Soft package, hard sell?

Slow presales are reworking attachments game

The times when that one magic name could greenlight a picture are pretty much over.

In a sluggish pre-sales market not even marquee attachments will lure investors if the rest of the project entails an element of risk.

Raising the $7 million budget for the provocative, sexually charged Ewan McGregor starrer “Young Adam,” helmed by Scottish newcomer David Mackenzie, was “a real stretch,” says pic’s producer Jeremy Thomas. “People are incredibly careful and (the disappearance of risk takers like) Canal Plus has left a big gap. In the end, it’s your reputation as a producer and your relationship with talent that will allow you to make a movie within an independent economy.”

“The olden days of tossing major motion picture names in the hope to draw out gigantic presales numbers are really over,” says Bull’s Eye Entertainment partner Cathy Schulman, who recently assembled “Thumbsucker,” a low-budget indie starring Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn and Tilda Swinton, with first-time feature helmer Mike Mills. “Buyers are smart,” she adds. ” They’re not fooled by the notion that Keanu Reeves is (attached). They understand it’s an ensemble.”

“In the past it was very easy to pre-sell the new Wim Wenders or Istvan Szabo films but now people look at the whole package to be more secure,” says Hong Kong-based sales agent Wouter Barendrecht. “Packaging used to be a dirty word in the independent world, but now it’s a necessity.”

When it comes to lower-budget indie projects, the poor state of overseas distributors has placed newfound importance on soft money schemes and changed the rules of the attachment game.

“Sometimes we look at a budget and the box office value of the cast doesn’t justify the size. But because the actor might be British or Canadian the film qualifies for local tax funds, the numbers do add up,” says Jared Underwood, senior vp at Comerica Entertainment Group.

Still, cast has to be commercially viable and suited to a project. While an actor such as Colin Farrell may be able to step outside his usual genre and do drama “A Home at the End of the World” (shot with Canadian incentives), not all thesps are as easily transferred. “Someone like Maggie Cheung might be a huge star in Asia, but in the context of a French drama she just doesn’t work,” says Barendrecht.

When franchise stars such as Reeves or McGregor do take on lower-budget work, the attraction is usually the chance to work an interesting helmer and material that allows them to stretch their range.

But if a star takes a pay cut, he or she will likely be looking for back-end points. This is where it gets tricky. “You cannot get a major A-list star attached to a soft money deal because the funds are not prepared to offer them a real gross position,” says Charles Finch, a partner in London-based management company Independent Artist Network.

Yet, particularly for the German tax funds, it’s big-name cast that matters. “Though financiers will take a good look at a director’s track record, the funds are (U.S.) cast-driven,” explains German attorney and fund specialist Harro von Have.

It’s easier when the talent has a vested interest in seeing a project get made. For instance, Charlize Theron was eager to get behind “Monster” (backed by Germany’s VIP fund), and took scale and a back-end deal.

“It’s a pet project for Charlize. She put on weight for the role and completely transformed herself,” says VIP’s managing director Andreas Grosch.

Given all the haggling, the most important attachment is often the producer. More and more, it’s up to the producer to take the plunge and make a movie happen.

“The risk for producers have increased enormously in recent years,” say Robert Lantos, who’s currently producing Szabo’s “Being Julia.” “I invested my own money in this movie. It’s complete insanity. But I can’t help it, I’m addicted to movie making.”