Vanessa Chester received a tape audition request for a role that seemed perfect. She asked an actress friend to deliver the lines while she was taping, only to find that her friend believed she had just booked the same role. Through Chester, not the casting office, she learned that the production had decided to go in another direction.
Unfortunate coincidence? Safe. It’s also one of the many reasons the new standard of self-registration is more complicated and often more stressful than actors rushing between castings, L.A. traffic be damned.
Self-tapes have their advantages: greater accessibility, larger pools of candidates, and the ability for actors to edit and restore their performances. But while they were once an occasional demand, the pandemic has made self-tapes the norm. Today, in-person auditions are the exception.
Agents, managers, and actors have long used platforms like Breakdown Services and Talent Systems to find auditions. Today, those platforms are key hubs for uploading self-tape and have attracted them big investors like RedBird Capital. Self-tapes have become an essential part of the Hollywood talent supply chain.
It has led to the casting offices receiving many more offers and offering slightly more auditions for the same number of roles. Actors are sometimes asked to film themselves from multiple angles with expensive equipment, or while driving or skating.
What actors could save on gas and parking tickets now goes towards the cottage industry of pop-up studios or editing software. Actors also find they receive less feedback and have to accommodate new demands.
“The scope, volume and frequency with which actors are now being asked to audition is unsustainable,” said Chester, an actress best known for her roles in ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’ and ‘Harriet the Spy’ .
“Sometimes I’m in my room screaming and yelling (for a self-tape) and I’m like, ‘My neighbors think I’m in a domestic violence situation right now.’ I don’t want to think about it when I should be fully in the moment.
With just days to go before its current contract expires, SAG-AFTRA is fighting over self-tape hearing regulations as part of its AMPTP negotiations.
“We’re not trying to go back to a world where self-tapes don’t exist,” SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland told IndieWire before the guild negotiations began. (SAG-AFTRA agreed with AMPTP a media blackout). “Conversely, self-tapes, when done right, can be a real boon to our members in terms of access, accessibility, and opportunity for underrepresented groups.”
That said, self tapes have also led to an increase in what Crabtree-Ireland has termed “abusive practices”. He wants “rules and regulations around how self-tapes are used to ensure that members aren’t asked to do inappropriate things, that self-tapes aren’t the only method being considered for projects, and that there is still a place in the industry for live auditions and for live virtual auditions where there is real-time feedback.
In theory, it should be easier to audition from home. Candace Kita, an actress for over 30 years, says that before Covid she spent “life in the car” and she recalls the days when she stopped in the McDonald’s toilets to change between auditions. The self-timers give her the ability to retake, edit and adjust her performance over a span of time rather than a one-shot audition that might last the whole 15 minutes.
“You’re giving a performance of your overall ability,” Kita said. “I think we’ll have more auditions because the casting directors have time to see more people. You have to deal with more people, but I feel like I can do a little better job, so I feel like I have a little better opportunity.”
And then there are the opportunity costs. Chester said she had to handle five different self-tape dues in a single day, along with an in-person audition around town and juggling requests to dress for each role. Each self-tape also means getting someone to read with her for an hour or two, or pay them at a studio, followed by editing each video before she can upload it.
Since self-tapes operate without the confines of a casting office or office hours, audition requests can arrive at 4 a.m. with a due date later that afternoon, or late Friday and the first thing on monday. For actors who can’t navigate technology, or child actors who are yet to attend school, it can seem impossible.
“It was our hope that this was a temporary solution to save the industry,” said a longtime SAG member who requested anonymity. “It was weird. We were going to record from home, but everyone was going to because we were navigating COVID together. Then it seemed like a lot of those little temporary sacrifices were really starting to become permanent.
Others argue that these kinds of challenges are just part of the job and still beat paying for parking downtown or regretting not having your best time when you’re in the room.
“Auditions always come out of nowhere and they always turn your life upside down,” said Kevin Interdonato, an actor who has appeared on “The Sopranos” and the series “City on a Hill.” “That’s just the norm for the course, whether it’s in person or not. Sometimes you get one page, sometimes you get nine pages.
“I’m not going to complain about that stuff,” he said. “If the job is good and they like you, they book you. You don’t need a fucking RED camera to book an audition.
