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Monday, May 2, 2011

Cultivating a World-Class Talent Pool 1000 Miles from Hollywood

by admin

Thanks once again to Bonnie Gillespie for featuring Portland in her column The Actors Voice – POV for Showfax.com.

Cultivating a World-Class Talent Pool 1000 Miles from Hollywood
Lana Veenker’s POV: Portland Casting
The Actors’ Voice – POV
May 1, 2011

This fantastic contribution from Portland casting director Lana Veenker is not one meant to warm the hearts of Los Angeles-based actors, hoping production is headed back to Hollywood. It’s a column about how local talent has stepped up its collective game to attract–and retain–major productions in the past few years. “Come for the tax breaks; stay for the talent,” could be the new minor-market motto, you might say.

Cultivating a World-Class Talent Pool 1000 Miles from Hollywood

In November 2008, I found myself in the Los Angeles offices of Electric Entertainment, meeting with the executive producers of TNT’s Leverage. They were considering moving their entire production to Oregon, but they had one big concern:

Was the local talent pool deep enough to fill the needs of their show, episode after episode, season after season?

Sure, my Portland-based company had provided casting on some big movies (including Twilight, Extraordinary Measures, and Feast of Love, to name a few) and some smaller ones (such as Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park), but it had been at least 15 years since a television series had set foot in the state.

Film and television production had just begun hitting its stride in Oregon when British Columbia implemented its film incentive program in the 1990s. This move–combined with a favorable exchange rate on the Canadian dollar–all but killed the momentum in the Northwest. Hollywood began to look past the forests, mountains, and lakes of Oregon, to the forests, mountains, and lakes of Vancouver BC and surrounding areas.

Many Northwest actors and crew who had been earning a decent living in their hometowns were suddenly faced with the decision to either uproot their families and move to Los Angeles (where there was still work to be found), or leave the industry altogether.

The creation of film tax incentives in Oregon in 2003–along with a more equitable exchange rate–has brought many of the jobs back to the Northwest, and we’ve been rebuilding our industry ever since. So when executive producer Dean Devlin threw down the gauntlet that November afternoon, I told him (a tad boldly, in retrospect): “Absolutely. We have enough actors to cast that for you in Oregon. No problem.”

Based in part on that assertion, Leverage announced a few months later that it was coming to Oregon.

Panic set in.

I knew what this meant to our film office, to the hundreds of crewmembers counting on these jobs, to Northwest actors searching for a reason to stay here, and to my own bottom line. I understood the financial commitment that Electric Entertainment was making–and the damage my career would sustain–if I failed to live up to my word.

I thought we had a strong enough base of actors to meet the demands of the show, but I had no idea whether or not our talent pool would truly meet their expectations, nor for how long.

My office organized a “town hall” meeting, which was attended by hundreds of Northwest actors. This time, it was my turn to throw down the gauntlet. An entire production company was moving its TV show to Portland, partly on my word. To prepare for it, I told actors, we were expanding our offices and staff, and upgrading to a new online casting system.

Now, I needed them to deliver the goods.

We challenged our talent pool to do everything in their power to up their game, whether that meant getting new headshots, assembling more professional demo reels, improving their online presence (website, IMDb, etc.), or recommitting themselves to ongoing training. I knew we had a number of actors who could compete in any market, but I was concerned that we might use them all up in our first season. I needed the next generation to step up and meet the challenge. And man, have they done so!

I can’t keep up with the number of weekly industry nights, script readings, and screening events going on in Portland, much less the countless independent films and webseries shooting around town. Our top acting coaches’ classes are filled to capacity, workshops are selling out, and it seems like every actor I encounter is in a show, penning a script, producing a short film or feature, volunteering as a reader in casting sessions, or simply focused wholeheartedly on training.

Talent agency rosters are filling out with new actors we never knew about before, and highly professional on-camera talent are hoofing it from as far away as Bend, Eugene, Ashland, and Medford to attend our casting sessions in Portland, never complaining about the commute. In my 11 years of casting in Oregon, I’ve never seen actors this motivated. And their determination is paying off.

Homegrown filmmaker James Westby–whose film Rid of Me features a cast made up almost entirely of Northwest actors–has captured the attention of the prestigious TriBeCa Film Festival (his previous made-in-Oregon feature, The Auteur, was hailed by TriBeCa organizers as “the funniest film in the festival”).

We are now in our third season of casting on Leverage, with over 38 episodes under our belts. Its producers and directors are still as thrilled as they were their first year in town, when they realized that–although they had budgeted to fly up four or five actors per episode from LA–the average (not including name actors hired to satisfy the network) was closer to one per episode. At times, none are flown in at all, local actors having snagged all the guest star and co-star roles themselves.

