Why Your Casting Notices Suck
It's a running joke amongst actors that most casting call notices, well, suck. Most of them are out-of-touch with how they're represented, reflecting, at best, poor writing and planning, or at worst, a production without standards. Ultimately it does nothing to get actors excited or jumping at the chance to be a part of YOUR film.
Casting notices are the start of your production's marketing. You may think that's quite an over-exaggeration, but consider who's reading these things. Actors pour over hundreds of casting notices every week. We know the difference between projects that are a waste of time and those that have potential. Submitting to a project is the beginning of an investment, and often making that choice comes down to whether or not we can get a clear picture of the character. Pique our interest by stimulating our imagination. Think about this: Actors are the connecting tissue between your story and the audience. They can make or break a film. There's not an actor alive who wasn't a movie lover first, and selling your film to them first is an important step in knowing you have something worth pursuing. You're never going to find the right actor if you don't engage their mind, and that needs to happen WAY before they step foot into an audition room.
More importantly, think about who you are to them: Nobody. Sure - you might be the next Spielberg, Nolan, or Linklater, but at the level we're talking about this is probably your first or second film. Let's be reasonable: Casting directors are not reading this article, and they can do whatever the hell they want. If you have the ability to hire a casting director, then actors already want to be a part of your project regardless of how bare your casting notice might be. For this article we're referring to low budget films with no "names" attached; in which case you need to sell why anyone would want to work with you. Doing the bare minimum for your casting notice is not going to do that for them.
So how do you get actors (and crew members) excited about your film? It starts with giving them the right information, and a lot of it. In anticipation of launching our brand new production notices section of the website, we also wanted to give a practical guide to reap the maximum benefits out of your own notices. Below we'll give you some practical tips and go into more detail as to what makes a good casting notice, and we hope this helps you in understanding the importance - and purpose - of why you need to make it good at all.
WHAT'S THE STORY?
One of the biggest mistakes beginner filmmakers make when putting out their first casting notice is adhering to some sort of secrecy - as if they've watched JJ Abrams "Mystery Box" TED Talk one too many times. They don't want to give anything way. The result, for majority of casting notices, is to use a vague logline that lacks any pertinent information.
"Suzy goes to the grocery store on the wrong day."
Ok. I admit. Something about that is intriguing, but it still only gives the bare minimum. Maybe put it on a poster, but a casting notice. . . ?
"Suzy is a young waitress who's simply trying to pay for night school. On a single day: Her boyfriend breaks up with her, the car breaks down, and she just got a call that her mother is in the hospital. She just wants to go to the grocery store to pick up a gift for her mother, and maybe some wine to forget this day even happened. As she enters a guy in a ski mask is running out and bumps into her. He attempts to pull a gun on her, but in her already fed up state she manages to overturn the would-be robber, shoot him with his own gun, and save the day. That's when she notices the humongous bag of cash he was carrying. Perhaps this is the answer to all her problems. Now she becomes the robber. Her day has turned into finding a way to evade the cops, hide the cash, and keep her sanity. At the very least, if she can get away with it, she could buy a whole lot of wine."
See the difference?
I'm not saying you have to give EVERYTHING away - I'm just saying provide more than a single sentence outline. Think about the elevator pitch. You have 60 seconds alone in an elevator with a person, that you WANT to get involved in the film, before they get arrive on their floor. How much can you tell them in that time? Quite a bit. These pitches are not just meant for board rooms and producers, because at the end of the day it's revealing your competency, and how much of a handle you have on your own story. If you can't tell anyone what your story is about, then you probably haven't thought much about it, and that shows a clear lack of passion for your own project.
Remember: You're NOT Marvel Entertainment or Lucasfilm, so there's no reason to keep your only full script on a red ipad in a locked room with a guard posted outside.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION: Who is the main character? Where are they at the beginning of the story? What is their day to day? What propels them? IE: What's the inciting incident? Who do they interact with? Who are the supporting characters on their journey? What questions do they wrestle with? What mysteries are raised? What obstacles are in their way? Think about summarizing the first act, and perhaps part of the second act, while alluding to what's to come in the second half of your story. It doesn't mean giving away every twist and turn, but think about how you want to talk about your story that gives just enough information for them to get excited.
seriously, who are you?
Many casting call websites will ask for who's involved in the project. (Director, Producers, Writers, DP, etc.) This information is all optional, but for most beginner projects it's the same name 4 or 5 times. First off - if this is the case then you're not ready for casting. Get some producers involved. Find a crew. Do some proper pre-production. In the cases where you DO have multiple people involved and excited to be a part of your project, names are often not enough. Sure, we live in a small enough town with a very close-knit industry, and for those who have managed to make a name for themselves amongst our tiny community, perhaps including their name alone might be worth it, but for everyone else just starting out provide a little more. It's as much as providing a link to an individual's reel, website, or social media account, or as little as putting a couple of major credits next to their name. In essence, save the actor some time from having to search for your name on Facebook to figure out who you are and who you've worked with; because they WILL. We live in an age where it's easy to research potential creative partners, so wouldn't you want to be in control of what you want them to see?
