Big Names in Small Films: Bringing Star Power to an Independent Film
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren on the set of Black Water (2018)
Some of the most successful films have been made and gone on to break sales records without a single known actor or filmmaker attached. Independent filmmakers often point to films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project as films that turned huge profits with no star power. So, does having big name talent in a film project matter?
The simple answer is “Yes”
Successful independent films that are made with no known filmmakers or actors are the exception and not the rule. There are only a handful of such films and should not be held as a model to follow. In this article we will look at the “Why” of attaching big name talent and the “How” of attaching them.
Big Names Help Raise Financing Raising investment money for film projects is difficult. A way to make this easier is to have known actors attached before investors are approached. Stars give a level of assurance to investors that the project is legitimate and that their chances of seeing a return are increased. The expectations of investors are that the big name actor will act as a draw for audiences and that will alleviate some of the risk of their investment.
Big Names Help Pre-Sales A key component of most film financing packages is foreign pre-sales. These pre-sales are distribution or licensing agreements that are initiated prior to the completion of the film. The distributor may pay a cash advance or guarantee a future payment that can be used to secure a production loan that will help finance the movie. The amount of money that a distributor is willing to pre-buy a film is heavily influenced by the talent that is attached. Distributors look for actors that have proven to be popular in past films and actors that have an existing fanbase that will ensure sales.
Big Names Help Bring On Other Talent Having the right talent signed on to a project will help bring other talent onboard. Once one known name is attached (screenwriter, director, actor, etc.) it will show other talent that there is faith in the project from within the industry. Many actors also want to ensure that they are working with other professionals so by seeing other names attached they will not feel like they are going to be the only professional working on an amateur project.
Bringing big names together can magnify the benefits if it is a special or unique collaboration. In the 2018 film Black Water Jean-Claude Van Damme was cast to star with Dolph Lundgren as a co-star. Both of these actors are valuable action stars on their own, but by bringing the two of them together it was a throwback to previous collaborations and marked the first time that the pair had shared the screen as allies rather than enemies. This gave the film a unique angle to approach the market with and increased its overall marketability.
Big Names Help Marketing and Publicity Movie stars sell movie tickets. In the marketing of a movie, emphasis will be placed on the names of the actors because of the free publicity and recognition that top talent brings. The general public will be more interested in known actors than fresh faces and publication outlets will have an angle to write about. Last year, when Dawn’s Light Movies announced its new action project Payline, The Hollywood Reporter was quick to put out a story because the project had Wesley Snipes attached playing a villain for the first time since Demolition Man. This publicity would not have been had with a lesser known star. Without known names in a film, it is difficult to differentiate the project and to make it stand out from all of the other entertainment options.
The Hollywood Reporter News Reporting on Payline Starring Wesley Snipes
Big Names Help Make the Film Better Most big name actors achieved the status of movie star for a reason. Big name actors become valuable talent because they are skilled actors who bring theatrical value to the roles they play. While having their name adds credibility and marketability to the film, their acting skills can increase the overall quality of the movie. To some level, this is in the perception of the audience who believe that the big name talent brings a certain level of credibility to the project, but a skilled actor can make the entire production better.
Who to Approach When choosing what actors to approach, the project should have a variety of acceptable options and be flexible with casting. The project should consult with their sales agent to determine what stars will bring what value. There are a large number of talented actors who would do a great job in a particular role but do little to increase the potential sales price of the film. It is important that the project use its cast budget in areas that will have the most impact by landing the star power that will bring the largest sales dollars for the lowest cost.
The Script Before approaching talent of any level, the script must be in a polished and presentable form. If the opportunity arises to have the script read by a notable actor who may choose to attach to the project, the script should be in a completed form. Many stars receive screenplays from experienced screenwriters and producers on a regular basis and will not spend the time reading something that is still in development from an unknown writer.
The Role Be realistic about what roles best fit the top talent the project can afford. It may not be feasible to cast a big name for the starring role that will require filming for the entire run of the show, but it could be possible to land them in a supporting role that will film in one to five days. It is more difficult and expensive to get a star to commit for a longer period of time.
