Five years ago, Ann Wittenberg was at loose ends. She’d left a career in corporate marketing, public relations and event planning after almost 25 years and knew only that she wanted to “do something to bring light to people’s lives.” Today, those ends are tied in a pretty spectacular bow. She owns her own growing casting company, her Facebook page has more than 26,000 followers, and she is located in the Production Centre of one of the most prestigious studios in the world.
She didn’t set out with that goal in mind, however. She just knew that early retirement wasn’t for her. So she decided to try being a movie extra. She knew a little about the industry because James Cameron’s wife had been a childhood friend. Plus, the work looked like fun. She went to a casting call and was surprised at the disorder she found. So she found the owner of the agency and told him he needed help organizing his business. He agreed, and she landed the job.
A year later, she left to start New Life Casting in Fayette County.
“It was scary at first,” Ann admits. “I didn’t have very many connections, and this business is all about relationships. But I started getting jobs and word got around. I did some work on “Lawless” and then did “A Cross to Bear” with Kim Fields. Things just sort of took off.”
They certainly did. Since opening New Life in November 2012, Ann has worked on films and television shows, including “Synchronicity,” “The Hidden City,” “Lost & Found,” “Implosion,” “Stuff You Should Know,” “Swamp Murders,” “Desires of the Heart,” “Queen of the Castle,” and “The Circle.” She’s cast commercials for Coke, Listerine, Belk, Homewood Studios, Disney, and Emory. She’s even cast photo shoots and a couple of music videos.
Last year, when the big news about Pinewood Atlanta Studios hit Fayetteville, a friend urged her to call the developers of the project. She did, and they emailed her back almost immediately. One Starbucks meeting, a tour, and a lunch later, she entered into a lease in the transformed Rivers Elementary School building, where an elite group of film-related businesses have begun to gather in anticipation of great things to come.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” Ann says of the move. “I never could have dreamed this three years ago.”
Ann started with two basic philosophies. The first was “work hard and be kind.” She certainly lives it every day. She often works long hours and, in her world, there’s no down time. It’s not unusual for her to pick up a call in the middle of dinner out with friends or to spend half a vacation day Skyping with a crew in Canada, as happened on her last beach trip.
“It’s a crazy business,” she admits. “You’ve got to be available and persistent, because you don’t know when opportunity will crop up. But then, it’s crazy in a good way, too. Look at me. A few years ago, I knew almost nothing about casting. Now I’m right across the street for one of the best-known and most respected studios in the world.”
Yet no matter how hard she works, Ann always tries to be kind. Production coordinator Jenny Sandell says she succeeds.
“Ann was one of the first people I met when I came to Georgia,” says Jenny. “She was just so incredibly warm and open. She introduced herself, told me all about the neighborhood I’d be living in for the next several months, and invited me to dinner. We discovered that we’re both huge animal lovers, and she took me to volunteer at a dog outreach program on one of my first free weekends. She even showed me how to peel my first crawfish!”
Ann’s second philosophy? “There are no small roles.” She emphatically includes extras, and she is insistent that those who work for her receive proper treatment.
“I like to make sure each and every person on set is treated with dignity and respect,” she says. “Extras aren’t just another number, they’re people, professionals. I’m not usually required to visit the sets I cast, but I do anyway. I go to make sure that if it’s ninety or a hundred degrees, my people are getting water. If lunch is included, I want to make sure they’re getting fed. We have a great reputation for our people showing up on set and on time. That’s not always a given in this business. I think it’s because the people know I care and only want the best for them.”
That kind of care and commitment are what New Life Casting is all about—and what Ann is well-known for.
“Honesty and integrity are our cornerstones,” she says. “My parents taught me as I taught my daughters that your word is your bond, and I honor that credo. So many have fallen away from honor, and we want to be known as the casting company that can be trusted.”
In fact, that’s a big part of the reason she decided to launch her own business.
“I just felt like something was missing in the industry,” she explains. “I wanted to make things better for the extras. You know, I’m a mom. So I have this urge to help people, take care of them.”
That includes helping people find work—sometimes when they need it most.
“A lot of people were out of work when I first opened,” she explains. “I wanted to be known as the casting company that can provide people with jobs they can be proud of. I want to get people work. And I love helping to build the local economy.”
Ann has lots of stories on that front. Like the man who introduced her to his friends as “the woman who helped me buy the first big bag of groceries for my family after I lost my job.” Or the woman Ann met at Bible study whose caught her attention—so much so that Ann connected the mother with several big-name casting agents in Atlanta. Within a few short weeks, the boy had official representation, a process that can take months or even years.
