Casting Software Company That Found ‘Ready Player One’s Phillip Zhao Sees Uptick In Open Calls For Diverse Players


EXCLUSIVE: Open calls for casting. It’s something the entertainment industry has used for ages, sometimes to find new talent to fill major roles and other times to find just the right fit for a role that is otherwise hard to cast. The young Phillip Zhao found his way into the Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One through this process. Zhao’s father submitted a video shot in their Maryland living room and his was selected out of a few thousand submissions for the role of Shoto.

The call was for a 10- to 13-year-old male, fluent in Mandarin and English. Many of the submissions came from Asia.

“It was homegrown and not a slickly produced self-tape,” said Rafi Gordon, co-CEO of Casting Networks, Inc., the newly re-formed casting software company that was born from two acquisitions last year. Zhao’s father submitted the tape to Gordon’s company. “He was picked from about 2,000 [submissions] in total.” Ellen Lewis was the casting director for the film.

The guys behind Casting Networks Inc. are Gordon and Alex Amin, who met while in undergrad at UCLA. They then hooked up with some equity investors and started Filmtracker, which became Baseline, which then sold to The New York Times in 2006. They then began acquiring companies, enhancing them and selling them. Their latest is in the casting space.

The new company came from acquiring and then combining Casting Networks (known as L.A. Casting) in July with another acquisition (CastIt) in September. The executives consolidated both casting platforms to streamline the operation into a one-stop shop so someone can get discovered, manage their profile and then get representation. “We set them up as a landing page describing the role and then there is a submission button. Then we promote it via various social channels,” said Gordon. “We handle the registering process, the secure video uploading process and then the user interface for the casting director.” Casting directors and directors then have easy access to go in and view talent/submissions.

“We literally have hundreds of thousands of actors,” he said. “It’s a kind of LinkedIn for actors.” So who better to spot the trends in Hollywood of what kinds of faces we will see in film and TV going forward then these guys?

“We are seeing an uptick in open calls, and we think it’s due to a search for different ethnicities, language and sexual orientation,” said Gordon. “Increasingly, productions are looking for more unique talent. For instance, a 10-year-old fluent in English and Mandarin — and they are not finding what they need through traditional channels — so they look to us. … That’s how Ready Player One came about.”

Other films that have used open casting for diverse roles? Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They had 22,000 submissions. Disney’s live-action Aladdin. Another? Ryan Gosling’s Lost River and previously, Universal’s The Fast and the Furious.

“It’s a very conscientious effort that productions and studios and casting directors are focused on right now,” said Gordon. “We expect to see this continuation of the broadening of the casting net. It’s a democratization of the whole effort. It’s a leveling of the playing field.”

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