Tentpoles bring more coin while smaller pics can offer greater artistic freedom

Imagine if you’re an actor, starring in a big-budget movie that splashes you wide on every plex screen in America, whisks your bottom across every talkshow couch, sets you up in five-star hotels for endless interviews and makes you a beaming A-player in the celebrity glossies (not to mention flooding your bank account).

And it can earn you a seven-figure (or more) payday for your effort.

Conversely, imagine having your restaurant meal interrupted by an earnest videostore clerk with a thumb-stained screenplay under his arm, beseeching you to read it and take a role to help pay down his film school debt. Would you do it for virtually no money, rudimentary working conditions, and knowing the pic might never secure a release date?

Sound like a no-brainer?

It wasn’t for Nicole Kidman, Bill Murray, Don Cheadle, Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Jodie Foster, Debra Winger, Mark Ruffalo, and Samantha Morton, among many others. These thesps enjoy over-the-title billing in huge studio pics and have no qualms about shooting indies.

And then there are Hilary Swank and Halle Berry, who took home the actress Oscars for their work in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Monster’s Ball,” respectively.

Campbell Scott, who read that videostore clerk’s script, let the guy direct and made the first 10 minutes of Dylan Kidd’s “Roger Dodger” the cinematic equivalent of “Don Giovanni.”

“Roger Dodger” established Kidd as a talent to watch, and earned Scott acclaim for a brilliant, edgy role reminiscent of his father, George C. Scott, in the classic film “The Hustler.”

Considering the exquisite calibrations by which an actor maintains a career — one or two bad choices means a whole franchise of agents, managers, publicists, lawyers and accountants takes a hit, plus your asking price drops — is it smart to hazard the no-man’s-land of indie production?

“With big budget, you do get paid and that’s always a plus,” says Kevin Bacon, a multiple-award winner whose career has stretched from the larky “Animal House” in the late ’70s to the brooding “Mystic River” in 2003.

“I’ve done a few independent movies that never saw the light of day but I don’t change my level of commitment to a role based on the size of a budget. I support the industry. There’s a trickle-down effect where big numbers inspire audience awareness of what movies can do.”

Bacon’s latest role, a convicted child molester trying to rebuild his life in “The Woodsman,” is one of his most tense, difficult and dangerous; early word has him in Oscar contention. “Woodsman” reflects Bacon’s view on why a successful indie can mean more than a bravura big-budget performance for an actor.

“I love it when an independent film challenges studios in tone and content,” he says. “A breakout film has a trickle-up effect. ‘Memento’ is a good example of how a nonlinear approach can work. It comes down to ‘How are you going to tell a story?’ For an actor the commitment is nonending.”

In comparing the two genres, Oscar-nominated Laura Linney says: “They both offer different things. I love the resources of a larger movie and love that you get your hands dirty with an actor-driven piece of an independent.”

Ever since actress Olivia de Havilland declared the Hollywood equivalent of free agency over a half-century ago — effectively ending studio control over every artist on the payroll — all kinds of entrepreneurs have formed independent companies. But no matter what the decade, the major studios always stood tall in the background.

“There are three things going on right now,” says Mike Medavoy, who has held top exec posts with Orion, United Artists and TriStar, and is now an independent producer.

“There are fewer buyers; the question of what is an independent film is less clear. If you were to say that Miramax is an independent film company today, you’d be wrong. The main problem with making movies isn’t making them, it’s marketing them. It’s become a one-weekend business.”

From the point of view of the actor, Medavoy doesn’t see the big vs. indie question as an all-or-nothing pursuit. “You can do both. If you’re a good actor and you have a long-term view, you’ll be OK.”

“Tom Cruise can make ‘Rain Man’ and later make ‘Magnolia,’ ” says Joan Hyler, a former agent at William Morris who describes herself as a boutique manager. “It’s like saying, ‘One for me, one for the pope.’

Hyler, once a top agent with William Morris, now describes herself a “a boutique manager” with a small roster of top clientele, and sees one big advantage for the actor in an independent role.

“The bottom line is the opportunity for an Oscar,” she continues. “The good independent part is not just artistically satisfying, but it can lead to the further validation of prizes like a Golden Globe or Screen Actors Guild Award.”

Now that the studios can’t protect careers the way they once did with the likes of a Robert Redford or Barbra Streisand, Hyler has seen more mutual acknowledgment and support develop — especially considering that, 20 years ago, it was Sundance or nothing — for the indie artist.

“The business has become interdependent. History has shown us that one generation seeds the next,” she says. “The big studios are vertically integrated now. They recognize what the indies have brought. It’s been a quiet revolution.”

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