This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.
This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.
The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.
Perfecting Your Casting Notice
So you have a spectacular script that you want to share with the world in film form. You’re ready to cast and you’re ready to look at both actors you know and far beyond your circle to get the best cast you can.
To do that, you have to put together a great casting notice.
Creating an engaging casting notice proves to be a stumbling block for many a filmmaker. One important issue I’ll bring up here—and not for the last time—is that filmmakers need to remember they are the prospective employer. The casting notice is a job posting for potential employees (actors) you want to hire. (And for each one of you reading this who says, “Of course” there are 10 filmmakers I’ve met who resent such real world considerations).
Far too many casting notices I see rely on the fact that their project is—gasp—a potential acting job as the sole enticement. The best actors, the actors you want, are not impressed. They want a good idea of the project with specific questions answered as to dates, locations, and compensation.  That doesn’t mean you should skimp on explaining the story and the characters, and here is where one of the biggest stumbles consistently occurs.
Step 1: Create intriguing character descriptions
Every one of the characters in your script is already intriguing in some way because every single one of them, lead or supporting, is advancing the story in some way. Right? Yet too many filmmakers, with the prospect of casting the next Indiana Jones, lists something like:
Henry Jones, Jr., M, white, 30s, archaeologist. Some experience with a whip preferred.
The most important part of the character descriptions isn’t the name or even the supposed stats (i.e. gender, race, age). You may well want a character’s name, race, gender, or age to change based on the casting (I’ve seen flexibility even in adaptations). What you want to ensure is that you let prospective actors know what the character does and how they do it. “What they do” can simply be their approach to life or this particular story or plot. Sure, being an archaeologist gives what Indiana Jones does context. He is passionate about seeking out ancient artifacts, and is not exactly a boy scout in his pragmatic pursuit of them. However, his zealous pursuit is tempered by the notions of preserving knowledge and sense of justice—as compared to his rival archaeologist, the insidiously practical Belloq.
(If readers prefer, I can add an example using A Room with A View or perhaps something from Hitchcock, but I’m assuming more people have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Time and time again, filmmakers will ask me for recommendations on actors giving me their preferred gender, age, and race: stats that do very little to narrow down candidates among the thousands I’ve seen. Give me descriptive adjectives about the character that reveal what they do and how they do it and now I can give you actors with the right tone.
Now the cynics will point out that many an actor has no idea of his or her tone—or perhaps has a wholly incorrect idea of what type of actor they are and the roles they can reasonably portray. We’ll deal with that issue in a later entry in the series. Just for the filmmakers alone, it helps to create these character profiles for your project (in fact, the filmmaker version of these character descriptions may be more detailed).
I’ve insisted on taking extra time to craft character descriptions since 2008 and I think it’s resulted in far more engaged actors coming through the door. You can take a look at the descriptions here in the Broken Continent casting notice:
Note that you can’t tell exactly which roles are the major and which are the minor ones—as it should be. Good actors know how to make the most of any supposed “small role.” The Broken Continent is full of supporting characters who have little screen time but tremendous impact. Simply put, we need a lot of good actors.
Step 2: Give a brief story synopsis that’s equally engaging
This is where you should list something akin to a logline. You want the actors to have a decent idea of what the story is and what kind of project they’d potentially be getting involved with. Here’s where you can let some or your excitement come out as actors will pick up on that. Hey, you’re doing some narrative film project, not a PSA. Celebrate that! 
At the same time, don’t overstay your welcome. Odds are good that actors will be reading your notice amid a sea of other potential jobs. Keep thinking of the logline concept and that less is more.
Step 3: Provide as much explicit detail as possible on the things actors really care about
Each situation will be slightly different, but you will improve your response dramatically if you can answer the following questions:
- Whether the audition is open (just show up) or people will be called in. 
- When the auditions are (exact dates definitely, times preferably)
- Where the auditions are (at least which city — you probably don’t want to list the exact address)
- When the shooting dates are (as precise as possible)
- Where the shooting locations are (again, as precise as possible)
- What the payscale is and, if you can, the specific rate 
You would be surprised how many casting notices don’t answer any of these questions.
