Old Version

Cast In a New Light

While casting agencies are playing a larger role than ever in the success of Chinese shows and films, old habits die hard in the realm of sex, bribes and videotape

By Li Jing Updated Aug.1

An actor performs in a casting call for TV series Beautiful Time With You, produced by Mango TV, Yichang, Hubei Province, May 23, 2019 (Photo by VCG)

Stars Crazier, a film and TV casting agency operates from a three-story office in eastern Beijing. The walls are covered with headshots from actors being considered for roles. Each role has at least three hopefuls.  

Independent talent agents with even more headshots in hand doorstep the agency throughout the day. “It���s always like this, the doorbell never stops,” said Stars Crazier co-founder Huang Tao.  

Unlike the past where Chinese directors chose the leads and assistant directors picked the remaining roles, casting in today’s Chinese film industry is much more sophisticated.  

The difference is visible in recent years, as relatively unknown actors in well-cast roles shoot to stardom overnight. With more opportunities and avenues, more actors are able to circumvent the casting couches and other unspoken rules that have long plagued China’s entertainment industry. 

Star Potential 
Wang Peilu is among those getting a career boost from good casting.  

Though a minor role with a few appearances, Wang’s realistic portrayal of gangster Crazy Donkey in the gritty 2023 hit series Knockout set social media abuzz with positive reviews, which helped raise the show’s profile.  

Wang, a veteran actor and a Beijing Film Academy graduate, said Knockout’s casting success signals a shift in industry standards.  

“Gone are the days when actors raked in dough by lip syncing and TV dramas were a hit regardless of how clunky the story was,” Wang told NewsChina in February.  

Hit shows like Age of Awakening spotlighted the importance of supporting roles. “While casting Age of Awakening, we underscored the candidates’ convincing acting styles which can transport audiences to the era in quite a natural way,” Huang Tao, co-founder of Stars Crazier, told press in July 2021 after the show’s release.  

Set between 1915 and 1921, Age of Awakening centers on a group of young revolutionaries and the magazine La Jeunesse, which helped inspire the Communist Party of China’s founding.  

Stars Crazier recommended Ma Shaohua for an audition. Ma played Cai Yuanpei, former president of Peking University, who set a foundation of inclusiveness for a refreshing, liberal and progressive atmosphere on the campus.  

Ma shone in the sixth episode, when he delivered Cai’s inaugural speech. “With a slow and steady rhythm, Ma skillfully brought a century-old speech that still resonates in today’s society back to life,” read a review from Sohu. com.  

The casting agency also landed career-making parts for younger actors such as Zhang Wanyi, who won acclaim for his role as the strong-willed Chen Yannian, an early Party member who refused to kneel before his execution in 1927. The actor won over the crew with his steadfast gaze, which tapped the essence of the character, director Zhang Yongxin told China Central Television (CCTV) in 2021.  

“A competent casting director must be astute enough to distinguish the unique characteristics of each actor in an extensive talent pool,” Huang told NewsChina.  

In addition to working with talent and acting agencies, casting directors scout for talent at schools and theater companies, as well as scouring indie movies for potential stars.  

While A-lister Zhao Liying got top billing for her role as businesswoman Xu Banxia in TV series Wild Bloom (2022), many young viewers connected with the comedic supporting role of Xu’s father, played by established character actor Wang Jinsong.  

“Through Wang’s performance, the audience immediately understands the man is a short-sighted and snobbish father. But despite these character traits, which could easily come off as despicable, Wang made him laughable and lovable in only a few scenes,” reads a review from Baidu’s entertainment page.  

The acclaim for performances from actors like Wang and Zhang used to be very low compared to the growing presence of online celebrities in the film industry.  

Empowered by their colossal followings, influencers are snatching up roles not for their acting abilities, but for their promised box office draw, good looks and online visibility.  

To drum up publicity, many resort to gaffes and scandals – both real and fabricated. Several young pop stars were dubbed “hopeless illiterates” after appearing in interviews where they struggled to answer basic questions about their roles or the historical settings of their current projects. For example, during a press conference for espionage film Hidden Blade in January, heartthrob Wang Yibo was visibly stumped when asked what the most difficult part of his role as a spy for the Communist Party of China had been.  

Veteran actor Chen Daoming lashed out against the industry trend during China’s two sessions in March 2021, the annual top government legislative meetings, where he accused influencers of prioritizing online traffic over pushing forward the country’s art and culture.  

“When casting the Age of Awakening, we didn’t consider celebrities as much as who fit the roles best. That is why the casting won acclaim and became one of the hottest topics on Weibo,” Huang told NewsChina. 

