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Casting The Net Online

Michael Wharley assesses casting in the online age, and observes an accelerating pace of change and suggests actors – and agents – need to do more to keep up.

The Online Default

In 2010 there’s no question that online casting –  breakdown distribution, submission making, the pre-audition assessment of actors – is the industry default. In fact, for those seeking or supplying casting intelligence the options are dizzying: there’s Spotlight, The Stage, PCR, Casting Call Pro (CCP), CastCall, Castweb, CastNet, and Shooting People, plus endless other websites.

Print and hardcopy are not redundant, but today they serve different purposes. As Spotlight head Ben Seale puts it, “Our print directories are still extremely popular but I think are used more as reference tools than casting tool these days – the business of casting is largely done online.”

But has the movement online changed fundamental casting mechanics? Well, yes, and no.

Offline, Online

In the ’90s, the profession mirrored broader web trends; online was a place to replicate long-established offline approaches. Even today, outfits like CastWeb and CastCall deliver breakdowns by email, just as they or their predecessors once did by fax or premium-rate phone line. Some casting clearly continues unaltered. Only the technology, not the methodology, has changed.

More genuine change has been driven by an inescapable Internet truth: information proliferates online.

An Average UK Casting Week

Here’s an average casting week in the UK, looking only at more reputable channels: Spotlight distributes 198 breakdowns, CCP 175, Castweb 40-50, and CastCall (which only details paid work) 15-20.

Those 450+ breakdowns probably involve 200+ unique productions. So, the average breakdown is released through two or more official channels, and will be shared – legally or otherwise – with a wide online audience. Unsurprisingly, casting outlets are overrun with (often unsuitable, incorrectly-timed) submissions, while agents and actors face a barrage of casting information from multiple sources.

The need to cut through this white noise catalysed the evolution of casting online.

The Missing Link

Spotlight’s Link casting software is now ubiquitous, so it’s easy to forget it launched in 2000 and previously the company didn’t distribute breakdowns. The Link’s strength lies in having integrated the contents of Spotlight’s 36,000-actor-strong online directories with the casting communities’ breakdowns. In a shrewd business move, two previously separate parts of the process have been synergised, simplifying casting for actors, agents, casting directors and their clients.

And by adhering online to the same editorial standards that earned it a reliable reputation offline, it has made a compelling case for anyone with a stake in casting to trust its resources. As a measure of success, 90% of UK-based casting or casting for UK-based actors passes though the Link. Not necessarily uniquely, but that’s not the point.

360 Degree CCP

This approach has rapidly gained wider traction, with CCP’s web-based software also serving all participants in the casting process. Founded in 2002, CCP has worked hard to gain credibility, but with 29,000+ actor members (each possessing a headshot, and NCDT training or 3 professional credits) it is now a serious player. Challenging the model of breakdown circulation by offering new ways of searching its actor database, it’s also stolen a march on Spotlight through allowing actors to connect with each other on a professional networking model.

Fundamental Change

So, this is one new truth of online casting: photos, CVs, showreels and voicereels are shared across the supply chain at the touch of a button. But there’s something more fundamental going on.

When asked to select the most important resource for assessing an actor online before audition, casting professionals’ responses were striking. Nine per cent specified headshots, 28% said credits, and 21% showreels. But the largest proportion, 41%, cited the whole package.

Put simply, many are already using an actor’s online presence – predominantly on Spotlight –  as a fluid entity, dipping in and out of the variety of resources available according to their needs. This might sound obvious, but actors and agents need to do more to keep up.

Playing Online Keep-up

The most oft-heard additional comment in the survey was a plea for Spotlight credits to be updated. It’s basic, but in the online era, the CV is not perceived as a static document, instead an organic representation of the actor’s career.

Headshots – long a touchstone of the profession – are being used more successfully. Performers may select a main photo for print Spotlight, but on average four shots are attached to each CV online. True, actors have long had second or third choice photos, but being able to select the best photo for any given application with a few clicks of the mouse, has made them genuinely useful.