For those that don't have credits, reels, or any existing work whatsoever, there's nothing wrong with including a small blurb about yourself to give us a little context. More importantly: Why do you want to make this film? What's so important about this story to you? What challenges are you accepting with this project? Why are you so connected to the material and insistent about making this movie? Showing us why and where your passion comes from can mean all the difference.
This is also a good chance to set the tone for your film. Is it a comedy? Horror? Adventure? Get creative with your casting notice by representing some personality and giving us a taste of your writing style. The way you talk about the film doesn't just show us how much you care about it, but gives us a sense of the tone for the film in general.
For anyone not born before 1990, that is a deep cut reference (I know. . . I'm so clever) referring to interaction in chat rooms, and normally what counted as the bare minimum required before beginning a conversation: Age/Sex/Location. What's interesting is that filmmakers still believe that the bare minimum is enough when it comes to character descriptions on their casting notices. Here's what we get normally: Name - Age Range - Sex - Ethnicity - Physical Description. THAT'S IT! Sometimes, if a filmmaker is feeling particularly bold, they'll include a one note emotion that this character inhabits, as if they were describing a member of the Winnie The Pooh gang. "Tigger is the bouncy one." OR "Eeyore is the cynical one of the group."
Sometimes it makes us wonder, does the director care about these characters at all?
How does this character fit into the story? Who do they interact with? Are they a supporting character or the lead? Is there a want or a need that drives them in the story? Are there questions or struggles plaguing them? Much like the story description above, try and summarize who these characters are in act one and two, and allude to where they are going within the second half. Make this an extension of your synopsis, a way of giving clues to more elements of the story.
HIRO | Male | 20s | SUPPORTING | $500K/DAY | 7 DAYS
Hiro is a seemingly normal 20-something male with aspirations for his own startup. He drives for a ride share on the side, budgets well, and lives a minimal life in his clean downtown apartment. Elsewhere he has managed to work his way into the good graces of ROLAND STRAND, a local kingpin of a drug and arms trafficking ring, but the next steps require more from him than he's used to. He cares about his girlfriend, SUZY, but doesn't want her to get caught up in this life and thinks she'll be better pursuing her dreams without him. He cuts ties with everyone, including her, so that he can make the decisions he needs to without putting anyone else in danger. Later that day Suzy calls him in a panic, asking him to pick her up, but when he arrives he finds her with a gun, a bag full of cash, and a determination he never expected from her. She doesn't know what to do, but as luck would have it . . . He does.
Actors need something to latch on to. Empathy is the driving force of an actor, and it's a lot easier to empathize with a well established character than a one-note physical description. In the example above there's almost no physical description, except for the fact that Hiro is in his twenties because we want him to be on the younger side, and as such we don't pigeonhole ourselves into who this character could become. That said, we can still conclude certain elements of Hiro's character: He's clean, smart, logical, ambitious, put-together, calm, selfish AND selfless (depending on your perspective), and probably a little insane. (He's also probably Asian American with a name like Hiro, but the beauty of casting is that names and ethnicities can change.) The beauty is that we infer all these things through context clues, without having to spell it all out, and as such we leave room for actors to bring their own interpretations to the table; which is EXACTLY what you want in an audition room. Is Hiro quiet and a loner? Possibly. Is Hiro always stressed, never home, and makes rash decisions? That can also be true. The point is for the actor to cling onto the character and see themselves in the role with the potential to make it their own.
MORE ON PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS: Unless it's absolutely called for in the script, don't include these elements. Believing they are adequate descriptions of a character or, worse, limiting your imagination is something you should avoid if you're going to be taken seriously. Here are things that should never be included in a character breakdown (UNLESS the script is very specific about this for some reason): Hair Color, Eye Color, Ethnicity, Height, Weight, Body Type. Also avoid using physical adjectives in your character descriptions; ESPECIALLY for female characters. Things like "beautiful", "effortless", "sexy", "natural", and "cute but doesn't know it" are only a few of HUNDREDS of ways casting calls have shown that the world clearly doesn't know how to write female characters or how to describe them. A whole blog post could be dedicated to this subject, but in general just think about this: If you can't describe anything about your character beyond the physical, then you probably don't have well developed characters.
