Traditionally, it is thought that a producer needs to cast a well-known actor for a successful development of a film. The conventional wisdom being that having a name actor attached, one who has marquee appeal, will open doors to the financing and/or other elements needed to get the film made. This is so even though having stars attached does not ensure box office success. In fact, some of the most successful films have no stars in the entire cast. So, do stars really matter? Do producers really need to go through the trouble to cast big-name actors in their indie film?
Whether stars matter or not depends on what the project is in terms of budget, genre, story, and which talent (such as writer, director and producer) is already attached.
Studios usually won’t finance a movie for which there’s no business model or financial precedent. They often rely on predictive analytics to gauge movie-goer preferences and predict economic performance. This may include reviews of previous films to compare genres, themes, subject matter, budgets, release dates, release locations, types of marketing, amount of marketing spends, actors and their box office earnings.
Hollywood is also said to be incapable of making an inexpensive film. These films have massive budgets, so they are expected to make huge revenues.
For these reasons, studios more frequently hedge their bets on casting a celebrity, who is more certain to help sell the movie in a way that no unknown actor could. Investors may be persuaded to take the financial risk when a star is involved. Unless it’s a story or a genre which already has built-in audiences, the assumption is that you need star power to get out to a mass audience.
Think like a start-up
Just like investing in tech companies, smart investors know that investing in movies is about backing a great team with a smart plan to succeed. Therefore, for the indie producer, packaging the screenplay — the process of attaching actors, a director or other essential elements to a project – should be about building a great team around the project to maximize its potential. Because the project has to land with the film investors or the stars as an actionable reason for them, you try to figure out what your resources are and what else you need to move the project forward.
A producer should structure her projects for maximum viability and to maximize upsides for investors – connecting the right projects at the right budgets with the right talent. Knowing when to seek partners or a buyer for your project, when to develop it further, and which actors to attach can impact what type of deal you ultimately make.
Do you really have to cast famous actors to get financing?
“I have always said no movie – particularly an independent one – ever wants to get made. It must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into production.”
– Michael Mailer
It is difficult to raise money for any movie nowadays. To increase their chances, many films require stars attached, in order to get funding. It is much easier to get financing for your movie when you can say Mark Wahlberg will be in it than if you say Jane Smith is attached. Stars give a certain assurance to investors that the movie will be a hit (even though this often turns out not to be the case). “The expectation from financiers is that you will have some hooks to get big audiences in in order for them to able to cover their risks,” says producer Leslee Udwin (East is East).
Unfortunately, the realities of independent filmmaking are that it is very difficult to get a name actor to commit to an unfinanced indie movie by a first-time director. And it is even more difficult to attach a name actor to an un-financed, low budget indie film and be able to use that actor’s star power to attract equity financing (finance contingent casting).
But attracting a name actor to a project can play a huge role in getting the film financed. For example, with Scarlett Johansson the movie is almost sure to get made, without her you have years of begging people to give you money for this movie you have starring an unknown actor from Brooklyn.
So, you should do whatever it takes to cast A-list, B-list, and at the very least, take advantage of SAG low budget schemes and cast professional talent in your film. With your bankable actors signed on, a strong production team, and a well-developed script, you can now approach self, equity, debt, crowdfunding and tax incentives options.
Attaching pre-sellable talent
Foreign pre-sales are a significant reason that stars matter. Pre-sale is a distribution or license agreement entered into prior to completion of a film, for a distributor to distribute the film in certain foreign territories or markets after the film is made. The distributor either pays a cash advance up front, or guarantees payment, which is used as collateral for a production loan to cash flow production and/or offset investor risk.
The price a distributor will be willing to pay to pre-buy a film depends on several factors, including whether the film has any pre-sellable talent attached. Pre-sellable talent are those elements of a film which have already proved popular and have an existing, huge fanbase, such as a star actor. An experienced sales agent will present you with a list of pre-sellable cast on whose names your particular film may be pre-sold or financed.
A first-time actor is a tough sell, and making original, personal movies without proven talent—both in front of and behind the camera—is an even more difficult task. For example, the sales people for Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida who went to Cannes discovered that the prospects of pre-selling a black-and-white Polish-language movie on a grim subject with unknown actors were pretty hopeless. How does a sales agent apply statistical (comp) data to an esoteric, unique project that a first-time filmmaker is trying to make with no names attached? With unknown talent, sales agents are unable to pre-sell, and financiers are unable to project ROI (return on investment).
First-time directors often find it difficult to obtain pre-sales for their films. This is mainly because it is rare for stars to be willing to work with a first-time director, unless the director is someone that the stars really want to work with, or the project has some other element which makes it so special that they are dying to do it, such as a big-name producer or an Oscar award-worthy script.
Talent Begets Talent
Having the right star attached can help bring other name talent onto the project. For example, Crash writer/director, Paul Haggis, asked Don Cheadle to produce the film, largely because he knew Don Cheadle would attract other name actors to the project.
