As I sat in the production office of my latest film, Gridlocked, putting out hourly fires, I turned to notice a production assistant standing speechless by the doorway.
He was nervous, almost convulsing. I asked him to take a deep breath and to let me have it. He said, “Danny Glover wants to see you, Bruno the producer.”
Although I never showed it, inside a voice said, “Wow.” Danny Glover, legendary star of the Lethal Weapon franchise I grew up idealizing, the titan who defeated the Predator, was asking for me by name! At that moment, it hit me that I, “Bruno the producer,” was making a movie with a Hollywood icon, and it felt surreal.
As a producer, conversations always end up being about attaching a star to your picture—as they should! Having an actor with marquee value can help you raise money, get distributor interest, open up doors to Hollywood agencies and their roasters, and, most importantly, lend credibility to your career. But how do you solve the chicken-and-egg paradox? I hear the same excuse over and over: “I need to have Tom Cruise on board to raise money, but I don’t have the money to make an offer.”
I realize that graduating into the big leagues can be an intimidating process, no matter how many indie films you have under your belt. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce the struggle to nab that notable performer for your movie.
Over the years I have learned—sometimes the hard way—how to get past the Hollywood gatekeepers. With any luck, this article will put you in a position that will, at the very least, make an agent take you seriously.
It goes without saying that if you have clout in the industry or a personal connection to a famous actor, the standard rules won’t apply. If that is the case, consider yourself privileged. For the rest of us, the following are some tips that can prepare you before making first contact.
Polish That Script
First and foremost, make sure your script is polished and ready to send out. I can’t tell you how many times I get approached with a script that is “not quite ready yet” or is “going through another rewrite.” If you are fortunate enough to have a notable actor read your script, it better be beyond decent. If anything, should be nearly perfect. Most stars receive top screenplays from the who’s who of Hollywood on a daily basis and don’t have time to waste with an unknown writer/director/producer who thinks his or her script is “OK, but needs a little work.”
Schedule Your Production
As soon as you have the script in a great place, the next step is to schedule it. Usually done by an assistant director, a proper breakdown will provide a “day-out-of-days report,” an accurate overview of how many days each actor is required. It is important to know exactly how long your star is needed, including rehearsal, fitting, training, travel time, etc. Once you have a complete character breakdown, you will need to decide which roles are best suited for your star of choice.
Pitch the Right Role
Select the right role to pitch to a star. It is important to note that it is not always feasible to go after a star for the lead role, especially if there are budgetary constraints. Generally speaking, it will be harder for your star to commit for a longer period of time. The same holds true for the glorified one-day cameo. Agents and managers know full well when you are trying to capitalize on their star’s good name, and it will cost a premium, since those types of roles usually don’t stimulate a star’s creative juices, and are considered to be nothing more than a fat paycheck. It would be wise to select a character that can pack a punch in the least amount of days possible. A safe range is between three and five days. This way, you can schedule your star within a five-day shooting week, ideally Monday to Friday. Scheduling over a break or weekend can make it more difficult to arrange and can add a significant cost to your budget. It is also wise to schedule your star consecutively, referred to as “block booking.”
Make an Appropriate Offer
The next question is: How much do I offer? Stars are like the stock market: Their book rates fluctuate from movie to movie. If the last film was a hit, the rate will soar; if it was a flop, the rate will plummet. (Keep in mind, though, that this is not true for every actor.) Nevertheless, how much you offer should be based on your budget. Don’t try to make an offer that competes with a studio. Instead, appeal to a star’s artistic side and offer what is within your means. A lower offer can prove to be less insulting than a higher one. While it is true that stars who normally make $10 mil. a picture would almost never agree to $2 mil., they will work for union scale if the part is right and affords them the opportunity to work with a sought-after filmmaker. Having already made bank on giant tentpole movies, a star may consider an independent film if it has artistic merit. Remember, every star is always on the lookout for that diamond in the rough that could potentially yield them an Oscar.
