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Filmmakers, Use This 10 Step Casting Checklist to Cast Your Low-Budget Indie

Indiewire By Colin Brown | Indiewire November 11, 2013 at 10:21AM

Slated Editorial Director Colin Brown is back with another essay in his series on packaging films. This one's a two-parter about casting. Below is the second installement, which includes a ten-step checklist for how to cast your feature. Check out the first part of this exploration of casting here. You can check out Colin's writing on the filmonomics blog, and you can see this post in its original format here.
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Slated Editorial Director Colin Brown is back with another essay in his series on packaging films.  This one's a two-parter about casting.  Below is the second installement, which includes a ten-step checklist for how to cast your feature.  Check out the first part of this exploration of casting here.  You can check out Colin's writing on the filmonomics blog, and you can see this post in its original format here.

“I lost money for the first time ever in my career over the last two years,” beamed Matthew McConaughey in his signature drawl as he picked up this year’s actor trophy at the recent Hollywood Film Awards. “But I did have a helluva lot of fun.” McConaughey’s conscious decision to"recalibrate" his shirtless rom-com persona into something edgier has since led him to a succession of eye-catching performances in director-driven, lower-budget films - "Magic Mike," "Killer Joe," "The Paperboy," "Mud" – and now to the brink of Oscar recognition with "Dallas Buyers Club." It’s the kind of Travolta-style career revival, a McConnaissance if you will, that should give fresh hope to indie filmmakers still hitting heads against talent agents’ doors in their casting quests. At a time when Hollywood slate-pruning has seen the studios essentially abandon mid-budget dramas, pretty much all actors are open to stimulating roles that may require them to sacrifice their customary compensations. Besides wanting to work, actors know there’s always a chance that their fun will laugh all the way to the bank.

In McConaughey’s case, that financial pay-off will come soon enough. Next month, he will be seen playing right opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s $85 million-plus "The Wolf of Wall Street." And this time next year, he will surface again as the top-billed male star in Christopher Nolan’s even pricier space-travel spectacular "Interstellar," headlining a cast that also includes Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon. It’s unlikely that either coveted role would have come McConaughey’s way had he persisted with a cushy career trajectory that might have accepted that $15m Hollywood offer he got in 2008 to fill Tom Selleck’s shoes in a big-screen rendition of "Magnum, P.I." Instead of that quick paycheck, the Texan actor chose a path that saw him earn less than $200,000 upfront for "Dallas Buyers Club," according to The Hollywood Reporter. He also received backend participation in the long-stalled film project, one that finally cobbled its $5.2 million budget from a combination of equity from private investors in Texas-based fund Truth Entertainment, foreign pre-sales through Voltage Pictures and a North/South American distribution deal with Focus Features that was jointly brokered during post-production by CAA and Cassian Elwes.

Even that low-six-figure salary for McConaughey is not the rock-bottom baseline for what Hollywood-caliber actors can be paid these days. Thanks to the Modified Low Budget Agreement, one of several salary tiers hammered out by SAGIndie (the independent sister to the combined Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television & Radio Artists talent union), theatrical features with budgets of less than $625,000 need only pay actors $933 a week, with accommodation for one or two leads to make around $65,000. Coupled with the arrival of ever-cheaper means of production, such agreements have opened the door to an influx of small features employing big-name, union-sanctioned, talent.

Actors working for “scale” on labor-of-love projects is nothing remarkably new. But their willingness to consider backend-based deals has certainly increased as their payout timetables have improved. Rather than having to keep endless wait behind investors to get their own slice of any first dollar profits, talent can now expect to share alongside them in that revenue flow under more equitable deal terms that are gaining industry acceptance. In effect, as this instructive article in Variety suggested last year, these “in-kind equity participation” arrangements treat talent as investors. This only works, of course, if everyone feels that they are in it together, sharing the risks and the rewards. “I find almost every star is willing to work for scale, but only if everyone else is working for scale,” producer Alicia Van Couvering observed in that same article. “If it’s a romance, I can say those two leads are the only people getting (SAG) Schedule F ($65,000). Once you upset that balance, you lose your leverage.”

