Financing independent films can be fiendishly complex, but raising the money isn’t the hard part. According to the sales agents who drive the biggest projects to market, the real challenge these days is getting the creative equation right.

That means the premium is no longer on capital but on material, and on developing relationships with the kind of talent — writers, directors, actors and producers — who can deliver it at an affordable price.

“The international sales market woke up a few years ago, and started putting its energy more towards content than capital,” notes Good Universe topper Joe Drake.

“There are a number of companies now that have money,” says Jere Hausfater of Aldemisa, citing his own Russian-backed venture alongside the likes of Lionsgate/Summit, Annapurna, Red Granite and Exclusive. “It’s now all about finding the material, putting these movies together and getting them up the field and across the goal line, which is really tough.”

That’s because risk-averse foreign buyers have become far more forensic in their analysis of potential purchases, with DVD and TV no longer offering a soft landing for titles that crash theatrically.

“Every element is important to them, in a way it used not to be,” says David Garrett, the former Summit Intl. topper who now runs his own shingle, Mister Smith Entertainment. “They don’t just kick the tires, they open the bonnet, bounce on the upholstery and then they want to take it for a test drive, which means waiting until it’s finished. A project has to have a great script, a good cast, a good director, be properly budgeted and aimed at a clearly targeted demographic. If there’s any kind of question mark, they won’t buy.”

Bringing the budget down to match the value of cast and director in a particular genre is a puzzle of Rubik’s cube intricacy. “You could have the cast you want at a price that’s decent, but in a film that’s logistically complex and therefore expensive,” says Garrett. “So you cut out the action scenes, but those are actually the thing that would sell it in the first place.”

FilmNation topper Glen Basner agrees. “Every project has its own complexity, and in almost every case, it’s amazing that you manage to pull it off. Getting the director you want and a cast that makes sense always seems to be the most challenging part, because there’s a limited number of people who would really excite us, our distributors or ultimately our audience.”

The equation is different for each film, Basner says. A Pedro Almodovar movie will sell on the director’s name — “cast is helpful, but it’s not what makes the difference.” Bigger commercial properties tend to demand star names, but not always, as “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” proved.

Sometimes it’s the precise blend of director and star that galvanizes the market, as in the case of FilmNation’s upcoming J.C. Chandor actioner “All Is Lost.”

“People wanted to see what the director of ‘Margin Call’ would do next, but it was key to get someone of the caliber of Robert Redford to star in it,” Basner explains. “Typically, exciting filmmakers attract a terrific cast. On our film ‘Tracers,’ it was the star Taylor Lautner who excited buyers rather than the director Daniel Benmayor, but it was the director who attracted Taylor to the project.”

Exclusive CEO Nigel Sinclair notes that when a top-drawer cast gravitates towards a script, it not only gives distribs some marquee value to sell, but acts as a reassuring endorsement of the material’s merit.

“It’s a badge of quality that a script can get a certain cast, which is going to be all the more important in the digital future. With a film like ‘Arbitrage,’ for example, you know from Richard Gere’s involvement that it will be intelligent and well acted.”

Sinclair identifies three types of casting that drive sales. “First, when you’ve got a lead who’s a must-buy, like Jake Gyllenhall in ‘End of Watch.’ He’s a very big star internationally, he really works his films, he’s very popular and considered a fine actor. Second, when two plus two equals five — Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Pete Postlethwaite and Rebecca Hall in ‘The Town’ — that’s a cast which tells any intelligent person it’s a film worth seeing. And third, a retro cast, like in ‘The Expendables’ or ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.’ ”

But, argues Nicolas Chartier of Voltage, fewer and fewer names are worth something to international buyers, because lots of actors have done movies that have failed, so their value has gone down dramatically.

“What constitutes a theatrical title has gotten narrower in most of the world, and therefore the level of cast you need is higher,” notes Mimi Steinbauer of Radiant Films Intl. “What has changed from five years ago is that the cast offers going out are mostly pay or play. It didn’t use to be structured like that, but everybody realizes how crucial cast is, and actors are more careful about aligning themselves with a project.”

On the other hand, Steinbauer says that indie films are now attracting a higher caliber of talent. “There are extraordinary actors who are available for independent films now. I am selling two films with remarkable ensemble casts — ‘Trust Me’ and ‘Lullaby.’ I don’t know if you could have made those a few years ago in the independent market.”

A-listers are usually willing to do indie movies on the cheap if they are passionate about the material. The snag is that those scripts tend to be the tough ones about junkie suicides or dying children. Even gold-plated superstars such as Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp can’t always guarantee a sale these days in the wrong project, if their presence has inflated an artsy project beyond its market value. Both “Under the Skin” and “A Long Way Down” only got made after Pitt and Depp respectively detached themselves, allowing the producers to recast at a more economically viable level.

“The key for us is to secure major movie stars for commercial product, not to make arthouse movies,” says Myles Nestel of the Solution Entertainment Group. “But if you’re presenting that kind of material, it’s hard not to pay them their studio quote.”

The trick, he says, is to find a creative angle — “You get an arthouse director to do a kick-ass horror, or vest an actor in a different way by bringing them in as a producer.” SEG attracted Pierce Brosnan to topline its thriller “November Man” by teaming with his production shingle Irish Dreamtime.

Once again, it comes down to the strength of the material, and the appeal of a director to cast. “The key thing for us is to be in business with solid producers who have great taste, who’ve been at studios and either have access to capital to option material, or who have relationships with actors and writers to bring material to the table,” Nestel explains.

That’s why Joe Drake and Nathan Kahane at Good Universe develop their own projects, such as Spike Lee’s upcoming remake of the Korean pic “Oldboy,” just as they did previously at Mandate Pictures.

“When we started Mandate, the international community used to spend 95% of their time chasing money around the globe — the latest German funds, or British tax breaks — and then marrying it with whatever content was available,” Drake explains. “But we didn’t do that. Our view was always that content, not capital, is the most scarce resource, so we spent our time chasing that, which led to films like ‘Juno’ and ‘Hope Springs.’ ”

It helps that the bigger sales companies have deeper pockets and more solid financial underpinnings than in the cowboy days of indie finance.

One of the best capitalized is IM Global, whose backing by India’s Reliance means it can compete with the studios for top talent.

“Right now, for the higher-end independent films, the upfront cash fees for actors are comparable to studio films, and the back-end offer is much more transparent and fruitful,” says IM Global topper Stuart Ford. “Word gets around among the actors, which is one of the reasons why an increasingly large list of talent is working in independent movies. If they are getting 80%-90% of their studio quote, and a back-end that’s less vulnerable to the vagaries of studio accounting, then it’s an easy deal to make.”

There are some projects, however, where casting is mercifully more simple and less expensive. Ford says, “The deal I’m most proud of was ‘Walking With Dinosaurs,’ where we put together the co-production between Reliance and the BBC, brought Animal Logic on board, did the deal with Fox for the U.S. and some international territories, pre-sold other territories to independents, and now we’re in the process of setting up distribution in China, which is a major part of the financing.

“Arguably, we couldn’t have put any of that together if you’d added the complexity of a talent deal,” he says. “But the beauty of dinosaurs is that they don’t have agents.”

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