Ask your sales agent or distributor what sort of value you can expect for your movie by casting certain actors. Armed with this information, you can calculate how much you can afford to allocate per role. You’ll be surprised to learn that several big name performers don’t have much worth in the feature film space, including those that were part of a hit TV show.
Timing is Everything
A star usually won’t look at an independent offer if it is too far into the future. The reason is that agents want their clients available at a moment’s notice should a studio come knocking with a sizable offer. Expecting a star to be available a year in advance isn’t a smart idea. Summer months are also harder to schedule, as stars are most likely already on a shoot or may want to spend time with their families.
Pick Indie-Friendly Stars
So now the question: Which star to consider? I realize everyone wants to aim high and choose only top-shelf personalities, but this won’t be realistic.
Cross-reference your wish list with movies on IMDb to see which stars have, in fact, worked on independent films, and how long ago. There are a handful of stars that consistently work in the lower-budget space, who are obtainable and bankable. Never fall in love with the prospect of just one person. It’s all about managing expectations. There will be several unknown variables as to why a star will decline your project, even if the offer is within reason. So don’t be deterred!
Retain the services of an entertainment attorney, one who has experience in dealing with contracting a star. There will be several to choose from (especially in the Los Angeles area), but it is important that they have expertise in this specific area. Otherwise, you can be taken advantage of. The saying “the devil is in the details” holds true here.
Hire a Casting Director
Now that you are armed with the information needed to make an offer, what’s next? If you’ve never done this before, you may consider contacting a reputable casting director. Start connecting the dots on IMDb between your shortlist and potential casting directors. Chances are that there will be a relationship in place that can help bag your star. Prior to making contact, make sure you have already prepared everything outlined in this article. Keep in mind that a good casting director won’t come cheap, but will add the credibility one needs to penetrate a star’s camp.
Find an “In” with a Producer
Another option is to connect the dots between a star and the producer(s) he or she has worked with. Once a producer has already worked with the star, it is usually much easier for them to make an introduction and get the ball rolling. Convincing producers to put their reputation on the line won’t be an easy feat, but the film community is a small place. There is often a small degree of separation between you and the producer you seek. It may take several calls and lunches, or even getting that producer involved in your project, but as long as you break through, it will be well worth it.
Do It Yourself
Lastly, let’s explore the DIY option. Using IMDb Pro, you have access not only to the star’s agency information but also to the direct name of the agent and/or manager. Give them a call! You will most likely speak to their assistant. Make sure to be professional and courteous. How you present yourself goes a long way. Tell them who you are, what you are trying to do, and when you are trying to do it. With any luck, depending on who the agent is, a call will be arranged. Be prepared to explain how your project is being financed and what the outside dates will be. Remember, they don’t know who you are, and the fact that they get contacted on a daily basis from wannabes makes them extra skeptical. Once all the particulars are ironed out, they will ask for a copy of the script to pass along to their client. Bear in mind that this back-and-forth process can take up to a month or more depending on how in-demand the actor is, so plan accordingly.
Once the agent agrees to all of the terms, you will be asked to sign a pay-or-play agreement ensuring that, whether the production moves forward or not, you are still committed to honor the contract. The reason this has become common practice is due to the fact that the star will be off the market to other offers, and there are a host of shifty players out there that cause actors to lose out on other prospects.
At this time, the agent will also ask that you wire a specific amount of the total fee (usually 10-20 percent) in escrow and sign an escrow agreement outlining a schedule for the balance of payment. Avoid trying to include clever stipulations in the contract to protect yourself, such as “contingent upon financing” or “contingent upon director approval.” This type of language will be a red flag and will signal that you are not that serious.
Now that you have a basic understanding of how to approach a Hollywood star, it is time to jump through as many hurdles as possible before making contact.
And in case you’re wondering, Mr. Glover was having Internet connection issues from his trailer and needed immediate assistance. I was happy to oblige. That’s what producers do. MM
Gridlocked is available on Blu-ray and DVD starting June 14, 2016, courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment. Bruno Marino is the lead producer of Gridlocked.