In all my time as an actor, I’ve never experienced a more fraught environment than the one we are in now, and because I keep seeing canaries die in the coal mine, I’m a little curious about the air we’re breathing. The latest troubling indicator: a respected casting office’s controversial offer to tape auditions for a fee.
It all began with a small ad on Instagram in the days leading up to the Academy Awards in March. Betty Mae, the casting office behind “A Star Is Born” and “Euphoria,” would be renting out their vacant studio space — along with camera, lights, a reader and editing — for $130 an hour.
This was a no-brainer for Betty Mae: a way to monetize dormant casting suites that had lain vacant since the first days of the pandemic, while simultaneously helping actors navigate the new realities of getting seen. For some working actors however, it was the last straw. Everything that was now being sold to them used to be free.
A few immediately sounded off about Betty Mae’s offer when the ad appeared. “This is some real bullshit right here,” tweeted Merrin Dungey, who currently stars in Starz’s “Shining Vale” and has credits including “Big Little Lies” and “Alias.” “We are paying to get jobs now.”
SAG-AFTRA soon weighed in, rebuking casting offices for cashing in on the move toward self-tape auditions and decrying the move as “an optical and ethical disaster.”
The controversy unleashed years of pent-up frustration between the two communities — and revealed divisions within both. After nearly twenty years in this business, inevitably, I have crossed paths with everyone involved in this story. Many, out of fear of reprisal, have shared their experiences on the condition of anonymity, which I granted.
During the pandemic, “self-tapes” became the industry standard, making an almost exclusively live process 95% virtual, transforming the nature of auditioning in ways no one could have foreseen.
What used to cost actors their time and gas money now could cost them hundreds of dollars per audition. Actors had spent thousands turning their homes into home-studios, indentured friends and family as their audition partners, or paid coaches and consultants up to $500 a pop. They were already squeezed by paying their reps as much as 25% of their gross, and the 2017 tax law capped their deductions. But they had done all this self-taping as a temporary sacrifice, just until things got back to normal; instead, it has become the new normal.
For so many — those who’d moved away from L.A. or New York, needed the extra flexibility or felt paralyzed by the process of in-person auditions — self-tapes really did help. Some actors were happy to have any chance, no matter how slim. More people could be seen for more roles than ever before, giving casting directors the chance to take risks and diversify their selections. But the price of all that opportunity was that the odds had become hopelessly long.
In the pre-digital era, only a certain number of actors could be seen, limiting competition. With the wholesale adoption of self-taping, casting was now free from those constraints of time and space. Because it doesn’t cost anything to ask actors to make tapes, submissions run into the thousands, increasing competition anywhere from five to twenty times what an actor would face in the room.
Casting has increasingly become a volume business, with personal relationships being eschewed for something more like commodity trading. “We’re using an old rulebook for a new game, and it’s not fair,” one casting director notes.
The supply of actors has always outstripped demand, but virtual casting has supersized the equation with 2.7 million actor profiles being hosted on the online platforms Breakdown Services and Talent Systems. Over half that number are represented by agents and managers, who submit them for projects regardless of their union status and from all corners of the globe.
Peak TV has resulted in runaway production from L.A. to places like New York, Atlanta, Toronto, Vancouver and London — all of which together represent three times as much soundstage space as exists in L.A. Right-to-work states and international locations serve as a way for producers to take advantage of cheaper labor forces. For actors, local-hire deals are often the only way to stay competitive, which undercuts actors in local and international markets.
Amid these industry changes, actor wages appear to be falling. Between 2021 and 2022, SAG-AFTRA added 6,000 new members but its dues payments decreased $6 million. Since the widespread adoption of self-taping, in 2020, membership has increased by 10,000 while dues have remained flat. In any given year, it’s estimated that half of its approximately 171,000 members won’t earn a single penny for acting; only 5-15% of members earn enough to qualify for the health care threshold of $26,470. In 2020, SAG cut the health care benefits for nearly 12,000 actors, including its former president, Ed Asner.
“Health care is disappearing, forcing members to work longer,” one SAG insider says. Those who safely earn a middle-class wage might account for a measly 2% of the union’s membership. The workforce is becoming ever more precarious, gig-like and uncertain.
Last year alone, there were 599 original series on TV, more than double that of 2012. Over the same period, average lengths of each season dwindled from around 18 episodes to 10. In the film industry, meanwhile, the number of productions fell 33%, from 669 to 449.
Larger casting companies can now scale their business to take many more projects than would otherwise be possible. Furthermore, working from home and longer careers have created a “gray-ceiling” in the casting world, which squeezes younger independent casting directors to scramble for work.
“We’re left to figure it out on our own,” another casting director adds.
The budget crunch during COVID didn’t help matters. One source explains that before the pandemic, offices that once cost $10,000 per month to rent have fallen to a measly $800 stipend. Casting directors are now responsible for buying their own equipment, including Zoom accounts. “Everyone’s operating from a place of fear,” one notes.
Self-tapes are a huge money saver for production companies. By simply outsourcing the task of reading with actors to the actors themselves, they save an estimated $250 million annually.
As casting director John Frank Levey says, at its artful best, “casting is about falling in love. And even the incidental is revealing.” But how is that possible now, when the nuances of the human body, voice, laughter or tears are all lost in the digital realm? Like Tinder, self-tape’s efficiencies make meeting more people possible, but is it an effective way to fall in love?
Advancements in technology have already made it possible to digitally manipulate appearances and dialogue. What’s stopping some enterprising future actors from tuning entire performances using AI? Or AI replacing casting itself?
If you think that’s alarmist, consider what you would’ve said to the actor who was worried about casting going entirely digital in 2019.