With such transparency must also come realistic hopes of success.  Unless projects can secure commercial distribution, even the most attractive backend deals are to all intents meaningless. This puts a heavy premium on filmmaking teams with track records and those with festival credibility. It also makes ultra-commercial, low-budget genres such as horror that much more alluring on release probability alone. Among those who have seized full advantage of this is quick payout paradigm is low-budget horror king Jason Blum. The temptation to share in the rapid profitability of films such as "Paranormal Activity" and "Sinister"  has helped him attract high-caliber talent on the most meager of budgets. It’s an irresistible business model. “So basically people work for free,” as Blum cheerfully acknowleged to The New York Times last month. “And we don’t do frills. Everyone’s trailer on the set is the same: nonexistent.” In return for slumming it, directors get final cut and actors can squeeze in four-week shoots into their schedules for which they could end up with more than $2 million in their pockets, as seems to have been the case for both Ethan Hawke ("The Purge") and Rose Byrne (INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2).

Luckily for Blum, his industry stock is such that he no longer has to worry too much about getting his talent calls returned. For the rest of us, there is that small issue of accessing actors that are both appropriate to the sensibility of the project and also appealing enough to the industry to unlock the money. As discussed in Part I of this filmonomics post on casting, this requires some delicate pirouetting, particularly if novice filmmakers are involved.

There are any number of books, blogs and articles, not to mention panel discussions, that provide telling anecdotes and helpful strategies when it comes to casting. Here are links to a starting few:

What so many of these tip-sheets have in common is a deep appreciation of the value of Casting Directors.  While it is often true that producers have their own direct access to talent - or at least strong second degrees of separation – these casting professionals and their associates are worth their weight in gold when it comes to removing many of the frustrations involving in identifying and locking down talent. Without their considered interventions, there is danger you will be quickly dismissed as an amateur. It is no coincidence that Slated’s community is chock full of these door-opening, horizon-expanding breed of creative executives. Two of its represented casting directors, Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden, were part of the trio that kept Dallas Buyers Club alive during a 16-year gestational period that saw names come and go but ended up with transfixing performances all round. Others include Heidi LevittRichard HicksRick PaganoPat MoranKahleen CrawfordTodd Thaler and also John Papsidera, who not only cast Interstellar but also appears in the definitive film about casting itself, CASTING BY.

Tribeca Film Festival Amy Morton in "Bluebird"

On occasion, the pivotal role that Casting Directors play is rewarded with additional producing credits. This was the case with "Bluebird," whose award-winning ensemble cast was put together by Susan Shopmaker, the same casting director responsible for the inspired casting choices in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Shopmaker is an executive producer on "Bluebird," a reflection of her strategic importance to the film during its formative stages. As one of the film’s other executive producers, Laura Heberton, explains:

“Casting directors are critical and the best ones are artisans, who see deeply into the filmmaker's dreams and come up with solutions far beyond original expectations. Hiring one is probably the best financial decision any director-producer team can make at the early stages--and often the most rewarding one artistically, too. Casting your movie shouldn't be just about who you can get to through personal connections. Casting is an art form, in and unto itself. Making your casting director an EP says so much to the cast as well as empowering him or her in a world that often negates their worth. It is what makes them even more invested in the project than just yet another job.” 

To hear Heberton rhapsodize this way about casting directors is to wonder why other producers haven’t been as quick to enlist these consummate rainmakers in their own packaging process. And to seriously question, as Tom Donahue does so persuasively through his film Casting By, why such artists do not share the Academy Award spotlight alongside the McConaughey’s of this world with their own Oscar category. As you ponder that, we’ll end this casting two-parter with our own recommended tip-sheet synthesized from a wide range of blog posts and distilled into bullet-sized pointers. “An actor has to burn inside with an outer ease,” the influential acting teacher Michael Chekhov once noted. Given the reservoirs of patience and mental dexterity needed to juggle the following checklist of constant considerations, producers would do well to act similarly. 

