Solomon Bogale, 30, a renowned star who is also one of the major characters of Sost Ma'ezen, playing the role of a drunken Diaspora in the Bar scene, after everything including the extras were set.
Like 80 countries around the world, Ethiopia designated May 1 as a public holiday in commemoration of the international labour movement. For Tewodros Teshome, 42, renowned filmmaker, Labour Day was not a time to take a rest but to enjoy hours of work. He was busy shooting the 22nd scene of his upcoming movie Sost Ma'ezen (Triangle), his fifth movie written and directed by himself.
The film, which he says could cost over six million Birr, was shot at Lubanja Bar & Restaurant located on Gabon Street, which stretches from Olympia to Meskel Flower. The Bar & Restaurant is a dining place and a nightclub, with a cosy atmosphere. The Bar is stocked full of various liquors in an adequate sized room that can handle a large crowd during evenings. It provides a good setting for moviemakers who want to portray the nightlife of Addis Abeba.
After setting up the place for shooting with all of the required equipment, including with a camera crane, stools at the counter, and chairs at the tables, the filmmaker, the director, and the assistant director, together with the director of photography, sound mixer, and lighting technicians waited for the actors around 2:00pm.
Excluding Solomon Bogale, 30, who plays one of the main characters in the movie, 19 actors were called for the shooting on short notice. At 11:00am Tewodros realised that he needed extras, whose roles are limited to the background, to create the bar scene. That was when he picked up his phone and called Solomon Tafesse, 38, a pioneer film casting agent in Ethiopia. Solomon brought the needed actors within three hours.
Filmmakers need the assistance of such agencies, of which there are only four today, not just because they need actors but because they need actors within their budget. For instance, Felashaw, a film which is still in the making, had a budget of 29,000 Br for its cast of 210 actors. Eskinder Ali, 39, the script writer, director, and producer of the film, had to contact Solomon's agency to find the actors that would work for an average payment of 114 Br a person, deducting the 5,000 Br Solomon took for his services.
Eskinder had an earlier film called Melak, which was released in 2009/10 with a cast of over 200 actors. He had to recruit and assign all of these actors to their roles on his own, which was very challenging, according to him. The agency solved all of these problems for him in his latest movie, yet to be released.
Solomon Tafesse was demonstrating the role that Murad Akmel (centre), another drunken fellow in the movie, has to play at the Bar, with Dereje Demeke , assistant director of the movie, on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 1, 2012.
"We had to go through a lot of processes for our first movie," Eskender says.
Solomon, who used to be involved in a lot of drama work with various clubs, came up with the idea for this business when, in 2004, he was asked for a cast of over 1,500, for a movie called Afroism. Back in those days, Solomon oftentimes used to contact filmmakers to see if they could give roles to actors that he represented. But, many filmmakers needed a lot of convincing.
"One of the biggest challenges that I used to face was convincing directors that I had the casts they needed," Samson recalls of those seven testing years.
Solomon trained his aspiring actors outside the condominiums where his office is located, on Dejazmach Jote Street, Piazza area. For the actors he could find roles for, he handled all of the contractual issues.
His payment from his recruits comes when the actors get contracts. The filmmakers pay him 100 Br for each actor at each shooting, and the actors pay him 15pc of the pay they get from acting.
"I talked to more than 20 renowned and upcoming artists, and I had many encouraging and discouraging comments when I first prepared my project proposal for the casting agency," he reminiscences. "I knew it would require a lot of struggle."
However, now it is with great expectation that filmmakers rush to their phones to find him when they are in need of actors. He has provided actors for over 28 movies, including Seryet, Tezeta, and Makebl.
He now has a list of over 5,000 clients who hope to find acting roles through him. He goes through all of their pictures whenever he is contacted to supply actors.
"The major female character of Sost Ma'ezen, Mahder Assefa, is one of his clients, and she turned out to be really good for her role," Tewodros said.
One of the background actors that Tewodros got from Solomon was Murad Akmel, 23, a guard at Lem Hotel, located on Equatorial Guinea Street. A very muscular young man, with platform shoes, he was given the role of a drunk Diaspora member disturbing patrons in the Bar.
