How to Use a Casting Breakdown to Get Good ActorsWhat you need to know about Hollywood's hallowed casting tool.
“Your casting breakdown should serve as an advertisement of sorts – a means to get the most exciting actors eager to play the roles in the script.”
For every filmmaker, there comes a point in the process where it’s time. You’ve written the script – you’ve dreamed up the perfect production – you’ve found the locations and picked out the dates. Now, something magical needs to take hold: your cast.
At this point, it’s time to get your brain wrapped around a document that, if you haven’t gone through the casting process before, might be new to you: the “casting breakdown.” Simply put, a casting breakdown is a document that tells the reader what roles are being cast for a film. It is used as a way to communicate to actors and/or their agents or managers what roles are available, so that they can evaluate which roles they would like to be considered for.
As someone who formerly worked in talent management, I can tell you that for actors and their agents and managers, breakdowns are everything. They are mined daily for potential leads on roles, and they are used in preparation for auditions. They’re a very prominent, very important piece of the casting puzzle. If you are an indie filmmaker who is hoping to go through the casting process, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with casting breakdowns.
So let’s talk more about what a breakdown is, how it comes to be, and how it functions in the pre-production process! We’ll also share guidelines for your own breakdown so that you can be sure you’re including the most important pieces of information.
What information should I include in a casting breakdown?
In short, a casting breakdown is a document that contains important information about a film and the roles that are being cast for that film. It will typically involve a logline and synopsis along with a list of facts, including:
- The title of the film
- Who wrote it
- Who’s directing
- Who’s producing
- What production company or studio is associated with the film
- Whether or not the film is union (SAG/AFTRA)
- Whether the project is a feature or a short
- When the film is shooting (a range of dates, so that actors can evaluate whether or not they’d be available)
- Where the film is shooting (a general locale)
It also includes a list of roles that are being cast, accompanied by a blurb about each character that explains:
- Whether the role is a lead, major supporting character, or minor supporting role
- What sort of person the character is; ie., “A shy and quiet guy” or “An outgoing dynamo who is always the most popular guy in the room.”
- A description of what that character’s role is in the overall story of the film.
In the entertainment industry in the United States, most breakdowns are posted on a site called breakdownexpress.com. Agencies, management companies, and actors themselves go to that site to look for new breakdowns and to find out how to submit actors for consideration for roles in films. Although some new players are emerging in the casting world, for the purposes of clarity throughout our discussion here, we’ll use breakdownexpress.com as a reference point for where breakdowns are posted.
You may also have heard the term “casting notice.” The two terms mean somewhat the same thing, with “breakdown” being the term that’s used officially within professional film circles, and “casting notice” being more of a term used for smaller projects that aren’t necessarily plugged into the “system” that is Hollywood. (Stay tuned for more on how the concepts of breakdowns can be applied to indie filmmaking in just a bit).
2 examples of a casting breakdown
To help you visualize what a casting breakdown actually looks like, here are two classic examples:
Who writes a casting breakdown?
On a production that is big enough to have a dedicated casting team, the casting director and/or his or her assistants write the casting breakdown.
Notably, the screenwriter does not typically write the breakdown. Of course, this is not the case if – as is the case on some smaller indie films – the screenwriter is also acting as the casting director, the producer, and the director. But in a traditional “Hollywood” setup where a casting director is managing the casting process, the screenwriter is not typically involved at that stage. So, all of the information in the casting breakdown is based on the director and casting director’s reads of the script and the director’s interpretation of and vision for turning the script into a film.
The takeaway for writers, here, is that once your script has moved out of the writing phase and into pre-production (and then eventually, production), it is, by and large, out of your hands. That means that your script needs to be as fully fleshed-out and crystal clear as you want the film made from it to be. Many new writers falsely think that they’ll get to meet with the production team on the regular to explain the script, but that isn’t the case. The script is its own tool within the production process, and it needs to stand on its own without the writer there to explain or bolster it.
How is the casting breakdown used in pre-production?
When the casting director is ready to begin the casting process, they’ll write the breakdown and prepare it for release. In many cases, the breakdown is reviewed by the producer, director, or production team to make sure that the information within the breakdown lines up with the creative team’s vision for the film.
The casting breakdown is then released via breakdownexpress.com, where agents, managers, and actors themselves read the breakdown. The breakdown will include information about how actors should be submitted for each role. Usually, “materials” – ie., a headshot and resume – are submitted digitally right through breakdownexpress.com.
If an actor might be right for a role, his or her agent/manager (or the actor him/herself if he or she is unrepresented) will submit the actor for consideration. If the casting department is interested in bringing any of these actors in for auditions, they’ll typically get in touch with the agent or manager (or actor) directly to schedule an audition.
