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 Levitt, Richard Hicks, Rick Pagano, Pat Moran, Kahleen Crawford, Todd Thaler and also John Papsidera, who not only cast Interstellar but also appears in the definitive film about casting itself, CASTING BY.
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
BUDGET FOR CASTING
OFFER ROLES ACTORS WANT
OFFER NEW OPPORTUNITIES
A-LIST TALENT ISN’T EVERYTHING
DON’T RULE OUT SMALL SCREEN STARS
MAKING THAT OFFER
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.