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Uploads, Not Open Calls

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Uploads, Not Open Calls
It's a familiar routine for actors everywhere: Get dressed, check your makeup, fight traffic or subway crowds for an hour or more, then sit in a casting office, poring over sides for the hundredth time as you wait for your name to be called. A few minutes later, you're saying "Thank you" and heading off to your next chance to hurry up and wait. It's just what you have to do to get a job, right? Well, maybe not anymore.

Actor Johanne Marie Maurasse juggles her duties as a mother with long commutes to infrequent auditions across the state of Florida. When she saw a casting notice for the indie thriller "Stopped Dead" on MySpace, she decided to record a brief audition video and upload it from home.

"My husband was at work all night," Maurasse recalled. "My kids were sleeping. I found a way to put my little digital camera on a shelf, and I had something under it to have the right level. And then I made sure that when I pressed Record, my face was in front of the camera. In two hours I was able to figure out the right way to record my audition."

She admits that when she factors in the time it took to rehearse, set up the camera and lights, and upload the video, she might not have saved more than a few minutes compared to driving to a live audition. But Maurasse was glad to avoid the stress of having to schedule an appointment and hire a babysitter—though she assumed the filmmakers would still need to meet with her in person before they'd consider casting her in a feature.

In fact, director Jason L. Liquori contacted her the next day to let her know that her video had impressed him. Rather than ask for another audition, however, Liquori quickly offered her the supporting role of rookie cop Donna Finnigan—based solely on her video. "Stopped Dead" was shot in Apopka, Fla., this summer.

Maurasse's story is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to online auditions. But her experience may become more common.

Go to Network

The increased affordability and accessibility of digital camcorders is allowing more actors like Maurasse to submit audition videos online—arguably a faster and more effective process than sending unsolicited DVDs through the mail. But the homemade nature of those submissions at this point limits their viability as a tool for professionals.

"I'm still a little bit cautious for actors who are signing up for these websites that say, 'Put your reel on here and thousands of casting directors will see it!' " said casting director Paul Russell. "Actually, we don't. Every time I log in to Breakdown Services, for example, I do see the featured video of the day. But I've yet to click on any of those videos in the past five years."

But the wariness of some industry gatekeepers hasn't slowed down one new phenomenon: the online casting contest. MySpace recently partnered with NBC to give performers the opportunity to audition for the current season of "America's Got Talent" by uploading videos, giving those without access to an open call the same chance to compete for the grand prize as those who auditioned live. And Massify.com, a site designed to connect filmmakers, CDs, and actors, has hosted several online competitions to cast roles in film and Web projects; recently it partnered with the indie producer Killer Films ("Boys Don't Cry," "Far From Heaven"). Just don't call it social networking.

"I'd say 'professional networking,' " said Massify CEO Geoff Pitfield. "I view the casting tool as an extension of that. I think the two biggest challenges most people find in this industry are how to promote themselves in a way that they can stand out in a hugely competitive talent marketplace, and once you stand out, how do you find actual work? There are an awful lot of people whose struggles are a rite of passage."

The Casting Contest

Heather Tocquigny, who blogs for BackStage.com about her life as a working actor, applied to a casting contest hosted by Massify last year for the horror film "Ghost in the Machine." She uploaded a 30-second audition video in which she hid in a corner with her cat, then opened a closet door to reveal a stuffed bunny, which the cat promptly attacked. Two weeks of campaigning for votes from friends and family propelled her tongue-in-cheek audition to the semifinals—though not before she'd faced a horror of her own while visiting family in Texas. "There was a tornado warning," Tocquigny recalled, "and my family was in the hallway and they're like, 'Come back here! Get under the mattress!' I was in the living room typing on the computer, trying to get as many votes as I possibly could."

After another round of voting and three days of screen tests in Los Angeles, she was chosen as one of four actors who would travel to Romania to shoot "Ghost in the Machine." Shortly before leaving, however, Tocquigny, a Screen Actors Guild member, was told the film was nonunion, and she felt the opportunity was not worth the risk of being kicked out of SAG.

"I was depressed for a week," she said. "I had spent so many hours, and I had told every single person I know about it. I went out to the streets and passed out fliers. Seriously, I was so driven to win this stupid contest, because one of my goals is to go overseas and film a movie."

Though she did not get to work on the film and hasn't used Massify's services since, Tocquigny said she made useful contacts at the movie's production company, After Dark Films, and has been offered more auditions as a result.

Auditioning Goes Viral

Christopher Howell, on the other hand, credits one online audition video for all his recent success as an actor. Although he didn't win an early Massify casting contest for the horror film "Perkins 14," his submission attracted the attention of other writers and directors using the site.

"It really was improvised," Howell said of his audition, in which he created the character of a murderer. "I walked over and took some red food dye, put it on the end of a knife, turned the camera on, and just went for it. It was done in about a minute and a half, and I just submitted it right after." He has landed four film roles in the past year thanks to contacts he made as a result of that video.

The writer of the film "Serial: Amoral Uprising" approached Howell to star as serial killer Trenton Bracks based primarily on the actor's Massify submission. The movie has since screened in the Chicago area, and Howell has signed on to star in a possible sequel. He also landed roles in the film "Home in the Heartland" and the trailer for "The Door" (which he will star in should it become a feature). In addition, Howell worked as what he called a "glorified extra" with George Clooney on the feature "Up in the Air" after St. Louis casting director Joni Tackette noticed his pictures on Facebook.

Casting directors point out that without the actor in the room, they can't give adjustments to improve a performance, thereby lessening the actor's chance of being cast. But actors who submit audition videos from home say they feel more comfortable in their own environment and don't have to face the blank stare of a fatigued CD at a cattle call.

Don't expect to go from a video shot in your basement to a professional film set in one step. But the videos can level the playing field for actors not in New York or Los Angeles. "A producer recently told me, 'After you casting people leave and the directors leave, I still have to live with these people for a couple of years. I want to know what they're like,' " Russell said. "So they will always want to know what this person is like offstage or offscreen. You're going to have to have that person in front of you at some point."

"I don't think a casting director's primary job is sifting through headshots," Pitfield added. "They bring folks together. That doesn't get replaced by an online tool."

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