Talent packaging is the process of attaching writers, actors, directors, producers, crew or other essential ingredients to a project. It is the first step to packaging your film.
Once you find a great script, the next step is to build your team, which is finding either a producer, a director or an actor. If you are an indie filmmaker, with budget under $10 million, most of the time you will get a director first. At big budgets (over $10 million) you will bring on a name producer and EP (Executive Producer), who then use their relationships to bring on a bigger director who can in turn attract bigger name talent that justify the film’s budget. In general, you give the director the decision to find the actors he or she wants so that he can express himself in the way that he wants.
How do you find the right talent for your project to pitch to a sales agent for say, foreign sales, that’s economically viable for the banks to invest in or for other investors? How do you go about approaching talent managers, agents and entertainment attorneys when your film isn’t yet funded? Essentially, how do you start packaging talent when financing isn’t yet locked in?
There’s no one-size fits all path toward making a feature film, but you need a strong script, strong cast, strong director, even a strong producer, and you need the right budget. Sales agents first look at the material, script and director when deciding which projects to latch on to. Talent managers, agents and lawyers are looking for great material that is going to inspire an actor or director and attract trusted producers.
“When there’s a good script, everybody circles.”
– Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Amores Perros”)
Money is not always the problem. To attract talent, you need to have good quality material, because we know a great script will attract great talent. Is it an inspiring story that people want to see? Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) proves that to make a powerful film today, you don’t need gimmicks, a convoluted strategy, or even connections in the business. All you really need is a story so strong that it’s impossible not to make.
Finding a good script means writing the script yourself or finding a screenwriter to write it. A great screenwriter can take a mediocre idea and turn it into something great. But no actor or director can turn a mediocre screenplay into something great.
For writers trying to break into Hollywood, write what you love and don’t try to predict what will sell. Yes, it’s good to be aware of trends in Hollywood, but by the time you finish your spec script, that trend might be over. What it really comes down to is creating a universal story, “one that really moves you,” says Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”). As “Jumping the Broom’s” screenwriter, Arlene Gibbs, once said, “good writing and an original voice will find a champion.”
When you are selling your script, be prepared to sell or option it for a nominal fee. Greek-Canadian actress and first-time screenwriter, Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), sold her screenplay for a nominal $500 and earned just $150,000 for her starring role in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (budget: $5 million), which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, stands to earn upwards of $10 million as her percentage of the film’s profits and has led to her writing and starring in the film’s sequel (budget: $18 million).
The chief problem with a script is that the odds against the film ever being made are great. That is because even the lower-budget films often cost millions of dollars to make. As a consequence, “there is no screenwriter alive, however established in the profession, who writes in the secure knowledge that his work will be filmed,” says screenwriter Nick Hornby (“An Education”). And unless you had successfully negotiated a turnaround, your script could end up in the ever-churning Hollywood production mill, bouncing from studio to studio, looking for the right director and the right cast. A “turnaround” is an option negotiated for (generally a producer) to reacquire a project and allowing them to shop it to another company.
“I knew that as a first-time director, the budget would have to be under $10 million. Actors get movies made, in terms of financing, so I decided to write what I thought was a strong character study. Jake Gyllenhaal read it and responded to it, and we had a very strong collaborative relationship.”
– Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”)
How do you get the best scripts that are out if you are not an A-list director? Unless you can gain access to the Black List, you write your own script. The “Black List” is a list compiled by prominent studio executives of the best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood. Usually, placement on the Black List ensures attention from some of Hollywood’s top talent.
Packaging talent isn’t always about attaching well-known actors to screenplays. “If you have a young adult movie with special effects, it’s your director that’s going to drive the project,” says Los Angeles-based APA agent Lucy Stille. Nevertheless, “one of the most important things for the director is to cast well, not only the actors, but also the technicians,” says Christophe Barratier (“The Chorus”).
But the problem with first-time directors is, can they attract the actors that they need to support the budget? There are three simple strategies first-time directors use when casting:
If you’re a director making a low budget film, first you get in touch with some independent producers to come on board, and basically you go out together and try to find the money. Stuff may not happen overnight. But ultimately it will come together. So don’t give up.
“The role of the producer is all-encompassing. It’s the most important and the most invisible. You are the first in and the last out, in terms of involvement.”
