Dollars & Sense: Why Casting Directors Need Union Contracts, Especially in 2017

On Sunday, a number of performers will be attending the Tony Awards as nominees for their fantastic performances. 

While each of them has certainly earned their moment in the spotlight, it's safe to say that not one of them would be there if it weren't for casting directors. 

For those of you who aren't familiar with exactly what casting directors do, Casting Directors organize and facilitate the casting of actors for all the roles in a show. This involves working closely with the directors, writers, composers, producers to understand their requirements, and suggesting ideal artists for each role, as well as arranging and conducting interviews and auditions. 

And when it comes to Broadway shows, this isn't just a one-time audition. When you consider replacement casts, national tours, regional productions, the casting director's relationship with a particular show could go on for years. Just think, how different people have been in Phantom of the Opera?

The casting director is vital to the creative process in bringing a show to the stage. Yet they are the only ones involved in the creative process that don't have union contracts with the very shows they're working for. 

Directors, designers, musicians, actors, thankfully all have contracts that not only help to provide health insurance but also Pension and 401K plans. Casting directors do not, so they are forced to purchase their own private insurance and 401K plans which can be incredibly expensive (more on that in a moment).

So this is why their union, Teamsters Local 817, is calling attention to the fact that casting directors need union contracts with the producers they're casting for. The mathematics line up. So why is the Broadway League resisting to recognize the union and negotiate contracts? Your guess is as good as mine but let's take a look at the numbers because it reveals just how easy this would be. 

The Broadway business is strong right now. In fact, 2016 was a banner year financially. All together Broadway grossed $1.45 billion, a record high and $80 million more than the previous year. Not surprisingly, Hamilton led the way with a gross of $129.9 million with other popular titles falling just behind such as “The Lion King” ($104.8 million), “Wicked” ($91.3 million), “Aladdin” ($79.3 million), and “The Book of Mormon” ($69.5 million). That's a lot of cash. 

So given that box office receipts are at an all-time high, adding in medical benefits and retirement contributions wouldn't exactly empty out the proverbial vaults for investors nor would it raise the cost of tickets. Especially when you consider how much it would actually cost. 

According to the Health Insurance Price Index Report for 2016, the average premium for individual coverage was $321 a month. If you were to pay that on a monthly basis, you're spending approximately $3,852 a year on health insurance. Keep in mind, these are individual plans. If you had to purchase a family plan, you're looking at an average of $833 a month/9,996 a year. 

So while you might think that with those costs, providing health insurance in union contracts would be mighty costly. But you'd be wrong. 

I spoke with Will Cantler, CSA who works with Telsey & Company who has cast shows like Hand to God and All The Way. He filled me in on just how many would benefit from these contracts. 

"Broadway grossed 1.4 Billion and we’re talking about health and pension for 40 people," he said. 

40 people. That's it. We're not talking about providing benefits for hundreds upon hundreds of people, we're taking about 40. 

Using that number and multiplying it with the $3,852 a year for health insurance, you're looking at a cost of roughly $154,080. 

While that number might seem high, it should be noted that the average daily box office gross of Hamilton is around $381,862. 

So that means, basically the ticket sales of ONE performance of Hamilton could pay for TWO years of medical insurance for the entire Broadway Casting industry. While I'm using the gross not net receipts of the show, it illustrates the point of what it would take to cover these casting professionals. 

Yet producers are more than reluctant to meet with the casting directors union at the table. Why? I don't know. The statement given by the Broadway League is vague at best. 

It reads, 

The Broadway League has great respect and deep appreciation for the work of casting directors and their valuable contributions to our Broadway productions. Casting directors that are owners or employees of casting companies, however, are not employees of our shows. Like other outside agencies, including general managers, advertising agencies, accountants and lawyers, who are also intimately involved with a show and whose collaborations we also value, casting companies are engaged as independent contractors. They are separate businesses with their own employees and typically work on more than one show at a time within and outside our industry.

We have had a respectful dialogue in the past year with Teamsters Local 817 but do not believe it would be appropriate for the Broadway League or its producing members to recognize a union as the bargaining representative of professionals who are not employees of our productions. To the extent that Local 817 or the casting companies themselves disagree, we have encouraged them to seek a determination from the National Labor Relations Board, which is the appropriate forum to resolve disputes of this nature. We have even made clear to the union that we are prepared to expedite an NLRB process.

One of the big issues I have with this statement is that it suggests getting the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) involved which is problematic for a couple of reasons. The first is because taking a case before them is timely and costly. The second is because right now the NLRB's chair is President Trump appointed, Philip A. Miscimarra. Mr. Miscimarra is known for being anti-labor and has made it a point of following through President Trump's goal of rolling back pro-labor policies set by the Obama administration. While Miscimarra is currently outnumbered by two Democrats, the President is likely going to appoint Republicans to the two vacant seats by the time the casting directors case is heard.

And when you add in the uncertainty in the healthcare industry right now and how much premiums could fluctuate, it will be even harder for these casting directors to purchase plans going forward. 

So why are producers so unwilling to recognize the casting directors union and provide benefits to, once again, 40 people?

Mr. Cantler is as confused about it as I am.

"Change is hard," he said. They don’t want to deal with one more union."

But the consequences of denying these benefits are more than troublesome. Mr. Cantler told me that one of the busiest casting directors in the industry, David Caparelliotis, who has cast four currently running shows on Broadway, had to once check to see if he could afford to go to the ER for health issues he was having.

That's downright terrifying. 

I understand fully the costs of doing business on Broadway. I know that everyone has to get paid, from the people on stage to those off it. But given how the industry is so collaborative and reliant of one another, it's become a necessity to help one another in the turbulence that is 2017. And for 40 people, this seems more like stubbornness by the Broadway League rather than fiscal intelligence. 

As producers celebrate the money these performers are making for them, they need to properly recognize the people who helped put them on that stage in the first place. 

Photo: Alex Moore