Legal War Erupts Over Breakdowns

Breakdowns and casting notices keep the entertainment industry humming. Not only do film and TV actors live by them, they're the major medium through which casting directors, agents, managers, and performers find one another and communicate. It isn't surprising that competition to be the best supplier of breakdowns is fierce among the handful of companies offering searchable databases of casting notices on the Internet. (Back Stage offers its own service.)

Now dueling lawsuits between industry mainstay Breakdown Services and relative newcomer Now Casting bring that competition to the forefront.

Breakdown Services offers several services, the most notable of which provides licensed talent agencies and managers breakdowns approved by casting directors. Subscriptions to receive the breakdowns are tightly controlled; talent representatives must provide specific information about their company before being approved.

Actors can view online breakdowns approved by CDs and create profiles with résumés and two photos for free at Actors Access, Breakdown Services' division for actors. Registered users can electronically submit their profiles for roles for $2 per submission. Members of Showfax, a Breakdown offshoot that provides sides, can make unlimited submissions and post additional photos. Membership costs $68 annually.

On Now Casting's site, union actors (or nonunion thesps represented by a franchised agent) can view casting notices, post a profile with résumés and six photos, and have their agent submit them for roles for free. In order to submit for roles directly to casting personnel, actors (union or nonunion) must sign up for one of three subscription packages for $10-20 per month. Agents, managers, and casting directors must also be approved to use Now Casting by meeting its requirements.

According to Breakdown's website, its staff writers create approximately 30 TV and feature-film breakdowns per day (more than 10,000 per year). Now Casting estimates it has posted tens of thousands of notices since launching in 1997 as part of LA Actors Online, a networking site for actors. It formally became Now Casting in late 2001. Breakdown Services has been the industry leader since it was founded in 1971.

The conflict, however, centers on one breakdown posted on Now Casting in 2003: for the Touchstone/ABC Family pilot referred to in court documents as "Just a Phase — 'Triangle of Trust.'" Breakdown Services founder Gary Marsh contends in the lawsuit that the listing was directly lifted from his site.

"We filed on one casting notice, but it really is the result of unsuccessful informal negotiations with other projects that we believed Now Casting had copied from our system," said Marsh, who declined to specify the names or nature of those projects. "We compete with a number of services. We compete with Back Stage for casting notices. But I've never been forced to...file a legal action against any of the current companies that we compete against."

According to Marsh's attorney, Steven P. Krakowsky, his client has filed four copyright suits since the early 1990s. The last suit, against the now-defunct service Castnet in '98, resulted in a $225,000 fine levied against that company for stealing Breakdown's notices. Now Casting's president, Rick La Fond, was then vice president of Castnet, which filed for bankruptcy soon after the judgment.

Marsh said he met with Now Casting CEO Bob Stewart on a number of occasions to try to resolve the Just a Phase issue but the two couldn't come to an agreement. "Nobody wins in a legal action," Marsh said. "If we're forced to file an action, then I think it tells you that we weren't successful."

A Matter of Monopoly

Stewart said he and Marsh never met to discuss the notice and further noted he has submitted to the court an email from the Just a Phase casting director stating that its office wrote the notice and authorized Stewart to post it. He added that Marsh often uses legal actions as tools to maintain his monopoly of the breakdowns business. "We know that Breakdown Services has sued people in the past under different circumstances, so we had done our absolute best," he said. "We never post anything from Breakdown Services, and we always ask the casting directors who author [the breakdowns], and we always have permission from the casting directors to post everything that we post. We feel we've done everything that we can to keep out of the lawsuit. So, yes, it was a surprise when it happened."

Stewart said this isn't the first time Marsh has taken legal action against his company. In January 2003, Marsh sent a cease-and-desist order claiming Now Casting stole breakdowns for the Fox pilot Still Life. After Now Casting proved it had not plagiarized the notice, Marsh dropped the matter.

In response to the current lawsuit, Stewart filed a countersuit, claiming Marsh and Breakdown Services dominate the business, shutting Now Casting out. "We've always felt that Breakdown Services has had a strong monopoly in the industry, and we have always known that as we grew, we would become a bigger and bigger thorn in their side that could potentially lead to something like this," contended Stewart. "We've been expecting something like this, knowing that it was a possibility from the day we opened our doors."

The countersuit alleges that Marsh has badmouthed Now Casting to CDs, agents, managers, and actors, and that Marsh "threatens and coerces casting directors to cease doing business" with Stewart's service. Keith Gonzalez, editor of the Academy Players Directory, who was in business with Marsh in 1997, stated in a written declaration that Marsh said Breakdown Services has no real competition and that Marsh called himself a "benevolent dictator." Gonzales now works with Now Casting, which announced July 17 it will take over the Players Directory.

Marsh said the countersuit is "totally without merit" and has demanded a jury trial. A court date has been set for December.

Stewart and Marsh agree on one thing: The lawsuits will affect neither their respective businesses nor their ability to produce as many breakdowns as possible. "We believe there's plenty of room in this market," Stewart added. "Our company has a distinct advantage in the marketplace, and if we had a clear playing ground on which to play that, we would be able to more than compete."