Actor Ma Shaohua as Cai Yuanpei, former president of Peking University from 1916 to 1927, in the TV series Age of Awakening, which aired in February 2021

Actor Wang Jinsong as father Xu Youren in the TV series Wild Bloom which aired in November 2022

Open Calls 
In 2004, Huang switched careers from stage acting to TV production, where he mostly oversaw logistics for cameras, lighting and set design. Two years later, Huang was promoted to assistant director and was casting minor roles. He was inspired to set up an independent casting agency in 2007 while working with an assistant director from Hong Kong, who was artfully juggling the cast’s tight shooting schedule.  

“At that time, actors on Chinese mainland shoots could not leave until the day was over. And they were not allowed to start other projects until the current one wrapped,” Huang said.  

Casting agencies first took off in 1960s in Hollywood, where actors signed with acting agents instead of studios, making it difficult for studios to find proper performers for their production. Casting directors then appeared.  

The concept only took off in China around 2010 during the country’s first film industry boom. That year, Chinese mainland films grossed over 10 billion yuan (US$1.44b), a tenfold increase compared to 2000.  

The surge gave assistant directors more say in production – including casting. This led to accusations of many abuses, including casting couch tactics.  

Influential casting director Shen Bo was embroiled in scandal following multiple accusations he had pressured actresses for sex in exchange for roles in Young Female Detective, an online drama slated for release in 2024. Shen, who also runs Zhejiang Invisible Woods Film Media valued at 10 million yuan (US$1.41m), is credited as the show’s executive producer.  

Aspiring actress and law student Li En posted chat screenshots and recorded phone calls from Shen, alleging that he controlled who she had access to during the audition process after the young woman had turned down his offer to spend Valentine’s Day together. Li claimed that Shen threatened her that if she exposed their conversations, she would never work in the industry nor pass the bar exams, because he said no public institute would hire a scandalous person. Li was not cast in the show.  

Other actresses who auditioned also went public, accusing Shen of saying they would never succeed in show business without sex, according to a news article from Netease in February. Shen responded on Sina Weibo to one of the women, saying he had hoped for a serious relationship with her and decried her decision to record and release all their exchanges. 
Production officially halted on February 10, citing “inappropriate behavior” from one of their crew in a Sina Weibo post. “Next time, we will pay more attention to our staff members’ moral codes,” the post reads.  

Veteran actors said these abuses had been rampant for decades. During a 2017 interview, Jiang Xin, known for her role in the 2011 costume drama Empress in the Palace, shared a glimpse into the industry’s darker side:  

“I happened to see a director flipping through the headshots of actresses like an emperor turning one of the name boards of his concubines for a night. Finally, the director picked one up and shouted ‘this girl looks good’ in a rather disrespectful and reckless way,” Jiang said. 

Industry Reboot 
Concerned about the trend, assistant director Yao Yuan set up the Association of Chinese Assistant Directors in 2009, which included nearly 500 assistant directors committed to transparent casting and sharing resources with one another.  

“Assistant directors were considered inferior at that time. To be frank, we did nothing but odds and ends for directors,” Yao told NewsChina.  

Yao said an industry friend advised him to start a firm that focused solely on casting, as was standard in Hollywood. In 2015, Yao and several other assistant directors set up Concentric People Star Light specializing in casting, schedule management and director assistance.  

Other agencies, such as CD Home Studio and Beijing Haohan Xingpan Film Media Culture Co Ltd followed, and their successes signaled an increasingly professional environment in China.  

By 2014, casting agencies had gained a firm foothold in the entertainment industry. Working with investors, they became indispensable in negotiations for casting, managing actors’ schedules and coordinating shoots.  

The increasingly important role takes more than talent. “We don’t just hire graduates from film or acting schools. Our staff must be cultured, be knowledgeable and professional. Otherwise, they won’t have the ability to analyze screenplays and their roles,” Huang said.  

Li Meng, founder of film studio Yiya Media, told NewsChina that casting also takes intuition, and not every rational choice pans out.  

“For instance, there was a TV drama whose male and female leads seemed well-matched in terms of their fame, appearances and ages. But they didn’t have any on-screen chemistry,” Li said.  

Casting in China reached its peak in 2019, with about 300 agencies across the country, according to Yao. To tap the market, filmmakers and studios had also set up their own casting departments. However, most closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving only dozens today. 

“It’s a kind of reshuffling and reincarnation,” Huang said. “The survivors proved to be the industry’s backbone. With some adjustments, the entire field can become more advanced,” he said.  

During the lean years of the pandemic, many casting agencies took on the role of talent agents, representing their contracted actors for a percentage of their fee to boost revenues. This not only saw agencies poaching actors from one another, but also stripped them of their objectivity when recommending actors for roles.  

“If the role is not well acted and the end-product is affected, agencies lose credibility. This is a shortcut where no one wins,” Yao said.