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Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

‘Pawn Stars’ 4/4: Leftfield Puts Casting Under a Microscope

‘Character-crazy’ is a phrase that captures the mood at the 2011 Real Screen conference.

Yet we noticed that Leftfield Pictures was one of the very few producers, if not the only one, represented by an executive who heads a Casting department.

We continue our talk with Leftfield’s co-founder Brent Montgomery, focusing on Casting as one of his firm’s competitive strengths.

In case you missed them, here are links to our earlier posts on the rise and rise of Leftfield and its History Channel hit Pawn Stars:

  1. Leftfield’s hard slog to Vegas (1/4)
  2. Pawn Stars: Concept, Talent, Sizzle, Pitch, Green Light and Hit (2/4)
  3. After Pawn Stars: A Structure, Doors Open, Renewals, Pitches, Green Lights. What Next?

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How did you come to place such importance on the Casting?

“I had worked on several seasons of Blind Date

  • “Every day, I’d watch casting tapes of dates. In my mind, I’d rank them on a 1-10 scale
  • “If Casting handed our team an ‘8’, then by the time we produced the episode, it was easy to get the show to a ‘10’
  • “But if we started with a ‘5’, then no matter what we produced, we weren’t going to get a ‘10’ show.”

“We learned early that casting is as important to Unscripted as the script is to Scripted television

  • “The cast essentially scripts the show … for good or bad.”

“We put the casting process under a microscope when we started Leftfield

  • “Our head of casting has 6 full time staff dedicated to development and pilots
  • “And there are 20 or so others working on various shows.”

“It takes a very special person to be good at casting:

  • “They need patience
  • “They need to watch and be great listeners, always trying to filter key information as the talent rarely stays on topic
  • “They have to have the strength not to be drained by enormous characters who are determined to get in to television.”

Do you have that gift?

  • “No! I always rely on my casting people. They bring in the huge characters.”
  • “But I add another filter: Produce-ability.”
  • “I ask my team:
    • ‘How much do they want it?’
    • ‘Will they work for 40-50 hours a week for peanuts?’
    • ‘Will they be a pain in the ass?’
    • “And I ask: ‘Will they accept our contracts?’
      • “We work with network contracts that are a half-inch thick, and are very pro-network
      • “Our contracts with the talent are very pro-producer because ultimately they’ll need to be pro-network
      • “This expedites that process, and allows the talent to know up front what they’re in for
      • “If the prospective talent is unhappy about the contract, we just move right on
  • “And there’s plenty of misleading information out there:
  •  “Expectations can be way out of line. Yet the talent fees for a pilot are next-to-nothing.”

Have you deliberately built up a reservoir of talent that you can apply to future projects?

  • “Yes, we draw on our library of great characters
  • “For example, a character mightn’t be right for the demographics of a particular show, but there might be a perfect fit for the demos of a show that’s coming down the road.”

Does Leftfield negotiate with your talent for series renewals? Or do you leave it to the networks?

  • “It depends on the show, the talent, and the network
  • “Over the decades, the broadcast networks developed strong practices and teams of experienced professionals to manage the various aspects of talent relations
  • “Lots of cable networks have recently switched their schedules to Unscripted
    • “But they differ widely in their commitment to managing talent
    • “And the competence of the responsible managers varies a lot, too.”

Are the networks adopting similar structures to manage talent?

  • “Some channels dedicate senior executives to manage key talent
  • “Others are hiring experienced staff from the broadcasters
  • “And there are channels where really effective people have stepped up from other departments like PR and Legal/BA
  • “But it’s a nightmare when there’s no one home at the network. Then it falls to producers like us to manage talent problems.”

Let’s return to casting Pawn Stars: How many members of your crew are dedicated to Casting?

  • “Everyone on the Pawn Stars team works in casting … from sound operator to PA
  • “Everyone knows to keep an eye out for great stuff walking through the door.”

I’m guessing that you just don’t wait for the great characters to turn up and join a line that wraps around a Las Vegas block. You must go out and cast the characters beforehand?

  • “We’re actually more interested in the items than the sellers
  • “We see the items as the stars, and the more history they have, the better
    • “As the show has gotten bigger, the pool of amazing items has grown and grown
    • “I believe that it’s a big reason for our continued ratings growth
    • “But if someone is completely flat, then we probably won’t use them
    • “The sweet spot is when we get a great object from a fun or knowledgeable seller.”

How do you screen the talent for Pawn Stars?

  • “The first step is to find people who really want to sell stuff
  • “Some people just want to be on TV. If someone calls the shop or walks in with something, our production team or one of the shop employees decides if the item is good enough to make the show
  • “Then someone from our casting team asks if they’re willing to be on TV
  • “Next, they line up a time for them to come in and try to sell it
  • “Because of the show’s success, we now have to look these people in the eye and say: ‘You really want to get rid of this item, right? You don’t just want to be on TV, and when we turn on a camera, ask for 20 times the value of your item?’
  • “That really does happen, too, and we have to weed those people out.”

How many characters do you lose after shooting them?

  • “Most people we shoot then make it on the show
  • “But like a lot of shows like this, some scenes have to be lost for a variety of reasons down the line, some technical and others just don’t reach our internal brand standard
  • “And then of course the network kills some as well.”

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Speaking Engagements

HotDocs
(Forum, May 4-5, Toronto)

Sunnyside of the Doc
(June 21-24, La Rochelle)

And a special “Sweet Spots”  seminar in Chicago
(May)

Details to follow

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