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Veenker casts herself into a big career
Photos and Story by James Hill
In seven short years, Lana Veenker has gone from couch-surfing to casting people who work with movie stars. And she did it all with the help of PCC.
Veenker, 39, is the owner and operator of Oregon’s busiest casting company, Lana Veenker Casting. Her team is behind hundreds of film, video, print and voice-over projects.
She recently provided local talent for “Feast of Love,” a major Hollywood film shot in Oregon last year. It stars Morgan Freeman, with Robert Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) directing and production by the team that made the Academy Award-winning “Million Dollar Baby.” Veenker also provided talent for “Untraceable,” starring Diane Lane.
Veenker hasn’t always been the toast of the town though. After a decade of adventures that dotted the globe – not to mention the career map – the Portland native returned home without a specific direction but with plenty of skills. In 2000, she decided to start up a casting company, where she’d had previous experience in London.
“I started my company with a cell phone and a laptop,” she admits. “I started it couch surfing. No car, no casting equipment. I had to take the bus to my castings.”
Her business gained a foothold, but in 2003, she needed help figuring out how to keep it on track. A friend who also owned a small business suggested she turn to the Small Business Development Center at PCC.
“Businesses follow a similar path,” Veenker said. “The SBDC class forces you to think about your business and where you are going.”
She completed the program in February of 2005. In addition to the monthly class at the Lloyd Center Mall, she received one-on-one counseling sessions with SBDC’s Director of Education Jackie Babicky. Veenker calls the sessions “invaluable.”
Her company continues to grow and prosper. Babicky’s counsel and the coursework emboldened Veenker to move her business out of her apartment, hire two full-time employees and steadily employ a handful of freelancers and purchase a condo.
“Jackie says my next step is buying my own building and renting out some of the space to tenants,” Veenker said. “Jackie convinced me I needed an office, needed to rent space and equipment and have a place for my clients. I took that leap of faith. That summer (2003), I had gotten really busy.”
Then, as if on cue, business promptly dried up.
“Three months – dead with no calls,” she added. “It was really tough, but then work picked up and I realized it is feast or famine in this business.” Knowing the cyclical nature of her industry, she was better able to plan and, shortly thereafter, had her strongest year ever. In 2005, she doubled her client base. Projects have included casting for the CBS/Hallmark movie-of-the-week “Valley of Light” and a major Colgate campaign launched by New York City-based Young & Rubicom Agency for a top production company in Santiago, Chile. She is happy with the way in which the SBDC has helped her take the right steps at the right time.
The SBDC also advised Veenker on how to set up systems and procedures, so that the entire operation isn’t running out of her head. With more than 90 projects a year, this is critical. The company has recently created an employee manual to help identify intake processes, business systems and client services.
This is heady stuff for a young woman who was without a car, a place to stay or any video equipment when she first returned to Portland in the late 1990s. Veenker had been on a 10-plus-year travel adventure, which took her to several continents. She studied acting and directing in Paris, Cambridge and the San Francisco Bay Area. On her world tour, she had a host of jobs related and not-so-related to the film industry: photography gofer, art dealer assistant, English as a Second Language teacher, crew on a sailboat, and eventually, when “close to starving,” she says, she landed a job in London as a casting assistant.
In retrospect, the experiences added heft to a career in the industry. Along the way, Veenker became tri-lingual, speaking Spanish and French. She’s worked and traveled in South America and at one point, spent a year motorcycling across India. Back in Portland, she earned a performing arts degree from Portland State University, graduating magna cum laude. The taste for foreign travel came from her high school experience as an exchange student to France.
Her sense of adventure, a passion for theater and strong intuition serve her well in the creative arts industry. Clients like David Poulshock of Portland’s Red Door Films, herald her “unique ability to draw performances out of talent” and says her background in acting and directing is her ace-in-the-hole when it comes to finding the right talent for projects.
And now, seven years after couch-surfing her way to success, Veenker is enjoying the role she has cast for herself.
“To turn a passion into a vocation is rare,” she said. “I’m the luckiest person in the world: I get to play with actors all day and get paid for it.”