My View From the Inside As The Expert Witness During The “Pay-to-Play” Casting Workshop Scam Prosecutions. THIS WAS NO “WITCH HUNT!”

In late 2016, I was asked by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office to serve as their expert witness during their three year, landmark, “pay-to-play” casting workshop scam investigation and subsequent prosecutions. Their investigation had resulted in the compilation of copious amounts of printed evidence from emails and workshop websites along with hours of under-cover audio and video surveillance of the 10 workshops their confidential informant, James Runcorn randomly targeted and visited wearing a camera and microphone. It resulted in charges being made against 24 workshop owners and casting professionals and required months of my time poring over all the evidence compiled that clearly, exposed these “workshops” for the paid, employment opportunities that they are. I wrote just under 300 pages of witness reports interpreting all the evidence I examined. And the reports required that my conclusions specifically reference the statutes contained within the Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act and not just be mere un-supported opinion. I also testified in court proceedings in which the jury reached a guilty-on-all-counts verdict after only 30 minutes of deliberation. Even still, some casting professionals who are either ignorant or who just don’t give a damn about the massive and clear-cut evidence presented, raised defense fund money for defendants claiming these prosecutions as unfair,  “witch hunts.”  Yet literally EVERY case I reviewed was a “pay-to-pay” situation devoid of educational content.

And there is a reason that none of the workshops turned out to be educational endeavors. In the one case that one of the defendants attempted to beat by going to trial, she spent a total of approximately six minutes with the informant at the workshop in a private meeting which is typical of the workshop format. Two minutes was spent listening to the actor perform a script. In the four remaining minutes she spent with him, the defendant clearly laid out the reasons she needed to do workshops to vet actors for the projects she casts! When the city attorney asked me on the stand why I thought this meeting qualified as an employment opportunity, I referred the jury to the defendants own on-camera explanation as proof of my opinion and that her own words were the best explanation of how a CD uses workshops to cast their projects! In the video, the witness asked her if she kept a list of “workshop actors.” She then laid out a veritable chalk talk about how the volume of actors she’s required to bring in per role, requires her to see a far greater number from which to cull. And that the workshops allow her to meet and vet a much higher volume of actors prior to having them in. Obviously an employment situation having nothing whatsoever to do with imparting anything informational except reassuring the witness that his money was well-spent on generating possible future work with her. Why she decided to even try the case is still a mystery to me when she so vividly incriminated herself in the video! After reviewing my reports and the surveillance videos depicting their “workshops,” the other 28 defendants figured out early that they were not even remotely likely to beat this rap given the significant evidence proving their guilt.

This system was so widespread and pervasive, that it was a multi-million dollar industry funded entirely by actors wanting to get their feet in the industry door. A door that’s always been guarded by gatekeepers like casting professionals. Only the workshops charged the actors for these meetings in violation of the law. Eventually, even talent agents and managers started appearing at these workshops following the lead of the casting professionals by creating their own access bubble and funneling potential clients into the paid workshop turnstiles to meet them too. This Hollywood Reporter article by Gary Baum clearly explores the workshop problem prior to the charges being announced. The information contained in this article resulting in the firing of Scott David as casting director for the show, “Criminal Minds” by the show’s producers.