The right actor can also help to bring other elements onto the project, such as soft money. You can pull together more than half the budget in soft money, which can be a huge value add on a project when looking to attach an equity investor. It shows the investor you’re thinking about ways to reduce investor exposure.
A producer can attach an acclaimed writer or name director whose reputation is good enough to attract a star actor to the project. But this can be challenging, if you’re a new producer. The challenge lies in the fact that if you are going after a known writer or director, in most cases they will not want to work with a first-time producer, especially if it is for an un-financed indie film.
Marketing and publicity
Stars sell movie tickets. By putting Christian Bale in a movie versus an actor that is far less recognized, the movie should make money. That is why films like Exodus, Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell and the Alec Baldwin-starring film, Blind, end up accused of whitewashing. Sadly, this applies to indie producers as well. Some investors and studios will only invest in indie movies that have recognizable stars in them, whether they be live action or animated.
In the marketing and PR for a movie, a lot of emphasis will be placed on the names of the stars, because of the free publicity which big-name talents bring. The top television talk shows and magazines will only interview famous people and celebrities.
Without the names, faces or voices of stars in the marketing of a film, it’s become increasingly more difficult to lure audiences away from the Internet, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, and into movie theatres. This is so even for animated films targeted to a young audience that doesn’t know and recognize all these stars.
In the case of animated films, it is the parents who are more likely to recognize that the ogre is voiced by Mike Myers, or the donkey is voiced by Eddie Murphy. Animated films target parents, who are the ones to pay for their children see these films.
One thing to consider when you are unable to get a star in your movie, is how to “cast actors who have a huge social media following,” says Paul Hanson, Founder and CEO of Covert Media. The ability to leverage an actor’s fan base in new media platforms continues to be an effective way to drive movie sales.
Conducting social media for a project should be built into your actors’ contracts, just like press interviews and promotional appearances. Social media reach can even help bolster an emerging actor’s career by upping engagement with fans or create a fan base before Hollywood even knows who they are.
It is a major feat to get your indie film into one of the major film festivals, such as Sundance and TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). However, getting your film accepted into a major festival is easier than getting it noticed. Of the thousands of films that make it to festivals each year, only a few get picked up for distribution. Therefore, if your film doesn’t have a big star or name director attached and you’re searching for great distribution, getting into a festival might be the end of your luck.
There’s usually a certain amount of credibility that’s associated with a movie star’s name. People will associate the movie as being “better” than if it had a cast of unknowns. But casting A-list talent is also for their performance. In general, stars produce better movies, not only because of their celebrity status, but also because of their acting. That is not to say that having a star will guarantee your film will be a success and hiring a cast of unknown actors will ensure failure. It’s just that, with first-time actors, no one really knows until they do it.
High Concept vs Low Concept Films
A “high concept” movie idea is a story, told in a few words, which has an easily understood, compelling premise that immediately captures the reader’s imagination. High concept movies are believed to have mass-audience appeal. Movies like Margin Call (a Wall Street investment firm faces the threat of annihilation due to problems of its own making—particularly owing to its greed,) or Devil’s Advocate (a young lawyer gets his dream job and discovers he has sold his soul to the devil, and must find a way to reclaim it) are high concept.
Producers will have a greater level of success when pitching projects with high quality prospects. A high-concept screenplay can be sold on its pitch. It is not “execution dependent”. For an execution dependent film to be deemed successful, it has to have pre-sellable stars attached, or the director has to make a good movie and get great reviews.
A “low concept” movie is a story which premise is not easy to describe, in 3 sentences or less, and puts focus on the world and characters surrounding the plot, instead of the plot itself. Low concept movie ideas are often execution dependent.
Trying to sell an execution dependent screenplay on spec is a very difficult task. Low concept screenplays are difficult to sell on a pitch, because they are hard to describe in a way that excites and captures the imagination. That is why movies like The Godfather (an Epic tale of a 1940s New York Mafia family and their struggle to protect their empire, as the leadership switches from the father to his youngest son) or Star Wars (a science-fiction fantasy about a naive but ambitious farm boy from a backwater desert who discovers powers he never knew he had when he teams up with a feisty princess, a mercenary space pilot and an old wizard warrior to lead a ragtag rebellion against the sinister forces of the evil Galactic Empire) would be very hard to sell from their pitch.
For the most part, it’s hard to get low concept screenplays financed. The studios don’t want to get involved in them, except as distributors. Today, The Godfather would have to be produced independently. And it’s hard to find investors willing to take the risk on an idea that’s not tried and proven. Not unless you have stars attached.
Low concept stories are usually either “budget dependent” (i.e., you make them at very low budgets) or “star dependent” (i.e., you get stars attached). Comedies, dramas, period pieces, true stories, family films, action/thriller, documentary, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, animation, musical and films with no built-in audiences are typically either execution dependent or star-driven.
How to attach stars to your low budget movie
You will cast movie stars out of necessity, especially if you’re a first-time filmmaker making an original, personal movie. But hiring stars does not always mean a bigger budget. Many independent filmmakers are able to cast big established actors willing to take a pay cut if they believe in the project. You can attach stars, even below $3 million budget, if the script is great, it will add value to their careers and/or the project has a director or other elements already attached that the stars want to work with.
