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.
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Responding to the Casting Notice
Welcome back all you wonderful actors! Whether or not you were following along with the past three articles, I’m going to be referring back to “Perfecting Your Casting Notice” and “Getting the Word Out” especially. Don’t worry about going back to read them just yet. The big thing I want you to remember is actually from Part 2. Do you recall the one good thing it was important for actors to remember?
Whatever you can do to make the casting director’s job easier is a good thing.
Those actors who don’t take this advice to heart, and I mean all four chambers of the heart,  will find they are called in far less frequently. The better a filmmaker has prepped for casting, the more submissions they will get; and the less likely they will have to deal with actors who do not heed this advice. 
One fact pointed out whenever Team J does Stonehenge is that the actor’s audition is essentially a job interview. In that light, casting notices are simply specialized job postings; however, just because these postings are specialized doesn’t mean an actor should avoid the same care and attention they might pay to a standard job posting.  Many of the submission issues that cropped up during the Broken Continent, make casting that much harder — and are completely avoidable.
I suppose some actors hope that not following direction will be imperceptible, that somehow the casting director won’t notice that it’s taking longer to process that individual submission. In that case, those actors are merely making the experience worse for everyone. But what if the actor’s obstinate refusal to follow the directions is enough to make the casting director sit up and take notice? Now the actor is an exception whom the casting director will be happy not to call in. 
I should note that Francis, Kelley, and I (the producers of the Broken Continent) are all actors ourselves. Have we made some of the mistakes we urge you to avoid below? I know I have. Will we follow this advice in submitting? I hope so.
Here are the steps I would recommend actors follow upon reading any casting notice :
- Ask yourself if it’s even worth submitting
- Research everything
- Ask for clarifications
- Read what they’re asking for again
- Submit your material (error-free)
- Move on with your life
Step One: Ask yourself if it’s even worth submitting
Sure, this project may promise fortune, fame, and glory. Sure, you’re applying for a job for a potential employer. But why apply for a job with jerks who won’t value all you bring to the table?
Those of you who’ve read the previous articles in this series know how much we urge filmmakers to put care into their casting notice, related website, and whole casting process. That passion and professionalism should come through in the casting notice — especially because if the project is anything like the type of indie features and webseries we’ve been talking about, “fortune” is likely lacking in the promises above.
So, does the project look interesting? Does it fit into your schedule? Is the compensation what you need right now? Do the filmmakers look like they have it together? What have they done previously? Should you talk to some colleagues about what it’s like working with them? 
Throughout this series, I urge filmmakers ensure that they are not dependent on one actor for a role.  Likewise, you should not be looking for any one production to answer all your acting prayers. Sure, you’ve read Michael Caine’s book about acting in film; and you’re ready to audition for this role as if it’s one you’ve always been dying to play. But that’s for the audition. For now, you need to look at the casting notice with a critical eye. 
Step Two: Research everything
Do they have a website for the project? How about for their production company? Have you seen their former work? Where can you see it? Who worked on it? Can you or should you talk to them? If they mention working under some sort of union agreement, what does that mean? What are the rates? The minimums? Can you work on it if you’re non-union? Where are they shooting? How will you get there? Will the commute suck? What kind of food are they likely to provide? Are they old enough to know actors don’t subsist on Subway and pizza?
Depending on the level of detail in the casting notice, you may not get solid answers to all of these questions, but it behooves you to ask yourself these questions and more. It all goes back to giving any notice a critical eye. 
Step Three: Ask for clarifications
This is a tricky step and one you might want to fold into Step Five (Submitting), but it’s important to think about before you submit.
As you probably know, most of actors are going to submit in the first 48 hours. You probably don’t want to be seen as an unenthusiastic actor and you don’t know how fair they’ll be in calling in if you delay. Maybe they’re assigning audition slots first come, first served. You might as well ‘put your hat in the ring’ as soon as possible, right?
However, some actors have genuine dealbreakers. For example:
- You’re out of town for a gig. Will the producers accept video auditions for the first round?
