Casting Notes #4: Perfecting Your Casting Notice (For Filmmakers)
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 actors 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 
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.
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.