While Chester is not on the current negotiating committee, he served on SAG-AFTRA’s local and national self-tape committee in Los Angeles which provided some guidelines leading up to the talks. One suggestion is page or scene limits on self-tapes. If a casting director can make a decision within 30 seconds, why all the extra work?
Aside from that, actors want a minimum number of working days to shoot their tapes. The committees also proposed software fixes to ensure that actor tapes are viewed, video unskippable, no trainees reviewing tapes, and viewing confirmations. The technology that marks something as played is already available to casting offices, but may become viewable to agents and managers.
The real solution may lie in a hybrid model that relies on in-person recordings for smaller roles but requires in-person auditions for larger ones. The anonymous actor has described self-tapes as suitable for finding “a bartender who has five lines,” but in-person auditions establish a community and relationship with casting directors.
“There were these little chances of kismet that you’d get being in the room,” the actor said. “Especially when you’re a young actor, your job isn’t to get the job; it’s to earn the trust of these casting directors. When you can feel that mechanism working for you in real time, it shows you what your job is. This is undoubtedly something that is only missing from this.
AW Casting’s Alexis Winter (“One Tree Hill,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”) said she’s “extremely supportive” of regulations on things like page counts, adding that good casting directors don’t have need (and will not ask you) to spend money on elaborate equipment. You also acknowledge that manufacturers may make outsized requests that may need to be accommodated.
“There are very diplomatic conversations that we are in control of with manufacturing,” Winter said. “It’s part of our job. The production does not cast. They do not know. Our job is to educate them and teach them: ‘This is a big request, maybe we can do a little less’”.
She insists that casting directors watch every tape that comes in (and she knows most actors probably won’t believe her).
“I’m very much on the actor’s side,” Winter said. “I want to make it as simple and accessible as possible for the actors, and I truly believe self-tapes are. If we go back to a fully in person model, we will eliminate many development players who are already likely to be more marginalized or have less access to the industry. The more actors can embrace the technology moving forward, the easier it will be for everyone.”
Winter points to the free services provided by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation and suggested tinkering with self-recorded audio tracks or even artificial intelligence players. She’s surprised that some actors complain they don’t have casting office readers because, in her experience, they’re not always the best scene partners.
Winter worries that some actors want casting directors to see fewer tapes and auditions to improve the odds. You may be right, and so are the artists. Actor Thomas Ochoa he said the game has changed, pointing to examples like Sony auditions 700 actors for co-star opposite Jennifer Lawrence in “No Hard Feelings”.
“None of the angst being expressed about how the process has changed is because we are upset that we are competing against multiple artists,” they said. “The problem is that the amount of manpower being asked of us as part of the process has increased and… the chances of actually booking the role have decreased. It’s not like we’re trying to have an edge over the other actors. It’s just that the number of requests has increased so much that it’s turning what used to seem like part of the job into a real lottery.”
There’s another potential solution to self-tapes, one SAG-AFTRA would rather not discuss: paying actors to audition. Chester and Ochoa are founding members of Auditions are work (not affiliated with SAG-AFTRA), an actors’ group that is calling attention to language in the SAG-AFTRA contract dating back to 1947: it states that actors should be paid half of a day’s rate for their auditions. The group made enough noise that the guild issued a declaration saying the language is ambiguous, outdated and has a “lack of clarity”.
Winter said she would like to see actors paid to audition, but said she would be at an immediate disadvantage.
“I just don’t expect it to be beneficial to most actors,” he said. “Look, they’re trying to make it look like every actor can suddenly get paid to audition, and that’s not what’s going to happen. Very few actors will be paid to audition and fewer actors will be seen, which hurts most actors. So the conversation that I think is a little immature where it is right now.”
Chester acknowledged the controversy, but said it could eliminate self-tape abuse, keep middle-class actors going, and even bring in the fringe income that boutique theater agencies need to stay afloat.
“I’d much rather be brought in 24 times a year and get paid for the ones I haven’t booked because I know the casting is saying, ‘We feel like you’re so good and right for this role that we’re willing to pay you if we get it wrong.’ Chester said. ‘To me, scale-related audition pay is the only insurance right now that actors have to maintain any kind of economic viability in this business.’