Although there are legitimate classes and workshops being done by casting professionals who know what they’re doing as actual teachers and who know how to separate their roles as instructors from those as hiring “gatekeepers,” such legitimate classes are sadly not the norm compared to the much more widespread scams. The vast majority of these workshops are simply industry-standard general interviews cloaked to appear as workshops from the outside in a shabby attempt to skirt the law. From the inside, no one made any attempt to hide the true purpose of meeting and auditioning for gatekeepers toward being hired for the productions they were casting. You can read the definition of a general interview I wrote for my witness reports HERE. These “generals” have been the staple methodology by which actors make themselves known to casting offices. And casting directors engage in the necessary “pre”-vetting of actors in person, so they’re not surprised by any number of things that might not be revealed in seeing just a headshot/resume’, before having them in to read for specific roles. Trouble is, these “generals” were granted for a fee which is against the law for reasons as obvious as would be for a job applicant in any other field to pay to meet HR professionals. These previously-free meetings ended when casting professionals started creating a bubble by otherwise restricting their availability for them. Third-party casting workshop companies then sprang up as middle men to present them in what were publicly called workshops as if actual teaching and learning was going on there. The workshop companies, booked and promoted these meetings in advertisements listing only projects the CD’s were about to do, and completely devoid of the usual curriculum or any other educational terms one would normally see on a legitimate acting teacher’s promotional materials. The workshop companies took in the money from actors and paid the CD’s a fee based not upon their teaching acumen, but on the profile of the projects they cast. Having few other avenues to facilitate these necessary introduction meetings, actors were compelled to pay to meet those CD’s on who’s projects, the actors wanted to be cast. And if anyone doubts the purpose of these meetings, they need only realize that during pilot season when a casting professional has the LEAST amount of free time available for extra-curricular activities like teaching, their appearances at workshops actually TRIPLED during that time! If you read the linked definition above, you can read even more about the benefits that casting people receive from doing these generals which should quickly dispel the false yet widespread notion that they’re doing something so selfless, they should be paid for their efforts by actors. Of the many one-on-one meetings Mr. Runcorn had, none lasted longer than just over eight minutes and the shortest was about 4. About a minute and a half of each meeting was spent with him performing for the casting professionals with whom he met to demonstrate his abilities as an actor which is also consistent with an audition/general. Definitely not enough time for any actual advancement of those abilities but since that wasn’t the true purpose of these meetings, no teaching was ever offered in any of them. In fact, the brevity of these meetings is actually touted on workshop websites as an advantageous perk since the actors just want to be there long enough to audition and make their impression. Can you imagine signing up for any class in which you hope to actually learn something, end up spending only 4 minutes with the instructor and come away satisfied that you made a good investment with your money? Actors are obviously NOT expecting any actual teaching. ESPECIALLY since in many cases, they’re being conducted by mere assistants in possession of little more information to impart than how their casting bosses prefer the coffee they schlepp!

Contrary to some accounts, I am not against casting professionals teaching. In fact, I’ve taught a three-day workshop, intensive for many years now. So I know the difference between an actor’s need to meet a casting director and providing a true educational experience for them. The workshop I teach is limited only to ten people and each participant comes away with over an hour of video of their work in front of the room with multiple objectives given to them to stretch their abilities and advance their technique as actors. I interview each prospective student to find out their objective in doing the class and whether or not their main area of interest is likely to be covered. And each commits to a high degree of risk in the class and they’re all made ware of each other’s class objectives and support those objectives during the three days.  I provide a syllabus and I also featured a CLEAR disclaimer that separated “church and state” and kept the intent clear for everyone to see by listing it right on my enrollment form: “Disclaimer: This class is for actors who are serious about breaking through barriers and improving their acting skills and audition technique. If you are considering this workshop to better acquaint me with your work, I would instead encourage you to contact me for a general interview which I do free of charge as my schedule permits.”

Although it made me sad to have to report that none of the cases I reviewed came close to being educational in any way beyond the usual information exchanged in a general, I’m glad that this odious twist on the “casting couch” (exchanging money instead of sex) has been dealt what I hope is a fatal blow. I retired from casting in May of 2016 after 31 years and have no other obvious dog in this fight than to do the right thing by actors who’s high level of work should legitimately entitle them to meet with casting professionals in the legal meritocracy that always existed before the workshops took root . Although I’m referred to as a “volunteer” in this Hollywood Reporter article about the final outcome of the workshop prosecutions, I was contacted by the City Attorney and asked to serve as their expert witness on these cases, contrary to reports that I actually sought this task out. And I declined payment for my services though that’s usually customary for such work which required many hours and several trips back home to Los Angeles over roughly a year and half. My hope is that ultimately, I’ve served the profession in trying to clear up the stigma that these workshops have brought to us in the roughly 20 years they’ve flourished. A stigma that has harmed the dignity of our profession and makes obvious, things like the joke in this video based upon a well-earned stereotype workshop casting directors have generated for themselves.