And then there’s the grandmother she bumped into at Mexican restaurant and immediately realized was perfect for a difficult-to-cast role.
“I auditioned her in the restroom,” Ann laughs, “and she ended up getting the part. She’d been cleaning houses for 25 years. She never imagined she could be an actress. Plus, several of her family members landed extra roles in the same film. The whole family had not been together in years, but we got them together over that project. And I got to take the picture!”
Another time, she cast a homeless man who turned up at an open call.
“He went to sign in and I asked for his address,” Ann recalls. “He said he didn’t have one. But he was perfectly able to do the job, so we talked it through and found we could send the check to his sister’s house. That day he got a good meal and was able to earn a little money and he got to feel special.”
She really enjoys seeing the finished product, too.
“It’s so much fun to see the final movie and be able to pick out the people I cast,” she says. “Or to walk through a store and see a baby I’ve cast on a photo shoot. I’ve been able to help some of my extras land agents, too. Some days I’ll just be watching T.V. and I’ll see someone I’ve worked with in a major commercial or a television show. That’s just neat. It’s rewarding to see extras I’ve cast getting principal roles. It means their dreams are coming true.”
She’s had the opportunity to work on some pretty interesting projects, too. She once got a call asking for seventeen people—each of whom needed to speak a different, specific language.
“That one was a real challenge,” she laughs. “Most of them weren’t easy languages to find like French or Spanish, either. I met so many fun people through that project. I love doing really unique jobs like that.”
Another time, she interviewed 2,000 people in two days during a massive casting call. And, early on in the company’s history, she helped a major Los Angeles motion picture company secure local production offices. She’s also worked on several independent films, which are a personal favorite of hers.
“Small indy sets really turn into a family,” she says. “The people get to care about each other and keep in contact for years sometimes. I love that.”
But running a casting company hasn’t always been easy, Ann admits. For the first two years, she put in a lot of hours with limited return. In fact, there have been times she’s wondered if it was going to work out.
“In December 2012,” she says, “I decided that if things didn’t pick up, I was going to move on to something else—go to Pike’s and play in the dirt or something. On January 2, 2013, my phone started ringing off the hook. It hasn’t stopped since.”
In fact, 2013 turned out to be a great year for Ann. She did commercials for giants like the Centers for Disease Control and Home Depot. She cast a Budweiser spot at Turner Field. She secured a great print ad contract and she worked on several films as well. Thanks in part to the arrangement with Pinewood, 2014 hasn’t slowed one bit.
But no matter how busy she gets, she always takes time for friends and family. Like when two of her daughters got married in 2012 – one in August and the other in September. Despite growing a business, she made sure to be the best mother-of-the-bride she could be. “I am so thankful for my family and their support,” she says. “They’ve really been the ones who’ve been so patient with me.”
“Ann’s a phenomenal person,” says friend Barbara Foran. “She’ll find time for you whether she has it or not. She’ll call and ask how you are and really listen. And then eventually she’ll say, ‘Well, I guess I’d better go; I have to book 60 people for a shoot tomorrow.’ She’s amazing.”
And Ann’s immensely grateful for all her opportunities.
“Sure, it’s a tough business,” she says. “And there are things that shouldn’t be the way they are. But there are some awesome people in this industry, too. So many of them have helped me along my journey, and I truly appreciate it. Bill Marinella gave me my first industry job. Mark Fincannon absolutely took me under his wing. He told me recently that he was proud of me, and I don’t think I could have been any happier. And, of course, I have to thank my family for putting up with the craziness. My kids think I’m nuts!”
So what advice would Ann give to those interested in becoming an extra or actor?
“Acting classes are key,” she says. “Especially if you want this to be a career. And don’t be afraid to sign with more than one extra casting agency. I encourage all my people to do that. But be careful of agencies that charge you to be part of their database or try to sell you an expensive package of professional headshots. I personally believe we should not charge to be part of our databases, and many of my successful extras get work with great pictures they took at home. Be especially careful with your children. There are a lot of scams out there. Don’t be lured by false promises.”
And what about those who, like Ann, are interested in starting a business—even if they have absolutely no experience in their chosen field?
“Anything is possible,” says Ann, “as long as you’re willing to work hard. It doesn’t matter if you’re a new mom or fifty years old. You can start a business and succeed. And have fun, too. That’s the best part. I love to have fun!”