Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists

How COVID-19 Affects Casting

One of the most prolonged and tricky aspects of pre-production has always been the casting process. COVID-19 has further complicated things by requiring even more organization, specificity, time, and money than pre-pandemic projects.

To successfully cast your next production without exposing your cast and crew to unnecessary risks, we recommend the following steps:

  • Start early
  • Prepare your protocols in advance
  • Be specific with your casting director
  • Rely on technology
  • Trust the locals

This article is designed to help you navigate the casting process during a pandemic. If we are careful and plan, we can still find the perfect cast while keeping everyone safe.

Start Early

As we have discussed in our previous article on scheduling, everything is taking longer during this pandemic. While this is undoubtedly true for all aspects of a production, the pandemic adds time to the casting process by forcing us to start earlier than we would have in pre-pandemic times.

Two main elements will add to our casting timelines: contingency casting, and quarantine time.

Contingency Casting

COVID-19 requires that we cast a wide casting net. Because anyone can contract the virus at any time, actors can easily go from COVID-19-negative to COVID-19-positive during the casting process. For this reason, it is a good idea to have several alternates lined-up for your key roles. This could possibly mean putting more than one actor “on avail” for the same role until the quarantine process begins.

Be sure to double-check with talent agents and union reps when lining up alternates. Depending on your production type, there may be additional pay rates associated with this process.

Quarantine Time

We also must start the casting process early to account for quarantine times. If your budget and production schedule allow, we highly recommend that you have your key cast members quarantine for up to two weeks before production begins.

During this quarantine period, we should have our actors safely and comfortably isolated. We want to have our cast test negative at least twice before production begins.

This does not have to be an unproductive time. Video conferencing technology can allow for isolation while also providing the means for rehearsals, consultations with the director, and many other opportunities to turn quarantine time into a productive period.

Again, be sure to check your talents’ contracts and consult with union reps before beginning the quarantine. You may have to compensate them for their time.

Prepare Your Protocols in Advance

During these uncertain times, many actors— and their reps— are asking what COVID-19 Protocols productions have in place before they agree to work on a new project. So it is imperative to on-board a risk management team trained for COVID-19 as early as you can.

A risk management team will help you define specific safety protocols you can share with above-the-line talent or their reps. Reassuring prospective talent that your set will be a safe place will go a long way to landing your dream cast.

Since casting may depend on the robustness of your safety procedures, we highly recommend getting them in place before you begin the casting process. This will save you time and energy. Most importantly, however, it will keep you from getting any unnecessary rejections from desired cast members.

Be Specific with Your Casting Director

With all this extra time and expense already added to our productions, we can’t afford to drag out timelines unnecessarily. To keep a production on schedule, we need to be as specific as we can with our casting directors (CDs).

CDs are invaluable members of any successful production, but they are not magicians. They can only find the types of actors we tell them we need. The more vague and open-ended our list of wants, the longer and more complicated the casting process becomes.

In a pre-COVID-19 world, many of us depended on the keen eye and insightful advice of casting directors to help us home in on what we are looking for. In the coronavirus era, this is a luxury we simply cannot afford. We must work with our creative team to nail down what each character requires, then translate that as clearly as possible to our CDs.

Clear communication and razor-sharp specificity will help shorten the casting timeline and keep our productions on budget during an already taxed casting process.

Rely on Technology

There are many apps and websites that enable your casting director to read an actor while remaining socially distant. Most of these platforms allow CDs to record the sessions for easy sharing with the creative team. As the LA Times recently reported, the audition process in Hollywood has seen a spike in a reliance on video conferencing technology and self-taping.

Self-tape auditions have been on the rise for the last fifteen years. Most professional, working actors have a go-to taping location or an in-home studio set-up. During the pandemic, we should rely on this technology as much as possible.

Self-tape auditions do not allow for the vital give-and-take of a typical audition. They should, therefore, be used primarily as a first-round options. Once the pool of actors has been narrowed, then the auditioning process can move to video conferencing platforms.

The goal should be to minimize— or eliminate when possible— in-person auditions. Relying on tech and following local guidelines helps make the casting process safer. But we must never forget general COVID-19 safety procedures: maintain proper social distancing, wear a mask, wash our hands.

Trust the Locals

When it comes to the small acting roles in our productions, we should turn to trusted, experienced local casting directors. In previous articles, we have recommended shooting in production hubs because they have local crews, cut down on travel, and have film commissions that can assist with location scouting. Most production hubs are also home to great local casting directors.

As we mentioned in our article on Location Scouting, we should delegate the minutia to trusted members of our crews wherever possible. Local casting directors in production hubs have this process down to a science and can be trusted to take quite a bit off our plates.

A local casting director can find all the background actors, under-fives, and bit parts we need. At the same time, a high-profile CD can focus on the marquis talent. Separating the work in this way can even help shorten the casting timeframe.

If your next project must be shot beyond the reach of a production hub, it is still worth contacting a trusted regional CD. Many regional CDs cover a large territory and are accustomed to traveling for projects. The casting world is also a small one; casting directors know who can get the job done out in the production hinterlands.

Bottom Line

COVID-19 has made the casting process more complicated than ever before. This does not mean that we won’t find the right actors for our projects. It means that we must take extra time. We should prepare safety protocols in advance, work with trusted casting professionals in production hubs, and turn to technology to reduce contact points.

The right actors perform alchemy by turning characters on a page into real human beings. We can still witness that beautiful alchemy in the coronavirus era. We just need to take a little extra care first.

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.