DO YOUR RESEARCH

  • Is the actor even available for your project?  
  • Since so much of casting is about chemistry, do your actor attachments want to work with one another?
  • Are there personality/behavioural issues you should be aware of?
  • Will they be willing to travel to where you are shooting?  
  • Know that an actor’s “last reported income,” on resources such as IMDb, is just that: reported - not confirmed.
  • If possible, assess the most current foreign pre-sales value of your actors through a friendly, reputable sales agent or international rep.
  • Does an actor’s commercial value transfer to other genres?
  • Read industry publications to find out what packages are selling and to which territories at film markets.
  • Determine which projects are not selling internationally.
  • Be aware of “payday” actors – those who say “yes” to any check that clears. Their interest may not align with yours. 

BE DISCRETE

  • Attaching an actor exposes them to the marketplace and determines their value – so be conscious of their reputation risks.
  • Do not approach actors until you can assure them their careers are in safe hands. They need to be assured the film will be made. 
  • Everyone from casting directors to agents and managers will take you much more seriously if you can show even a small portion of your film’s budget already raised.
  • Know that talent and agents always trade information.
  • Try to target talent in the most direct and discrete ways so that they can limit the blowback from the amount of industry “passes” the project gets. 

BUDGET FOR CASTING

  • Depending on the genre, the marketplace will clamor for one, preferably two, recognized faces in your cast; failing that, an ensemble of three or four second-tier names might mobilize interest
  • Be on the look-out for supporting names that  can offer additional values in terms of foreign visibility, tabloid bait or a photogenic talent discovery/comeback story the media can latch on to.
  • Knowing all that, budget for a casting director. They have the connections to get your project to the top of actors’ and agents’ reading piles and know their way around the industry rules.
  • If you can’t afford a top-notch casting director, consider contacting their associates – who may go the extra mile for the chance of earning their first full credit.
  • Prepare to print countless copies of the script, headshots, resumes, audition schedules etc.
  • You don’t need to be in New York or L.A. to access talented actors so consider local casting directors.
  • On the other hand, if you don't happen to live in a city with a large pool of local actors, you may need to take out print classifieds or theater ads.
  • If you are not working with a casting agency, don’t assume the casting space comes free.
  • Budget for production counsel to draft cast deal memos and all the paperwork on deferred payments etc.  

OFFER ROLES ACTORS WANT

  • The packaging path of least resistance is a big money offer. Absent deep pockets, try tantalizing with a strong, as-short-as-you-can-get-it script that comes with challenging roles.
  • What will attract? Actors like characters who transform over the course of the film; they also like their characters to influence the action. 
  • Find actors that others would love to work with. Don Cheadle proved to be one such “talent magnet” on CRASH.
  • Make the first pages of your screenplay register by hooking actors in with a distinctive voice, a vivid world or an authentic character.
  • Get your director to write a personal letter to the actor, combined with material such as look-books that clarifies the creative vision. 

OFFER NEW OPPORTUNITIES

  • There are times when the opportunity for an actor to direct, producer, write – or any combination of the three – will matter more than money or an overtly killer script.
  • How about the chance to shine on a bigger stage? Is there an indie darling who always plays the best friend who might crave the jump up to a romantic lead?
  • Most actors have some pet cause they like to champion; if your independent film aligns with their socio-political leanings, find ways to plug into that.
  • Many actors have their own production companies. The opportunity to develop a project, in return for a credit for either them or their manager, will make them that much more vested if only because they are getting paid twice – as both actor and producer. 