Also be aware that locking in a star for a one-day cameo may not be the way to go because it often requires a premium to be paid. Their agents know that the project is trying to capitalize on the star’s name with little value for the actor in the role. A sweet spot is finding a three-to-five day role that can be shot in consecutive days. This will give the actor a better and more creative role that can carry a portion of the film without feeling that their participation is solely so their name can be put on the poster.
The Schedule When approaching big name talent for roles, it is important to be flexible and not be schedule too far in the future. Agents (and the actors themselves) will not want to commit to small roles in independent films that will preclude them from potentially larger projects that they may be offered.
It is easier to land talent if the shooting schedule works around any of their other pre-existing commitments, essentially filling up a free slot in their schedule. This can get tricky if the talent needs to travel for the role, so if the role can be shot in a location that is easily accessible to the talent it makes the scheduling easier (and is often more cost effective). A recent Dawn’s Light production, Money Plane, was able to cast Kelsey Grammer in a supporting role by scheduling shooting days around his existing schedule and filming close to his home. By making filming simple for the actor, it is easier to get them to agree to the project.
The Offer Not unlike the stock market, the rates for actors fluctuate depending on the market forces of supply and demand. This is heavily influenced by the performance of their most recent projects and their current standing in the opinion of the public. With a little research and reaching out it is possible to get estimates on what the actor has recently been paid and what value they were able to command when the film went up for sale. Armed with this information, the project can construct a reasonable offer for the role. Keep in mind that actors may be willing to take a reduction in their standard rate if they get to work with a filmmaker or talent they are a fan of, or if the role has the chance to earn them artistic acclaim and potential awards.
Reaching Out Getting the offer, role, schedule and script to the targeted big name stars can be a challenging feat on its own. While no one method is definitively better than another, the three most tried and true are:
Through a Casting Agent
A reputable casting director will be able to provide information on actor availability and current quotes as well as provide an “in” to certain agents. Maybe even more valuable, the casting director will be able to steer the project away from actors that are unattainable or that will waste time in the negotiation process. Good casting directors are not inexpensive, but a good casting director will not only take the responsibility of reaching out, but add credibility to the project as a whole.
Through Known Producers/Contacts
The old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is as true in Hollywood as it is anywhere else. Many actors and their agents are more inclined to work with producers and talent that they know and have worked with in the past. Finding a producer that the actor or agent has worked with in the past to help make the introduction will help get the ball rolling. It may be worthwhile to attach such a producer to the project purely for the introductions they may make. It can be as challenging to get a producer to sign onto a project as a big name actor, but the film community is a small place and with some legwork and networking a connection can be made.
Reaching Out Directly
The Hollywood of yesteryear where all deals are done by a private network of producers and agents is no more. With the tools available on the internet anyone can find the contact information of an actor’s agent and manager. It is possible to reach out to the agent directly and pitch the project. Agents receive calls and projects from new and wannabe filmmakers on a regular basis, so they will be skeptical of any project that is brought to them by an unknown person though the project should be presented in a polished package with explanations of all of the key variables such as shooting schedules, financing, and production crews clearly laid out. If the agent thinks the project could be a good fit for their client they will pass along a copy of the script to their client to review. This is not a quick process; ensuring the schedule has ample time for this back and forth is important. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, an 18 year old Richard Switzer (co-founder and president of Dawn’s Light Movies) said in regards to getting Oscar nominated actor Eric Roberts to star in his film “It’s not as hard as you think, you just reach out to them with a script and they’ll respond”
Having big name talent does not make an independent film good and it does not guarantee success. Good and successful independent films are possible with no big name actors or filmmakers. But the chances of getting an independent film made and recouping the cost of the investment are greatly increased by attaching known actors and filmmakers to the project, and they will probably help make it a better project as well.
Getting the big names to be a part of an independent film can seem like a daunting task, but with the right preparation and package it can be managed. A project that offers the right role to the right actor, with a strong script, workable schedule, and reasonable offer has no reason to expect anything other than success when contacting talent.
Can you run a marathon without sneakers? Yes. But why would you if wearing sneakers would make it easier.
Can your independent film be successful without a big name? Yes. But why would you if casting a big name would make it better.
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