Step 4: Go back through and ensure you’ve asked for your specifics
Every script has certain demands that are not going to change. You also need to be very explicit about how, where, and by when you need to receive actors’ submissions. Not only will assumptions come back to bite you, giving explicit submission directions gives you an insight into which actors actually follow them.
- What email address or website actors should submit their material to (we recommend an email alias like “email@example.com” or “firstname.lastname@example.org”) 
- What format their resume should be in (we recommend PDF. DOC and DOCX are okay and you’ll certainly get types you’ve never heard of, but PDF is easy)
- What size you want the headshot (Since you’re not going to print it out, 100k – 200k is more than big enough. Some actors will obsess about the fact that theirs is 201k, not knowing that heedless actors have sent multiple 5mb headshots) 
- What date and time actors need to submit their materials by (Something we didn’t do for The Broken Continent and something I’ll do in the future. Would I look at someone submitting after that date? Probably, but as we’ll discuss in Deciding Who to Call In, you need a de facto cutoff point.)
We received close over 550 submissions from our casting notice.  I believe a huge portion of that was because of the information we packed into the notice itself. Of course, another factor is where you place your casting notice—and that is something we’ll cover in the next entry.
FOOTNOTE #1: I will mention it later in the series, but you really want to plan to post your casting notice at least a month before your audition dates. Many of the actors you want to audition have schedules that fill up fast, so this way you get on their radar beforehand. Also, you want to give yourself time to go through the submissions. This timeline is, of course, predicated on the case study that you’re casting an indie feature or web series and that one of the tools in your arsenal –since you don’t have lots of money– is time. Use it. There will be plenty of times during the production itself where you’ll get to unwillingly suffer for you art. Since you don’t have to stress and scramble to find a cast like you might for a commercial project booked and needing completion this week, don’t!
FOOTNOTE #2: There’s seems to be a peculiar button-down attitude here in the DMV that is extremely reluctant to admit that doing narrative work is exciting. In fact, I sometimes get the impression that some folks feel it’s a bit improper if not being done by a Hollywood production. Growing up with all the great theater in the area, I’m quite mystified. Are we to believe all the talented actors in the DMV are banned from appearing on camera in anything save an industrial? Balderdash. Take pride in your narrative work. Especially at the budget levels you’re probably dealing with (i.e., something less than standard SAG-AFTRA scale), you need to excite your potential actors.
FOOTNOTE #3: After many years of experimenting with several different formats, I am now firmly on the side of closed auditions. The “open” can be in the open call for submissions (assuming you are posting the notice on some of the publicly accessible listservs and sites mentioned in Part 5). However, you are going to process all those submissions (as we explain in Part 7) into a smaller group of people you hope will knock your cinematic socks off — and as we explain in Part 9, finding an appropriate yet affordable audition space is not easy. Simply put: time is at a premium. You can’t and shouldn’t call everyone in.
I know this flies in the face of many a person’s experience from community theater and college days. Both those institutions regularly hold truly open audition where anyone and everyone can come and audition. That’s nice, but consider the goals of those organizations and your goals for this case study. In the case of the former, you’re trying to ensure that the community theater or college theater program has continuing participation. A college theater program should also be explicitly educational and probably also inclusive if it doesn’t have sufficient theater majors to cast all productions. For any project you’re undertaking in the DMV, you have access to a pool of over 5,000 semi-professional and professional actors. While you should always be polite and pleasant as mentioned in Part 2, there’s frankly enough good actors to find if you’re willing to put in the time (and commit to not being a jerk). You may get parochially-minded actors feeling they haven’t been given “a fair chance” by not getting a chance to audition, but that is their problem. Your problem is casting the best possible actors you can get for your roles — and as with any other job hiring process, that means you’re not calling in every single applicant for an interview. If you want to be sure to call in some actors you’ve never seen before, be sure to do a good job getting the word out. That’s you being open and, for actors, that’s their opportunity.
FOOTNOTE #4: In short: list what your payscale is (e.g. “SAG-AFTRA Low Budget Agreement”). If you can say the precise rate (e.g., “$100/day” or “$20/hour” or whatever), even better.
If you do not list the payscale or the specific rate, at best you will be deluged by actors asking you what your payscale and specific rate is. At worst, you will be deluged by actors asking what your payscale and specific rate is AND many actors will conclude that you are not paying what they are looking to make. Veteran actors in the DMV know that, as a rule, if the payscale isn’t listed, it’s “credit and copy” — and if the rate isn’t listed, the pay isn’t that good. Yes, there are exceptions, but there’s a reason this is a rule.