For the actor, the casting breakdown serves as a first taste of what the project could offer in terms of artistic exploration and career-boosting performance potential. It offers a glimpse into the roles that are available, as well as a summation of what type of character each role is. It has the potential to get someone excited about playing the role (as the filmmaker, that should be your goal when it comes to actors!).
As such, the writing in the breakdown should be inspired and articulate. You don’t want to feel like it’s a humdrum explanation of who each character is. Instead, your casting breakdown should serve as an advertisement of sorts – a means to get the most exciting actors eager to play the roles in the script.
How can I use breakdowns in my own filmmaking process?
If you are open to casting actors out of the major talent markets in the United States – New York and Los Angeles – then submitting breakdowns on breakdownexpress.com can be a great way to connect with pools of talent that will potentially be a good fit for your film.
It’s worth noting, however, that if you are shooting somewhere outside of where an actor lives – ie., you’re shooting in Michigan but your actor is based in New York – then you’ll be expected to transport that actor to your production location as well as give them safe and comfortable accommodations throughout the duration of filming. That isn’t always feasible on every indie film’s budget, which is why many films cast locally. If you hire an actor who is local to a location, the expectation is that he or she will sleep at his or her own house each night, and you will not be responsible for housing during the shoot.
So, there are two routes to go with that: you can do your shoot in New York or LA, or you can hire actors who live wherever you are shooting. As this article about casting micro-budget films explains, there are talented actors nearly everywhere, so don’t feel like you have to be in New York or LA to succeed.
If you are filming somewhere that is outside of the LA/NY bubble of film industry activity, it could make sense to get grassroots with your efforts to connect with actors. Some methods of reaching out to the community might include:
- Posting casting notices on bulletin boards in cafes, libraries, and other public gathering spaces
- Reaching out to local acting troupes
- Getting in touch with local acting schools
- Posting notices on college campuses
- Posting to online resources such as Craigslist
- Getting in touch with local casting directors
- It’s worth mentioning that students enrolled in our online film school also have the opportunity to connect with each other, opening the door to potential collaboration opportunities.
Any of these options can be great for letting people know that you’re casting a film and that you’d like to hear from actors who may be interested in being in it. It’s important to note that when you’re doing that, even if you aren’t posting the notice on breakdownexpress.com, it makes a ton of sense to let your notice take the shape and form of an official breakdown. As with many things in Hollywood, casting breakdowns are a tradition for a reason. They contain really practical, really necessary information. They’re a great way to communicate to potential collaborators what you’re up to, what you need, and what role they might fill.
Be mindful in your writing!
If you’re writing a casting breakdown for your own film, you will naturally have a lot of feelings about what you’re expressing on the page. You have a vision for your film, and finding your cast is one of the big steps you’re going to take toward making that vision a reality. As Lynne Marie Rosenberg shares in her sometimes funny, often cringe-worthy review of what not to write in a breakdown:
“On a public level, the mistakes that are made, the lack of mindfulness, and both the subtle and overt stereotypes are a direct reflection on our industry and culture at large. But on a personal level, actors are real humans reading and being defined by the character descriptions to which we ‘submit’ on a daily basis. Please, craft your words carefully.”
Lynn’s post is worth a read. She talks about the importance of carefully approaching issues such as race and physical features in a casting breakdown, which is a good lesson not only from a casting standpoint, but also from a writing standpoint. Sometimes writers feel compelled to nail down who each character is in terms of ethnicity and physical appearance. And while it is important to bolster your screenplay with visual writing, unless it’s story-essential, it isn’t always necessary to nail down a specific ethnicity for a character, which leaves that decision open for casting. You can challenge norms with ethnicity, age, and gender.
As you’re writing, ask yourself: does a character HAVE to be ethnicity (X)? Age (Y)? Gender (Z)? Sometimes, absolutely, they do – but not always. As a writer, you have the power to create roles for a diverse range of actors.
A casting breakdown template for your film project
Here’s a casting breakdown template to help guide you – it’s the information you should plan to include in your document:
- Written By:
- Directed By:
- Produced By:
- Length of the project (short versus feature):
- Shooting location:
- Shooting dates:
- Logline (a 1-2 line “teaser” of what your film about. You don’t need to give away major plot points, here; instead, explore the basic action and theme of the film):
- Synopsis (a 3-4 line description, more in-depth and nuts-and-bolts than the logline):
- A list of roles, including for each role: the character’s name; ethnicity, age range, and gender (where necessary); whether the role is a lead, major supporting role, or minor role; and a 3-4 line description of the character’s major personality traits and the role they play in the overall story of the film.
What do you think? Have you ever written your own casting breakdown? What about your own casting notice? What did you include in it? Where did you post it? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
Want to learn more about casting breakdowns, casting notices, and more generally, how to cast your indie film?
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