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Central Casting: Rival agencies complain that TalentPlus bogarted local auditions for Up in the Air



"Clooney Chaos" may have much of St. Louis starry-pupiled, yet not everyone is giddy about the local filming of the Jason Reitman feature Up in the Air.

Jerry Jones, director of the Missouri Film Commission, says the Paramount Pictures film could boost the local economy by about $50 million and that it has already employed 40 area residents on the production side. But some in the local talent industry have expressed displeasure with the casting of extras and minor speaking roles — the best gigs available to local talent.

"I'm sick and tired of one talent agency dominating the business through connections like the film office," says Camille Adams, owner of Menagerie Models.

That "one talent agency" is TalentPlus, owned by Sharon Lee Tucci, whose husband, Pasta House Company president J. Kim Tucci, is also St. Louis film commissioner. Adams and others say TalentPlus enjoyed an unfair advantage in local casting for Up in the Air, owing to Tucci family ties and to the agency's relationship with Joni Tackette, the local casting director Paramount hired.

The Tuccis say it's just good business. Tackette declined to be interviewed for this story.

Adams is not alone in her frustration. Reinette Saleeby, a Clayton attorney, says she was approached by a group of disgruntled local casting directors, talent agencies, independent actors and actors who belong to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

On their behalf, she wrote a letter to Paramount alleging Tackette hadn't cast in an appropriate way. Paramount promised to investigate the matter. Saleeby says it was unfair for Tackette to have cast minor speaking roles by holding auditions at TalentPlus rather than in an independent space.

Sharon Tucci says she frequently does business with Tackette and that the casting director indeed held the first local auditions at the agency January 5 through 7. Tucci points out that her agency represents more union talent than any other local agency (about 145 adult SAG actors in the area).

"I'm the only SAG-franchised agency, so I should be the first to be called. That's protocol," Tucci asserts, adding that all twelve TalentPlus actors who won minor speaking roles are union represented; she stands to earn a daily commission of about $76 from each.

Zino Macaluso, SAG's national director of agency relations, confirms that under collective bargaining agreements, a production company could potentially be fined for failing to fill roles with SAG and SAG-eligible actors if they're available. He adds that if a town has only one SAG-franchised agency, it's "not unusual" for a casting director to start there and to use the agency's space.

Up in the Air will cast 15 to 25 Missouri actors in minor speaking roles, says the film's executive producer, Michael Beugg.

Representatives of NOW Talent Management, Azalea Agency, and West Model and Talent Management say Tackette solicited submissions for minor speaking roles in December, prior to the auditions at TalentPlus. All three of these agencies report having at least some union actors, and between them landed three minor speaking roles. They also say Tackette permitted their clients to bypass the January 24 and 25 public casting call for extras at Crestwood Court Mall and submit headshots and résumés instead.

Sharon Pfitzinger, vice president of marketing at Images Agency, says her agency and other non-union shops (including Menagerie Models) weren't contacted at all about submissions — for extras or otherwise.

Pfitzinger says she's been working for four months with Associated Industries of Missouri, a Jefferson City lobbying firm, in an effort to bring more films to the state. She says she was "disappointed, to say the least" not to hear from Tackette. "We look like fools," she adds. "Here's a big movie in town and we're an agency and we don't know anything about it. We heard everything [via the news media]."

Back in December, Sharon Tucci appeared on a KSDK-TV (Channel 5) newscast offering advice to would-be extras. Tucci says her agency collected applications from would-be extras and passed them along to Tackette. She also says that a TalentPlus employee helped Tackette with crowd control in Crestwood.

"If they're just facilitating the job for the producer, that's fine," Macaluso says. "If they're actively involved in casting decisions, that would be a problem."

Tucci says she didn't charge Paramount a penny, and that big production companies "are used to cities taking care of them." For two years, Tucci adds, she has served on the board of the Missouri Motion Media Association, which she describes as the lobbying arm of the state film commission. "I've been someone connected to the industry for years," she says.

In a separate letter addressed to the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC), attorney Saleeby wrote that Kim Tucci's position as a film commissioner with close ties to a talent agency constitutes a conflict of interest.

Tucci, former chairman of the state film commission, says he played no role in Tackette's hiring and that his current duties as St. Louis film commissioner include lobbying legislators to keep tax credits intact and presenting St. Louis as film-friendly.

He says the film office consists of him and one other individual and that it receives no funding from the CVC, its parent organization.

Tucci adds that he, his wife and a few other individuals led the push to convince Paramount to shoot here. "What we do is on our own dime," Tucci emphasizes. "We're working our fanny off to make things happen in these hard times."

Responds Saleeby: "I commend Kim for his efforts, but it's not fair in the eyes of people in the industry when they don't even have a chance to submit. If this was in LA, this never would've happened."

Menagerie Models owner Adams says, "For me this isn't about the money or jealousy. This kind of small-town B.S. must stop in order for the city to thrive, because other movies might come in."

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