This is Part 2 in a series of excerpts from my new book “Insiders Guide To Independent Film Distribution” (2nd edition, Focal Press). You can pick up a copy in paperback and kindle versions HERE.
Part 1 in the series is located HERE.
One of the best investments you can make during pre-production of your film is in casting. Since casting can literally make or break distribution for your film, you should budget for casting one or two A-list stars in your movie, even if it is for one day of work. You will certainly get your money’s worth. If you cannot get 1-2 A-list stars, then your next best strategy is to get 3-4 B-list stars to act in your film.
For example, there was a filmmaker who had a dark comedy script budgeted for $250,000. She had initial interest from some private investors who were interested in financing the film however she needed to ‘attach’ star names to the project.
She started by going through the budget and allotting $100K to hire two A-list stars. She made a cast wish list and presented that list to a handful of domestic and international distributors for feedback. She heard back from the distributors which names had value in their markets. From that feedback she narrowed down the list of which stars were realistic to go after. This ‘distributor approved’ cast list was passed on to the casting director to go and secure the talent. The good news is that she knew going into it that no matter which actors decided to accept from that list, the film was almost guaranteed distribution in certain territories.
The final result was that the filmmaker was able to get two A-list stars attached to the project. This satisfied her financiers and prompted the film getting funded and eventual distribution in several territories.
Another option when it comes to casting, especially if you are dealing with a budget of less than $1 million, is to utilize B-list and current or past Television stars. I have witnessed films packed with these second tier stars that end up selling very well both domestically and overseas. Again, I recommend making a list of potential stars and getting feedback from distributors first to learn which stars will secure financing for your film.
For an example of how second tier stars can be an ingredient to success one need not look any further than John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, or John Ritter in Slingblade. Both of these men were known as has-beens before these films, but their careers were completely resurrected after the films’ releases. If a distributor can “break” or revive a star’s career off your movie you’re basically set. If you’ve secured a U.S. domestic release and this happens, you can bet the international audience will come flocking.
When all else fails and you cannot even afford to hire B stars for a few days work, at the very least take advantage of SAG low budget schemes and cast professional talent in your film. It will save you lots of time, money, and headaches. With SAG actors you know from the beginning you are getting professional, experienced talent. And not too many producers and filmmakers know about it or how to utilize it to their advantage. For more information do yourself a favor and visit www.sagindie.org.
Paul Bales’ film Legion of the Dead, was made for under $500K utilizing one of the SAG Low Budget schemes. For his directorial debut, he made it a priority to use SAG actors. Under the SAG low budget scheme, he was able to use professional actors at a fraction of the cost. For a total budget of less than $500K, he had to cut corners somewhere, so he stuck to an eleven-day shooting schedule. Although this was definitely tight, he made up for it by using the SAG actors who were able to knock out their scenes faster, and consequently saved time in the end. He also shot on 35mm film. Paul’s film got shelf space in Blockbuster video, and the producers recouped their initial investment and made a profit.
One of the disadvantages however to using any SAG contract, be it low budget or otherwise, is that when your film starts to make money, SAG will be the first in line to get paid, NOT the filmmaker. SAG will have written security agreements with the filmmaker to make sure of it. And if the filmmaker is lucky enough to have a big hit with their film, SAG will require you to pay up. The devil, as always, is in the details.
Furthermore, from a distributors standpoint they hate having to sign SAG’s distributor’s assumption agreement. Collecting, paying out, and paying residuals on a low budget indie is a waste of time for them. Unfortunately the filmmaker will be left with paying for all this extra work.
The bottom line here is that SAG contracts can work great for your film as long as the budget is big enough for it to make financial sense, with all the deferred payments you’ll have to make later. So be sure to crunch the numbers before you sign any SAG contracts. And remember, even if you are going after A and B actors but not using SAG, always make sure the terms you negotiate with your actors are favorable (ie: watch those deferred payments), so you can avert financial disaster later.
A question I get asked quite frequently is exactly how do I go about casting A list or B list starts for my indie film? Here are two ways to get started:
1. Hire a casting director
This may seem like an obvious solution, and it is especially if you have the budget to hire someone with experience casting for independent films. What a good casting director can do for you is get your project to the top of actors’ reading piles. Casting directors have relationships with agents and managers so they can actually get to the actor much easier than you can on your own. In fact, most agents and managers won’t even take your call unless you’re a known casting director.
Casting directors also bring a lot of value to the table when it comes time to write offers and handle the paperwork (deferred payments, etc.) since they have experience in this too. They know how to run casting sessions and make listings in the breakdowns. Casting directors also may be privy to upcoming stars that you do not know about and can make creative suggestions to fit your budget.
