Understanding the Dreaded Allback

by Casting Director Justin Radley, CCDA

            It’s 4:45 on a Friday afternoon, and we’re still waiting for callback selects from the agency.  It’s a little frustrating, since our last day of casting was two days ago, and the callback is supposed to start at 9:00AM tomorrow (Saturday) morning.  I know the agency creative team is flying into town today, so I’ll resist the urge to send another email nagging the producer for their picks.  The director gave us his picks this morning.  He had a decent number of choices, about 5 or 6 for each role, and more importantly, he was really happy with the overall casting.  It’s a good sign the callback tomorrow will be short enough that I might make it to my son’s baseball game Saturday afternoon.  Fingers crossed.

            Okay, here’s an email from the agency producer.  It’s a list of selects from the agency creative director.  Great.  I should be able to get out of here in time to make my Friday night dinner plans.  Our associate Erin marks the selects and schedules the callback.  The creative director has about the same number of selects as the director, but very few of their picks overlap.  The callback schedule runs a little longer than it should, but it’s manageable.  Erin’s just about to send out the times when another email from the producer arrives with the subject line, “Chuck’s picks.”  Who’s Chuck? The email has a new list of selects.  Chuck must be someone else on the agency creative team – maybe the writer. 

            Chuck has a lot of picks.  I guess he really liked the casting- Oh wait.  There’s a note at the bottom of the email.  It says, “nobody really nailed it for me.”  Crap.  Guess he didn’t really like the casting.  Then why does he have so many callback selects? Erin reschedules the callback.  Now it’s a long callback.  Forget about the game tomorrow.  Just get these times out, head to dinner, and have a margarita.  What’s this? Another email from the agency producer.  Subject line, “Jana’s picks.”  More picks? At least Jana was selective.  She only chose 3 or 4 per role.  But how is it possible that not a single one overlaps with the other three sets of callback selects? Erin reschedules.  I email the producer to find out if we have everyone’s picks.  He confirms.  Erin sends out the times.  I look over the schedule -- 120 people.  That’s a big callback; especially considering there are only 6 characters.  What strikes me even more than the size of the callback is how little overlap there is between everyone’s selects.  It’s as though everyone has a different vision in mind of what will work best in the commercial. 

            If you have ever found yourself in a callback lobby full of more than fifteen people there for the same role, odds are better than fair that things played out in a similar manner as what I just described.  More than once I’ve heard an actor in a crowded lobby grumble something about the session being an “allback.” For those who have never heard the euphemism, an “allback” is a slang term used to refer to a callback in which seemingly every actor who auditioned for a role gets called back for it.  I’ve seen as many as 50 people called back for a single role before.  A callback like that is especially frustrating for a casting director.  Logic would suggest that the more people called back for a role, the more likely we are to find an actor who nails the role perfectly, leaving both director and agency creative team happy and fulfilled to move along to their merry shoot.  Unfortunately, the allback often proves to be just the opposite.  Instead of leaving everyone happy and fulfilled, they often end the day exhausted, frustrated, and a little bit befuddled as to why nobody really nailed the role.  Not only does the allback make for a long, monotonous day, it also represents a complete failure of the casting process, which has a primary purpose of narrowing the field of prospective actors for a particular role each step of the way.

In most cases, six to eight people per role is a healthy number of actors to call back.  That’s enough people to select a first choice, a backup, and even a 3rd choice to keep in the back pocket if the client doesn’t like the top two presented.  If there are a lot more than that, it could be an indication that the creative powers are not aligned, and that everyone involved in making the decisions has a different vision of what would work best.  While the primary purpose of the casting process is to narrow the field of actors for each role, what many actors don’t realize is that casting also serves other purposes in the creative process.  The auditions are usually the first time the creative team gets to see real actors performing the written words the client hired the agency to write.  Therefore, the creative team tends to use casting as a forum to workshop the material.  In the casting session they see different actors put their own personal spins on the words on the page.  Sometimes the material works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  When the material doesn’t seem to be working in the casting session, a key question is raised:  Is there a problem with the actors who were brought in to audition for the spot, or is the problem with the script itself? If the beats of the script are not clear, there is a lot of room for interpretation in a script – even one as short as thirty seconds.

The callback is often the first time the director and agency creatives are all in the same room together to talk about the project.  They may have had a conference call to talk about casting, but many times they are in different cities until they all converge at the callback studio.  When they finally get to see the actors perform the script in person, with all of them in the same room, then they can really focus on what works and what doesn’t in the material.  They can play around with the way the actors approach different beats in the script.  Ultimately, they can have face-to-face conversations about what creative decisions are going to make the best spot they can make.

That Saturday callback ended up running more smoothly than I expected. Before we began, the director had a little pow-wow with the agency creatives.  It turned out the director thought there were some problems with the script, but he didn’t want to bring it up to the agency creative team until he met with them face-to-face.  The director had some ideas about what to change, and Chuck and Jana quickly went to work to fine-tune those beats in the script that weren’t clear.  We started the callback about a half hour late, but the time they took to revise the script at the beginning of the day was well worth it.  With a tighter script, it was much easier to tell which actors could really connect with the material, and for most of the roles, certain actors stood out, making the decisions at the end of the day relatively easy.   

Actors tend to get frustrated, and sometimes discouraged, when they see a large number of people called back for the same role they are trying to book.  Understanding what causes an allback might eliminate some of that frustration, so you can focus on what’s important – staying in the moment while you’re in the callback room.  If you do your job, which is to bring your own personal approach to the material, then the creative powers in the callback room can do their job, which is to find the actors who are best suited for each role.  Oh, and in case you were wondering, my son’s team won 6-5.