Talent finds tape is taking over the town

Youth Impact Report 2011

Like the kids themselves, youth casting is getting tech savvy: auditions recorded by digital camera, submitted by via email or Vimeo, followed by callbacks over Skype.

“It’s become an integral part of the business,” says United Talent Agency youth guru Mitchell Gossett. “There’s not a single casting office in town that doesn’t accept it on a daily basis” — where “it” is so-called “tape,” an endearingly old-school name for the process by which actors record their own auditions via iPhone or Flip cam and submit the videos for casting consideration.

The biz still refers to it as “tape” because that’s how it started: With bulky, 3/4-inch cassettes being overnight-shipped back and forth across the country from out-of-town cattle calls. If the recordings were made overseas, they had to be transferred from PAL to NTSC before casting directors could watch them — not an easy process, even just a few years ago, when the practice had shifted to DVD.

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Gossett, who began his career as a Gotham-based actor, remembers his first brush with tape: “They were casting for a war movie — I think it was ‘Platoon’ — and they were looking for 18- to 25-year-old actors,” he says. “They had a call in Times Square: ‘We will tape your audition.’ This was a huge deal. I waited on line for eight hours for a two-minute audition that they put on VHS tape. Now they put it on email.”

Stories abound of kids landing significant roles on the basis of taped auditions.

That’s how Jodie Foster picked Riley Thomas Stewart to play Mel Gibson’s youngest kid in “The Beaver,” arranging a video conference over Skype when the actor couldn’t make it to New York. Clint Eastwood cast Devon Conti as Angelina Jolie’s replacement son in “The Changeling” from tape, and the kid didn’t meet either the director or his co-star until the day he showed up on set. And “Big Time Rush” co-star Ciara Bravo was on a school field trip in Amish country when she got the callback on her tape, so her mother scrambled to make a new video and find the nearest Internet connection where she could send it in for exec producer Scott Fellows to watch.

So, while the taping process has hardly replaced the old model — in which aspiring young actors had to uproot their families, move to L.A.’s Oakwood Apartments and then schlep to every audition possible in hopes of getting noticed — it dramatically widens the talent pool for casting directors. It also allows kids to grow up and have a normal life at home, wherever that might be.

“Most of my clients are out-of-towners,” confides manager Christopher Rockwell. “For a lot of them, it’s a lifestyle choice. But we’re just as aggressive going on tape and getting them jobs. I think it’s very possible for young clients to book work that way. You have situations where people are doing extensive searches to cast certain lead roles, reviewing tapes from all over the world hoping to discover that ‘right’ person for their project.”

Access to an international field of actors is crucial for casting director John Papsidera as he looks to fill 10 young roles for “Ender’s Game,” a future-set young-adult adventure seeking a multi-ethnic cast. “So many actors would jump off buildings if they understood how random casting can be sometimes — being at the right place at the right time,” Papsidera says. “Certainly technology cuts into that now, because it doesn’t have to do with where somebody is geographically.”

For most casting directors, however, the hassle of reviewing taped submissions is only worth it for series-regular or significant feature roles, whereas commercials, TV and smaller parts are often designated “local hire only,” for practical purposes.

Even then, rare is the chance for an undiscovered thesp to submit by tape. Typically, young actors first need to land representation, relying on agents and managers to tip them off about specific casting opportunities and to help submit the tape to the right people. Chandler Canterbury (“Plastic Jesus”), Sarah Bolger (“The Spiderwick Chronicles”), Natalia Dyer (“The Healer”) and Nathan Gamble (“Dolphin Tale”) all audition by tape far from Los Angeles, occasionally flying to town for in-person meetings — just like many adult actors.

Although thesps of all ages audition via tape, the process seems uniquely suited to children. Youth managers like using taped auditions because it allows infinite do-overs, giving them a chance to review their clients’ videos and offer notes before submitting. (Another trick: by using YouSendIt.com, they can monitor download counts and anticipate callbacks.) Casting directors, meanwhile, appreciate having so many more options to consider.

“I absolutely look at every tape that comes my way,” says kid-casting pro Geralyn Flood (“Big Time Rush”). “More than anything, it means I get the opportunity to see more kids in my day. I may have a session from 11 to 1 and 2 to 5, but then I can go home at night and watch all the videos. With kids, it’s important to see as many kids as possible, because you never know.”

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