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Indie Film Producers Fight Series in Battle for Talent, Learn to Adapt

Just a few years ago, it would’ve been tough to imagine bankable movie stars such as Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep booking lead roles on TV series. Yet dealmakers arriving in Cannes looking to assemble indie features, while buoyed by a robust economy, are saddled with a painful Achilles’ heel: dozens upon dozens of streaming services, cable and pay TV channels are competing for the same top talent, both behind and in front of the camera. While independents are strategizing ways to fill their pipelines with quality content and recognizable faces, it’s a tough battle.

Even once-reliable supporting actors in features, like Cannes vet Margo Martindale (who stars with Melissa McCarthy in Warner Bros.’ upcoming “The Kitchen” and toplines the CAA/Secret Engine-repped acquisition title “Blow the Man Down”), feels “where movies are being made now are on 10-episode or streaming shows” like her Amazon series, “Sneaky Pete.”

The three-time Emmy winner says she now turns down “lots” of features. “I used to feel bad about it, but I can’t feel bad anymore, because you can’t do everything. These shows are where I live.”

The multitude of projects is also making the phrase “attached to star in” even less of an assurance of final casting than it’s been in the past. “Elisabeth Moss is a good example of someone who’s attached to various films, but who only has short windows in between each season of [Hulu’s] ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ so she can only really do one or two movies a year outside her commitment to that,” says Mister Smith Entertainment CEO David Garrett.

So what new strategies are producers and filmmakers employing to compete with time-consuming small screen productions?

“Many producers have approached casting features from an interesting point of view,” says Endeavor Content partner Christine D’Souza Gelb, who runs the film business for the sales, financing and advisory operation. “They’ve brought on actors to be part of the production at an earlier stage, whether by playing an active creative producer role, investing money themselves or participating in the back end. They’re figuring out how to get talent on board their project.” One recent project where a star brought on early helped to recruit even more top talent was Octavia Spencer in the drama “Luce,” which bowed at Sundance.

Endeavor Content helped raise the financing on two films from first-time feature directors in Un Certain Regard — Michael Covino’s comedy-drama “The Climb” and Danielle Lessovitz’s drama “Port Authority” — and indie studios are also finding a way to lock in other new helmers early. “Endeavor Content is getting behind a lot of first-time filmmakers at places like the Sundance Labs,” Gelb says. “We’ve seen companies like A24 and Focus who are excited about getting in business with a filmmaker after seeing their first film with an option to finance and potentially even produce their second film.”

Another big obstacle for indies looking to put together films “is that we live in the time of studio-level superhero films taking talent off the market for extremely extended periods, beyond the normal sort of schedules of most feature films,” AGC Studios founder Stuart Ford notes. “For us independent financiers, that means you really are trying to navigate your way between all of these competing projects and competing areas of the business.

“On the other hand,” Ford adds, “one of the great positives is that the advent of quality TV dramas and streamers are fantastic proving grounds, so we’ve found ourselves frequently looking at new writing, directing and acting talents there, and that’s definitely a bonus.”

He notes that when AGC was putting together the cast for Neil Burger’s sci-fi movie “Voyagers,” which is now in pre-production, “we trained ourselves and our casting director to look at names that enjoyed more of a profile in the TV space or on streaming platforms, looking long and hard at their social media presence.”

Instagram sensation Lily-Rose Depp is in the cast, and Chanté Adams from the Netflix hit “Roxanne Roxanne” is in talks to join her. “Social media is obviously an important metric for the visibility of young talent, though it doesn’t necessary equate to box office [performance], it becomes a great search engine, because you can see who younger audiences are interested in,” Ford says.

Mister Smith’s Garrett notes, “The irony is that it used to be film that was the breeding ground for talent. But now, almost all the new stars in film are hailing from TV series.”

Talk to producers and financiers and you’ll hear the familiar refrain that content is key in drawing talent to any project. While this is generally true, it’s especially crucial for new filmmakers, though not for getting into the Cannes lineup. Lorcan Finnegan’s sophomore feature, the sci-fi drama “Vivarium,” is the only film in the Critics’ Week section to boast indie stars like Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots.

“Lorcan had a great script, he’s really good in a room and flew all over the world to meet with Imogen and Jesse as they expressed interest in the project,” says exec producer and XYZ Films co-founder Aram Tertzakian, whose company repped sales on Finnegan’s 2016 debut, “Without Name.” “Also, a big part was that Imogen and Jesse were friends who just worked together on ‘The Art of Self-Defense.’ So as Imogen became interested, she suggested Jesse for a role.”

On a few lucky projects, the director is the star, as longtime Terrence Malick producer Grant Hill (“The Tree of Life,” “The Thin Red Line”) found when casting the historical biopic “A Hidden Life,” which is in contention for this year’s Palme D’Or. Malick’s name alone drew a series of A-list American stars to his films in recent years —and financing to match — but this project is different: a mostly English-language drama starring European actors (including the late Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist, in what may be their final film appearances).

Was there any talk of going the star route again with this WWII tale based on a true story? “Because of the nature and depth of the material, we decided that it would be too hard to make a star fit in and have it be seen as what it actually is: a film about authenticity,” Hill says. “It was more like a chess board, moving combinations of actors around and seeing who would be best in a particular role.”

Malick is one of the few auteurs with enough pull to play board games with a cast, but most producers are caught in a more precarious chess game in the weeks leading up to Cannes. Mister Smith’s Cannes sales slate relies on three films in which each project’s IP value is arguably the biggest star: An adaptation of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s bestselling young adult novel “The Language of Flowers” with Kiersey Clemons and Nick Robinson, a remake of “Black Beauty” with Mackenzie Foy and a reboot of the 2003 thriller “Wrong Turn.”

“But whether it’s cast, crew or directors, it’s particularly hard locking people in any distance ahead now, because they always want to kind of make sure they don’t pass up something better,” Garrett says. “You can only really lock down casts weeks before you start shooting, which makes the whole production process quite precarious.”

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