A lot of times, once I'm in an audition room, directors and producers always have the same question "What drew you to the role?" or "Why did you submit?" This is often an unnecessary question, but I can see why it's an interesting one. That said, most of the time my answer is akin to, "I fit the age range and I'm a male," which is not a very compelling answer. What I wish I could say in these cases is, "I saw myself in the role", "I really connected with where this character finds themselves in the beginning of the story", OR "I could imagine what it would take to make the decisions he makes."
A good character breakdown does more than just describe the character. It allows the actors' imaginations to take hold, and it gives them something to work with. It leaves the door open for collaboration. The story can breathe.
compensation that matters.
"Pay is NOT a sandwich. If you are paying gas, lunch, IMDB and copy, it should NOT be listed in the pay section of casting sites. It's a waste of time."
- Corey Landis, Actor.
Meals. Snacks. Gas. IMDB Credit. Footage for reels. Copy of film.
These are all examples of things that are NOT proper compensation. In fact, there's a weird misconception that these things are options for filmmakers, but I would say that they are givens. As in, these are what's expected of a film project. No. Matter. What. If you're not offering any of these things, then please note it, because we want to know what projects are considering being shitty to their actors. Otherwise, there's no need to mention these incentives because, as we just said, they should always come with the role; especially if you're planning on running a proper production.
So what is proper compensation? Money. Cash. Moolah. There's nothing else that matters. How much you are going to pay (either flat rate or per day) for each and every role. When I asked actors what they want to see in casting notices, the first and most repeated response I got was "payment." What's clear in my research is that actors are getting the short end of the stick each and every time. Filmmakers are not upholding their end of the bargain. All those "givens" I mentioned above always end up non-existent. (For example, I haven't seen footage from half the projects on my resume). Actors - frankly - are tired of this standard, and that's why Austin Film Core doesn't allow unpaid casting notices on our website; because if filmmakers in this town aren't going to provide footage, meals, and other basics that should be standard on every film set, then they should be paying actors for their time and effort. I asked a friend, Corey Landis, about his thoughts on casting notices (because he for sure has plenty) and this is part of what he told me:
"Pay is NOT a sandwich. If you are paying gas, lunch, IMDB and copy, it should NOT be listed in the pay section of casting sites. . .This may be YOUR passion project, but it's not MINE. Imagine explaining to your landscape guy that your lawn is really a 'passion project' and you 'don't want anyone who isn't willing to give 100% for the love of the shrubs' and then offers you a granola bar as compensation. . . It's a waste of time."
Why is this so important? Because we have the wrong idea of how essential actors are to a film. There's a reason why Forbes has a list of highest paid actors released annually. Actors didn't start making that type of money by mistake, and regardless of whether or not you believe that money is completely wasted, it's important to recognize the facts when it comes to actors. Actors' careers are constantly in flux, and there's no guarantee of the next project. The industry is fickle and shallow, as we've come to recognize within the past couple of years. It doesn't matter how good an actor is, or how hard they work, or how many projects they have on their resume; catching a break is a "blink and you'll miss it" affair. It doesn't help that so much of a performance is affected by other jobs. Writing, Directing, Lighting, Filming, and Editing can all shape a performance in ways that are sometimes amazing, sometimes baffling, and sometimes detrimental.
Filmmaking is an art form. Its greatness is subjective. You can't guarantee an actor that something will "look amazing" because there are so many factors out of your control. At the end of the day, these things have become empty promises; especially for actors in the Austin film industry. We can't rely on getting footage for our work anymore, much less that it'll be any good, so the only way to properly compensate an actor is by paying them for their time.
PRO TIP: As an actor and a filmmaker, I could care less about what you plan to do with the film after it's finished. Film Festival Circuit is not an incentive for me to be involved with your film. Sure - it's good to have goals - but in my opinion it's pretentious to believe that your film already has legs before you've shot a single frame. If I could give filmmakers one piece of advice it would be: Focus on making the film first. Don't worry about where it might end up, or whether or not you are going to be able to distribute it to theaters or make it into film festivals. If your goal is simply to get into the film festival circuit, then you're doing things for the wrong reasons, or your head isn't in the right place. Make something. Then - if it's good enough - determine if you think it's worth submitting to festivals. Otherwise, release it online, don't spend years on it trying to perfect it, and move on to the next one.
don't insult the actor.
These are some actual - #canteven - quotes from casting notices:
"Must have solid on-camera experience, and be great with heavy dialogue”
"This will be a professional production environment, and the experience will look good on a resume”
"What is required is a good attitude and willingness to follow directions and have fun!"
"Someone who has that 'it' factor. Someone with unique qualities that make them stand out in a crowd and who has a sense of conviction and confidence."
"Ideally, looking to find an actor who is missing both legs...We know that any actor who has lived through a leg amputation has endured hardship, and he’ll bring that experience to the stage."