So in short, when it’s time to go after your A and B list stars, a casting director can make this happen for you and they are worth their weight in gold The way to find an experienced casting director is to look at the credits of some recently successful films in your budget range and even genre. You’ll see some of the same names appear again and again and you can research them through Google or IMDB and contact them directly via their websites.
2. Submit offers to Agents
If you don’t have the budget to hire a casting director, but have some potential financing lined up, you can always make your own cast wish list and submit offers to agents and managers yourself. Be warned though – you really need to know what you’re doing here as you will be disregarded as an amateur if you don’t do it right.
First of all, in order to find out who represents the actor you wish to make an offer to, you can call around to the major agencies (Creative Artists, International Creative Management, William Morris Endeavor, United Talent) and simply ask the receptionist “do you represent so-and-so”. They will tell you yes or no. If the answer is yes, ask who the responsible agent is. If the answer is no, say thank you and move on.
You an also utilize websites like www.whorepresents.com, or www.imdbpro.com, and for $10-$12 per month, have access to an entire database of actors and who their representatives are, along with contact details, etc. Still another option for finding out your chosen actors’ representation is to call SAG Actors To Locate service and they will give you the representation they have on file for up to three actors you request at a time.
Once you find out who the agent is for the actor you wish to submit an offer to, then you call that agent and ask if so-and-so is available for whenever you plan on shooting. They will tell you yes or no and/or tell you the actor’s availability. You can tell the agent you will be submitting an offer for your film.
From there, you will need help from either a lawyer or casting director on how to draft a written offer. You don’t want to seem like an amateur here so make sure you get this part right. Once you get your formal offer on paper worked out, you send it into the agent with a copy of your screenplay and other details of the film. With a written offer in hand they are obliged to present it to the client. Remember that you should always add some kind of ‘condition’ that would allow you to back out of the offer if necessary. It’s like buying a house with contingency (ie: if you fix up the bathrooms, then I’ll buy it). This condition is usually disguised as “based on the positive outcome of a meeting with the actor”.
And beware that the agent may ask for a ‘pay or play’ offer for their client. What this means is that you pay the actor’s fee whether or not you end up casting them in your film. So be careful of the ‘pay or play’ offers!
After you submit an offer to an agent for their client you wait….and probably wait some more until you hear back yes or no. It may take two days, it may take two months. You can be a squeaky wheel if you want, but you must also be patient.
It is not ok to present multiple offers at the same time for the same role. So unfortunately you will have to wait until you hear back from your first choice, before approaching your second choice. However, you can work on casting multiple roles at the same time, so hopefully you have 3-4 offers out there for the 3-4 roles you are casting with A or B actors. And if you do decide to present multiple offers at once, by all means keep you mouth shut about it. If the agents whom you are dealing with find this out, they won’t be happy and can automatically decline your offer to their client.
A great example of this DIY packaging strategy is with filmmaker Adam Cultraro and his film “Corrado”. For his debut feature, Adam decided to take on casting the main roles himself and ended up with Tom Sizemore as the lead, which ultimately helped immensely in landing distribution for the film. Like Adam says, the biggest advantage of attaching cast yourself is that you make the relationships with agents and managers that you can then use in the future. Adam didn’t have existing relationships with agents and managers before “Corrado” but by the time it was finished, he had made a few key relationships that enabled him to turn to them for his next film “Hanger 14. So you can see the huge advantage in beginning the casting process yourself. Then you can always bring in a casting director later to cast the smaller roles.
Now the disadvantage of this DIY casting approach is that obviously it’s not easy to get through to agents and managers when you don’t have a financed film (otherwise, everyone would be doing it right?)! After all, agents are retained by their clients to bring them paid offers – that is their job. But, here’s a tip – if you research an actor on IMDB and you can see they have both an agent and a manger, always start by approaching the manager first as they are usually much more approachable and less focused on an immediate paid offer.
Also when you are contacting agents and managers, email them first with an intro to you and your project. Oftentimes they will get back to you right away and if they don’t, then you can follow up with a phone call and at least it’s not a ‘cold’ call since they would have already been briefed in your email what it is you want.
Here’s another suggestion for casting if you don’t have financing in place yet — raise some initial development funds possibly even through crowd funding platforms (see Section 3) to get a small portion of your budget together and either hire a casting director, or go out to attach cast yourself empowered with some money in the bank to make offers if necessary. You’ll notice everyone from casting directors to agents and managers will take you much more seriously if you have even a small portion of your film’s budget already raised and you will stand out from the hoards of other filmmakers trying to attach cast to their projects with NO budget raised at all. Even 10%-20% can make a difference.
Got questions or have an experience you want to share? Please let me know by posting in the comments section below.
1. Casting For Distribution Virtual Seminar with Casting Director Dan Velez
4. Get the book: The Insiders Guide To Independent Film Distribution (avail for Kindle for Paperback)