- You’ve don’t want to spend 4 hours commuting round-trip for one day’s work. What are the shooting locations?
- You are actually based out in Pennsylvania or North Carolina. You’re used to taking jobs all along the East Coast, but will this job actually pay worthwhile rates?
During the submission process we had for The Broken Continent, we had over 500 submissions, and about 6%, or 30 had various clarification questions. Only about 2%, or 10, asked for clarifications prior to submitting their materials. Conscientious casting directors will have time to respond to that percentage of questions, but remember that not all casting directors will feel they have time to be that conscientious.
In general, I would suggest actors go ahead and submit their material per the directions, and include the clarification question(s) in the email.  Of course, you want to be diplomatic and make sure you’ve answered all the casting director’s questions and concerns first (see Steps Four and Five below).  This allows the casting director to decide whether they’re going to call you in anyway, and then hopefully address your question before the audition (and if they don’t and you are called in, there’s no reason you can’t address it there). 
If, on the other hand, it is a high level-of-effort to submit: for example you’re on set away from a computer and your files or whatnot , you might want to ask a clarification question first. Just know you’re not guaranteed a response. 
Step Four: Read what they’re asking for again
Let’s be honest: you might have skimmed through the casting notice to see if it was interesting, and you might have missed a few important details. If you’ve decided that this casting notice is worth applying to, you’ve researched it to the extent you feel necessary, you’ve asked your clarification questions (or know which ones to ask and when), then, it’s to go through the casting notice again:
- What do they want submitted? Is it anything other than the usual headshot and resume?
- What file size do they want the headshot?
- Which of your headshots (assuming you have different looks) would be best to submit?
- What file format do they want the resume in?
- Where do they want the materials sent?
- Is there anything you should be sure to highlight in your cover letter/email? (For example, in The Broken Continent, several people pointed out their proficiency at stage combat, various accents, etc.)
- Do you know the casting director or any of the filmmakers? If you can highlight past work with them, let’s be honest, that’s probably going to help your submission stand out. 
Step Five: Submit your material (error-free)
Whether it took you all of 5 minutes to speed through the first four staps or an hour, don’t rush this all-important second-to-last step. Remember the principle mentioned at the top:
Whatever you can do to make the casting director’s job easier is a good thing. 
Here is where the majority of minor and major gaffes can come in. Not only do they make the casting director’s job that much harder, they are self-inflicted wounds on the part of the actor.
Multiply every little error and annoyance that might be in an actors submission by 100 — or in the case of the Broken Continent — 500. By avoiding common mistakes, you not only improve your chances of being called in, but improve everyone’s chances. Odds are, the filmmakers don’t have nearly as much time as they’d like to spend on casting. The less time they spend riddling out file formats, oversized photos, and incorrect phone numbers is time they can spend reviewing resumes.
To help you — and because there are so many common mistakes — I’ve created a whole other article: An Actor’s Casting Submission Checklist. Read the article. Spread the word. Every cringe-inducing gaffe listed was visited upon us as we went through the many, many Broken Continent submissions; and while I know there will always be error-laden submissions, a few less is always welcome.
Remember, sending an error-filled submission hurts you more than the filmmaker. The worst that can happen to us is we work harder to complete our job. The worse that happen to you is you don’t get a job. We’ll find actors. Why not let it be you?
Step Six: Move on with your life
This step is absolutely, positively vital for your well-being.
Some actors give off an air of experience and confidence. I don’t know how lucrative acting has been for them, but I know they keep getting work, based on their long resume. And more often than not they have a charm and easygoing nature coupled with their acting chops that gives me a clue as to why they keep getting hired.
A trait I find again and again in these actors is the ability to move on from opportunities without feeling they have failed or something is incomplete. And, in fact, they know when to walk away at any point in the process.
This can be hard. Actors, and most people I meet in film and theater, are often a passionate lot. Some projects seem, if not the chance of the lifetime, something that could make you smile with satisfaction for the rest of the year. As long as you’ve done everything you can right now, the choice is out of your hands.