Since then, other pilots, films, and series have hit the Oregon Trail:

    • Meek’s Cutoff starring Michelle Williams, Restless by Gus Van Sant, and Extraordinary Measures starring Harrison Ford, all filmed in Oregon in 2009.

 

  • The IFC series Portlandia (starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) shot six episodes in Portland last year, and just got picked up for another ten.

 

 

  • TNT has increased its order for Leverage from 15 episodes in season two, to 16 in season three, to 18 this year.

 

 

  • NBC chose Oregon for its made-for-TV-movie A Walk in My Shoes in 2010, while Brain Trust (the TBS pilot we cast in December) may go to series this fall.

 

 

  • 2011 is projected to be the busiest year for film and video production in the state’s history. So far this year, in addition to the first few episodes of Leverage season four, we have cast Grimm for NBC (the highly anticipated pilot by the producers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), and Gone, a Lakeshore Entertainment thriller starring Amanda Seyfried.

 

If Leverage and Portlandia continue to be successful, and Grimm and Brain Trust both get picked up, we will have four television series shooting concurrently in and around Portland.

I’ve heard the rumblings of more Hollywood films joining this wagon train in months to come, and local actors continue to lend their talents to dozens of indie projects, plays, commercials, industrials, infomercials, and voiceover gigs. In fact, more and more Northwest actors are now piecing together a fulltime living from their acting endeavors. This would have been almost unheard of just a few years back.

There’s never been a better time to be an actor in Oregon, and our actors have never impressed me as much as they have of late. Sean Hayes–one of the producers of Grimm–raved about the quality of our talent base after we had completed casting on the pilot. Gone producer André Lamal and director Heitor Dhalia did the same after our first round of callbacks. Leverage directors keep asking, “Where are you finding these people?!? How come we haven’t run out yet?”

Is there an endless pool of actors in the Northwest? Of course not. Are there categories in which I wish we had more options? Umm, yes. (Hint: if you’re a strong, non-Caucasian actor of any type–especially over 30–or a strong actor who fits the thug/bad guy or cop/security guard type, now might be a good time to hitch up your wagon and head west… or north, as the case may be). But what our actors, coaches, acting schools, independent producers, and directors have managed to accomplish over the past few years has been nothing short of remarkable:

They have created an environment that supports and cultivates a world-class talent pool a thousand miles from Los Angeles, and three thousand miles from New York City.

As long as we keep endeavoring to raise the bar professionally–each generation of artists helping to groom and inspire the next–the momentum will continue and the pool will be replenished. In fact, I’ve already made it a habit to tell producers: “Give us a shot at the lead roles. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

—–

Kudos to you, Lana, and to all the local talent keeping so many major productions so well cast and well acted! Let’s hope all actors with the opportunity to work under local hire status in other markets see this as a great time to take advantage of all the great stuff going on. Congratulations, Portland, on getting better and better! Very exciting!

About Lana Veenker

Lana Veenker began her career in London as a casting assistant on international co-productions for major studios and networks. When the Portland native returned to her roots in 1999, she launched what is now the Northwest’s most successful casting company, helping to raise the bar on what producers can expect from a regional talent pool. She is a member of the Casting Society of America and the International Casting Directors Network.

 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Oregonian Celebrates Creativity

by admin

The Ultimate Northwest magazine included in this Sunday’s paper featured a story on Oregon creatives. Lana’s excited to have her interview alongside David Walker’s:

The People Issue: Celebrating Creativity
Meet 25 of Portland’s most creative thinkers
Ultimate Northwest
Special Section to the Oregonian
October 26, 2008


FILMING FRENZY

LANA VEENKER
CASTING DIRECTOR

Seeing stars: After third-generation Oregonian Lana Veenker spent about a decade working and studying in Europe, she returned to Portland in 1999. She’d gained experience working for a casting agency in London and thought, after a brief pit stop in her hometown, she’d move to a bigger city. But then one thing led to another, and a temporary stay grew permanent. Mere months after landing back in Portland, Veenker, 41, was getting casting jobs. She started her own company with, as she recalls, “a laptop and a cell phone.” Now, her agency has helped cast such movies as “Paranoid Park,” The Road,” “Feast of Love” and “Management.”

All in a day’s work: As a casting director, Veenker and her staff work on a range of projects. For independently made features by Portland-based directors like James Westby, Veenker helped cast primary roles in his festival favorite, “The Auteur.” For Hollywood flicks, Veenker generally casts “day players” — people who come in for supporting roles and have a couple of speaking lines. But the company has been asked to look for lead actors: Gabe Nevins, star of “Paranoid Park,” responded to an open casting call.