– Leslee Udwin (“East is East”)
The fact is that the producer has to have two feet firmly on the ground, because they have a responsibility ultimately to the financiers. All the contractual relationships are between the financiers and the producer. When a “bondable” producer calls a studio or financier, they already know that they can bring the right elements together because they know what they’re doing. Bondable producers are the good, experienced producers who are known to be good at what they’re doing.
In general, the most important questions for a producer looking to get involved with a movie should be: (1) Is this something you want to live with for five years or more? (2) Is the director someone you want to work with? (3) Does the story feel like it’s going to be unique in the marketplace, something that someone else isn’t telling better somewhere else?
As a new producer, in what ways can you build value in your project that doesn’t include big name talent attachments? The challenge is that if you are going after bigger name talent, in most cases they will want to work with known directors, which of course you can’t access as a new producer, because if they are known they probably are busy shepherding all their own projects through the system and aren’t interested in looking at your un-financed indie. However, there are proven strategies you can develop that can help you in saving time, money, getting talent to read your scripts and getting talent attached even without financing in place.
• Build a professional team
Building a professional team around you is an excellent way to build value in your project as a new producer. But how do you build a professional team? Knowing the right person to make the right connections. According to “Saw” creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell, their Melbourne-based, Australian agent, Stacey Testro, read the script and “knew someone in Los Angeles who’d like it, she thought.” That was how the creators of what has become one of the most successful franchises came to meet with Gregg Hoffman at Evolution Entertainment.
Of course, getting an agent, manager or even an entertainment lawyer to be interested in your project isn’t always easy. Sometimes the response you get does depend on the attorney, agent or manager you are approaching. Always start with the talent lawyer, agents and managers you have the best relationships with, and prioritize your talent choices based on who they represent or know.
• Shoot professional looking teaser trailers
A few producers have financed very professional looking teaser trailers in order to showcase the talents of their newer directors and used them as tools to attract talent to the project and allay any potential fears that agents, managers and investors have around a new director’s abilities. For example, with the $6,000 odd that Leigh Whannell had saved up, the “Saw” filmmakers shot one of the most haunting scenes from the script. Drew Dowdle once said of the financing of his film, “No Escape”, that “once we had a couple scenes to show people, they’d say, ‘Oh my god, [Owen Wilson’s] amazing.’ Harvey Weinstein ended up buying the film based on 12 minutes of footage. And it created a bidding war – all the people who wouldn’t finance it to begin with suddenly wanted to buy it.”
• Make a short film
Filmmaker Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”) made the short as a tool to gain awareness for the feature, which led to attaching actor Ryan Gosling and producer Jamie Patricof (who financed the film’s $700 thousand budget). Damien Chazelle used his short film, which won the Sundance Film Festival short film jury award, to attach actor J.K. Simmons (who also starred in the short) and producers Jason Reitman and Jason Blum (Blumhouse Productions) to make his feature, “Whiplash”, for a budget of $3.3 million.
• Use pitch deck presentations
Whether you are pitching your project to independent investors or a studio, it usually starts with a pitch deck. A pitch deck is basically a PowerPoint presentation to explain what your project is about. It must help the investor or studio to decide whether or not to invest in your project.
• Raise partial funding
A few producers have raised a small portion of their budget in equity investments, which always looks better to prospective talent than no funding in place at all.
• Soft money
Depending on the project, producers can raise up to half the budget in soft money (tax credits, grants and rebates, etc.), which is a huge value add when approaching actors, directors, other producers, and crew.
Some producers have raised their entire production budget in donations (through Crowdfunding Platforms such as Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, etc.), which leaves a huge upside should they bring in a single investor to help finish post-production or to fund P&A (Print and Advertising).
• First-Look deal
Some producers team up with production companies that have first-look deals with studios – whose business model is to create films independently, then release them through the studio system, partnering with the major studios to effectively create wide-release campaigns. Studios would go to “the guys who know how to make it [movie] cheap and make a deal to distribute their movies,” says Rob Cohen (“The Boy Next Door”).
Almost all feature films released between 2000 and 2015, budgeted below $500 thousand, which generated at least $10 million in Producer’s Net Profit, using a standard distribution model where the distributor charges a 30 percent fee, have been self-funded.
• Use a single location
“Filmmakers looking to deliver thrills on minuscule budgets should consider scripts set in a single location,” says Rodrigo Cortés (“Buried”). As such, Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” Adam Green’s “Frozen”, the M. Night Shyamalan-produced “Devil”, Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift”, and J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” are all successful films where almost all of the action was shot in a single location.
