Casting is one of my favorite subjects to discuss, because I have worked professionally in casting in the past and have also been the casting director on all of my own independent projects. As a writer, your script is the blueprint, but you need talented and well-cast actors so your words soar off the page.
I think proper casting is so important that I’m going to break this discussion into two parts—this month, we’ll talk about casting prep and SAG-AFTRA contracts, and next month, we’ll talk about holding audition and callback sessions, what to look for in your actors, and casting actors with a social media presence to help with funding and viewership.
HIRING A CASTING DIRECTOR
Should you or should you not hire a casting professional to work with you? I think the decision depends on your budget, obviously, as well the time you have to devote to combing through hundreds to thousands of headshots and demo reels, and your own eye for choosing the best talent.
To hire a casting director, consult IMDb Pro and look at past projects similar in tone and storyline to yours. Who casts these projects? Many casting directors have a niche that they tend to cast in; so-and-so has the “comedy office” while another office is known for drama or action.
Also consult the Casting Society of America website where you can post a project and also search to find an individual member.
If you by chance find yourself interested in a big-time casting director that’s out of your league, you can still contact their office and see if one of the associates or assistants in the office may be interested in working with you. Associates and assistants often go on to be casting directors themselves and may be open to working for free or a reduced fee to build their credits.
Fees for casting directors vary greatly. If your project is compelling enough, some may be willing to come on board for a reduced or deferred fee, but generally, you’ll need to put aside at least a few thousand dollars for a casting director to cover rental space, auditions, callbacks, and all of the paperwork.
However, if you’re like I was when we were casting my web series SPLIT, you don’t have an extra few thousand dollars in your budget. (Or your entire budget itself is only a few thousand dollars.) In which case, you’ll be—
CASTING YOUR WEB SERIES YOURSELF
Casting can at first seem incredibly overwhelming, but once you break it down, it is completely doable and actually fun.
What you’ll need:
• 1 script (doesn’t need to be completely locked, but almost there)
• An eye for talent (and finding good people to work with)
• 1 location for auditions and callbacks
• 1 assistant (at least) who can run camera and/or run the waiting room for you
• 1-2 scenes selected for auditions and 1-3 longer/more emotional scenes selected for callbacks
• 1 breakdown for each role you’re casting
• SAG-AFTRA New Media paperwork (if you are going non-union, disregard)
• 3 beers to relax after each long casting day (optional)
AN EYE FOR TALENT
This may sound rude, but just because one has a terrific writing ability doesn’t mean they know good acting when they see it. It’s essential to get more than one opinion on each actor’s performance. Make sure you have a camera to record the auditions, or rent from a casting studio that provides one, so you can send the audition recordings to others.
It’s also helpful to have a casting assistant to run the camera, not only for another opinion but so you can concentrate on watching the actors. Have all the creatives involved in the project—directors, writers, producers—in the room if possible, if not for the auditions, then definitely for the callbacks.
We’ll talk more about specific characteristics to look for in each actor in my next article.
SELECTING SCENES FOR SIDES
Your actors will need ‘sides,’ or individual scenes from the script that you’ve chosen for them to read. Choose your sides wisely. For auditions, you want to be able to see a lot of actors in the day, and maybe let each actor read twice with an adjustment, so don’t choose an 8-page long scene if you can avoid it. Keep the initial auditions relatively brief so you can see a lot of actors. Save the longer/heavier/most emotional scenes for the callbacks where you have fewer people to schedule.
BOOKING CASTING ROOM RENTAL
You’ll need to book a location for casting, which I recommend doing at least a couple of months in advance so you have your pick of the litter.
Particularly in L.A. or New York, there are plenty of casting spaces that provide rooms for hourly rental. In LA., these include Space Station Casting, 310 Casting Studios,Castaway Studios, among many dozens more. In New York, these include One on One, 36th Street Studio, and Actors Connection, among many more. Regional cities also tend to have space rental, particularly from local theater companies. When I was acting and casting in Chicago, many auditions for independent projects were held in activity rooms at the YMCA or in church basements.
Do your best to not spend much money on casting room rental. Don’t spend $700 on room rental if you can get a room for $7 an hour at the YMCA. You’re better off saving your money for your production.
