Spotlight Teams Up with WeAudition at Sundance to Discuss the Future of Casting
The Sundance Film Festival is a mainstay of the festival circuit, bringing artists and audiences together to showcase independent filmmakers from across the globe. In addition to sparking bidding wars amongst the studios for films destined to become this year’s indie darlings, the gathering also includes panel events that inspire lively discussions about the state of the film industry.
This year, Spotlight, Casting Networks’ sister platform in the UK, teamed up with WeAudition to talk about the future of casting, offering glimpses into the casting process, how the industry is pushing towards more inclusive and authentic casting and how actors can position themselves within this emerging landscape.
As one of the panelists, Matt Hood, Managing Director of Spotlight, found great value in the discussion.
“It was great to be on Main Street in Park City during Sundance to talk about the Future of Casting with some of the CSA’s leading casting directors. Alongside an audience of performers, directors and producers, the panel covered some fascinating topics, particularly around how Talent Systems’ technologies don’t just support the artistry of casting directors, but also how we push forward diversity and inclusion in our industry together. It was energizing and reaffirming to know we are all pulling in the same direction.”
The panel was hosted by WeAudition co-founders Darren Darnborough and Richard Cambridge and, in addition to Hood, also included casting directors Jessica Sherman, Amanda Lenker-Doyle and Lindsey Weissmuller.
During the hour-long discussion, Hood said that he believes that the evolution of casting practices requires being deliberate about making diversity, equity and inclusion into industry standards, and highlighted how Spotlight is helping the industry to pursue that future.
“Platforms along the way have been somewhat gatekeepers into the industry,” said Hood. “As a platform, [Spotlight] make[s] sure we take initiatives that really widen access to the casting process. Because if we can put people in front of casting directors through our platforms that they’ve not seen before, then I think that’s the first step to making sure people we see on screen or on stage are as diverse and inclusive as possible.”
Weissmuller agreed and pointed to the current moment as one that will shift the way that casting happens in the future.
“I think that we have hit sort of a new moment in casting with COVID, and COVID is going to change things in ways that we cannot predict. I can’t wait to see how it does,” she noted. “What I do know is that we’re going to keep looking for authenticity in performances – and not just authenticity in performances, but authenticity in actors themselves. […] And I think that’s something that didn’t exist maybe even five years ago.”
When asked if the pursuit of authenticity makes the job harder, Weissmuller elaborated on what the approach may look like as the industry forges ahead.
“It does mean a lot more nontraditional approaches to casting. It means more open calls, it means more worldwide searches. It means that sometimes, if authenticity is the most important thing for a role, it might mean there’s not somebody who is already a big name actor who is going to fit the bill, so there’s more openness to putting actors who have not necessarily starred in a movie as a star in a movie.”
She then cited a role she is currently casting as an example of how casting authentically often requires a less traditional approach, tapping social media influencers with large followings in demographically relevant communities to help get the word out.
“Specificity is very high on this one. A 17 year old Iranian-American girl who is an excellent dancer. Breakdancer specifically.”
Panelists also encouraged the actors in the audience to develop relationships with casting directors they want to work with, stressing the importance of always presenting their authentic selves and keeping the long view in mind.
“I think the big thing, especially in this moment in history as the relationship between actors and casting directors, is that most actors want it to happen right now. And most times it’s not going to happen right now,” said Sherman. “We have a long-term relationship between casting and actors, and the goal as an actor should be to build the relationship, and then the work will follow, as long as you’re preparing yourself for the opportunity.”
Lenker-Doyle agreed, giving a glimpse of how casting directors think and work.
“Presenting yourself in an authentic way, showing us what else you’re interested in as a human being, aside from acting, I’m super interested in that, because that makes you really interesting. That gives me ideas about what you might be right for. […] Even if you’re not right for something that I’m doing right now, I will remember, “Oh yeah, oh, he codes. He knows how to code, that’s super interesting.”
But the onus of casting diversely ultimately rests on casting directors and other stakeholders in any given production.
“I think it is always our responsibility to think outside of the box, in every situation,” Lenker-Doyle explained. “Obviously there are situations where we’re looking for something very specifically authentic, and if that is the case, then it’s hard to kind of go outside of the box. But if we’re presented with a character breakdown that’s very open and neutral, then we’re presenting all sorts of different options, because that’s our job. Across the board. Because it can really go any way. And that’s tonally, that’s, “Oh, this is not what was in your head originally, but what if we tried it? So what if this would work?”
Hood chimed in with his support for opening overly-specific roles to a more diverse talent pool.
“Casting directing has really led the way in pushing back against unnecessary specificity in breakdowns. Why does that best friend have to be yet another white male who can run and play basketball? Why can’t people with diverse backgrounds be in that role?” Hood explained. “But what’s key is [that] the burden shouldn’t [only] fall on the casting director.”
The panel’s message was clear: The responsibility for making sure productions are as inclusive as possible ultimately belongs to everyone.
You can watch the entire discussion on Instagram, hosted by @WeAudition. Skip ahead to 1:20:00 to go straight to the panel talk.