Summit ’14: Behind the curtain of the casting calls

From EPs and prodco talent execs to casting company heads and companies offering tech solutions, realscreen has polled stakeholders from across the reality TV spectrum to uncover the methodology behind finding the larger-than-life characters that many networks say they want. (Pictured: The Conlin Company's Sheila Conlin)
January 27, 2014
  • The¬†Casting Call panel session takes place today (January 27) at the Realscreen Summit from 2.30 p.m. EST to 3.30 p.m. EST in the Hilton’s international Ballroom West.

As the unscripted television industry has evolved, so too has the methodology behind finding the larger-than-life characters that every network says it wants. Realscreen polled several reality TV stakeholders – from exec producers and prodco talent execs, to casting company heads and companies offering tech solutions to aid the process – to learn more about what goes into finding talent today.


Sheila Conlin (pictured above), president and CEO, The Conlin Company
Kristi Russell, president, Metal Flowers Media

Russell: In the past our clients would come to us and say, “Okay, we have a show and we need a cast” and we would go out and find that cast for that show. As the landscape for television has changed, we’re now in this position where it’s more like, “Okay, we like this world, but in order to get it off the ground, we have to prove the talent.” A lot of times at that stage, there isn’t a lot of money to find a piece of talent that’s going to sell a show and exist for multiple seasons. In the past year we’ve started to earmark talent that we meet in the store, or that we learn about in the newspaper, or that we find on LexisNexis or on YouTube channels, and we’ve started to create buckets of talent in our database.

We are completely off of Craigslist, and we are completely off of websites that reach out and collect individuals who want to be on television. We have shifted our focus to, instead of finding cast members, finding a piece of talent that could drive a series and we really try to do that by what we used to do 10 years ago, which is on-the-ground casting.

Conlin: I don’t cast off of Craigslist and it’s not a number one tool [for her]. I have a completely different set up and strategy and outreach system that I use. There are levels. If it’s a first-run show I come up with a unique way of finding what is needed and use that first, and simultaneously will work on the second level, which is big outreach – getting the word out all over. And the third, or bottom of the list, would be the postings on the reality casting sites.

Russell: We were in a restaurant in Houston, Texas and the owner was walking around, larger than life, shaking hands with everybody, buying people bottles of champagne. I approached him and talked to him a little bit about his restaurant and other ventures that he has and as his story unfolded it became obvious he had a very rich life. We got him on camera and we are now in talks about developing a show with him for a particular client. When you, with a casting eye, can look at somebody who is owning a room without even trying to, nine time out of 10, they are going to own an episode and they will jump off the screen just like they’re jumping out of the room.

Conlin: I like more grassroots and one on one, going after and finding people, and talking to them. So I have people across the United States and in Europe if I’m casting globally. I do have specific people and resources that I go to. We also have the big open casting calls, and they’re usually great – they bring us great people and great finds. That’s getting to be less and less because of the budgets, and it’s hurting our ability to get the authentic characters out there.

You have the best technology – I have a great database, a great system. But it’s still about finding the people. It’s like a dating site – a million people can apply but until you meet them face to face, that’s not the person you’re going to marry.



Sasha Alpert, EVP in charge of casting, Bunim/Murray Productions
Lauren Lexton, co-founder and executive producer, and Paul O’Malley, VP of casting and talent,¬†Authentic Entertainment

O’Malley: Skype is obviously my best friend because I get to talk to people. I can find someone at 10 a.m. and Skype them by 2 p.m., edit by 6 p.m. and have them at the network by 7 p.m. My team uses Twitter a lot. We’re doing a show on GSN right now, and we’re tweeting a lot at people we can’t get a hold of, so Twitter has been very helpful for direct-messaging them. Technology has been nothing short of amazing, efficiency-wise.

Alpert: For The Real World, it was about getting seven people who wouldn’t normally be together in one room, living together, so we have to look all over the country, and in the past it’s been all over the world. We do a tremendous amount of Skype interviews and the quality of the Skype interviews has gotten so much better so you don’t have to go to open calls all over the place.

Lexton: We’re only looking for someone who pops, and that’s another good thing about these technologies – even though you always have to explore further, the first impression is really an important thing to look for.

O’Malley: It’s tough in LA because in LA everyone’s an actor and they don’t want their agent to know they’re going out for reality to make extra money. Authentic hasn’t taken on too many shows where we have to take the route of casting solely in LA. We cast all over the country. I haven’t had to deal with it too much. I think we’re pretty good judges of character. You can kind of tell right off the bat.

Alpert: We use Facebook a lot more than we used to, especially for a show like The Real World or Bad Girls Club where it’s more about the general population. There are certainly tools available to find people but there’s something great about hearing these people talk on the phone. There’s something great about having that one-on-one connection.

O’Malley: One thing I can’t stress enough is to take every email seriously. People pitch us and there are pages and pages of their lives that you’ve got to have someone read through because you just never know. There could be someone in Wyoming that runs a business and is amazing and you’ve got to just make sure you take time.

Alpert: The people that have a high degree of honesty about who they are reveal themselves to you. There’s something extremely believable [about them], and some people can’t help but be themselves. That’s what a lot of people respond to.



Eli Abayan, CEO and founder, eTribez
Vinnie Potestivo, president, Vinnie Potestivo Entertainment and creator, Project Reality

Abayan: We are a technology company based in Israel, and we have an office in LA and we’re opening another office in London. We’re working with American Idol, The X-Factor (U.S.), America’s Got Talent, we’re doing The Voice in two countries, MasterChef, The Chase in the UK, Big Brother and Wipeout. We also do smaller cast shows, such as docureality, and game shows.

Potestivo: [Project Reality] is all about a pipeline, all about the work flow. A user comes to the site on the front end and is automatically matched to the projects that are happening on the site. If they’re matched, the top 30% are given a call to action, which is either a questionnaire or specific video instructions on what to record, [such as] five questions a producer would think to be necessary to answer to get a good gauge of who they are before they have to make the phone calls and follow up. The first thing we do is put the onus of introduction on the user side, but we allow them to open a path of communication between the casting director, network exec or production company.

Abayan: With eTribez, the process is that they apply to the show [through] online auditions, customized to each show’s needs. A talent show’s would be much different from those of a cooking show. One side is with the candidates using our system from home, and they create a username and a password to enter our system and they can then fill in a questionnaire and upload videos. On the other hand, the production company has its own management system, with a lot of selection tools, and a dashboard to control the process with graphic tools [through which] they can design the system with specific roles with automatic opportunities.

We have the technology [but with] everyone who applies for a specific show, the production [company] has the power to choose whether to follow up with the candidate. We don’t make the decision.

Potestivo: Casting is about finding people and now development has turned into finding people, since it’s such a character-driven world. Here is the opportunity to find people and authentically create worlds around them without having to leave your office. I think that’s really important because you look at the landscape of reality TV programming and it’s everywhere. The only way we can be everywhere is through technology to streamline the process.

Abayan: The technology can help with the process, both during and after. When I started this two and a half years ago, I met a big production company in LA and I was consulting [for] them, and I asked, “After you’ve done casting for a big show, you’ve had 10,000 candidates. What do you with the information? Do you have a database?” And they said, “Sure we have a database!” When I asked them to show me, they took me to the storage and showed all the binders with all the printed papers from the candidates. You can create assets here, for a production company or a network, which are very valuable. There’s so much to do here with digital, so be open-minded and embrace it.

Potestivo: Try to eliminate the variables of what it takes to make that connection. I don’t need to be looking for a needle in a haystack, I can be looking in a needle pile. (With files from Barry Walsh)



About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.