A-LIST TALENT ISN’T EVERYTHING

  • While an “extreme A-lister” like Brad Pitt will certainly help, particularly on challenging material such as a brooding drama, not many names fall into that uber-category. So be honest about your prospects.
  • If anything, an A-list actor might even detract from the package appeal because of cost concerns and the risk of losing them to rival projects. 
  • Better to chase the highest-level actor needed to greenlight your particular budget then lose your producing window while waiting on high-demand talent to finally pass.
  • Shoehorning a superstar into a cameo role may sound like a clever workaround but so often those roles are too small to bolster your marketing.
  • Listen to panel discussions involving casting directors and they will advise that a talented, hungry and flexible actor in the lead will produce better results than casting a much more familiar face - especially one known to be difficult - no matter what such superstars bring to the financing table. 

DON’T RULE OUT SMALL SCREEN STARS

  • TV drama is so compelling these days that the likes of Charlie Hunnam, Benedict Cumberbatch and Bryan Cranston can achieve international recognition and carry that over to the big screen.
  • Every new hit series yields another generation of new stars. So keep an eye for those who might relish starring in your indie film during a shooting hiatus.
  • With TV networks so often part of larger conglomerates that come with movie studios, see what cross-marketing synergies present themselves with television stars.
  • While a return to the small screen used to be a career kiss-of-death for theatrical actors, they now happily straddle both worlds - which means those crossover faces can also enhance your international TV value.
  • Some actors bring other sizzle factors such as video-on-demand appeal that can add another layer of investor comfort.
  • But be wary of confusing social media scores for real-world popularity. Many actors shown to have a demonstrable online presence under Vulture’s Most Valuable Stars calculations were not so recognizable to the public at large. 

MANAGE EXPECTATIONS

  • It’s not a good idea to bluff to actors about how much you have actually raised; agencies have a habit of uncovering the real story soon enough.
  • Any financial claims being made must be seen as plausible in light of experience of the filmmaking team and the package under consideration
  • Novice filmmaking hopefuls should think twice about immediately revealing their directorial intentions. An actor might indeed be so taken with a script they are willing overlook any aversion to working with first-timers – but you have to get the material read first. 

AGENT ETIQUETTE

  • Talent agents are the acting profession’s first line of defense – protecting their client’s value - so find ways to make them want to work with you despite all their competing priorities. Respect is a good starting point.
  • As Ted Hope reminds us, that respect means some of the following: balancing calls with emails; recognizing that staff meetings are on Mondays; that weekend reads tend to be decided by Thursday; and that top agents are unlikely to read your script until covering/junior agents have raved about them.  
  • It is critical that you don’t present multiple offers at the same time for the same role. You must wait until your first choice says “no” before approaching your second option.
  • Keep records of all agent contacts to avoid accusations of double-dealing.
  • If research reveals that actor has both an agent and a manager, you might find that approaching manager is a better first option since they less focused on an immediate paid offer.
  • Another option is to approach an actor’s overseas representatives, in Europe say, since they too have been known to be more amenable.
  • Research might reveal that the same agent has two clients that might be of interest for separate roles – in which case use that added incentive for making a greater commission to your advantage. 

MAKING THAT OFFER

  • Once an actor’s availability has been established, a written offer can be submitted to their agent that they are obliged to present to clients.
  • These hard money offers should be drafted by a lawyer or casting agent
  • It's advisable to include some kind of back-out contingency along the lines of “based on the positive outcome of a meeting with the actor.”
  • In coming up with realistic offer figure, it pays to call indie producers who have worked recently with your chosen actors to get ballpark ideas of their compensation range.
  • Consider offering actors income from foreign sales in exchange for paying less upfront.
  • Be prepared to provide agents with a VOF (Verification Of Funds) bank statement demonstrating proof of sufficient funds specifically allotted to that particular project. 
  • And finally, some advice from Anthony Bregman in the event that a film strikes it rich: make sure backend deals are structured in such a way that no one’s agent or lawyer is going to get fired because the actor didn’t make money - when everyone else did.

Part I of “Thinking in Casts” appeared last week. In future installments of this series on film packaging, filmonomics will look at how filmmaking teams and  financial elements can affect the way the film industry assesses projects.


This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Production, Filmmaker Toolkit: Acting





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