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The Ethical Dilemma of the Modern Self Tape

In our digital age, actors audition from anywhere. actors and those behind the audition table conduct more auditions with less hassle all around. I mean, all actors have to do is press record on their phones and go until they get their favorite take, right?

Not entirely wrong.

An actor myself, there are significantly less nerves since I can make as many mistakes as I want. Yet, actors are navigating an unregulated, sometimes innapropriate, self-tape process. There are many sides to this rapidly evolving ethical dilemma in the entertainment industry.

“Self-tape has made auditioning more democratic,” Marc Hirschfeld argues in this Deadline article.

“I can see a lot more actors… that’s an advantage for actors who are not with the big agencies because I take more shots on actors whose work I don’t know, they might be with a smaller agency or manager who submits them. I think that’s leveled the playing field in many ways.”

Hirschfeld noted how, with fellow casting director Geralyn Flood, he saw 1,700 young actors on self-tape from all over the country for Netflix’s That ’90s Show, with newcomers from Texas, Connecticut and Nevada ultimately making the cut.

This all sounds like a win-win… what’s this ethical dilemma with the modern self tape?

Actress Sprague Grayden tells Deadline: “...the production value of the tape matters to some producers… Since the pandemic, [I receive] self-tape instructions from some casting offices that request lighting without shadows, the best sound possible [with no background noise], a reader, and slates that zoom in from a face closeup to a full body shot. These are requests to up our production values and are difficult for many actors to fulfill at home.”

There has been a boom in self-tape studios “that charge actors to make their videos look more professional, making thespians spend [ample time and] money on jobs most of them won’t get.”

I myself have spent well over $1,000 dollars on my at home self tape studio (mostly funded by Penn State’s SEN Grant- thanks PSU!) in order to try to get my own tapes to standard. Here’s a shot of it for reference, and the picture it produces.

On top of a possible Writer’s Guild strike, the escalation of self-tape-related issues has created a rift in the traditionally strong bond between actors and casting directors.

“I have no proof that casting offices watch my tapes,” Sprague told Deadline. We usually don’t get confirmation of receipt, feedback, or even just a thank you. “Actors feel like they are sending our work into the void.”

Casting directors are eager to repair what they call a “special relationship.”

Veteran casting director Bonnie Zane has “personally have always fought for — even without self-tapes — is the amount of pages and the amount of sides. I don’t think you need to be sending off more than a couple of scenes for auditions; we are [hearing about] people [being given] 12-13-14 pages.”

Sprague agrees. “As an actor, I spend anywhere from at least 15-30 minutes per page on a script before I even think about putting it on tape. When I get asked to do a 3 scene, 9 page audition, the least the casting director can do is watch the entirety of the tape, as I’m not getting paid to audition.”

I asked another actor friend of mine, PJ Witkowski, to weigh in his experiences on the matter. He agrees with Zane and Sprague as well. “The most challenging thing about selftapes right now is the length. At [my] best I do a three-page scene with a monologue or two, but more often than not I’m being asked to prepare seven, eight, nine [plus] pages of text spanning multiple scenes per project. Any actor auditioning as much as an actor should be auditioning is filming dozens and dozens of pages a week for first round castings.”

Indeed, many casting directors know within “a few seconds” whether or not they are interested in a certain actor. Per usual, an actor submits headshot, resume, and reels to the casting director. The hope is that casting will know one of two things from these materials: could we cast this actor for this part or not?

PJ offers: “Callbacks! If I’m being called back for a job, give me those three scenes to prepare for you. If you’re sending out an open casting call, keep it to one scene. It doesn’t take more than 10 seconds to be able to tell whether or not you want to call an actor back... Respect actors’ time and you’ll get even better performances in return.”

Well said, PJ.

Still, unless studios and the Casting Society of America set uniform self-tape standards that make filming at home the norm, actors, desperate to book a part, would likely keep shelling out money to have their audition video produced professionally with the hope that it could give them a leg up.

Added CD Lenker Doyle, “Casting professionals genuinely care about actors, and are committed to finding our way back to working harmoniously. Actors are the answer to the problem we are trying to solve. We want you to succeed, we NEED you to succeed, and we are always championing you – both outwardly and behind the scenes.”

We are in a new, unprecedented age for the acting industry and there are bound to be rough spots.

We’re all on the same boat. Nobody’s at direct fault. However, sharing perspectives from all sides of the table is critical to making the whole machine work as smoothly and fairly as possible.


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