For The Broken Continent, we listed that we were doing the SAG New Media Agreement. That was all well and good, but as that agreement allows for negotiable rates, that still lead to plenty of inquiries and probably some people we wanted to audition deciding not to submit. One of the reasons we didn’t list specific rates was because we hadn’t done our crowdfunding campaign where our funds to pay the actors would be coming from. However, in the future, as much as possible, I want to be able to list a specific rate: I want the actors to know up front what they’ll be paid and if they don’t think the rate we offer is enough, they don’t have to submit. Everybody saves time.
There is an outside chance that, if your project sounds tantalizing enough, some actors will contact you about negotiating the rate (i.e., they want it to go up), though odds are for this case study, you’re paying what you can. I do advise trying to make sure that you are covering additional costs like dry-cleaning (if needed) for actors bringing their own costumes and mileage reimbursement (as of this writing, SAG-AFTRA’s is lower than the IRS/standard reimbursement rate). Especially if you are asking for credit and copy, make sure the actor is only giving you their time (we’ll discuss this later in the series).
FOOTNOTE #5: Since this was written, I would simply use Stonehenge to collect submissions. However, if you are using email to collect submissions, there are two reasons to specifically recommend an email alias: both are all about making your job processing submissions easier.
First, a dedicated email address often has mailbox size restrictions. If you are collecting submissions via email, a significant number of actors will ignore any headshot file sizes you request and send you the original 4mb – 10mb file. Having a general webmail account like Gmail means you are less likely to run out of space (a webmail account also allows multiple members of the production team to log into the same account at the same time and look at submissions. This is what we did for Broken Continent).
Second, an email alias allows you to sort all of these submission emails initially and obnoxious follow-up later on. For example, let’s say your webmail or general email address with the ample storage is “email@example.com.” Now, all the email submissions will be coming to the alias you designed so that they can all be filtered into a folder or a particular tag or whatnot. This makes it easier to go through submissions as they’re all grouped. In the future, this automated sorting also easily removes the inevitable follow-up emails you get from actors who, for some reason, think they can ask “Casting-ProjectA@yourcompany.com” to be their Facebook friend or LinkedIn contact.
FOOTNOTE #6: The short answer here is to insist on a headshot size of 200k or less, with a resume size of 500k or less, whether or not it includes a headshot or not. Specify that headshots must be JPG or PNG files and resumes are PDF. If you add “submissions not meeting these specifications will not be considered” or similarly uncompromising language, that may make some actors curse, but the good ones will comply because the specifications listed are perfectly reasonable and they have materials like that ready to go.
As alluded to in Footnote #5 above, now I would simply use Stonehenge to collect submissions, forcing inconsiderate actors to re-size their headshot to the proper specifications. The design of the casting tool was directly influenced by our experiences with Broken Continent and other large project submissions.
In the case of The Broken Continent, we originally had a dedicated email address, which quickly filled up with emails chock full of over-sized headshots. This meant other actors were getting their submissions bounced back because the mailbox was full. You can imagine their anxiety and our lesson learned about the email alias (I thought it was a good idea before, I knew it was essential now). We actually needed to send an addendum to our casting notice reminding actors that our size limitation was a real one and that to ignore our instructions made baby pandas cry (which is 100% true, by the way. Baby pandas are not only cute, but very sensitive to needless suffering).
FOOTNOTE #7: I fully expected 200-300 submissions. This is because, after doing these projects that require massive casts, I have found a pattern that you want about 10 submissions for each role. Of those 10 submissions, you’ll want to call in about 5. Of those 5, only 2 or 3 will be ones you want to cast — and of course, you wind up casting 1. More popular characters will get more submissions and that’s fine — more people want to play the hero than the sidekick and the villain versus the henchman. However, if you have a sidekick or henchman who has lots of screen time and is not simply a one-line dayplayer (e.g. everyone from Mr. “Two fighters against a Star Destroyer?” to Mrs. “I’ll have what she’s having.“), you want to get at least 10 submissions. It’s your statistical bet that you’ll find someone who you’ll be happy to cast.