- Start with a great script
You can attach a star to your film, no matter the budget. Money is not the most important thing. It’s a script that is good and challenging.
If you have a script and are looking for A-list talent, you have to ask yourself, what’s in it for them? There has to be a reason for them to do it. Is it about a social issue, or a character an Oscar-hungry actor is interested in? If you have a great script, with a great role, you can attract a star. An A-list actor or actress will sign on, based on the writing. So, make sure your script is polished and ready before you send it out to actors or their agent, manager or entertainment lawyer.
There’s a difference between getting a star attached to a low budget movie, and using a star to finance a low budget movie. So, having some finance already in place is one of the quickest ways to get stars onboard. But one of the most important set-pieces for raising finance is having a clear finance and business plan. A good business plan communicates the true benefits of the project to investors and co-production partners.
“Casting. Get it right. It can make or break a film.”
– Oren Peli
A good casting director can help you to focus your efforts on attaching bankable talent that will attract financiers and distribution.
You should obtain feedback from sales companies or sales agents regarding packaging talent for your film. Good international sales agents understand the nuances of foreign pre-sales. They can tell you what value you can expect to get for casting certain actors in your movie and how much your production budget should really be. Armed with this information, you will be able to determine which stars to approach for your specific project.
In any event, if you already have distribution in place, it will make your project more attractive when approaching big-name actors. Any star who is willing to take a pay cut to perform in your indie movie will want some assurances that their work will end up seen by an audience.
You can attract name actors for a fraction of their normal salary. A-list actors will work at scale (or below their “quote”) on an independent film if the role is right and the project has a writer, director, producer or other actor they would love to work with. For example, for a $1.5 million budget film, you may offer a name actor a fee at the prevailing SAG “Schedule F” rate, the lead and an Oscar award-worthy role.
To counterbalance the lower up-front fixed fee to your star actor, your offer may include some form of deferred compensation, contingent compensation, box office and/or VOD bonuses, award bonuses, and/or merchandising and soundtrack royalties. None of these offers increase the film’s budget. For example, deferments are paid out of profits, or out of revenues after payment of distribution costs; and contingent fee (also known as, backend) is usually in the form of a participation based upon the completed movie’s sales revenue, such as a percentage of the picture’s net (or gross) profits.
Money and scheduling are probably the two main up-front issues for an actor or her agent for an attachment agreement. A star will not usually accept your offer if the production is not scheduled or it is scheduled too far into the future.
- Find a talent agent and/or personal manager
Agents will not usually look at your script if it isn’t yet funded. So be prepared to explain how your project is being financed and what the production dates will be.
The best way to attach talent to your screenplay is to be friends with talent or the people who know talent. You can network with a star, a good friend of a star, an agent, personal manager, director or a producer the star has worked with. Maybe you could offer a producer credit to the babysitter, or a good friend of the actor. You will have clout if you have a personal connection to a famous actor.
Pick indie-friendly stars. These are big-name actors and actresses who are known to work on lower-budget indie projects, and who are bankable. But pick the right star for the role. The wrong star might hurt the project (and vice versa). Attach an actor that adds value to the package.
Retain the services of an entertainment attorney who has experience dealing with star attachment agreements, escrow agreements, pay or play agreements or performer contracts.
Where stars don’t matter
Stars don’t matter if it’s important for your movie to be a cast of ordinary people. In addition, stars don’t usually matter if you’re making genre films, such as horror movies, or cult classics that speak to small, niche audiences. “You could make a movie for little or no money without star power or name recognition in the cast and it could still find a mass audience and be very successful,” says director Mike Flanagan (Oculus). However, while you don’t necessarily need a name actor for genre films, “you need really good actors that are right for the characters,” says director John R. Leonetti (Annabelle).
If you have to utilize unknown talents to make your project, surround them with experience on all fronts. An unknown actor with a strong director, DP, producer and writer is a reasonable recipe for success.
Genre pictures, such as horror and faith-based films are easier to sell because they don’t rely on big star names to appeal to a mass audience, but it’s still all about the package.
Stephen Follows has presented a study for the American Film Market (AFM) on the types of low-budget films (budgeted between $500,000 and $3 million) that make the most money. Of the films studied, Follows noted an absence of any major star involvement.
The cast and filmmaker of horror films are not as important as they are scary, high concept and lower budget. They’re not star-driven vehicles. If audiences are scared, it works. Budgets can be kept low as you don’t need to spend money on stars and you don’t need to spend a lot of money on visual effects. Horror genre has a built-in audience. But if the director is not proven, there should be a strong producer to help guide the project’s execution. Horror can bomb in the marketplace, if not done to a certain standard.
Faith-based filmmaking has its own niche market. They’re not usually star-driven. Budgets are usually very low. The director is not as important either. But the director needs to tell a good story and has a solid plan on how to reach the film’s core audience.