A few hours after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this summer that it had created a new branch for casting directors, I jumped on the phone with filmmaker Tom Donahue. I’d interviewed Donahue a few weeks earlier for a piece on his new film, “Casting By,” about the evolution of the casting director’s oft-misunderstood role in Hollywood, and I wanted to know whether he thought it coincidence that the Academy’s announcement arrived just days before “Casting By” was scheduled to premiere on HBO.
“I know it probably is not entirely coincidental,” he said. I don’t think he was joking.
I also don’t think he was wrong. Donahue’s film, which took eight years to make, assembled perhaps the greatest collection of Hollywood talent ever in a movie. (How great? So great that George Lucas was left on the cutting room floor. In filmmaking, the exclusion of George Lucas is essential to greatness.) With Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Glenn Close, Woody Allen, and dozens more like them providing the star wattage, Donahue turned up the heat on the Academy. His film indicts AMPAS for two crimes: singling out casting directors as the only title-card credited craftspeople denied their own Oscar category and refusing to bestow an honorary Oscar on Marion Dougherty, the pioneering casting director who helped launch countless careers.
In “Casting By,” public enemy No. 1 is former Directors Guild of America president Taylor Hackford, who makes a spectacular ass of himself as he smirks his way through talk-radio-worthy rants against CDs, stopping just short of blaming them for everything from the decline of our democratic process to the functionality of healthcare.gov. But public enemy No. 2 is AMPAS.
No one can know the ways of the Academy, with its snooty airs and (rumored) live-animal sacrifices. But it’s a safe bet that some AMPAS muckety-mucks have eyed “Casting By” warily since it premiered to much acclaim at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where HBO purchased the movie’s distribution rights. For any documentarian not named Herzog, Morris, or Gibney, the best of all possible worlds is one in which an HBO deal awaits. But said deal also relegates a movie to television—film’s lesser-cousin industry, the one where people like Seth MacFarlane, Honey Boo Boo, and the staff of “Morning Joe” ply their trades, and where an Emmy is what passes for being honored by one’s peers.
To expand their awards horizon, the producers of “Casting By” have plotted a theatrical release. The first screenings will take place Nov. 1 in New York, followed by a Nov. 8 opening in Los Angeles. An Oscar nomination, or even a win, is not out of the question for a movie as well-made and well-liked as “Casting By.” (One critic, reflecting the general response to the film, called it “a compelling case for a Hollywood-gone-by when gut instincts, risk-taking and a dark-horse mentality could trump corporate meddling and box office slavishness.”) Either would send a clear message to an Academy that appears to be paying attention: The time is overdue for a casting Oscar category and a posthumous recognition of Dougherty. Both would go a long way toward demonstrating that the Academy—whose membership was revealed in a 2012 Los Angeles Times report to be overwhelmingly white, male, and old—is at long last modernizing.
But no Oscar campaign strikes gold unless people see the film. Actors and casting directors should check out a screening of “Casting By” in the coming weeks and encourage others, particularly those who work in the movie business, to do the same. (New Yorkers who want a seat at Backstage’s free screening of the film Nov. 5 at 9 p.m. at Cinema Village can RSVP with their full names and the word “casting” in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org.) Butts in the seats lead to buzz, which leads to influencers taking notice, which leads to something to do with whatever Malcom Gladwell is always going on about. They also maybe lead to Academy recognition and a huge step toward positive change in the film industry.
Plus, there are worse movies you could go see. A lot of them.
Daniel Holloway is executive editor of Backstage.