New Zealand online casting agency hits three million members worldwide

Picture taken from StarNow's website
Ten years ago, Trade Me software developer Cameron Mehlhopt started an online casting service for amateurs and newbies trying to get into the entertainment industry, after his actress sister-in-law couldn’t find a job. A decade later, Wellington-based StarNow has a pool of three million members as far away as London, New York, Los Angeles (and Auckland), 18 million hits a month and 29 staff.

The collective groan of frustrated actors turned away from yet another casting call is a sound often heard in the entertainment industry. Hundreds of hopefuls compete for a few coveted spots that might propel them to stardom.

Once upon a time such endeavours were the exclusive property of casting agencies and local classifieds. But StarNow, a venture originally started in a loft in London by three Kiwi friends on their OE, has successfully cut in to a corner of the market, getting an average of 18 million hits a month as it matches directors and casting professional with a pool of three million actors, models, dancers, photographers, crew, stylists and musicians worldwide – all from an office on Allen St in Wellington.

Building a company the same day

All Trade Me alumni, the original development team behind the site – Cameron Mehlhopt, Jamie Howell, and Nigel Sanford – were part of the internet start-up scene before it was cool.

“We’d turn up during the day, think of an idea, and we’d be building it that same day,” says Mehlhopt, CEO of StarNow.

“So we got sort of an idea of how exciting and innovative a web company could be.”

With members in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Auckland, StarNow is able to provide opportunities across the globe, Mehlhopt says. It’s this international reach that separates his company out from the rest of the competition, with talent from places like New Zealand or Australia picking up work in foreign destinations, he says.

While the site was originally built for amateurs and newbies in the entertainment industry (the whole idea was originally created because Mehlhopt’s actress sister-in-law couldn’t find a job), it’s now evolved to include people of all skill levels.

“You can be fresh out of school looking for a job, or have appeared in an Australian soap before,” Mehlhopt says. “We actually offer something for everyone.”

Challenges

Still it hasn’t been all plain sailing. Along with the growth of the business (and the internet that supports it) has been a growth in the threats to the talent listing their wares on sites like StarNow. Story after story after story exists of unsuspecting models being lured by the promise of paid work into seriously dangerous situations, and this is something that hums along just below the water surface for StarNow.

“Ever since day one we’ve realised that there are real people using our service. Every casting call is reviewed by our trust and safety team. We’ll look at them, review them, and there’s a certain number of casting calls we won’t pick up.”

The company has established a good relationship with the police, with contacts that can be called in if there’s genuine threat, and FAQ guides on how to stay safe have been posted. But as with any physical casting agency, the danger element remains.

“We’ve had our fair share of people who we wouldn’t want on the website placing a casting call with us,” Mehlhopt says.

As for the future, Mehlhopt doesn’t see something like StarNow replacing real-world casting agencies. Instead, he says StarNow is allowing casting agencies to find fresh faces and emerging talents.

“In our early days, we were like a job aggregation site,” he says.

“But really, [now] we’re moving towards being a platform for people to showcase their skills, their professional identity, their online portfolio.”