He studied acting at a small college, called Rakmanov, around Sidist Kilo area for 10 months. He then gave his picture to Solomon, whom he has known for the past two years. Solomon has placed him in several small roles during this time. His role in Sost Ma'ezen is his latest.
Casting agents are a major source for training upcoming artists, according to Tewodros. This contributes a lot to the Ethiopian film industry, as bad casting is one of the problems of Ethiopian movies, thinks Tewodros, who owns and runs Sebastopol Entertainment Plc and plans to work with casting agents for his other upcoming movies.
A casting agent works as the manager and director of the artists and the roles that they take, says Alexander Aweke, 24, who started working as an agent seven years ago.
"I always look at the script and evaluate the production before reaching an agreement with the filmmakers," Alexander tells Fortune.
He has a list of more than 8,680 photos of clients with their contacts and over 1,500 contacts of additional aspirants. If Alexander works as a casting director on a certain project that takes a month, he charges between 1,000 Br and 10,000 Br, depending upon the production time, set, and the work to be done assisting. He is the casting director for Teddy Afro's Tikur Sew music video.
"We charge 100 Br to 500 Br per shoot per person for extras, while for a first-time, major actor it is 500 Br to 15,000 Br, and for the famous major actors it is 21,000 Br to 30,000 Br, depending on the latest artist market," he says.
One of the major visual elements in movies are casts, and they play a significant role in giving the motion picture the universal power of communication, according Yonas Berahne Mewa, general manager of Ethio Films.
"Casting agencies typically maintain a database of talent, which they can then notify of projects that match the criteria of the required artist," Yonas tells Fortune. "Their job is to be up to date on the latest acting projects that are hiring and bringing the talent and the client together."
Agencies should have A4 size, 25cm by 35cm, black and white pictures of their clients, complete with résumés. They should also categorise the clients by age and by possible characters they could play, according to Yonas, who has a degree in directing and producing.
Ethiopia's cinema industry is far behind Nollywood of Nigeria. Nigerian filmmaking grew quickly in the 1990s and 2000s to become the second largest film industry in the world in terms of the number of annual films produced, placing it ahead of the United States but behind the Indian film industry.
Nigeria has a 250 million-dollar movie industry, churning out some 200 videos for the home video market every month, according to the United Nations Scientific Cultural Organisation Institute for Statistics (UNSCOIS).
However, with the lack of finance, skilled manpower, knowledge of sound composition, and story building in the Ethiopian film industry, the status is still encouraging, says Yonas. Currently, at least one movie opens every week in Addis Abeba.
"It is possible to organise casting agents professionally, by training them in filmmaking and proving them with all of the necessary support they should have," Yonas argues.
He remembers spending six months in the preproduction phase of Hermella, just trying to complete the cast. Most of the aspiring actors that came forward in response to advertisements did not meet the criteria, according to him.
On the other hand, Hoora Modeling & Communications Plc, the fourth casting agency in town, established by Henok Tesfaye in 2010/11, is the only organised agent that has an office and a website featuring its clients. The company, which also does modelling and communication work, has over 2,800 online customers, who pay 300 Br a year and over 1,000 others who have merely registered, paying 50 Br per application.
"We do not require anything from the filmmakers but take a 20pc commission from the actors' wages," Henok said.
Getting the background actors for Tewodros did not mean that he could set them up for acting straight away. It took more than one hour to coach Murad for the tiny role he played in the film.
Even after spending hours of shooting extras at Lubanja, the Bar scene will only be 40 seconds long in the actual movie, according to Tewodros, for which he paid 1,550 Br to the Bar.
Tewodros, however, is not disappointed. He would rather see Solomon become stronger and better in the job he is doing.
The casting agencies help the local film industry cast a variety faces and, eventually fulfil the dreams of extras like Murad of becoming fulltime actors, he believes. Felashaw, which may change its name by the time it opens in a month, had a lot of work lifted off the shoulders of its makers, thanks to Solomon's agency.
FORTUNE STAFF WRTIER