I advocate that filmmakers let actors know when they receive the submission and when casting decisions are made. Hardly anyone does this and there are no repercussions if they do not. It takes a tremendous amount of time to communicate with all the submitting actors after all.  You are not guaranteed a response. You are not entitled to a response.
If you’re really keen to get an audition or there’s some other reason you’re genuinely concerned your submission was not received, you get one and only one follow-up. I will not begrudge any actor a simple, “Just wanted to be sure. Did you receive my stuff?” Anything over and above that query is too much and you shouldn’t expect anything other than “Yes, thank you” or “No, please resend.” That’s it. After that, it’s in the black hole of You-might-never-hear-from-them-again-and-that’s-fine.
Besides, there’s another casting notice out there that wants your attention.
FOOTNOTE # 1: Yes, this is hyperbolae. I will never quiz actors on the four chambers; I’ll know by the quality of the submission. Just in case, you remember left ventricle, right venticle, left atrium, and right atrium from school biology, right?
FOOTNOTE # 2: Ironically and tragically, if you accept the logic that more prepared filmmakers will attract more attention and suffer foolishness less, the converse is more likely: actors who persist in not following directions in casting notices are more likely to be called in by more desperate, less prepared filmmakers; because those filmmakers have less options. For actors and filmmakers, you always want to have options. You always want to be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
FOOTNOTE # 3: As revealed earlier, we do understand actors may have — gasp — dayjobs.
FOOTNOTE # 4: As will be explained with far greater detail in Part 7, when you’re dealing with these large scale casting, you’ll be getting submissions from 200 or more actors. Imagine if you’re an indie casting director looking at 100 actors and it takes only three minutes to process an actor’s submission on average, assuming the actors are following directions. That’s still 300 minutes or five hours. Now imagine the more likely scenario: that large numbers of actors don’t follow directions in one way or another; or otherwise don’t make it easy to process their submission and review their materials: the average has bumped up to five minutes per actor. That’s 500 minutes or over eight hours, a full day. Casting directors are human and their patience is not inexhaustible. Yes, it’s ultimately their problem if they gloss over a perfectly good actor after trying to riddle out the alien file formats of the previous 10 resumes, but that perfectly good actor loses too. So for the sake of you and your fellow actors, make the casting director’s job as easy as possible. Everyone benefits and everyone includes you.
FOOTNOTE # 5: Any casting notice? Yes: even though this whole series and this advice in particular is based around casting indie features and webseries, using these steps for any casting notice isn’t a bad idea. You might go through the steps at a faster pace, but you should go through them.
FOOTNOTE # 6: Mind you, some of these questions may, and should come up for you repeatedly through the process. Perhaps the casting notice looks good, but the scheduling of the auditions seems sloppy; or you get a weird feeling when you finally audition. You should always learn more about your potential employer if you can. You owe it to yourself. Trust your gut.
FOOTNOTE # 7: The perfect actor for the role might be unavailable, uninterested, or get sick. For filmmakers, who’s your backup? Likewise, for actors, what project are you going to work on if this one doesn’t pan out? Always have a Plan B.
FOOTNOTE # 8: Local actor Sean Pratt, who also conducts classes about the business of acting, has a great workshop about the “Three Magic Questions” actors should ask themselves when considering these issues. If you have a chance to attend that workshop, it’s likely to be worthwhile.
FOOTNOTE # 9: As mentioned elsewhere, this entire series is based on the case study of a web series being cast. Both a web series or an indie feature are often larger time commitments both during production and possibly after (depending on an actor’s zeal and willingness to participate in post-production marketing — something they may feel the need to do out of self-interest if nothing else). For that reason, these notices bear closer scrutiny than, say, a one-day gig (not that they shouldn’t be scrutinized too).
