The Self-Tape Situation And How To Improve It

Chris Agos - Acting In Chicago

Maybe you’ve been following the drama playing out on the West Coast between actors and casting directors. If not, I’ll briefly catch you up.

In early March, a few actors sparked a discussion about the industry’s embrace of self-taped auditions by venting their frustrations with them on Twitter. The resulting discourse has opened the floodgates, giving actors at all levels the chance to either pile on the frustration or express their support for the practice. Along the way, a few CDs have chimed in to add to the conversation.

In reading the comments on the articles linked above, one thing is certain: there are A LOT of differing opinions about the current self-tape situation. Some actors are clearly frustrated with the current state of things, others seem to have made peace with self-tapes. Most commenters are anonymous, making them free to say how they really feel.

Unfortunately, the collective difference of opinion is leading to acrimony and a lack of trust. Some actors resent that the work of auditioning has been shifted away from casting and put on them, freeing casting from the task of day-to-day scheduling and the need to maintain office space while layering stress, logistical hurdles, and cost on to actors.

Actors are also not happy with the revelation that casting can potentially see far more actors for a role than they could before, throwing booking ratios off from pre-pandemic levels. And in at least one case, casting has been accused of trying to profit from the shift to self-taping.

Maybe the biggest issue is one of trust. Actors are wondering if their tapes are being seen in full, or at all. With little to no communication from casting, many are skeptical that tapes are finding their way to the intended audience. When auditions happened in person, at least we knew we were seen.

As someone who came up in the business in the Midwest, self-taping has been part of my skill set for years. The same would be true for anyone based in Atlanta, Austin, or anywhere other than the coastal markets that dominate the industry. It’s important enough that I devote an entire chapter to it in my book, Acting In Chicago, 4th Edition.

I have no beef with the practice, but only because I’ve been doing it for so long. Had the pandemic forced me into it, I might feel differently. But while I’ve adapted, I don’t necessarily love self-taping. If it’s here to stay, I think there’s a lot of room to improve how we do things.

Establish Standards

We can start calming the chaos by putting some standards in place.

A successful self-tape involves more than just doing justice to the role for which we’re auditioning. Also critical are the details each casting office includes with the sides. There’s a ton of variation in them, with every audition requiring something different in terms of slating, labeling, editing, and formatting. We could streamline these items for everyone while having no impact on casting or their clients.

Take file labeling and formatting. The industry could agree on a consistent file type, size, and labeling format so we would always know how to handle the file after it’s produced. Actors shouldn’t risk being eliminated from contention if our audition file is too large, or because we used a dash instead of an underscore in the label. We could also require all auditions to be contained in one file as opposed to separate files for each scene plus the slate.

This is low-hanging fruit and would allow actors to develop some muscle memory around the process instead of making us jump through random hoops for each new audition. If we know what to expect, we’ll become more efficient.

But there are deeper issues which are more important to address.

Some actors are concerned about the amount of material sent and the short time frames they’re given to prep and produce it. That problem can be solved if we link turnaround times to the number of pages in the audition. Send five pages or less, give us a 24 hour turnaround. 5-10 pages, 48 hours, etc. And lets cap the number of pages. We can all agree that casting knows whether we’re a candidate for the role within the first few pages. Decision makers can learn to live with fewer pages, and call us back if the role really requires more than that.

The numbers can be adjusted but reasonable deadlines would alleviate a lot of the pressure actors feel to do their best work in a short time allotment. One actor I spoke with said that he routinely gets 15 pages with 12 hour turnaround times. “At that point I just read it back to them, because I can’t really do justice to the material when you send me that much in the evening and want it back the next morning.” And let’s completely eliminate same-day deadlines.

Production quality is another issue which could be addressed. The concern is that auditions aren’t currently equitable. Actors who have the money and technical expertise to assemble sophisticated taping setups have a distinct quality advantage over actors who don’t. And those who can pay a taping facility have an even greater advantage since it allows them to focus on their acting without worrying about the logistics of taping.

When auditions happen in a casting office, they are shot by the same people with the same readers on the same equipment, and thus have the same look, sound, and feel. The only variable is the acting.

We can’t tell people to stop using taping facilities, but if the goal is to level the playing field, we can run all submissions through a filter to give them a uniform look and sound before they reach the casting director. We use filters on Instagram all the time. It would be up to the casting platforms to implement this technology, but it can be done, and cheaply.

Are Self-Tapes Even Seen?

The most urgent need is to restore confidence in a system that has always lacked transparency. Tapes are proof that actors are doing their job, but there’s none that casting is doing the same. Self-taping allows for many more actors to be auditioned for a role than in the days when they had to be brought into an office in 10-minute increments. Are CDs watching these tapes? Can they watch them all?

We just don’t know. When we send our audition into the ether with no acknowledgement that they’ve been received or viewed, we assume the CD watched it, but did they really? They radio silence doesn’t inspire confidence.

There should be a way to let actors know if their tapes are being seen, for how long they’re viewed, and by who. We should be able to have 100% transparency into these things. When I’m asked to send a Vimeo link instead of a file, that site at least shows me when it’s viewed. In the room, we know we’re being seen. With the existing system in place, we have no way of knowing if the file is even going to the right place. The technology exists to remove the uncertainty.

Leadership On All Sides

The problem, of course, is that all of these suggestions are designed to simplify the process for actors and make them feel better about it. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s not a priority for the people who hire casting directors. The producers, networks and studios are in the business of producing content for the lowest cost. They are not concerned about how actors feel about their jobs.

Casting directors are in a tough spot. Many of them sympathize with us, but their job is to satisfy the requirements of their paying clients.

Ultimately this is about working conditions and should be addressed by SAG-AFTRA. But it will take leadership from all parties to get anything done. Someone from casting will have to stand up and be willing to convince others that change is needed. Someone from production will have to engage and help bring networks and studios around to the need for standardization.

Currently there is no financial incentive to bring change. Producers are realizing a cost savings from the shift to self-taping, and I suspect they’re just fine with it as is. To them, the job is still getting done, so why change anything?

If the union doesn’t make any noise about this issue, what we’re left with is a fundamental shift in the actor’s job. The job is now not only to know how to artfully interpret and deliver a script, but to also be lighting designers, sound techs, DPs, set designers, editors and producers. And that’s just the way it is.

And although some in casting have said that the performance always wins over the technical quality of the tape, most auditions are still sent with a laundry list of dos and don’ts that changes with every project. Clearly someone wants both the performance and the tape quality to be their best.

Our new reality is going to be beneficial for some actors, and could possibly be a real headache for others. Isn’t that the way change always works? We’ve been in the self-tape era for years. It will be interesting to see where the industry is a few years from now.