Casting Directors Sound Off On Self-Tape Controversy: “We Shouldn’t Be Taking Money From Actors”

Pent-up frustration by actors over the way audition process has evolved — or devolved — during the pandemic erupted this week when actors Ever Carradine, Merrin Dungey and Sprague Grayden slammed an ad by Betty Mae Casting offering paid self-taping services for non-Betty Mae projects. Their comments launched a heated discussion about the wide use of self-tapes, which have replaced the vast majority of in-person auditions over the last three years.

Because the conversation was triggered by the ad from Betty Mae, the company of well known casting director Mary Vernieu, with SAG-AFTRA calling casting offices charging for audition tapes “an optical and ethical disaster,” the society of Hollywood casting directors have found themselves in the eye of the storm.

Some of them have stepped in to clear the air.

“ACTORS: Please know this does NOT represent all Casting Directors,” Emmy-winning casting director Jennifer Euston wrote on Instagram. “I have NEVER taken a penny from an actor and never will.”

She posted her note next to actor Michael Gaston’s Instagram message that “if you’re an actor paying a casting office to help you self-tape an audition, you are not self-taping your audition … you’re being preyed upon,” which has been circulated as a rallying cry among actors complaining about the issue.

They have shared frustration about the pressure to make their tapes “perfect” because of the increased competition as casting directors now get as many as 60 self-tape submissions for a role they would previously be able to see a dozen actors for in-person. Exacerbating the situation are the lack of direct communication the pandemic has brought on, comments actors have been getting as well as their natural insecurities.

“I think the production value of the tape matters to some producers at least. In my personal experience, I’ve been told a better tape helps on multiple occasions,” Grayden told Deadline. “Before Covid I was told directly by a showrunner at a party that it was unprofessional to send a tape shot at home with bad quality lighting and sound. Since the pandemic, I’ve received the self-tape instructions from some casting offices that request lighting without shadows, the best sound possible, a reader, and slates that zoom in from a face closeup to a full body shot. These are requests to up our production values and are difficult for many actors to fulfill at home. When you aren’t booking, and there is no feedback, no notes, no response, upping the production value of your tape seems like the only option.”

That has led to the proliferation of self-tape studios that charge actors to make their videos look more professional, making thespians spend money on jobs most of them won’t get.

They don’t have to, a number of casting directors insisted to Deadline.

“I’ve never asked an actor and I would never ask an actor to self-tape in a studio, ever,” said Emmy winner Marc Hirscfeld, a veteran casting director and executive who currently works with AMC. “I think that’s a lot of baloney; I’ve had actors audition on their balconies, in parks, in their living rooms. First of all, I’ve never asked an actor to self-tape and memorize the lines, that is not required. And, and I’ve never asked an actor to rent a space. What I’ve asked an actor is to try to reduce the clutter behind them so it’s not distracting, to create some decent lighting so they’re not in shadows. And to have no distracting noises behind them. That’s not an impossible task.”

Fellow veteran casting director Bonnie Zane, who has worked on shows like Suits and Chucky, recalled how she spent a big part of the pandemic going to friends actors’ houses to self-tape with them while socially distancing.

“I have never not helped an actor, and I’ve never charged an actor for that help,” she said. While being careful not to criticize her peers, “we shouldn’t be taking money from actors,” she added.

Zane echoed Hirschfeld’s sentiment about expectations regarding self-tape’s production values.

“I can speak for myself, and I can speak for a lot of my studio executives. No one is expecting world-class tapes, no one is expecting expert lighting sound. We’re expecting a decent reader and making you look and sound okay. We know that everyone is self-taping, so we’re not judging based on these perfect backgrounds, perfect lighting, perfect audio.”

Casting directors Seth Yanklewitz and Amanda Lenker Doyle also agree that “the majority of casting professionals do not expect actors to provide professionally produced self-tapes.”

Still, unless studios and the Casting Society of America set uniform self-tape standards that make filming at home the norm, actors, desperate to book a part, would likely keep shelling out money to have their audition video produced professionally with the hope that it could give them a leg up.

Yanklewitz and Lenker Doyle added that “we also want actors to be assured that when we request self-tapes we are watching all of them.”

This has been another hot-button issue for actors who, when in-person, know that they are being seen.

“I have no proof that casting offices watch my tapes,” Sprague told Deadline. “Actors feel like they are sending our work into the void.”

In the comments section of the original Deadline story, there were snarky remarks about casting directors performing their jobs in pajamas these days, without purring in much effort.

“It’s a lot of work. I don’t know any casting directors that request self-tape auditions and don’t watch them. I watch every one. And that takes a lot of time,” Hirschfeld said in response. “I do it in my pajamas at midnight when I’m trying to slog through all the auditions. I’m working longer hours, watching self-tape auditions.”