"Include the reasons why this role would be pertinent to you. Describe the reason you chose to be a performer and what motivates you as an actor. Describe your process in bringing your characters to life."
"This is a life-changing opportunity for the right individual."
"This is where I ask you to reflect on how important it is to you that this story be told because this will be deferred pay received through distribution."
Most of these need no further comment, and a few of them we've even covered in previous points. What I want to say is this: If you're basically describing the job of an actor - then you're insulting the profession. If you don't know the job description of an actor, then why are you looking for one? Listen, you're going to get all types of people at your casting call, and I'm sure that a lot of them are not going to have the experience, range, or abilities you're looking for, but isn't that what a casting call is for? It's a job interview - a date, if you will - and a chance for you to get to know them and vice-versa.
Actors go into every audition hoping to impress someone whether they walk away with the role or not. It's already a stressful situation because we want people to like us. You don't have to emphasize the importance of a role and what it might do for our career. We've already put that pressure on ourselves. That's why we're in the audition room in the first place. Holding that power over an actor is a terrible way to gain trust. It is dangling a carrot on a string. Manipulative. Moreover, it minimizes the actors own self-worth and journey to get to this stage.
We work hard. We are trained in the basics of dialogue, breaking down a scene, and making decisions on a character. There are classes that teach how to hit your mark, memorize scripts, and take direction. A lot of us use our past experiences, or our imagination, in order to bring authenticity to every character. That's going to look different for every actor, but that doesn't make them good or bad. Your job is not to find a good actor, it's to find the one that fits the role, and it's certainly not to tell them how to do their job.
Trust the actor. Trust their process. Trust that they will bring the professionalism that you expect once you get on set. If you don't think you can do that, then don't cast them.
final notes & things to keep in mind in the audition room.
Imagine for a second that you're in our shoes. We've seen hundreds of casting notices - even thousands - before yours has probably come along. (We also live in a college town where student films are rampant and wholly inconsistent when it comes to quality.) Personally, at the time of writing this article, I've been part of the Austin industry for the past 8 years, and I'm tired of putting myself out there for so little and not get the same respect in return. I've seen people make the same mistakes on set, ask more from me without proper compensation, and deliver a product that shows a clear lack of preparation and support. The last thing I want to do is get involved in another no-budget short, passion project, or student thesis that doesn't know what they're doing. It's not that I don't care, it's that you haven't done anything to make me care. If there's a casting notice that even hints at poor pre-production, lacks a handle on the story/characters, a misunderstanding of an actor's job, or doesn't instill confidence that the filmmakers behind it know even a little bit about what they're doing, then I am going to skip it.
In today's low-budget indie-film climate, it's unfortunate, but you need to make the actors interested. We've been burned too many times on less-than-stellar projects, and it's high time we started asking more from you for as much has been asked of us over the years.
In addition to everything stated above, here are a few more tips on how to conduct yourself when it comes to the casting process:
- Extras and "non-speaking" roles should be left out of casting notices; especially if you're working with no budget for those roles. If you are a union project paying union rates, then offer these parts in an audition room or after the audition, but for every other "weekends only" film you shouldn't waste an actor's time. Instead find someone you trust, like a friend or family member, and ask them to be a part of your film. You don't need an "actor" for someone to fill space.
- Day Player roles should be paid accordingly if they are going to be included. For anything under 5 lines it's suggested you find someone you already know.
- Read notes left by the actor when they submit. It's common courtesy.
- When replying to an actor and giving them an audition time, don't forget to reference the original casting notice, including the story synopsis and character description; especially if it's being done through email instead of a casting call website.
- Print sides for the audition. Have multiple.
- Have a reader for the audition room. If you are going to tape the auditions as well, then have someone else do that too. You - the director or producer or whoever is making decisions - should NOT do either.
- When making an offer to an actor after an audition or callback, send them the full script first. Let them see what they are getting themselves into before making a decision. If worried, send an NDA as well.
- Though not necessary, try and let actors know your decisions either way. It's simply a nice thing to do.
Overall, a good casting notice is a reflection of your work ethic and your production. Even though there are no concrete rules when making casting notices and conducting casting calls, we hope that you will consider everything mentioned here as a means to help your film garner attention, interest, and improve your chances of getting talent to respond. If you'd like a more visual guide, check out this sample casting notice.
have we missed anything? What else is missing in casting notices? What are some bad habits in casting calls? did we get anything wrong? Leave a comment below.
Mattias Marasigan is an actor, vlogger, filmmaker, writer, and all around general "creative" residing in South Austin, TX for 8 years. He is the founder of Austin Film Core and his own production company and freelancing business called Royal Misfit Studios.
(more posts by Mattias)