Which stars light up indie biz?

Cannes Film Festival 2012 - The Market

With the big six Hollywood studios making fewer pics and focusing more and more on tentpole franchises, the independent sector has a clear-cut opportunity to expand.

And as buyers and sellers gear up for the Cannes Film Festival, it’s clear that stars have become a key currency in that expansion.

So who are the key stars at the moment that are selling out in the international market?

“It’s not an exact science,” says one sales agent. “But at the moment, Jason Statham at the right price is sellable in something that remotely hits his sweet spot while Michael Fassbender, Mark Wahlberg, Bradley Cooper, Liam Neeson and Gerard Butler can have value.” The agent adds that Sean Penn is huge in France, as is Hugh Laurie. And with actresses there’s a wider range from Angelina Jolie to Natalie Portman to Rooney Mara. “But women don’t necessarily have too many movies that are carried on their backs right now. There’s a broader spectrum of females that work out there.”

Sales agents reported robust sales in Berlin on a number of titles, thanks in no small part to the star power of Kate Hudson, Mara, Wahlberg, Statham, Jennifer Lawrence, Cooper, Shia LeBeouf and Paul Walker.

“Stars help people know the value of the movie, just like a great script and a strong director,” says Voltage Pictures topper Nicolas Chartier, whose slate includes Robert Redford starrer “The Company You Keep” and “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman,” with LaBeouf (pic’s cast also caters to European tastes with German superstar Til Schweiger and Danish B.O. draw Mads Mikkelsen). “It’s a very important factor — probably the most important factor. Stars drive the sales.”

Lightning Entertainment’s Audrey Delaney agrees.

“Actors really are the tipping points in any package,” she says.

It’s true that with studios making fewer pics, higher-profile thesps still need work and these opportunities are falling into the laps of the indies.

“One of the things about studios making fewer films is that we’ve definitely got more opportunities,” says FilmNation’s Glen Basner, who virtually sold out Mara starrer “Bitter Pill” and Redford starrer “All Is Lost” at the European Film Market.

“But you still have to have the right actor in the right film,” he says.

Producers point to “Two Guns,” starring Wahlberg and Denzel Washington, as an example of the kind of projects that can come out of the indie sector and land at a major studio — Universal, in this case.

“Great actors are doing indie films,” says Foresight Unlimited’s Mark Damon, who sold the “Two Guns” foreign markets to Sony at Berlin.

Basner points to interesting casting decisions coupled with compelling filmmakers as being integral parts of the whole puzzle.

“All Is Lost,” penned and helmed by J.C. Chandor, sees Redford serve as the only thesp in the at-sea pic.

“Here, Redford gets a chance to do a tour-de-force performance and people get excited to see him,” says Basner. “He’s a big star acting in a great role.”

However, with Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” (screening in competish in Cannes), starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, it’s a different situation.

“Jeff had written that part for Matthew,” says Basner, who adds that in certain territories, (McConaughey) is less known but there is the curiosity factor in seeing the star tackle an unconventional role, in this case, McConaughey plays a convict who escapes prison and strikes up a friendship with a 14-year-old boy. The boy helps McConaughey reunite with his girlfriend (Witherspoon).

It’s true that a sales agent or producer can’t just slap a known name on a film and expect it to click with buyers and in cinemas with audiences.

These days, it’s more about alchemy.

“It’s harder than it’s ever been because it’s all interconnected,” says Sierra/Affinity’s Nick Meyer. “It can’t just be a star-driven project anymore. What we’re doing is re-creating kismet on a regular basis.”

Hudson’s upcoming turn as an action star in “Everly” proved an example of a distinctive project suited to the current marketplace.

Adam Ripp and Rob Paris of Crime Scene Pictures and Anonymous Content produce with Joe Lynch directing from Yale Hannon’s script, which was on the Hollywood Black List of best unproduced screenplays. In the pic, Hudson’s character is under attack by mob assassins hired by her ex.

Sierra/Affinity introduced the project to foreign buyers at Berlin, where it sold like hotcakes. “I think it’s really interesting to see a romantic comedy star like Kate become an action star,” Meyer says.

“It’s always a balancing act between commercial and artistic,” says Paris. “You can’t decide to cast someone solely on the basis that they sell well in Germany.”

The fact that stars are more available has made foreign buyers more savvy about the U.S. market and a star’s career trajectory, according to Exclusive Media’s Tobin Armbrust.

It’s attractive to cast a star against type, but sometimes the risk factor can spook buyers.

“They want sure bets in action and romcoms,” he adds. “If you’re making a revenge thriller with Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone, it’s going to sell well. But they still want new guys like Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender; when they succeed that helps the other new guys get parts such as what we did with Chris Hemsworth for ‘Rush.’ ”

Focus Features Intl. prexy Alison Thompson notes that while the market is fickle, that over the past decade many actors have been more careful with their careers, pointing to the high number of A-list actors who tackle legit projects and tougher, unexpected film roles.

“Great actors themselves have a greater bandwidth to play on.”

Armbrust says as long as production companies keep budgets under control, they can gamble a bit — such as using Dwayne Johnson in “Snitch,” in which he plays an undercover operative going into prison.

“Foreign buyers are open to that idea,” he adds.

But, says Studiocanal’s international sales topper Harold Van Lier, “distributors are not going to buy blindly because of the cast — they are looking at all of the elements.”

Van Lier shopped $25 million Western love story “Serena” (which Studiocanal co-financed with 2929 Entertainment) toplining girl of the moment Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Danish helmer Susanne Bier directs.

“For ‘Serena’ our cast has certainly helped push strong pre-sales but everything has its price and any package has to feel right and exciting to buyers both creatively and commercially,” says Van Lier. “The problem is constant inflation in L.A. on the one hand and the fact that fewer films are being produced today. This can also mean greater opportunities for us in Europe to attract an affordable cast of prestigious actors who can be smarter about career choices. Many understand the economics of films financed out of Europe and are increasingly willing to compromise and make it work within a budget for a particular role or director they love and what that role can do for their career in the long run.”

“There are two prices for actors now,” he says. “There are prices for the fewer tentpole studio movies for which A-list actors will continue to be paid a lot of money. And then there is the indie reality where films are tougher to finance. I get the sense that actors are now being smart about treating different types of films differently in terms of their fees.” He adds that there are creative ways to help make the budget as affordable as possible for the independent market.

But what solves one problem raises another issue for indie producers. “Negotiations with actors are endless,” says Damon, “because agents want to make it clear that they’re fighting for every last dime.”

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