“More than 90% of directing a picture is the right casting,” suggests Martin Scorsese in the revelatory documentary CASTING BY. Producers might well reach a similar assessment for financing a picture as well since actors remain by far the most enticing lures to potential investors. But settling on just who might be “right” for that picture is another matter entirely – and a source of constant tension as filmmakers struggle to reconcile the urgent needs of the story with the erratic tastes of the global marketplace and its appointed gatekeepers.
Casting is rarely a sequential, yes-or-no decision-making process that involves working your way down a long list of actors who have been somehow calibrated according to their creative merits and box office bankability. That would be too easy. Unless your director’s name happens to be Scorsese, more than 90% of the time will be spent casting out again and again into an ocean of uncertainty and inconsistency not knowing which way the winds will blow. You need good hooks as well as good fortune to fish in those waters, the tenacity to keep going, an unwavering hand and eye to thread that needle, and the improvisational skills to react to what’s constantly changing around you. Not unlike acting itself.
Few career stories capture the anomalies of casting quite so vividly as that of Jennifer Lawrence, the untrained Kentucky-born actress who at 23 is already an Oscar-winner and a global box office draw with Hollywood “A-list” credentials confirmed by her own tabloid abbreviation. If tracking reports are correct, J-Law is now three weeks away from enjoying one of the biggest opening weekends for a film release ever. But read the back-story behind her breakthrough role in WINTER’S BONE and you realize that Lawrence’s rapid ascendancy owes as much to a failure of the classic independent financing model as it does to her natural charisma and innate ability.
When producer Alix Madigan first tried to package what was originally a $4 million book adaptation, the two dozen financiers that were initially approached gave pretty much the same response: cast the movie and then we’ll talk. Madigan had teamed up with the same writing duo that had put actress Vera Farmiga on the map with DOWN TO THE BONE, and yet they could not muster the right level of actor to satisfy the money. There was one investor, however, who believed enough in the story’s potential to offer up $2 million in equity. Realizing they would be better off abandoning the well-worn indie strategy of chasing “name” attachments, the filmmakers changed tack. They slashed the budget in half and chose creative autonomy over compromised storytelling. Working with casting directors Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden, mostly unknown actors were chosen that felt as if they truly belonged amid the poverty-stricken hills of the Ozarks, rather than on industry wish-lists of thespians that move the needle. A blazing new star was born.
Well, almost. Even though Winter’s Bone would win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2010 and Lawrence’s performance in that film would collect best acting nominations for the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirits and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, it took a while for the industry to latch on to this new supernova to the point where projects could find backing on the strength of her involvement alone. “Before THE HUNGER GAMES, I had Jennifer Lawrence give the best reading for parts on two movies I was casting but getting her approved by the studio was impossible,” recalled producer Gavin Polone last year. “Now every studio is throwing money at her to get her into whatever they have.”
This infuriating lag between discovering and capitalizing on new talent will be only too familiar to those who have tried to raise money from overseas sources. At an informative SXSW festival panel discussion last year, Troublemaker Studios’ Aaron Kaufman suggested that the international market is “five years behind” in terms of validating new talents. That cinematic time-warp means that Jean-Claude Van Damme - still huge in Eastern Europe, apparently – can remain meaningful, as are Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale based on the lingering popularity of their Resident Evil and Underworld franchises. “There has been a law that Jason Statham has to be in every film,” joked Kaufman, “but that laziness has not produced great films.”
Quality considerations aside, such eccentricities matter when you are trying to raise foreign pre-sales. This is the business of attracting advance guarantees from territorial distributors around the world for projects while still in their development and production phases. Much as international distributors would prefer to license finished films, the competitive nature of the film market means there will always be those who look to steal an early march on prize projects by pre-buying or co-producing them at heavily discounted prices.
What do these opportunists look for? While directors and the rest of the filmmaking team certainly factor into their pre-sales calculus, so much of that advance buying hinges on the yin-yang combination of story concept and above-the-title actors. Producers complain that this puts an inordinately high premium on known commodities – that mythical master-list of superstars in sure-fire vehicles. “You’re always looking for an actor who is about to break. But the foreign sales people say: ‘come back when they’re already a star’”, lamented Garrick Dion, development chief at Bold Films, speaking at that same SXSW panel. “My dream cast means nothing to the foreign sales agents.”
Worse, there is remarkably little consensus at the point-of-sale about which names are blowing hot, cold or tepid at any given moment. The film-watching planet might be warming as a whole, but few can agree on the current temperatures even at a localized, micro-climate level.
