Former production accountant Rumala Sheikhani was working on the TV show “State of Affairs,” paying the background cast, when one day the stacks of paperwork seemed to mock the sustainability Hollywood strives for. “There had to be a better way of doing it,” she says.
The key was finding a way to streamline the system of vouchers that background actors must fill out in order to get paid. “I knew technology could help alleviate a lot of the back and forth with vouchers, and that’s when I first came up with the idea,” says Sheikhani, who created an app to digitize the process.
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But in the current COVID-19-influenced world, Castifi has done more than just alleviate paperwork and contain costs — it has also helped reduce contact between people on set as production assistants use the app to hire, manage and pay background actors. Perhaps even more important, the app can report real-time coronavirus test results so that the production team can instantly see who is cleared to enter the set — and keep track of bonuses that are due to background actors for confirming they’ve been tested.
“We’ve seen a 250% growth in our business since we started reopening production in August,” Sheikhani says. “And we have onboarded 50,000 people to get them paid and processed.”
Jenny Gates, production accountant for Michael Che’s untitled HBO Max sketch show says that Castifi has made a big difference during the health crisis. “Working in production during a pandemic posed several challenges,” says Gates. “One major challenge was ‘How will we process payroll for our background?’ Castifi offered us the best solution. Their setup was extremely simple, offering the same workflow we had pre-COVID. Revisions and disputes were simple to resolve, offering us the ability to communicate remotely with the set and background performers.”
When SAG-AFTRA approved digital vouchers last summer, it became a milestone for the company, which had been mainly providing casting services to the 70,000 actors in its database. Now, production companies could dispose of the paper trail entirely and back- ground actors could sign off on their day’s work digitally.
Ebrahim Bhaiji, Castifi chief operating officer, estimates that the company has made good on its original objective, having saved more than 3 million sheets of paper. But the app has also aided productions in hiring inclusively, providing a database that allows casting directors to search through 70,000 names and pull up matches as well as confirming union eligibility status. The company says the app has helped casting directors to improve diversity hiring by at least 20%. Sheikhani adds that she’s hoping to routinely incorporate diversity reports in Castifi’s services so that productions can more easily certify that they’re meeting the kind of fair hiring standards championed by stipulations such as inclusion riders.
Wardrobe is another department that has benefited from the app, which can store actors’ measurements and make sure that outfits are properly returned.
Ultimately, the goal is to turn Castifi into a one-stop shop of production support — a central hub that incorporates data, keeps accounts straight and sends digital vouchers to payroll companies.
Bhaiji says growth took off when production teams were desperately looking to find a way to safely hire people during the pandemic as production started to resume last summer. The app was frequently part of pitch presentations. “We were able to become a part of the fabric and narrative of restarting production,” he says.
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