David and Goliath battle between casting agencies

Scratch a South African industry and too often, it seems, a cartel is exposed. Now a war of words has broken out over the supply of extras, the people who help fill in the background in film and television shoots.

Turnover figures for the industry are not available, but an industry source says there are about 40 agencies representing 60 000 registered extras.

It’s a David and Goliath scenario, with one contender being Osca, the Official Casting Agency Association of South Africa, which represents 22 agencies, and the other being The 39 Steps, a small agency that specialises in casting extras in Cape Town. The 39 Steps is not an Osca member and feels it is being pushed out of the industry for doing things “differently to the norm”.

Owner Mark Jansen claims his agency is being bullied by Osca. “We don’t charge registration fees, annual subscription fees or for photographs. I don’t want to get money from people who are looking for work. I don’t see the logic behind it.”

The 39 Steps charges a 20% service fee on recruited extras, but Jansen claims the rates charged by Osca members varies, “it could be from 22% to 30%”.

Noticeable tension on set
Extras who belong to both agencies say the tension on set is “definitely noticeable”. Alexander Hart was signed with The 39 Steps and two other agencies when he received a call from an Osca agency to say he had been kicked off a list for any new jobs. “That is not normal practice. I didn’t sign an exclusivity agreement.”

The feud between Osca agencies and The 39 Steps, Hart said, has been known to extras on sets since January. He claims “the fee difference is not that big, but the other agencies are full of shit. It’s like they are doing you a favour.” Another extra told the Mail & Guardian: “The whole thing broke a couple of months ago when one of the Osca agencies called us and went off at us for working for The 39 Steps.”

She said there were instances when she would be offered the same job by both parties, but would receive better payment from The 39 Steps. “But it’s not just that,” she said, “they treat us better.”

The tension between the two has grown in recent months, Jansen said. “We are doing quite well and the business is growing — and that’s where the tension came in.” He said there had been several incidents in which The 39 Steps and Osca agents bumped heads on set.

In February Osca sent notices to production companies warning that it would not be involved in any production that was using The 39 Steps. “They are trying to push us out of the industry,” Jansen said. “It is unconstitutional. They are trying to stop us from trading.”

No union for extras
Six years ago Osca negotiated and established industry guidelines, but no union exists for those in the extra industry.

The Commercial Producers’ Association said in a newsletter: “We have advised Osca that we cannot dictate how any supplier wishes to market their business, price their wares and compete in the free market and unless their extras are exclusive to an agency, we can’t agree that The 39 Steps did anything legally wrong in terms of approaching extras.” The association declined to provide further comment.

Osca chair Patrick Walton declined to be interviewed, citing legal reasons. Osca released the following statement to the M&G: “Osca, the Official South African Casting Association, is aware of this issue and is attending to it fully.” Jansen said that the fight would affect The 39 Steps “in a big way” when it came to larger productions, simply because Osca had a larger database.

Osca, Jansen said, disagreed with his agency’s use of social networking to recruit actors. “They want The 39 Steps to conform.”

“Osca members run their businesses to remain sustainable and limit the risk to their artists,” an Osca source said.

Extras “might be offered work for R600 clear a day by an Osca agent and then be offered R640 clear a day by The 39 Steps”, the source said. “Where vastly different rates occur, with no formal indication of fees, an agent may manipulate the fee to undermine other agents and attract their talent.”

“There are loads of small agencies like ours,” said Jansen. “If it wasn’t us, it would have been somebody else.”

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