After my retirement from casting, I paid the $500 in dues for the past two years to keep my CSA membership active for only one reason: After the prosecutions when I was free to talk about the cases, I wanted to try to interact through appropriate channels with the organization I joined almost 25 years ago because I was attracted to the notion of being in a group that actually stood for and professed a higher standard of artistic and especially ETHICAL conduct. An organization that actually required that you demonstrate those standards before being admitted to the ranks and required you to keep them or be asked to leave. My sole desire was to try to help facilitate a clearer delineation between scams and actual, legitimate teaching opportunities for my peers who’s teaching acumen merited it. Ironically, when I contacted the CSA President Russell Boast and the current Board in a sincere effort to try to help facilitate LEGAL teaching and still maintain free access to casting directors for generals, and to ask that they expel the members who broke the law according to our unequivocal bylaws governing that subject, they “ghosted” me and ignored my good faith efforts to help. They abdicated their responsibility to me as a member in good standing going through proper channels to have my concerns addressed and to follow through on their responsibilities to enforce the bylaws of the organization. The same organization that ironically should have normally been at the forefront of clearing up this mess when it first came up, violated bylaws and procedures in denial of the facts of the case to officially dodge doing anything about it. All along, they’ve actually promoted it and helped it to become entrenched so far into the system that it was generating millions of dollars from actors paying to meet casting directors. The casting couch with a twist: Cash instead of sex. And during these prosecutions, the CSA used official channels to raise money for guilty defendants in violation of bylaws prohibiting such CSA-sponsored fundraising and without having seen any of the evidence gathered against them. They have vilified the few of us members willing to stand up and point out that not only is this illegal, it’s completely unethical. Instead of standing up for ethics in our profession, they’ve chosen to become a de facto “chamber of commerce” for workshops and casting professionals trying to use their leverage as gatekeepers to fleece actors for five minute, paid general meetings disguised as some sort of learning experience. All the CSA has taught actors and the rest of us with their behavior to date, is that their ethics are for sale at a price and that they can’t be counted on to live up to their mission statement of higher ethics. Sad and decidedly hypocritical.

My biggest reason for doing this beyond trying to bring dignity back to my old profession, is I felt strongly about serving actors without whom, my colleagues and I wouldn’t have any reason for even existing. During an ABC 20/20 episode from back in 2002, actors castigate Billy DaMota who is one of the very few of my colleagues willing to stand up to this practice and name it for the graft it is. They don’t understand why he seems to want to eradicate the only available avenue they have for meeting casting directors. And unfortunately, the optics of this situation suffers from that illusion on the part of so many actors out there who seem to feel this allows them to take a much more active role in getting work by targeting and paying those casting professionals from whom they hope to be cast. But what they don’t understand is that in the days when actors didn’t have to pay for these meetings, they were available to them for free. Because the “dirty little secret” casting people and workshop owners don’t mention, is that casting directors need them as much as the actors do. Because our clients require us to know who’s out there among those actors otherwise unknown to us and we have to utilize this information in interviewing for the casting jobs we hope to get and especially after we’ve been given the job. That’s why during pilot season, their appearances at workshops actually TRIPLES! Because they’re clearly using the workshops to vet talent for their projects. So I hope actors ultimately realize free access is what people like myself and Billy hope will happen again by eradicating the “pay-to-play” turnstiles. But then this situation will go back to a meritocracy allowing only those actors who’s experience and training warrant such free meetings as viable casting options. Not kids who’ve taken a couple of “selfies,” have 75 bucks for a workshop meeting and think it would be neat to end up on the red carpet and get swag bags at awards shows within six months time. Such naive kids are easy prey to workshop owners hoping to separate them from their money by selling access to casting professionals from whom they’ll never get work. And with these “meetings” averaging about 6 minutes each, they’re not going to learn anything helpful to them either.