FOOTNOTE # 10: Perhaps this is a dangerous assumption, but we had actors submit via email for The Broken Continent; and we’re assuming email is going to be the dominant method of submission most of the filmmakers will be using for the indie feature and webseries projects we’ve been talking about.
FOOTNOTE # 11: The general tone to strive for is that their project sounds interesting and you’d love the opportunity to audition. Here’s your materials. Oh, and you were wondering about X.
Anybody can have questions about a job (especially if they haven’t given you answers to expected questions in their casting notice — something I urge filmmakers to do in Part 4). As with submitting to any job posting or with any job interview, you don’t necessarily want to lead off with questions about pay, benefits, and so on; however, those questions need to be answered at some point. If the producers can’t answer anything regarding compensation, even pay ranges, during the audition, that’s a big red flag.
I wish it were more definite, but each casting notices will raise different flags with each different actor. You’ll need to assess each casting notice based on what your needs are at the time.
FOOTNOTE # 12: A perfect example of a question you might want to get answered before you head out to audition is: “What’s the pay scale?”
For The Broken Continent, our casting notice mentioned we were planning to shoot under the SAG New Media Agreement. As an actor, this raises two flags for me:
- They’re planning to shoot under a SAG-AFTRA agreement, so they’re probably not a signatory yet. When will they know? For a union actor, this is important. Depending on the non-union actor, it might be important too.
- The SAG New Media Agreement has no required minimums for pay. In fact, pay can be deferred. What payscale are the producers planning? Are they planning for all the actors will be deferred?
There’s always room for better communication. As mentioned in Footnote # 11 above, the trick is when to try and get those additional answers.
FOOTNOTE # 13: If I were a cold-hearted casting director, I would say that you should be ready to submit the appropriate headshot and resume anytime and anywhere. We all know that isn’t always possible; however, this is probably a good time to mention that if you are out on a shoot or otherwise away from your usual computer, that you have given thought to how you might submit your information to job postings. Alternately, you may need to make peace with the fact that you might miss out on some opportunities.
FOOTNOTE # 14: I’ve said it before and I will say this again, but casting directors across the globe have checked and know this to be true: neither Miss Manner nor any law enforcement agency on Earth can do anything to them should they not respond to an actor’s email, voicemail, or whatnot. The only thing at stake is the filmmakers’ reputation among actors — and as we know, many filmmakers clearly don’t care about that.
FOOTNOTE # 15: It never hurts to jog memories. At this point, I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of area actors. Sorry, but stuff spills out of my memory all the time, so I might forget I’ve seen you. There’s also a great chance I won’t know that you’ve worked with one of the producers on one project or another. Both I and every other casting director you’ll meet are human and cannot connect all the dots instantaneously and repeatedly. Friendly reminders are always fine in these cover letters even if it’s just, “Hey, I’d love for the chance to audition for you again.”
By the way, I reserve the right to remember not only when and where you auditioned, but what you were wearing, what monologue you did, and whether I liked it. I do this for men, women, boys, and girls. I love rattling off the what monologue this actor or that actress did at a Stonehenge five years ago just to make them wonder, “Geez, how much does he remember?” The answer is, of course: nothing and everything.
FOOTNOTE # 16: If an indignant “but–!” is coming to your lips, perhaps you’re thinking of all the times where filmmakers have not been equally considerate of actors. There will be plenty of time to determine if these filmmakers, these potential employers, are clueless clowns who don’t value talented actors. You might be able to pick that up in the casting notice, the auditions themselves, or any of the communications in-between. If you’ve read the other articles in this series, you’ll know I take filmmakers to task on doing everything in their power to make the audition experience pleasant and respectful for actors. You greatest power in dealing with inconsiderate filmmakers is to stop dealing with them — not try and be inconsiderate in return. Life is too short.
FOOTNOTE # 17: The fact that pretty much no other casting directors or production companies communicate with actors to this level is precisely why I do it; and why I advocate other indie filmmakers to do so. The indie filmmaker has limited resources and being extra considerate can pay dividends. I’ll go into more detail on this extra communication in Part 7.