Bad Habits to Break: Vague Casting Calls and Abusing Sundance's Name

When you've been doing this long enough you see a number of the same mistakes show up time and time again. While it's understandable that if you're a filmmakers starting out, you may not be up to speed on protocol, etiquette, or the standards of film production. That doesn't make those mistakes less infuriating, nor does it make them any less counterproductive to building a strong, vibrant film community. It also doesn't mean that folks will be instantly forgiving. Professionals and experienced filmmakers will keep on moving, those who have been burned will be right out dismissive. Casting calls are a prime example of this. Here's a sample of one that came in my email box recently:

The film is a character driven psychological drama about sex addiction. None of the parts listed above involve nudity or an suggested scenes. The film's major theme is redemption. A further description, script and shooting schedule will be sent upon a mutual interest in the project. If you don't fit the physical descriptions of a character and are still interested, please still let us know! We are flexible with looks of the characters. 

Note, I've pulled out as much info that would identify this project, including the names of the senders, the roles they were casting for, the shooting dates, and the script's length. I'm not trying to embarrass these people or the project. What they've sent out is similar to other calls sent out on a regular basis. They're likely replicating what they've seen. That being said, I know a handful of actors and producers who would blow-up if they saw this. There's a critical lack of information provided, with  the subject line of the email, "CASTING CALL: SUNDANCE SHORT", making it categorically worse.

Here are the problematic omissions:

  • No title (I didn't redact that, it was never provided)
  • No producer/director/writer identified
  • No story synopsis provided (you read that correctly, I didn't redact it, it wasn't there at all)
  • No production company identified
  • No compensation offered
  • No links to any of the above

The absence of these key bits of information are red flags. Smart actors book gigs by the project, script, role and the talent behind the camera. Any actor serious about building up their career has to look at this post with a jaundiced eye. If you want to hook an actor, hit them up with the role and the story. Imagine if Denzel Washington had been sent Flight with no title, no synopsis, and just a description of Whip Whitaker?

Alcoholic pilot Whip Whittaker does a miraculous job crash-landing a plane that has suffered a severe mechanical breakdown in midair, however the mandated investigation into the incident will inevitably lead to the discovery that he was flying the plane while drunk and on cocaine. As he attempts to sober up, Whip befriends a fellow addict he meets during his post-accident stay in the hospital. Soon he fails in his attempts to white-knuckle himself to sobriety, and with the help of his favorite drug-dealer and his lawyer, Whip must prepare to testify about what happened on that fateful flight. ~ Perry Seibert, Rovi

The above is how you grab an actor and get them excited about the script. This holds true if you're doing a short or a feature. Now on to the part that's truly troublesome. Compensation. Let me bold this bad boy. Compensation. Let me back up and clarify in bold. Smart actors book gigs by the project, script, role, the talent behind the camera and by compensation.

If you're shooting a script that will likely require a minimum commitment  of 12 to 16 hours a day, that's a lot to ask of any actor. What exactly is in it for them? At one point Copy/Credit/Meals was a go to for no-budget projects, especially shorts. It was never a great trade. However, at least it was something. Now even that low hanging fruit rarely makes it into many of the calls I'm sent.

Acting is a job. It should be treated as such. Even if you can't pay, telling folks upfront you can't pay them is still respecting what they do. It's perfectly alright to say I've got nothing to give if you don't have the budget. It's then perfectly alright if an actor decides to not submit for the gig. One just has to make sure there's a justifiable reason for shooting without a budget for the actors. Much too often, paying actors are the last thing on filmmakers' minds. It doesn't even to be a consideration. Budgeting a film and concluding that the only option to make the film with the money available requires a cut to salaries is one thing, to not even broach the topic at all isn't the way to build relationships with actors.

Circling back to the lack of a synopsis, if you want to snag a quality actor, you have to have a quality script and story, with a talented director that they believe in if they're going to forgo getting paid. Actors work on free sh*t all the time. Sometimes to their own detriment. Most consistently working actors eventually stop working on free projects unless they feel confident in a project. For the most part, consistently working actors are strong actors. Actors who are always available to work on your stuff, for free, regardless of time of year, either need to continue perfecting their craft so they can transition into becoming working actors, stronger actors. Or, they (and you) should begin to realize they're probably bad actors and they're going to not help your film one bit.

Lest you think I'm crazy, I sent Atlanta based actors Claire Bronson and Scott Poythress the original call from above, with the full text unedited, and asked them to weigh in with their thoughts about casting calls like this. Claire and Scott have credits that include One Tree Hill, Army Wives, Drop Dead Diva, My Super Psycho Sweet 16: Part 2, Resurrection and Necessary Roughness.

