Casting – it makes all the difference

In Agency Biz, Uncategorized on December 26, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Perhaps you’ve seen the new commercials for Ally Bank. The campaign features a sleazeball presenter using various verbal ruses and omissions to trick children as they try to play with various toys; the point is that even kids know what is and isn’t fair – why don’t banks?

It’s a good idea; but  the performers are what really make the spots work – especially the kids, whose sense of innocent indignation is perfect. (Maybe it’s not acting, but that’s beside the point.)

Another campaign that does a good job of casting is the AT&T wireless spots.  The “mom” in the spots is wonderfully believable in her facial expressions and mom-like insistence that her family use, rather than waste, their rollover minutes – a unique AT&T benefit. Her most frequent target – her teenage son –  is equally well played with eye rolls and other typical teen reactions.

You can probably think of some spots that you didn’t like because of poor casting or performances. But more importantly, there are many thousands more that you simply don’t remember because the casting choices were nothing special, or didn’t quite click. (Perhaps if Wendy’s hadn’t recognized the memorability of Clara Peller, it would be a lot further down the fast food pecking order right now.)

I should know the importance of casting from my own experiences. My sample reel contains an inexpensive spot, filmed in Columbus, Ohio, for a small tax preparation service. The spot is far better than it deserved to be, thanks to a wonderful performance by the lead actor.

At the other end of the spectrum, however (and certainly not on my sample reel) was an ill-fated attempt on behalf of Jack-in-the-Box Restaurants (one of my first big-name clients) many years ago. I was certain that with my clever dialogue and skilled direction, I could choose two actor-strangers, put them in a laundromat set, and inspire them to achieve the same witty chemistry being displayed between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepard in Moonlighting – a hit TV show at the time.

The result? A production so flat you could have run drag races on it.  An “epic fail” in today’s terms. And a painfully available tool for my friends to use, to this very day, whenever I am in need of humbling, by uttering the simple words “sock puppets.”

My advice to you creatives for your next preproduction adventure? Take the casting seriously, and don’t pick anyone who doesn’t seem to naturally “get”  the attitude you’re going for the first time they try it. Don’t “settle” in this area. EVER. It may be painfully boring to spend so much time this way. But not nearly as painful as watching other people (especially in an interview) watch a finished spot on your reel that “could have been” great. (The sad truth is, it probably doesn’t belong on your reel at all; you’re still seeing it as that great idea. All they’re seeing is, well – sock puppets.)

  1. A casting (and editing) story from my Leo Burnett days. As an ACD, I did a spot for Allstate Life Insurance. The cast was a dad, mom, and kid. The featured player was the father. I cast a quirky looking but terrific actor as dad, and he was approved by the CD back in Chicago (shooting in L.A.). CD approved the edited spot, and then the account guys hated it. “What will we tell the client?” they said. I said give me a day, spent it recutting the spot, and they loved the result. You never know.

    • Good save. I remember another old campaign for Spiegel Outlet Stores featuring talking heads and clever dialogue (I’d like to think.) Out of SIX spots, we begged the client to include at least one African American shopper. He said no, but we used the “backup” actor spot we were allowed to get and film one anyway; her performance was great, and the guy finally relented, saying — and this a a virtual quote — “well, okay, I guess we ought to stay ahead of the curve on this anyway.” I think my tongue still hurts from biting it at that point, and it was at least 20 years ago!

  2. “I’ll wait. ” 🙂

  3. Wow, what a memory, Mr. Hatch. (I had to re-read my post to see if I had mentioned THAT one.) Subconsciously suppressed the other extreme on that spot, didn’t I…

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