More Than You Bargain For: Negotiating With Talent 101

I used to be terrified of negotiating—my instinct was to immediately acquiesce and avoid the hassle.

So when I meet moviemakers in my law practice who ask me to negotiate talent deals for them, I get why they’re so nervous. But negotiation, like any skill, can be learned, and with a little planning you’ll find it much easier than you expected.

First, let’s get rid of a common misconception: Negotiation shouldn’t be a battle of wills. Film is a collaborative process; the actor is going to be your partner, bringing a value to the film greater than what he or she cost. If you negotiate with someone as an adversary, the moviemaking process is going to be a hellish one. Talent often takes up the vast bulk of an indie shooting budget, so imagine if you approached every hiring scenario that way—it would be exhausting and counterproductive. Instead, employ these five strategies when bargaining with your talent:

Catch ’em with Honey, Not Vinegar

While everyone on your film is technically an employee, approaching your talent as equals—especially if you’re talking to big stars—is going to make the negotiation process much smoother.

Ask yourself, “How can we both profit from this arrangement?” An agreement should benefit both parties (and in fact, contracts that overwhelmingly benefit one side over the other tend to not be enforceable by law). In my own experience as both a producer and a lawyer, I’ve never once had a negotiation fall apart when both sides acted humanely toward each other.

Treat the other side warmly and fairly and you’ll keep things humming along. If you make the first offer, make it a fair one. If they make the first offer, don’t counter with something so low that you wouldn’t take it if you were in their shoes. That said, being nice doesn’t mean you have to cave on your demands. You can be firm, even aggressive, without being a jerk about it—just say, “I’m sorry but I simply can’t afford more than X.”

Even if things get tough, remember that it’s not personal. You’re trying to get the best talent for your film and its budget, and the talent is trying to make a living acting. Both of you have chosen tough careers, so have some compassion.

Run the Numbers Before Plunging In

Obviously, the talent fee is going to be predicated on your budget, which may still be in flux, and may indeed be contingent upon hiring certain actors. But you can’t know how much you’re willing to spend on talent until you have at least a rough idea of how much you can afford.

Unfortunately, “afford” means different things to different people. With extras, bit players and supporting actors, you probably have a fixed number in mind that the actors can take or leave. But with leading roles, you’re less likely to have a fixed number and more likely to work within a price range. The more an actor costs, the less money you’ll have to spend elsewhere on the film.

How much are you willing to spend on an actor? How much can you spend? What’s the highest number you can hit and still feel comfortable? What number makes you uncomfortable? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you determine if your negotiation is on strong or delicate footing.

Drop the Poker Face

Some lawyers will counsel you to act detached or to hide your cards when you approach an actor to star in your film. Not me. While you probably don’t want to lay everything on the table all at once, or gush over Scarlett Johansson to her face, I think it’s worth being up front about what you have to offer. Why? First, people are much more likely to work with you if you can clearly, passionately explain why you want to work with them. Second, you want to avoid wasting their time and yours. Being direct prevents ambiguity or confusion. Neither of you wants to spend time haggling over a fee you can’t really afford anyway.

Note that bigger stars will more likely deal with you through an agent, manager or lawyer—people who are paid to argue. Don’t take the bait. Calmly and patiently restate what you can afford and why you think Scarlett should sign onto the film. If the answer is “no,” at least you were up front.

It’s easy to assume that approaching big-name stars with bargain basement figures will offend them, but Hollywood is replete with stories of A-listers who worked for scale, for minimum wage or even for free because they loved the script and felt good about the director. An actor’s value is a fluctuating thing, based on a variety of factors: the box-office success of their latest films, whether they can open a film, whether they can generate public interest or private financing in a film, etc. And while you should certainly consider those issues before you approach an actor, being clear about your budget is more likely to make the negotiation happen.

Cover All Possible Bases

When you’re negotiating with talent, a lot of potential issues other than salary can come up, so be prepared to talk about them.

1. Level of input. Does the talent have a say in the direction of the film?

2. Other roles. Many big stars aren’t just actors. They get involved as producers and writers. Can your production accommodate that?

3. If the film does well, they’re going to want a cut of the earnings. If there are merchandising rights, they’re going to want in on that.

4. If your talent is already committed to something, would you be willing to start production earlier or later to accommodate them?

5. Where in the opening and closing credits do they get credited? Many big stars want top billing, but what if you’re able to secure two big stars? Or more?

6. Kill fees. What are the financial obligations of a major actor who then has to drop out of the role suddenly?

Know When to Quit

Negotiation is all about tradeoffs. Hiring a well-known star to anchor your film might get it more notice, but you’ll have less money for other actors, set pieces and visual effects, and it may also cost you creative control. Will Smith and Tom Cruise, for example, are known for rewriting scripts and demanding a lot of creative input. So you’re not just sacrificing a huge chunk of your budget and profit margins, you may also be surrendering your autonomy.

At a certain point, you may feel like you’re giving up too much. Sometimes a deal just can’t be made. That’s OK! It’s better to walk away from one respectfully than to enter into a deal that you’re not happy with. Maybe the actor wants a “story by” credit even though he didn’t contribute to the writing process, or he wants you to hire his nephew with no filmmaking experience to be your first assistant director. If you’re not willing to walk away from a bad deal before it happens, you’re going to end up in a difficult situation down the road.

Sometimes walking away can result in the other party coming back to the table with a more reasonable counteroffer. Sometimes not. Either way, knowing your limitations and being willing to kill the deal is a valuable tool when negotiating.

 If it seems like all this is common sense—well, it is. You can forget these things, though, during negotiations that are long and arduous. Yet negotiating doesn’t have to be painful if you’re clear, direct and respectful. For better or worse, your actors are the face of your film. If you negotiate in good faith, they’re more likely to put their best face forward and sell your film to the masses. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2017. Illustration by Jo Yeh.

Gregory R. Kanaan, Esq. is a New England-based attorney representing artists, filmmakers and designers in Massachusetts and New York. His practice focuses on entertainment and art law, as well as intellectual property issues. Previously, Kanaan was a television producer. His blog, The [Legal] Artist, aims to educate creative professionals on the legal issues that affect them most.

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