How artificial intelligence is influencing Casting choices

by Redazione APA | 05.08.2021

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In Hollywood, over 50% of roles are assigned based on the number of followers of individual actors

Legend has it that an algorithm suggested the names of the players who were to shoot the penalties against Italy on July 10 to England manager Gareth Southgate. The data collected during training and matches brought five players to the penalty spot and three shots were saved by the Italian goalkeeper, delivering the title of European Champions to the Italian national team coached by Roberto Mancini. It is also true that Gianluigi Donnarumma has proven to be the strongest goalkeeper in the world at the moment, but the question remains legitimate: what if the algorithm made a mistake in selecting those five names? Might things have gone differently?

Obviously the possibilities are endless: perhaps the algorithm was right, but not the parameters that were entered for the final of a European championship. Yet, is artificial intelligence, or whatever else involved, capable of making the difference when compared to the intuition and experience of a national football team coach?

When algorithms are applied to entertainment and in particular to casting – the core of Film&TV productions – why not decline the most common ‘what if?’ into its past form, ‘What would have happened if casting had gone differently?’.

Seen through a time machine, this method wouldn’t certainly have given an actress as Audrey Hepburn the opportunity to star in the most coveted role of Roman Holiday where she literally surprised everyone, starting from her costar Gregory Peck who was the first to suggest their names should be printed on billboards in the same size, in spite of the fact that his colleague was definitely young and until then unknown to the audience. Vivien Leigh, an English gal born in India, would never have been cast for the iconic role of Rossella O’Hara in Gone with the Wind by director Victor Fleming and producer David O. Selznick. And a rookie such as Sean Connery would have been easily bypassed by Cary Grant for the role of James Bond in the first 007 franchise episode, Dr. No. Many would say that this technology could have spared us some films and TV series that we all recall well. Yet, looking into what is happening today, the numerical factor is becoming increasingly important in the US Film&TV production industry – and not only.

Social Media, for example, are also a crucial benchmark in production, even more in consideration of the fact that actors such as Vin Diesel, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Selena Gomez have such high follower numbers that the same concept of “promotion” would need to be redefined. Above all, these figures give a ‘measure’ of celebrity in numerical terms, as never seen before the era of Social 2.0. On Instagram alone, Dwayne Johnson has 102 million followers, Rihanna 61 million; Vin Diesel 47 million; Cara Delevigne 41 million. In short, the marketing we have dealt with until today cannot ignore this data, but can casting?

Evidently not. For the past five years, while acknowledging ‘freedom of choice’, when two stars with the same talent were to be cast, it has been the actor or actress with the highest number of followers to get the coveted role. Callbacks are thus based on figures that translate into communication opportunities becoming concrete numbers, and these numbers, according to more or less structured algorithms, give a numerical illusion to an industry where according to screenwriter William Goldman, author of “Adventures in the screen trade”, “Nobody knows anything”. But then again, what about the past?

The purpose of artificial intelligence, which finds more and more applications in the business, is precisely to bring objectivity to what was usually steered by instinct, experience and other drives, such as those linked to dreadful clichés of producers sitting on their office couches – hopefully buried forever. Today casting directors who use Social Media to understand and analyze the potential of an actor beyond his acting talent are now comfortably seated on that archaic symbol of Hollywood machismo. The question is: to what extent is this taking place today?

According to the American website ProjectCasting that deals with the issue of choosing actors, to a surprising extent: Jason Newman, manager and producer at Untitled Entertainment, as well as suggesting that actors’ CVs should include their number of Social Media followers, explains that at least 50% of the roles assigned in projects produced by streamers and OTTs are assigned by taking into account the number of followers of a single talent. “For an investor, it is a form of insurance.”

As Newman explains, “Investment and promotion are clearly linked, also to the echo of a TV series or a film on Social Media.” In an interview with ‘Variety’, this position was reiterated by casting agent Robyn Kass, specialized in Unscripted shows, who explains how Social Media has made her job easier. “However, social media is only the start of a broader selection process. We try to go beyond those IG filters that make everything beautiful,” she says, explaining that she has an entire staff team dedicated exclusively to casting through Instagram.  

And so? How can an actor get noticed by an agency? Many industry players assert that in order to be successful today an actor must have great talent and no less than 20,000 followers.

In Italy, on the other hand, Youtube seems to be the favorite debuting social, where important television characters were born, such as Frank Matano and the highly respected “Me contro Te,” (1.5 million followers on Instagram), who after grossing 10M€ at the Box Office for their first theatrical release, are now working on a sequel, “Me contro Te e il mistero della scuola incantata”.