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Sun 14 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Talent broker

Digital Studio takes a look at the casting business in Dubai and the challenges of finding acting talent.

Digital Studio takes a look at the casting business in Dubai and the challenges of finding acting talent for TVCs.

Walking the ramp requires a completely different set of skills from acting in a commercial or a feature film. But few casting agencies in the UAE have paid attention to the difference thus far.

Now, a former senior TVC producer with Leo Burnett hopes to change that by providing fresh and new ‘acting' talent to the industry through her newly-launched company, Take One. More importantly, she promises to bring greater transparency to the talent business by ensuring that models are given 70 to 75% of what producers pay for them.

Although Sarah Abdullah, the 27-year-old owner of Take One provides models to clients, she goes one step ahead of other modelling agencies by also taking on the role of a casting director and supplying acting talent to her clients.

"When I was with Leo Burnett, I used to constantly complain that there were not enough actors in Dubai," explains Abdullah, who is primarily a casting director but with a passion for acting herself.

"Then, instead of complaining, I thought I should start a casting agency of my own and fill the gap in the supply chain. With that aim in mind, I have focused most of my efforts on TV commercials and feature films, where they require people to bring more than just good looks to the screen. When we get a brief from the client, I rehearse the roles with potential candidates, film them on my HDV camera, do an edit in-house and send a clip in whatever format the director wants because I cannot see how a still picture can tell if someone is good for a role or not. Models may be equipped physically for a role and this is the kind of talent that has traditionally been supplied to the market but I want to change that. You will be amazed at how many directors will change the requirements in terms of physical attributes if someone can act."

Trey Grigg, who has worked as a casting director in Dubai for the last 23 years and worked with several regional production houses like Filmworks, Independent Productions and Big Kahuna, agrees that good talent is difficult to source in the emirate.

"There is a very deluded acting market in this country," explains Grigg, who also helped with the casting for The Kingdom.

"This is because there are very few trained actors in this market and most of them are European looking. This market predominantly requires trained Mediterranean or Arabic actors and they are very difficult to find. However, there is a great supply of natural actors here and I enjoy working with them," he says, adding that the best place to source these actors is at the malls.

Take One's Abdullah, who has a relatively small but expanding database of models, agrees. Like Grigg, she finds it difficult to source Mediterranean or Arab looking actors and agrees with him that the best place to source talent in Dubai is at the shopping malls.

"Whenever I'm at the malls, I'm always on the lookout for people who look right for certain roles and if I find them, I always go and hand over my business card. But if I have to find an athletic person, I'd probably go and spend a whole day at the gym. In fact, for one project, I spent a whole week at the gym to find the right person. Sometimes, I go to schools or universities or exhibitions to find the people I want."

Grigg, however, cautions that there are many challenges with sourcing people from malls. "Most of them can't get off work or funnily enough, some of them are tourists and are not in the country long enough to agree to do the shoot. There are different kinds of challenges with sourcing talent," he explains.

While ‘natural' actors are always appreciated, Abdullah believes that they will be able to perform much better and be more confident if they are also trained to act. To make this possible, Abdullah is working closely with Hollywood greats such as Tom Todoroff, who come to Dubai often to conduct acting workshops.

"I have always loved acting and have attended several acting workshops. I've especially enjoyed Tom Todoroff's acting workshops. In fact, he will be running another workshop from December 4-6 at the Wellington International School in Dubai. Here, you learn how to throw your voice, correct breathing techniques and so on. You also get to observe other people and act out scenes. Education and training is important. Even famous actors go to workshops to refurbish their skills. If Take One takes on the responsibility of promoting such workshops and getting every one of our models to go to them, they are likely to benefit in the long run."Abdullah adds that the first step is to ensure that her models continue to get work. The likelihood of them getting more work if they are trained to act is greater in this market.

"If I continue to get my models work and am able to tell directors that I can get them people who can act, all parties benefit. Training and education will provide the right foundation for this environment," she explains.

The casting director is also looking to align herself with a new academy in the country. "After a while, perhaps I will also get a Take One discount for my models," she explains.

One of the big issues, however, that casts a pall on the market is wages for models. Most are not paid as much as their international counterparts because a significant number of modelling agencies pocket more than their share of the commission.

One Dubai-based producer, who did not want to be named, says he often asks models on set how much they make just to note the difference between what he paid the agency for them and what they have been paid.

"I found that the models were paid 25% of what the agent charged me for them. That's a ridiculously large amount of commission they're pocketing."

Grigg sheds more light on the issue and agrees that pay scales vary based on whom a model is aligned with. "Rates in international markets are based on various unions. This market is very different. I do know that there are agencies that keep 30% more than their standard 30%. However, there are some agencies who follow a better code of ethics than the others," he explains.

This is one area where Abdullah hopes to bring greater transparency to the market. "I always tell my models upfront what they will be making and what commission I will be taking," explains Abdullah. "I protect all my models for late payments and make sure they are not overworked. I go to the shoots myself to see how they perform."

Abdullah insists that she has stuck by her code of ethics and still found casting to be a profitable business. "It is a misperception that casting doesn't make money. No doubt, it requires a lot of hard work but I have tried to bring something more to the table and charge extra for my casting services. By doing that, the producer does not have to have a casting director on his end. I've already done the job of weeding out people who will not fit that role."

For the purpose, Abdullah has a small studio at her office in Bur Dubai although she will move to her new office in Dubai Studio City when it is ready. Her studio is fitted with standard camera lights and she uses an HDV camera to capture the action.

"I've used the HDV before, and it's pretty easy to hook up to a camera, control the audio and so on. Plus the image quality is a lot better than the smaller cameras. We then edit it at our end and supply it in whatever video format the client wants it."

Grigg, who usually uses Sony DV cameras supplied by the client, says Windows Movie Player is the easiest for an edit. "I used to work on iMovie Pro when I had a Mac but Windows is just a lot faster and easier. Of course, most people will ask for Movie files but they are just as fine with Windows," he says.

Manasvi Gosalia, executive producer and owner of Dubai-based production house, Déjà vu says such efforts by casting agencies will help develop a pool of acting talent in the region.

"For TVCs, you need people with a bit of expression and character. The requirement is very different from models for print. Most agencies, however, don't understand this and they send people from the same pool of overused talent and most of them can't act to save their lives. So if there is someone out there who takes a little extra effort to meet your requirements more accurately, chances are you'll go back to them again."

With Studio City ready to go full swing within a year, several professionals in the production market are looking to fill the gaps in the supply chain and provide services that are in line with international standards.

The launch of companies like Take One is a hard hitting reminder to traditional casting agencies that they must buck up and meet professional standards of supply and pay if they are to remain competitive in this market.

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Rami 11 years ago

Brilliant words there Sarah... I believe it's as important that the entertainment industry adjusts to the global market sentiment by providing alternative solutions to clients; the spearhead to which could be localized talent. Your proposition is definitely unique...

Souha Abdallah 11 years ago

Very few agencies in the market know what they're doing and how to keep it going, and Take One is one of them. Its rare to find a person who works with such passion and shares her experience to deliver quality work, and Sarah Abdallah's love for challenge always lead her to present the best!

Marwan 11 years ago

Amazing to see "Take one" part of the news.. I'm sure an wonderful talent like you will help the industry finding great talents.. Go Sarah Go..