Claire's Take:

Someone early on taught me that an actor's career can be shaped just as much by what you say no to, as by what you say yes to. This market has grown exponentially in the last few years, and we of course are grateful, but as an actor just starting out, you need to be cautious, curious, and well educated to traverse these waters with success. Following your artistic passion doesn't usually come with a steady, weekly paycheck and a be wise about where you spend your resources: your talents, your time, and your money. If you're not sure what a project entails, what you're going to get out of it...ask. These are details that you, as an artist giving of your time, deserve to know. same goes for classes, coaching, workshops; if you're paying someone, you better know what they have to offer. Research what it says on their website, their credits, their experience/training, their references, and request info about auditing.

Be smart, never stop learning, and always value yourself. It's never too early in your career to have fact, starting early ensures that you'll always be seen as one that respects the craft and demands respect for yourself. -- Claire Bronson


Depending on each actor's own experience and needs, this whole scenario is a tricky one. Many actors who need the work will take it, regardless of the many red flags you raised. 

What really bothers me is when an inexperienced filmmaker (I use this term often to refer to talent and crew alike) makes the assumption that their involvement is paramount. No film in history was created by a sole individual and an auteur has to earn that moniker. Even Scorsese, Kubrick and Bergman knew filmmaking is a team effort, assembling the best cast and crew they could behind and in front of the camera. Compensation is essential. Can't afford to pay $100/day for your leads? Maybe offer a percentage point on the back-end should distribution be secured.

Actors are the face of the story, told in perpetuity, after their image is captured by the camera. Actors are how the audience will relate to your film,  they don't relate to your innovative dolly shot.  Unfortunately, theirs is the business of constant rejection and, at least early on, a search for validation. It's easy to get your hands on some needy actors and think you're doing them a favor by casting them. Without a knowledge of their own self-worth it's difficult for an actor to say "no." Which is essentially our only trump card.

Actors; ask, no, demand to read anything you're asked to be a part of. It's not the writer's face attached to the project for the rest of your life. Know what your time is worth. Research the people involved. Watch their work. Actually, watch everything. It's how we all get better. -- Scott Proythess

There you have it from an actor's point of view.

What about using Sundance's name in a casting call? I believe Scott said it best in his response, which I pulled out. The Sundance Film Festival is a lottery. Your film got accepted? Congratulations. However you can't set out with Sundance as your goal, disappointment is almost guaranteed. If your story is there, it will find its audience.

There's almost no filmmaker on the North American continent that doesn't submit to Sundance. Most filmmakers will never get into Sundance. That's a harsh reality based as much on the number of submissions as it does on talent and quality.

Leveraging Sundance's name just because one can is bad form, and one of the fastest ways to scare off seasoned actors. They know the odds. They also know that doesn't mean you shouldn't submit to Sundance. If there's one festival you should always submit to if you have a quality film, it's Sundance. They just know you can't bet a film's future on getting in. There has to be a game plan that includes Sundance as one of the potential paths, not as the only path. Investing time and energy in a production that is banking heavily on Sundance is a foolish gamble. Investing in a project because they genuinely believe it's a story worth telling, that the story has an audience, and the story has a legit shot at playing festivals and (hopefully) finding distribution however, is not.

By the by if you're trying to get into the biz as an actor, Claire and Scott, in conjunction with fellow local actors Jason MacDonald and Catherine Dyer, are teaching an Acting Business Boot Camp on June 8, 2013. It's highly recommended and you can keep up with their ongoing series of workshops at

acting_bootcamp1_512x1024Are you a natural ham? A compulsive cut-up? A genuine character? Then learn how to turn your inner diva into extra dough with the Basics of the Biz; the Georgia Aspiring Actors Workshop. In this one-day symposium, well-known local actors Jason MacDonald of The Vampire Diaries, Catherine Dyer of The Blind Side, Claire Bronson of Army Wives and Scott Poythress of One Tree Hill and Drop Dead Diva will teach you what agents want, what makes a good (or bad) headshot, what casting directors are looking for, how to get work, and more!In this workshop, you will learn:

How to look for casting calls Where to find quality acting teachers What legitimate talent agents are looking for in local actors The do’s and don’ts of the all-important headshot The role of casting directors and how to get their attention


Seminar meets 10–4pm, Saturday, June 8 Cost $150 for this valuable 1-day workshop.