Tempting name talent with a modest budget

There is no winning formula for casting an independent film. It’s a down-and-dirty business that requires guts, provides little glamour and often can be humiliating.

“It’s incredibly grinding,” says one frustrated production exec, referring to the job of reeling in talent. “You are constantly trying to make ridiculous deals with actors. If that talent is getting paid $1 million for a studio film, why should they cut their price 90% for the independents?”

But the payoff is that, even in dire times, indie producers eventually find their own paths to the stars. Locking in the names brings in overseas sales and potentially translates into the pic becoming a big hit at the domestic box office.

“If the talent is on the level where it can be sold domestically and overseas, we don’t have limits,” says Mark Damon, chairman and chief exec of MDP Worldwide, which shelled out Jean-Claude Van Damme’s full quote to cast the Muscles From Brussels in its upcoming $35 million action pic “Knock Off.”

Damon and other execs say the real finesse comes from bringing in the names for non-genre, script-driven pics. Thus, to entice talent to jump onboard, producers need to fork over big bucks, offer a directing or producing role or provide the talent an unusual character-driven opportunity. Finding the right director is just as critical as landing the actors, and often is key to attracting the stars.

Salaries at stake

“The stakes have been raised,” says Jay Polstein, VP production at Trimark Pictures, referring to indie-style studio divisions such as Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics. “Now that the studios own these units, they can afford to pay people. It’s raising the agents’ expectations on how much their clients should be compensated for these films.”

Finding good material is the most critical step to drawing the big names. In short, star-building scripts are those that make an impact, have heart or great character.

“It’s something that you focus on and can’t wait to get to the next page,” explains Robert Goodman, who manages actors Salma Hayek, John C. McGinley and Dennis Haysbert.

“It’s not about money, it’s about material, because I can’t compete with New Line or Miramax in the dollar amounts,” says Cindy Cowan, prexy of production and acquisition at Initial Entertainment, which signed Dennis Quaid at less than his normal rate for “Oliver Stone’s Savior.”

“If you have good material, the agent and manager will always be open to you,” says Phillip Goldfine, prexy of Seagal Nasso Prods. and former senior VP of Trimark. Goldfine, however, acknowledges that a production exec’s reputation is critical. “When I first got started, no one would look at what I had.”

“It’s more competitive than ever,” says one exec. “All the independents are vying for the same people, and there is only so much quality talent.”

Even getting access to the right material is difficult. One agent who represents a couple of notable indie pic writers abruptly ended an interview when told which producers were being profiled for this story. “I usually don’t work with those kinds of companies,” the agent sniffed.

Artistic deals

Avi Lerner, chairman of Nu Image, says experience has helped him decide how to approach an actor. Lerner says the production company paid Dennis Hopper’s usual regular quote for “Top of the World,” but negotiated a “special price” for his work in “Frankie the Fly.” “If it’s an artistic or non-formula movie, we try to get the price down from the actor’s usual quote,” Lerner adds.

Working through an agent can be problematic.

“Many times an agent can kill the deal before it reaches the client,” says Joseph Merhi, PM Entertainment’s co-owner and head of production, describing a common scenario. “You run into the actor in the airport, tell him about the project, and you send the script to the agent with an offer. Then you run into the same actor five months later and discover the agent never gave it to the actor.”

MDP’s Damon explains, “It’s not that the agent has an agenda, but the agency has a party line,” he says, describing the ten-percenteries’ bias toward richer studio deals.

But Moonstone Entertainment helmer Ernst Stroh says agencies have been the catalyst in bringing name talent to his recent pics.

CAA package

For “Afterglow,” Nick Nolte and director Alan Rudolph came packaged through International Creative Managements Bart Walker. (Nolte since has moved to Creative Artists Agency.) And in the case of “Digging to China,” CAA offered director Timothy Hutton, who then brought in Kevin Bacon, who’s repped by the same agency.

Several production execs, though, say managers usually are more approachable than agents, because they are in touch with the actor’s artistic wishes, according to Trimark’s Polstein.

Case in point: To cast Salma Hayek as the lead in Trimark’s upcoming Frida Kahlo pic, Polstein first contacted the Mexican actress’s manager Robert Goodman.

“At the time, (Hayek) was being pursued by three different companies,” Goodman says. That relationship led to a meeting with Hayek’s rep John Fogelman at William Morris. A deal was then struck that gave the sultry star added involvement as producer on “Frida,” giving her a role in the development, script and casting of the project.

Managers can even get their client into a role. Eli Selden, Samuel Jackson’s manager, read Trimark’s “Eve’s Bayou” and promptly contacted one of the producers of the pic, Caldecott Chubb. In this case, Jackson wanted to support African-American director Kasi Lemmons as well as to gain experience as a producer.

“It’s probably true that we don’t have as many clients as agents,” says Nick Wechsler, of Addis Wechsler & Associates management company. “Anybody that represents an A-level actor gets several offers a week.”

Aside from offering plum dramatic roles or experience behind the camera, several production execs say that even in the indie world, the level of perks is increasingly a factor on whether a star accepts a role.

“All over Hollywood, perks are creeping into negotiations,” Goldfine says.

“We are not talking Sylvester Stallone,” Merhi says. “It’s a tight budget for independents. When you make a deal for $300,000, $500,000 or even $1 million for an independent name, another $100,000 is 10% on the budget.”

MDP’s Damon says that in one case, a “secondary” actor refused to accept a “double-banger” trailer arrangement, insisting on his own trailer. In the end, to give the actor his stand-alone compartment, the whole cast needed to be upgraded at a cost of $80,000.

However, Initial Entertainment’s Cowan uses the big names’ penchant for star treatment to her advantage.

“When on the set, we try to make it a family atmosphere,” Cowan explains, referring to doing everyone’s laundry and showering the cast with thoughtful gifts each week. Cowan says Dennis Quaid received a monogrammed golf bag in Sarajevo during the lensing of “Savior,” and Kyra Sedgwick (“Montana”) received a basket of teas, health food and toys for her kids.

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