This Fall, I started teaching classes at UCLA extension as well as doing seminars on the ins an outs of the film business from studio to independent films. I’ve been doing everything from online teaching (Phil – In case you were wondering, no I am not a using a sexy avatar to simulate the Van Halen ‘Hot for Teacher’ classroom experience) to power point presentations for student filmmakers and professionals interested in learning about different aspects of the entertainment business. Per fellow offender Justin’s suggestion, I’ll be sharing some ideas and insights from my lectures which will hopefully serve to inform any aspiring filmmakers out there or just people curious about the inner workings of the business.
One of the topics I recently discussed was on the considerations involved in packaging a $20M or under independent film. For those of you not familiar with industry lingo – packaging just means engaging talent and securing commitments on a project. Packaging is used to prime the project for greenlight status (in the case of studio projects – means studio moves forward with project with budget approval and pay or play deals) or to solicit and secure financing (if you’re shopping an independent film). Ideally, the process involves attaching actors and directors that would be appropriate for the sensibility of the project to help garner financing, distribution and eventually, an audience.
The challenges with packaging is that when it comes to attaching actors and directors, the more desirable candidates are often in demand and flirting with different projects so you have to be realistic about who you try to target. Talent and agents hear about these projects around town and trade information. So there are times when they will be more or less engaged with a particular project depending on how widely it has been exposed, which other candidates have read, taken interest, and/or passed.
Engaging actors, directors, and agents to show interest or even, commit to your project is a lot like dating and there is a window of opportunity where people will gauge if you are serious or not. Sometimes if you wait for talent, you may lose your window or momentum on the project. That is why often times producers try to target talent in the most direct and discrete ways so that they can limit the amount of ‘passes’ that get exposed around town. Also, producers try to get as much good information as possible about the talent so they can make the best decisions regarding their odds of attaining a certain actor or director.
With regard to attaching A-list actors in particular, it’s great if you can attach them especially in this market where financiers are so risk averse. But, sometimes an A-list actor can be a deficit because of the expense involved in hiring them. Moreover, A-list actors are in high demand so unless your project is paying them high fees, has an A-list director they want to work with, or is based on a well known novel or life story, the agents of A-list actors (as those are the first line of defense) have little incentive to consider the project for their clients.
But for independent films in particular, the issue is not if you can attach an A-list actor or director, but must and should you? It’s a good problem to have if an A-list actor or director who is begging to do your movie for cheap. But, realistically most producers try to find the highest level actor and/or director that the project needs to get made for the budget. This helps ensure the producer against the possibility of losing their window to produce the film while waiting for a low percentage ‘yes’ from an A-list actor or director.
Along those lines, it is often worse to try to go after an A-lister if the odds are very low and you are essentially on the hook while you wait on their timetable. If you’re lucky, the agent will assess and just give you a quick pass. But if your project is submitted for consideration to the talent, at that point you can’t be really seen going after other candidates (especially if they are represented by the same agency) without some political blow back from the agency or risk that the target actor or director takes offense that you are approaching other options simultaneously.
For example, I had a scenario where an agent would not send a project to client A because client B who was also at the agency was supposedly reading it and hadn’t officially passed. As it turned out, I found out from another source that client B wasn’t reading anything as they were going through a personal crisis and the odds were long for them to do it anyways. Fortunately, this run around was inconsequential as client B ended up hearing about the project from another source and requested that their agency to send it to them.
Moral of the story – the path of least resistance in packaging is either a big money offer to force the hand of the agent/talent or, having direct access or strong second degree of separation contact to the talent. Short of that, you will be playing a version of chess meets dating trying to gauge interest and secure involvement in the project.