Advice for filmmakers from our partner, Backstage, casting you can trust.
Who says you need the help of a studio budget to find the perfect cast for your productions? Whether you’re creating a film, web series, commercial, play, musical, product demo, or music video, the casting phase of a project is crucial to its success. But great talent can be found at any budget level.
Based on insights collected from a variety of casting professionals, the following tips are designed to help you find amazing actors—from leads and supporting roles to background performers.
1. Carefully Craft Your Breakdown
While we don’t recommend providing every intimate detail of your script upfront—actors are browsing through hundreds of casting notices, so you don’t want to overwhelm them with too many details—it is a good idea to write a brief but compelling logline or plot synopsis.
Providing actors with context will ensure that you get the best applicants, ones that connect with your creative concepts. Likewise, meaty character descriptions will attract actors who are looking to sink their teeth into something new and exciting.
You should also start casting early and make your initial talent search as wide as possible, to maximize your options. For instance, you might envision a role as being of a particular gender, age, and ethnicity. But don’t just stick to your restrictions! If you only call for 6’2” blond males, you risk excluding high-quality actors who could bring unexpected life to the role.
2. Give Actors Incentive
To attract great actors who will stay committed to your project, you need to give them an incentive. Professional-level pay is of course ideal. But if it’s not within your budget, even a modest stipend will help.
However, even if you don’t have the funds to pay your actors, there are still things you can do in exchange for the meaningful service they’re providing: Meals and refreshments should always be available on set, even if it’s just water and sandwiches. Provide transportation to and from the production if possible, or consider reimbursing some transportation costs. Always provide “copy and credit” when applicable (e.g., a guarantee of the actor’s name in your film’s credits; a digital copy of the final project; highlight clips for the actor’s reel, etc.).
And make sure that your rehearsals and productions are well-organized and respectful to the talent, so they know they’re appreciated and don’t feel like their valuable time is being wasted. And if you’re casting union talent, make a point to have your SAG-AFTRA or Equity paperwork in order ahead of time, and meet the union requirements.
Finally, in your casting call, be very clear and honest about whether you’re paying or not, and what incentives you’re providing.
3. Don’t Forget Extras
Think extras aren’t important? If you’re shooting a restaurant, club, or street scene, you will find that background performers are essential. Start casting for background actors early, expect some no-shows, and do your best to provide for the background talent—including food, respect, and pay (if possible). If you don’t have a big budget, be creative. Sometimes offering a raffle on set (for tangible items like Amazon gift cards) is a great way to ensure you get the turnout you’d like.
4. Hold Organized and Professional Auditions
Not having a big budget is no excuse for holding casting calls in your apartment. Even if your set is going to be a private residence, you need a safe and public place for auditions. This protects you and the actors, and sets a professional tone.
Big cities like NYC and L.A. have the benefit of lots of affordable audition and rehearsal spaces such as Pearl or Ripley-Grier studios and Space Station Casting (with rates starting at just $12/hour), and professional co-working spaces like the Wix Lounge. And even in smaller areas, you’ll find local theater groups, schools, and businesses with appropriate spaces you can borrow or rent by the hour. Coffee shops are another popular choice for initial meetings, if an audition performance isn’t required.
Being professional is also about respecting the actor’s time. So give them a proper place—and your attention—for the audition. Requesting reels and self-taped video auditions are also great ways to get an initial impression of the actor‘s abilities.
5. Explore Your Union Contract Options
Although there are thousands of terrific nonunion actors out there and nonunion projects can be cheaper to produce, having your union paperwork lined up will increase your talent pool. Registering your project with SAG-AFTRA (for filmed media) or Equity (for theatrical productions) shows a professional commitment that lets both union and nonunion actors know you will adhere to set rules and regulations, ensuring that the talent will be treated fairly.
The unions helpfully provide contracts and agreements specifically designed to work with low-budget projects, which will often allow you to cast both union and nonunion performers (without an appropriate union contract, you’ll only be able to cast nonunion actors). Furthermore, even if you don’t end up casting any union talent, you’ll have gained credibility and experience by going through the process.
6. Have a Backup Player in Mind
Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, the best laid plans go awry and one of your actors might drop out. This is especially common with no-pay projects, and especially problematic if production has already begun! So have a backup plan in mind, such as an alternative casting choice or understudy—like a talented extra or supporting actor you can bump up to a bigger role at the last minute.
7. Cast with Backstage
Posting a casting notice on Backstage.com lets you quickly release your call for talent to the world’s largest audience of actors and performers. And Backstage’s advanced casting system makes it easy to manage your character breakdowns, sort through media-enhanced applications, communicate with talent, and collaborate with your peers. Backstage’s team of casting specialists will even edit your casting calls and work with you to help maximize your responses.
That’s why Backstage is the casting resource preferred by thousands of casting directors, indie filmmakers, film students, and theater professionals.
Cast your project for free on Backstage, the world’s largest casting platform.