“The challenge with packaging is that it seems like every foreign sales company has its own take on who/what will work, so there's not a lot of consistency,” Peggy Rajski, the noted producer-director, tells us. “And it's reactive by nature; you see what the precedent was and base your future projections on that so it's not going to be particularly forgiving or generous with upcoming talent. I think it's very hard for up-and-coming indie filmmakers to get pre-sales without name talent, and it's hard to get name talent to work with unknown directors. All I can say is that it’s a dance.”
When the The Hollywood Reporter asked international buyers and sellers recently which names sell overseas, the resulting list was an interesting mix of usual suspects, aging stalwarts, a few surprises and some fresh, predominantly male, faces with foreign appeal and American, British and Australian accents: Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liam Hemsworth, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Renner and Zac Efron. In its entirety, that’s a list of only 21 names that are considered international gold – hardly encouragement for the many thousands of film projects that are being put together each year. And even those 24-carat talents come with caveats. “The trouble with Japan," says IM Global chief Stuart Ford of a territory that once worshipped Hollywood stars, "is they don't like anybody anymore." Who can blame them when a Ridley Scott film featuring Michael Fassbender alongside Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz and Javier Barden has trouble catching fire at the U.S. box office. On paper, a $25 million thriller with that cast ought to clean up – and it might still on VOD and overseas – but to date THE COUNSELOR is just another stinging reminder of the market’s confounding fickleness.
So what’s the answer, especially for indie producers who don’t have the means or resources to lock down a marquee name with a pay-or-play deal that guarantees them a hefty salary whether the film ends up getting made or not? The trick, it seems, is blending exciting new names with those that are a little more familiar. Part II of this filmonomics post will look at the various tactics that are used to reel in such talents including treating bigger stars as investors in the film. But the good news is that even with the next generation actors on the cusp of recognition, that window between breakout and payout has been narrowing of late thanks to the global popularity of lavishly produced TV dramas. The critical contribution of international markets in Hollywood’s greenlighting arithmetic also means that more and more non-American actors, for whom English is not necessarily their first language, are gaining visibility from supporting roles in high-profile studio productions. And horror’s recent popularity too has proven a low-risk springboard for resuscitating names like Ethan Hawke and also serving up entirely new ones on their chopping boards.
Compare the casts of the films listed on Slated with so many of the recent compilations of Hot New Stars put out on news-stands by both business and consumer magazine titles and you will see they share the names of numerous rising actors whose career trajectories have been fast-tracked this way. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kit Harington and Hannah Murray were all in GAME OF THRONES, which has a rabid following and high visibility in territories such as the UK (where the series is partially shot). Stephen Moyer is the star of another HBO hit series, TRUE BLOOD. Betsy Brandt is known from BREAKING BAD and was one of the many actors, including Matt Bomer, who made a splash with MAGIC MIKE. Shiloh Fernandez starred in this year’s successful reboot of THE EVIL DEAD. Mireille Enos, who headlined the American remake of the hit international series THE KILLING, was cast as Brad Pitt’s wife in WORLD WAR Z. Both Ukraine’s Olga Kurylenko and France’s Bérénice Marlohe were “Bond girls”. Sweden’s Alicia Vikander caught the industry’s attention with key roles in A ROYAL AFFAIR and ANNA KARENINA. Australia’s Emily Browning is about to get her big Hollywood break in the $100m Roman epic POMPEII, starring opposite Kit Harington. And the list goes on.
The reason such names are important is that you never know who will be the next Channing Tatum, particularly in a business that revolves around anomalies. For the record, such uncertainties and incongruities are not endemic to cinema alone. Just recently, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences saw fit to award this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics to three academics with sharply divergent views of how financial markets operate. One of them, Eugene Fama, believes in the efficiency of free markets to determine the right value of assets on the grounds that stock and bond prices immediately adjust to all available information. Another, Robert Shiller, has tried to show how markets can be subject to extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. In what serves as a perfect coda for how the film industry also works when valuing its acting assets, Nobel’s prize committee defended those choices by declaring that, together, this year’s winners showed that markets were moved by a mix of both rational calculus and irrational behavior. It’s the kind of mind-bending paradox that actors themselves might appreciate. As George Burns once noted: “acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you've got it made.”
Part II of this post on “Thinking in Casts” will appear next week. In future installments of this series on film packaging, filmonomics will look how directors, producers, below-the-line talent and also financial elements affect the way the film industry assesses projects.
Click on the following links to read previous articles in this series so far: