious actor and writer clients who wondered what it would mean for their current and upcoming gigs.

“It was pretty abrupt and completely devastating,” Rich Caplan of talent agency Noble Caplan Abrams told Playback Daily. “Historically the winter isn’t a busy time, but I would say that 2020 was looking better than most. On March 9 not one production had shut down. I had clients actively working in films and television and on stage, and many more auditioning. By March 16, tumbleweeds,” he added.

In the time since, constant communication has been the key to ensuring clients are kept up to date with the very latest developments, said Jennifer Goldhar, president of The Characters Talent Agency. And, with the majority of those clients being independent contractors, tracking down any outstanding payments has been a foremost priority.

“We’re chasing money right now for anything that’s outstanding. We’re working on getting that money in for them, because we just don’t know when things will be up and running again,” she said.

Writers’ rooms continuing; virtual casting becomes more commonplace

For shows heading to camera in the spring, writers’ rooms have been largely unaffected, noted Goldhar, whose company reps scribes on series such as Global’s Private Eyes, which had initially been slated to start prep next month.

It’s been a different story for actors, however, as adherence to self-isolation recommendations has meant in-person auditions aren’t possible. In this climate, Goldhar says virtual auditions are becoming increasingly common, as productions look to continue casting to ensure continuity when the business eventually starts back up.

“During this particular crisis, people are asking for self tapes, as, obviously, they want to be able to continue to work. This allows them to be able to keep that chain going,” she said.

The veteran talent agent, whose company last year celebrated its 50th year, also highlighted the impact of the cancellation of this year’s Canadian Screen Week, which had originally been scheduled to kick off today.

“It’s a huge shame. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to celebrate the performers, writers, directors and producers for the incredible work they’re doing. That’s part of what keeps us connected, is being able to celebrate each other,” she said.

Impact on continuity of business

For casting agencies, as well as talent agencies, the production shutdown has caused business to dry up in a hurry.

Veteran casting agent Jon Comerford, who two years ago won a Canadian Screen Award for his work on CTV’s Cardinal, the pandemic has forced him to temporarily close New Life Casting, the agency he launched just last month. Comerford said the business had been good to casting directors in recent years, with Canada’s surging production output creating plenty of work. Among Comerford’s most recent credits is Trickster, for which he “crisscrossed the country twice last year” in order to assemble the show’s all-Indigenous cast.

However, with work abruptly drying up, Comerford has been forced to temporarily lay off the new company’s two associates, with a view to bringing them back when business ramps up again – a situation business owners across the country are finding themselves in.

“We’ll hit the ground running when the business does come back – and when it does, I think it’ll be absolutely crazy,” he said of the pent-up demand. “My staff are happy to wait. I just can’t afford to keep people on payroll for an indefinite amount of time.”

For talent agency Noble Caplan Abrams, it’s a case of riding out this quiet spell and hoping the industry can get back to work sooner rather than later.

“Our company is large by Canadian talent agency standards, which gives us the assets to hang in a little longer. But that’s a double edged sword, of course. Our overhead is much higher than some of our competitors. We have 10 salaried employees who will continue to be paid, and six commissioned agents who won’t, and our revenue stream is down to a trickle,” said Caplan.

“We have staying power, but common sense tells you that we can’t hang in forever,” he continued.

Seeing the bigger picture

While Comerford is obviously concerned for his own business, he acknowledges there are others in the industry facing much harder times than he is.

“Forget about casting – think about the actors. In normal times, when we’re slow, actors can always turn to their temp jobs, waiting on tables, for example. Lots of actors have those jobs, but now they don’t,” said Comerford.

Caplan also emphasized the importance of keeping things in perspective during this worldwide crisis.

“I have a client whose husband has tested positive. She’s in L.A. with two little kids and she’s sick as a dog and waiting for her test results to come back. What if she has it? What if the kids do? I also have older clients who are high-risk targets for this virus. And all I’m worried about is money? It puts things in perspective in a hurry,” he said. “We’ll recover all the lost income eventually. Everything will ultimately get back on track. I firmly believe that. I just don’t want to lose anybody in the process.”

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