“Stars are still lured purely by good scripts.”
– J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”).
What is the ideal strategy for getting talent to read your scripts and getting people attached even without financing in place? To attract talent, the script must contain the kind of characters actors dream of playing.
Halle Berry was attracted to “Monster’s Ball” the first minute she read the script. “It’s a wonderful part. The characters all have lots of levels, and they present a side of human nature that has always fascinated me,” she said. For her performance in “Monster’s Ball,” Halle Berry won multiple best actress awards, including the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The writers of “Monster’s Ball” received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. After first-time film director J.C. Chandor’s project, “Margin Call”, was picked up by Before the Door Pictures (actor Zachary Quinto’s production company), and given a budget of a mere $3.5 million, it attracted a stellar cast of name actors, including Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci, in addition to Zachary Quinto. More than 80 percent of the action in “Margin Call” was shot on one floor in a midtown Manhattan high-rise, within a 36-hour period of the film’s characters’ lives. J.C. Chandor received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, with Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey receiving the Academy Awards nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) once said to “choose the actor you want for your film and pursue him/her.” It was with that philosophy that Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation”, on a budget of $4 million, mainly from foreign pre-sales, got Bill Murry attached. Sofia Coppola went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and earned Bill Murray a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Bennett Miller (“Capote”) once said that his “first matter of business was to attach an actor, and there was only one person on the list, and that was Phil [Philip Seymour Hoffman].” Bennett Miller received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Having the right actor attached can help to bring other name-actors onto the project. “We asked him [Don Cheadle] to produce the film with us largely because I knew he’d bring a credibility that I didn’t have. People look at him and they know he’s associated with quality films. Also, actors want to act with Don Cheadle. He’s an actor magnet. He’s like Sean Penn,” says Paul Haggis, writer/director of “Crash”.
While it is generally the case that star actors will attach to an indie project because another name talent is already attached, there’s a less than 23 percent chance that you will be able to attach a name actor to your un-financed, low budget indie film and be able to use that actor’s star power to attract funding. As such, you should always aim to cast people who are best for your type of project and budget. “You cast forever until you have the people that you’re 100% sure of,” says Daniel Stamm (“The Exorcist”), because, once you have a good script, ultimately, for an indie film to be successful, it is all about the acting.
For the above data, we selected a list of 141 films in total, from The Numbers’ financial database, investigating full financial details, including North American (i.e. “domestic”) and international box office, including video sales and rentals, of all feature films released between 2000 and 2015, budgeted between $500 thousand and $10 million, which generated at least $10 million in Producer’s Net Profit, using a standard distribution model where the distributor charges a 30 percent fee.
“I have started a couple different small businesses in my life and learned through that process, if you break even or make more money people will let you do it again. The other neat thing, if you don’t scare people with your budget up front, creatively they let you do what you set up to do. ”
– J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”)
Attracting financiers to help turn screenplays into actual movies usually requires an entertainment attorney or one or more agents who are highly skilled in the art of packaging talent.
Making original, personal movies without proven talent—both in front of and behind the camera—has always been a difficult task. Investors want to know what they are investing in. Financiers, by nature, detest risk. That is why originality is harder to get financed (yet it’s easier to sell). This is because originality is execution dependent. It’s harder to find someone willing to take the risk on an idea that’s not tried and proven.
If you’re a first-time director or a new producer, no one really knows if you have the skills to do what you say you’re doing, and that’s a scary thing from an investor and an actor’s viewpoint. But the truth is, to pull it all together and actually tell a two-hour story, and hold the audience’s attention, no one really knows until you do it. But the actors will sign on based on your amazing writing. Having a great script is a big part of getting talent attached. And if you have a great script, investors, and their advisors, will be more willing to take the risk. That’s why the budgets on a first-time film are very, very low.
But for a very few exceptions, such as Gary Shore (“Dracula Untold”), if you’re a first-time director or a new producer, no one is going to give you $10 million or $15 million to direct your first movie. As Joel Edgerton (“The Gift”) so aptly stated, you need to find that idea that you “could execute for $5 million and make it seem like a more expensive movie.”
That is why the best way to woo financiers is to give them a taste. Jason Reitman persuaded “Whiplash” director, Damien Chazelle, to shoot a short based on scenes from his 85-page screenplay. “We needed to do something to show that it wasn’t just going to be a tiny little movie about a jazz drummer,” says “Whiplash” producer Helen Estabrook.