Natural selection exists in all professions and that’s true of acting and casting. And with the eradication of this illegal and unethical system, many casting people currently being kept afloat by their appearance at workshops, will ultimately have to find different careers that will ethically support them. And actors who’s lack of experience, talent and or training, will find these limitations will prevent them from being able to find a foothold in the industry. But they also won’t they be scammed by casting professionals taking cash from them to indulge and exploit their illusions of success in a very difficult career path. One for which they’re ultimately destined to find they’re unqualified WITH or WITHOUT the workshops. Unfortunately, that’s the hard, cold fact about the way it should be. For the numerous actors who have demonstrated their abilities and who have paid their dues and those casting people who legitimately separate their meetings from paid teaching opportunities, they’ll both hopefully be able to again meet for free to facilitate the highest artistic and ethical standards of the acting and casting professions. My thanks to Deputy Los Angeles City Attorney, Mark Lambert, Special Investigator Frank Capetillo and especially, confidential informant, James Runcorn for his dedication and courage in exposing this pernicious system. And especially to my colleagues Billy DaMota and Dea Vice who have had the guts to regularly and consistently stand up against this dishonest and illegal system at a great personal and professional cost for no gain of their own. They were both finally and hypocritically removed from the Casting Society of America after years of harassment from members and officers alike, for having the courage to call theses scams what they are. They were regularly castigated for “making the CSA look bad!” It never seemed to occur to the members and officers that if there was nothing scurrilous going on at which to point the flashlight, then no one would end up having to look bad! So the CSA consistently killed the messenger because the news was bad over and over until finally, they trumped up evidence without context to get rid of them. They deserved far better from an organization that purports to stand for a higher artistic and “ethical” standard. I still have hope that the CSA may yet manage to actually live up to that standard in the years to come. But currently, they’re nowhere close!

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About Stephen Salamunovich CSA

Stephen Salamunovich CSA is a 31-year veteran, award-winning casting director who cast somewhere around 4000 projects in Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest before leaving the profession in 2016. You can find his biography in the "Stephen's Bio" tab of the "About" button of this website.

3 Comments

  1. Such a fantastic Article. Thank you Stephen for advocating along with Dea and Billy to eradicate this industry of scammers. Deeply saddened and discouraged that the CSA ( that probably made money in form of a kickback from these CDs that hosted these pay-to-play workshops) is not upholding the very morals and ethical statements and standards that they are there to uphold. The CSA was created to protect actors and their mission statement has failed daily by their actions. Thank you again for everything you do. I respect you Billy and Dee greatly.

    • Thanks, Denise! I do want to let you know that I have no knowledge of any “kickbacks” the CSA was getting from workshops. But they absolutely took up a collection for defendants which is against their bylaws. And in another infraction of their bylaws, they abdicated their responsibilities to me as a 25-year member in good standing when I made my post-trial concerns known to the CSA president who had been a friend of mine! The last thing he said during the phone call where I made my concerns known to him in his official capacity was, “My door is always open.” Since my next 6 calls went unanswered and returned, I can only assume he meant that it was open to everyone OTHER than me! But the most troublesome infraction of the bylaws was the fact that that members caught and convicted of breaking the law, were not expelled as specifically and unequivocally stated and required in those bylaws. That sent the message to the industry that the organization was completely unconcerned about their members being seen breaking the law. They shouldn’t wonder why they remain unrepresented by an award category at the Oscars after such publicly visible blunders. But I’m sure they will anyway! Sad for an organization that started with such high ethical and artistic standards to slide so low in their collective culture….

  2. What a great article! Thank you for sharing your experience! As an advocate, I am often mistakenly blamed for the prosecutions, but I had nothing do with them at all. It’s really interesting to read how it really happened. Thank you for your selfless work and sacrifice for our industry. Please know that you DID make a difference and there are people who appreciate it, despite the CSA’s continual blunders. Here’s hoping someday they will enjoy some 20/20 hindsight.

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