The prevalence today of the independent casting director is one of the results of the end of the studio system. In the 1950s fewer films each year were produced, as opposed to financed or distributed, by the studios. The number of actors under contract dwindled to insignificance by the early 1960s. Casts now had to be assembled from scratch. Independent casting directors who were hired on a film-by-film basis emerged to fill the need. The first to build lasting careers were Lynn Stalmaster and Marion Dougherty. While Dougherty, based in New York, learned her craft in the breakneck world of live television drama in the 1950s, Stalmaster worked out of Hollywood, casting TV episodes just as the film studios began to reconvert many of their soundstages for the production of television series. Stalmaster's first major theatrical film was I Want to Live! (1958), a realistic biopic of Barbara Graham, a convicted murderess executed in California in 1955. Its producer, Walter Wanger (1894–1968), and director, Robert Wise (1914–2005), specified that they wanted the film—beyond its star, Susan Hayward (1917–1975)—to be populated by unknowns, people who would look like ordinary cops, petty criminals, reporters, and prison guards. Stalmaster brought the director little-noticed TV actors, stage actors, and some nonprofessionals. I Want to Live! was one of the first films to give screen credit to a casting director.

Generally, in contemporary post-studio era cinema, prospective actors for a film's roles are brought to the director by the casting director, who has already auditioned actors, most often through auditions made known to agents and publicized in actors' trade papers. Casting directors also rely on résumés and head shots they have on file, as well as their memories of actors who recently made good impressions at auditions for other parts. Once the casting director has winnowed down a list of plausible players for each role, he or she brings in the director, who sometimes has actors come in for "call back" readings, with the casting director present. Some directors look at videos that the casting directors have made of actors reading the "sides," or scenes. Sometimes a director will use a combination of these. If the lead has already been cast, finalists for second or third lead and other supporting roles might read for the director with the lead actor; other times, candidates for a role read with professional audition readers.

This process, which has held sway in essence since the 1960s, grew along with the new Hollywood in which independent production, talent agencies, and freelance talent govern the way films are made. The job of the casting director is usually to find all the roles below that of the star whose participation is necessary to attract financing for the project in the first place. As casting director Jane Jenkins said in 2003, "We bring in the 100 people that Mel Gibson has to speak to over the course of the film. That's what we cast." (Gillespie, Casting Qs , p. 380).

Stalmaster maintains that he rarely sees a miscast role (Parisi, "Dialogue"), and at the level of the roles that he and his colleagues cast, that is largely true. A supporting role for which there is no pressure to choose a star can be cast by the actor who is best for the part. There are notable examples of star-making roles whose casting was influenced by casting directors. For example, Marion Dougherty convinced John Schlesinger (1926–2003) to meet the little-known Jon Voight (b. 1938) for the role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969), after Dustin Hoffman (b. 1937), a star coming off The Graduate (1967), had already been signed.

Casting directors have yet to win a union or guild and, as independent contractors, do not receive benefits or have retirement plans. A professional organization, the Casting Society of America (CSA), was founded in 1982 and boasts 350 members. CSA gives annual awards, the Artios (Greek for "perfectly fitted"). Casting directors have lobbied without success for a Best Casting Academy Award ® . An Emmy for television casting, however, has been awarded since 1989.

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