At the Oscars on Sunday, Hailee Steinfeld, the 14-year-old star of the Coen brothers western "True Grit," will vie for Best Supporting Actress with four veterans, including Melissa Leo ("The Fighter") and Helena Bonham Carter ("The King's Speech").
Ms. Steinfeld has faced plenty of competition already: she beat out 10,000 young women for the part during a massive search that had casting directors handing out fliers at rodeos, placing ads in small-town newspapers, and soliciting audition videos on a public Web page that read "no experience necessary."
The Academy Awards turns films and movie stars into enduring icons. The Oscars are just as famous for its high fashion moments. WSJ's Elva Ramirez speaks to celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch about his favorite Oscars gowns of all time in the attached video.
More than 70 years after Lana Turner 's mythic discovery at a lunch counter, Hollywood is on a souped-up hunt for fresh faces. New technology is allowing casting directors to put out the call—and instantly filter the results . . . "It doesn't cost the studio anything to say, 'Look everywhere,' " says Joel Lubin, co-head of motion picture talent at Creative Artists Agency.
Ms. Steinfeld had an agent, but her biggest role before "True Grit" came in a Kmart commercial. Casting director Ellen Chenoweth says it was critical to cast a wide net because of the unusual demands of the Mattie Ross character, a no-nonsense adolescent who talks in arcane frontier-speak.
"One of the challenges was to find a girl who could pull off the straightforwardness of the dialogue. A lot of them just sounded like Valley girls," says Ms. Chenoweth. In the audition videos, most girls failed to fully enunciate the word "cotton," she says. "That was a red flag. Next!"
Unknown is a relative term. Jennifer Lawrence, the 20-year-old star of the gritty Ozarks drama "Winter's Bone," is making her Oscar debut in the Best Actress category, but she's hardly walking in off the street. She moved from Kentucky to New York City with her mother at age 14, and made the audition rounds (including for "Twilight"). She built her resume with a handful of indie films and television parts, including a recurring role on a TBS comedy, "The Bill Engvall Show."
Some in the industry say that massive casting hunts are often more about marketing hype than finding true unknowns, especially if fans are buzzing on social media sites. Atlanta talent agent Rebecca Shrager landed 14 actors in the coming remake of "Footloose," most in supporting parts. But her clients have had a tougher time snaring the coveted lead roles when filmmakers conduct national searches: "They always say they're going to find someone that way, but when it comes right down to it, they almost never do. To me it feels like it's more about getting some energy around the project."
"It's not that we won't consider incredible actors in this age group, but we're very much open to the people who've never been seen before, who could walk in the door and announce themselves," says Alli Shearmur, president of motion picture production for Lionsgate, the film's co-producer.
In an industry eager to create the next "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" series, also adapted from books for young readers, some filmmakers say that famous faces could deter audiences with images of the protagonists fixed in their heads. "There's so much youth-driven stuff going on right now, studios are willing to take chances on unknown actors in many of these roles" because the title is the box-office draw, says Adam Schweitzer, co-head of motion picture talent at International Creative Management.
Inside an art-deco office tower in Los Angeles, casting director Debra Zane puts Katniss candidates through their paces. The script is secret and hasn't been finalized, so actresses read dialogue typed out from the book. On hand is a Nerf bow-and-arrow set, one of several toy weapons Ms. Zane bought from Amazon.com to help actors slip into character.
Ms. Zane says about 50 actors have tried out in person for role of Katniss (though she declined to name them) and that so far they've come through traditional channels. They have included ascendant stars, clients of persuasive talent agents, or actors Ms. Zane has encountered during past jobs.
In an office across the hall, however, submissions are literally piling up from Katniss hopefuls working outside the system. Several plastic tubs hold waist-high stacks of puffy envelopes with handwritten addresses from places such as Swan Lake, N.Y., and Cedar City, Utah. Ms. Zane opens a box from South Korea containing glossy headshots and a neatly penned three-page letter. From another envelope (one that did not include any photographs) she reads from a typical pitch, "I want to be that girl. I can be her! I just have to dye my hair."
Ms. Zane's staff is opening every piece of mail, she says, but she's skeptical that a star is waiting to be discovered in the pile. "If you have that thing, you do find your way here," she says, referring to Hollywood.
Hollywood is throwing out an ever-wider net, and some unknowns are breaking through, but getting discovered remains as much of a long-shot dream as it was in Lana Turner's day. Casting director Billy Hopkins faced a seemingly impossible task: finding an overweight African-American teen with the acting chops to carry the 2009 drama "Precious." For nine months he and his team scouted high-school theater programs and cased urban haunts such as McDonald's before first-time actress Gabourey Sidebe showed up at an open call and won the part.
"It was a blessing and a curse, because now everyone wants to do them," he says, referring to searches for unknowns. "You're not going to be able to find a one-in-a-million. It's just stupid."