Shortcomings are most evident when it comes to multimedia. “DVDs showreels just get used as coffee coasters, but they still keep coming” was a typical aside in interviews. When assessing an actor prior to audition, 57% of surveyed casting professionals use online show reels a lot, 15% a fair amount and 28% a little. That’s 72% who use online video resources more than casually, yet only 29% of Spotlight actors and 10% of CCP members have video content on their CVs (audio is 23% and 10% respectively).

Performing Better Online

True, this new reality puts a burden on actors or agents to maintain a diverse, up-to-date web presence, possibly in several online locations. But given the huge potential rewards in a massively competitive market, that has to be a price worth paying.

Today, high-bandwidth broadband, abundant WIFI and sophisticated portable devices mean the Internet actually does everything it was always supposed to do, practically wherever you are. And that’s giving actors unique, cost-effective opportunities to showcase the full range of their abilities.

The Problem of Showreels

To take one example; casting professionals have long despised the lengthy showreel with its non-copyright music, cheesy montages and title sequences. They want the meat of a scene without ado.  That’s only heightened online, where attention spans are measured in second not minutes. On CCP, the average showreel is 186 seconds long, but the average casting director will watch one minute or less. Surveyed for this article, 62% of casting professionals said they’d prefer to view separate, short, contrasting video clips, over 28% preferring a showreel (10% had no preference).

So, edit one screen appearance into a minute-long clip, put it it alongside other short clips demonstrating a range and, voila: the online CV not only looks comprehensive, it also gives casting directors what they need and want, at their fingertips.

Driving Down Showreel Costs

It could also save money,  if actors and agents make the right demands of services companies. CCP already allows premium subscribers to upload up to 20 multimedia clips, but Spotlight could do better than its current £31-per-upload, offline submission process (albeit the company’s quality-checking model ensures ensures no sub-standard content gets online, a service to both actors and  casting professionals).

And if three or four, one minute-long contrasting clips became the online norm, then the showreel industry would face sharp downwards pressure on its often-exorbitant rates, no matter whether supplying editing work or filming bespoke content.

Video Killed The US Audition?

Of course, we can only guess how things might evolve in the future. The States provides one vision:  video has already become a basic element of any performer’s online presence, whether it’s onscreen clips or simply ‘introduction to’ videos, featuring profile and full length shots, while the actor provides a brief self-summary.

Ominously, US casting directors are increasingly using video as a first-stage audition filter, requiring actors to submit set audition pieces filmed on as basic a device as a mobile phone, before subsequently seeing a select handful in person.

The UK Online Future

But could that happen here? Whatever possibilities are presented by online tools, casting is a creative job: it takes time to build a knowledge of the acting community; skill to assess a performance; years to develop a sixth sense for a performer fitting a role. And any online assessment is only precursor to audition, where actors can show their true mettle. The UK profession would be creatively poorer without these skills and characteristics.

What’s certain is that in budget-pressed times for theatre, film and tv casting professionals already  fully online, any new time-saving tool that does a job will find use. So, it’s up to agents and actors  to provide and maintain a comprehensive, up-to-date web presence, but more than that to ensure that what they put online is of the highest quality.


The Facts:

What’s most important when you assess an actor online?

Headshots: 9%

Credits: 28%

Showreel/Video content: 21%

The whole package: 41%

How much do you use showreels/video content when assessing an actor online?

A lot: 57%

A fair amount: 13%

A little: 28%

Not at all: 0%

Would you prefer to view showreels or separate, short clips of actors’ on-screen work?

Showreels: 28%

Separate clips: 62%

No preference: 10%

(Conducted July 2010-100 predominantly CDG casting directors surveyed across TV, theatre, film and commercials casting.)

This article was written by Michael Wharley. All content © Michael Wharley 2010. This article originally appeared in The Stage, August 2010. Reuse or reproduction  for anything other than educational or personal use without express permission strictly forbidden. Michael Wharley is a headshot photographer and arts journalist: