Name casts become increasingly important

NEW YORK — While helmers at the studios must adjust their films (and schedules) to accommodate Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson or Demi Moore, their indie counterparts are learning to live with the demands of “boutique casting.”

As the cost of P&A rises, fewer banks and film production companies are willing to gamble on a film — regardless of its budget — unless its cast offers marquee value. “The safest thing you can put on paper for a banker is a star,” says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

Also helping to fuel the demand for stars in low-budget pics is the evolution of companies such as Disney-owned Miramax and October, which is 50%-owned by Universal. Both Miramax and October are moving beyond acquiring and distributing indie films into producing higher-budget films.

“The independent film companies are using the same formulas as the studios,” said Ira Deutchman, whose Redeemable Features is producing Mark Christopher’s “54″ for Miramax, starring Mike Myers, Neve Campbell, Selma Hayek, Ryan Philippe and Sela Ward.

The prize for the most star-laden “indie” film must go to Miramax’s “Cop Land,” James Mangold’s follow-up to his Sundance fave “Heavy.” Originally billed as a low-budget film when Sylvester Stallone agreed to work for scale and back-end participation, the cost of “Cop Land” ultimately reached $28 million. In addition to Stallone, “Cop Land” featured Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Annabella Sciorra, Ray Liotta, Michael Rapaport and Cathy Moriarty.

Celebrity pitfalls

While many new directors welcome the opportunity to work with stars because it broadens their experience and boosts their box office potential, there are pitfalls to casting celebrities in a low-budget pic.

“Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but I find this fashion of boutique casting a little hard to take,” says Maggie Renzi, John Sayles’ longtime producer. “I don’t want someone famous to be the receptionist in a small film. It takes me straight out of the story when I see a has-been movie star in a part that’s not big enough.”

In general, the indie stars live in New York, they’re willing to work for next to nothing in an indie film and they have been involved in arthouse hits, which is why they help get financing for projects.

Besides such independent icons as Harvey Keitel, Lili Taylor, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi and Parker Posey, the talent pool for low-budget films includes models, aging rockers, former A-list stars looking to reinvent themselves the way John Travolta did in “Pulp Fiction” and TV sitcom regulars trying to make the jump to the bigscreen. Foreign stars such as Julie Delpy and Stellan Skarsgard can help guarantee pre-sales in key overseas territories.

The ensemble cast of a typical indie film might include “The Full Monty’s” Robert Carlyle, model Tyra Banks, Dee Snider of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister, Faye Dunaway, Timothy Gibson of “Dharma and Greg” and Germany’s Til Schweiger.

Tail wagging the dog

Some film execs say the indie film biz has become so obsessed with casting that it risks losing sight of its raison d’etre — to introduce the public to new stories and faces. “Right now, the tail is wagging the dog,” says Russell Schwartz, president of Gramercy Pictures. “People seem to have forgotten that the great independent movies have nobody in them and come out of nowhere. They always will and they always have.”

Although his Sundance sensation “Welcome to the Dollhouse” featured a virtually unknown cast, Todd Solondz’ next untitled project has an ensemble cast of celebrities and veteran thesps that includes Marla Maples, Sandra Bernhard, Ben Gazzara, Lara Flynn Boyle and Jared Harris. The film, which has a budget of between $3 million and $4 million, is being financed by October Films.

Christine Vachon, who is producing the Solondz film along with Good Machine’s Ted Hope, says the new style of casting stars in indie films is a lot more time-consuming than using actors who are not publicly known.

“Even though they tell the press that they’re dying to be in an independent film, most stars have better things to do,” says Vachon, whose producing credits include “I Shot Andy Warhol” and Todd Haynes’ upcoming “Velvet Goldmine,” a Miramax release starring Jonathan Rhys-Myers, Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale.

While the right mix of actors and celebrities can help secure financing for an indie film, it does not guarantee a theatrical release, much less a breakout hit. “There is a tremendous inventory of films with budgets between $2 million and $3 million with stars,” says Jon Ein, a partner in Foundry Films, a New York-based production and finance company.

Easier to sell

Still, film execs and bankers say that a cast of recognizable names makes it easier to sell indie pics overseas and to generate additional revenues in ancillary markets such as cable and homevideo.

“Right now, the only ancillaries that you can count on are pay TV in America and foreign sales,” said Cassian Elwes, head of the independent film department at the William Morris Agency. “Both of these require stars to drive consumer interest. It doesn’t matter if the film costs $1 million or $10 million.”

Sometimes, though, it makes sense to add stars to the mix — for instance, when a film’s storyline is depressing. “Stars can help attract the public to a film with difficult subject matter,” said Barker of Sony Classics. “You need someone like Meryl Streep to get audiences to go see ‘Marvin’s Room.’ “

Similarly, the presence of Woody Harrelson in Miramax’s “Welcome to Sarajevo” was designed to help lure moviegoers to the gritty story of a journalist’s rescue of an orphan from war-torn Bosnia.

Unlike studio releases, which are accompanied by a blitz of advertising, specialized pics rely heavily on publicity to generate interest among filmgoers. Marketing execs at arthouse distribs such as Miramax, October and Fine Line complain that magazine and newspaper editors will devote valuable editorial space only to films that feature celebrities.

Stories steer coverage

The few pics without stars that manage to get around this obstacle are those with a compelling story behind them; for example, tales of the torments and eccentricities of David Helfgott helped propel Fine Line’s biopic “Shine,” which, in turn, boosted the Aussie pianist’s comeback tour.

Having Robin Williams play a psychiatrist in “Good Will Hunting,” which Gus Van Sant directed for Miramax, may have given comfort to Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, but it wasn’t really necessary, Renzi said. “The real-life story of boyhood friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck writing a script and starring in the movie is the kind of thing the media eats up,” she said. “That alone would generate enough publicity to get people to see the film.”

To be sure, there are a handful of indie filmmakers such as Joel and Ethan Coen, John Sayles, James Ivory and Mike Leigh who do not face the same pressure to cast stars in their films because they are considered names in themselves.

“We look at three criteria — director, cast and script,” said Schwartz of Gramercy Pictures. “Two of these have to make sense. If it’s a young director with a really good script, you want some cast to help propel the director. If it’s a well-known director with a good script, then the cast is less important.”

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