Portland as film town: “I was at the Berlin film festival in February,” Veenker says. “People said, ‘You’re a casting director in Portland? Does anything shoot there?’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ve worked with Gus Van Sant and Jennifer Aniston and Viggo Mortensen’…. By the end of the festival, those people were saying Portland’s the next Toronto.”

Link to full article.


 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Feature Fest!

by admin

Hey gang,

Things are finally getting back to normal. I had a lot of catching up to do after more than five weeks out of town. The bookkeeper came by and sorted through several months worth of credit card and bank statements. I’ve been following up with clients, sending thank you notes, issuing invoices, researching employee benefits, buying new office furnishings and other fun admin stuff.

Business is also picking up: We’ve got a feature and several commercials going on, and word is that more projects are on the way. We just finished casting for skateboarders again, interestingly, since the cast and crew premiere of “Paranoid Park” took place last night. It was great to see the film away from the glitter and nerves of Cannes, surrounded by friends and colleagues.

A few other features we worked on over the past year are nearing completion and we can hardly wait! “Selfless” by the Pander Brothers is one of them and “The Auteur” by James Westby is another. These guys are so talented and we had a blast working with them!

The “Feast of Love” trailer is starting to be seen in cinemas. Word is that it will be released in October.

“Follow the Profit”, directed by Drew Rosenberg, has wrapped principal photography and is in post.

Now where are those three NEW feature scripts we’ve heard are coming down the pike? Fingers crossed that they don’t all land in our inbox on the same day! 😮

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Rock the Djembe!

by admin

I suppose it’s time for a long overdue update.

Where did I leave off? Oh yeah, “Paranoid Park.”

🙂

We’re getting closer to having a cast. No one has been booked yet, but a few favorites are starting to rise to the surface. We’ll see how it pans out.

Since then, we’ve also worked on a Nike job for Wieden + Kennedy, tied up a few loose ends on “Feast of Love,” cast a print job for Saturn Outlook, several infomercials, a few hospital spots, a home gym show and a video game commercial. Also have a handful of screenplays on my desk that I keep trying to get to. Ack.

More importantly, though, I held a fundraiser for Run for Congo Women and did my first trail run for a cause (a whopping 5.5 miles, but hey, it was HILLY and I hadn’t had time to train!). I think I raised a lot of money for the cause (thanks to all the theatre and film industry folks who sponsored me and to Toby Christensen who provided incredible healing djembe music at the shindig–you’re all so amazing!), but I still have to sit down and figure out the numbers.

The run itself was a very emotional experience, knowing that each mile I ran, several families were going to be affected. As Run for Congo Women founder Lisa Shannon put it, it was like carrying some of the burden for the people of war-torn DRC.

Next up on the philanthropic calendar will probably be some get-out-the-vote efforts. It’s almost that time, people! Your voice matters!

Ciao for now,

Lana

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Casting Teens for Gus!

by admin

At long last, I’m poking my head back in here. Clearly, blogging is not my medium. 😐 Mea culpa.

I’ll quickly summarize the whirlwind of the past few months, so I can update you on the latest news:

May 2006:

We were hired to do the Oregon and Washington casting on a Morgan Freeman movie for Lakeshore Entertainment, called “Feast of Love,” based on the Charles Baxter novel. Actually, we’re still working on it. It’s been great working with the producers, crew and the very lovely Robert Benton who is directing. Just one last session this weekend and we should be about done.

June 2006:

Besides the regular commercial biz coming in, we did a major spot for Nike, requiring 150 talent for a night shoot at a shopping mall. Oy! I won’t even go into the craziness of that gig; I’ll just say that I bow to the producer for pulling it off with such class. If WE thought it was insanity, I can’t even imagine what HIS job was like.

We also managed to cast a few indie shorts, a music video, a couple TV pilots and some educational stuff, but the big fun came working on James Westby’s new feature “The Auteur” (based on his short by the same title). Hilarious script. I can’t wait to see how it turns out!! And I think I can pretty safely say that, after working on that film, I’m probably the only person on the planet who has been embraced by Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama…and porn star Ron Jeremy(!). But those stories are for another day.

July 2006:

We actually got FOUR whole days off on the 4th of July holiday, so that was amazing and fun. We picked up on “Feast of Love” again when we got back, finished up bookings on “The Auteur” and scrambled through several more commercial gigs, before getting a call from Gus Van Sant’s producer about casting his new film, “Paranoid Park,” based on the Blake Nelson novel.

I don’t have a lot of time to go into it now, because we’re heading into MAJOR cattle calls on August 3rd and 5th to find teens for the film, but anyone interested can check out the MySpace page we’ve set up:


www.myspace.com/ParanoidPark

We need 14-18 year olds of all types, plus we’re going to need skateboarders 14-30 at our next cattle call on August 15th. Check it out and tell everyone you know!

Later!