Still, while Hirschfeld and Zane have kept their work load relatively steady, with Zane lamenting the greatly diminished broadcast pilot season, some casting directors have taken advantage of the self-tape model that eliminates the time once spent traveling between production offices and allows them to take on more shows.

“Casting directors are winning, they are able to take on more jobs, as many as seven at a time,” one talent agent said.

A casting director admitted that there are some in their midst who “are hoarding projects.” The issue of casting directors taking on a lot of work was brought up in a CSA zoom meeting a couple of months ago, sources tell Deadline.

In a statement to Deadline, CSA addressed the ongoing controversy.

“The Casting Society and its members recognize that the pandemic has changed the way auditions are conducted. Many casting professionals are just as eager as actors to get back in the room, but we have to do so within the rules set by the producing entities and the unions,” CSA said. “The bottom line is that CSA stands in support of actors. While the demands of projects differ, the casting community encourages actors to submit self tapes that focus on their craft. The acting will always be more important than the production quality. We are actors’ advocates and champions and we are actively working as a community to address inequities and create a new normal that is beneficial for all. Most importantly, we are here to listen.”

Zane understands actors’ frustration over being asked regularly to self-tape more than a dozen script pages for a first-round audition. That puts an unnecessary burden on actors as well as on casting directors.

“The one point that I think is a very valid point that I agree with, and I personally have always fought for — even without self-tapes — is the amount of pages and the amount of sides. I don’t think you need to be sending off more than a couple of scenes for auditions; we are doing people with 12-13-14 pages. It’s too much, and I agree with that in-person and watching tapes. That is something that they’re fighting for and I support.”

Zane does not support a recent movement within SAG-AFTRA to invoke a stipulation that has been around since 1937 and allows actors to pursue pay for auditions. She feels that may create a situation where even the smallest of roles are cast though straight offers and not auditions that could give less known actors an opportunity.

With the traditional casting process put on ice by the pandemic and no new uniform standard put in place yet, Yanklewitz and Lenker Doyle admit that “the process of how we interview/audition actors today is a work in progress as we all learn to navigate this new world and make continued adjustments.”

With rare exceptions — I hear casting director and Academy Board Of Governors member Richard Hicks sees actors auditioning for series regular roles in-person from the start — the first round is now predominantly done via self-tape. Callbacks and chemistry reads are done often live via Zoom or in-person.

While the share of in-person auditions may increase if the current Hollywood Covid protocols are lifted when they expire April 1, self-tapes are likely here to stay, SAG-AFTRA’s Executive VP Ben Whitehair told Deadline.

Sprague and many other actors have lamented the lack of personal connection with the casting director that takes away in-person audition’s opportunity to get a note and tweak the acting delivery on the spot.

Hirschfeld feels there are advantages to self-tapes that outweigh the shortcomings.

“First of all, one of the comments was that [actors] like self-tapes because they get to do it multiple times and pick the best take,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many actors have come into my room and auditioned and said, ‘Oh God, can I do that again?’.”

As for the lack of direction, “if I think that an actor has something special, we will set up a live Zoom callback and give them direction to get the audition that I want to see through their paces. So it’s not as if they’re falling into some black hole, never to be seen again.”

Zane has a similar approach.

“What I would do in the room ordinarily is make an adjustment. If I’m doing it remotely, I will make a note of the adjustment personally and reach out to the actor and adjust before showing that tape to the producer as I would live.”

Self-tape has made auditioning more democratic, Hirschfeld argues.

“I can see a lot more actors,” he said. “And by the way, that’s an advantage for actors who are not with the big agencies because I take more shots on actors whose work I don’t know, they might be with a smaller agency or manager who submits them. I think that’s leveled the playing field in many ways. And also I can see actors in markets that I might not normally reach out to when I’m casting something and we are only considering actors that are coming into the room in Los Angeles or New York or elsewhere.”

Hirschfeld noted how, with fellow casting director Geralyn Flood, he saw 1,700 young actors on self-tape from all over the country for Netflix’s That ’90s Show, with newcomers from Texas, Connecticut and Nevada ultimately making the cut.

The escalation of the self-tape-related issues have created a rift in the traditionally strong bond between actors and casting directors, and casting directors are eager to repair what they call a “special relationship.”

“I come from the school of thought that casting directors and actors are partners, that you look good, I look good; I look good, you look good. We’re a team, and I work to present the very best I could to my producers, so I would never, ever see myself charging or promising any kind of better setup is going to get you a better job,” Zane said.

Added Yanklewitz and Lenker Doyle, “Casting professionals genuinely care about actors, and are committed to finding our way back to working harmoniously. Actors are the answer to the problem we are trying to solve. We want you to succeed, we NEED you to succeed, and we are always championing you – both outwardly and behind the scenes.”

Lynette Rice contributed to this report.


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