SETTING UP CASTING SESSIONS
Most casting is done online now—gone are the days of sending 8x10 headshots by courier to casting offices—making casting more convenient and environmentally friendly.
Popular sites to list your project on are Breakdown Express, Casting Networks (L.A. Casting/SF Casting), and Backstage. These websites handle casting in all of the major and several regional markets. If you live in a small regional town that isn’t represented by the major casting sites, an ad in the local newspaper and flyers in community centers and schools work as well.
You’ll also need to write a summary of your project and/or a brief background of yourself, in addition to “breaking down” each role you’re casting. Breakdowns are a detailed description of the character that includes their age, physical appearance, qualities, and attributes.
I can’t stress enough the importance of writing a fantastic project summary and breakdown for each character. It means the difference between getting hundreds to thousands of submissions or getting 40. The more submissions, obviously, the better chance you have of finding amazing actors for each role.
Many breakdowns look like this:
[MARY] 30s. Pretty. Karen’s BFF.
What kind of advertisement is that? Pretty is too generic, and Karen’s BFF doesn’t give any information about the traits of the character.
Your casting notice is a job ad. Make it attractive to applicants. Use keywords that actors can latch onto.
[MARY] Early-mid 30s. All ethnicities. Brunette, attractive in a wholesome way. A bubbly motor mouth, she gives Karen bad advice about love and can’t keep a guy around for more than a week.
Now that sounds like a fun role, complete with descriptive words actors can latch onto—brunette, attractive, wholesome, bubbly, motor mouth.
Particularly if you’re paying little or nothing, your roles better sound fun and meaty or nobody’s going to want to submit.
Your summary of your project is equally important. Right now, I’m prepping for casting a feature film I co-wrote. In our summary of the project, we made sure to mention:
• Awards from past films
• Film festivals we got into
• Plans for future film festival submissions
• That we like to make relationships with actors and use them in multiple productions
• Distribution deals we got
This is the time to entice people to want to be a part of your project. Don’t be afraid to brag a bit and highlight your accomplishments as a writer/filmmaker!
Later, after your sides are selected, you can upload them online for actors to download. Breakdown Express has their own sides service, Showfax, and Casting Networks allows you to upload sides as well.
UNION – TO BE OR NOT TO BE?
What’s the difference? Generally, if an actor is SAG-AFTRA, they’ve been ‘vetted’ to a certain degree and are considered a ‘professional performer.’ However, that is debatable, as you can get a SAG-AFTRA card by doing 3 days of union extra work. If you’re just making a web series for fun and experience, it’s easier to remain non-union. However, if you want to have the best chance to book actors with significant experience and/or credits, you’ll want to become a SAG-AFTRA signatory producer.
It's important to note that in order to be a SAG-AFTRA Signatory New Media Producer, you must provide proof of General Liability Insurance and Workers' Compensation Insurance. This will likely cost you $2000 and up at a minimum for these policies. If budget is a concern, you may need to go non-union.
To get the process started, visit: http://www.sagaftra.org/production-center/new-media/signatory-information
To my knowledge, at the time of this writing, you can negotiate the rate of pay individually with each actor under a SAG-AFTRA New Media contract. If you don’t have the budget to pay talent, you can pay zero under this contract. (Not that I recommend not paying anything, but if you’re working with peanuts, sometimes you don’t have a choice.) Usually, if I can’t offer pay, I offer mileage reimbursement, reimbursement of any parking fees, along with copy, credit, and meals.
If you are able to offer pay to the actors, be aware that you are also required to pay Pension and Health contributions on top of that, at a rate of approximately 17%.
The website will walk you through what paperwork you need to submit, and I suggest calling your local SAG-AFTRA branch directly if you have questions. Through their Online Signatory site – osa.sagaftra.org – you can download all of the paperwork you’ll need throughout the entire casting and production process.
Next month we’ll talk about running the casting sessions themselves and casting the best actors for each role.
That’s enough to get you started—feel free to direct any questions to me in the comment fields below or on Twitter--@beckaroohoo.
- More Writers on the Web articles by Rebecca Norris
- Balls of Steel: Cast 'Em
- Writers on the Web: Crowdfunding Your Web Series
- Write, Direct, Repeat: Hosting a Table Read for Your Script
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