I hear from a lot of people making narrative features who find themselves in a Catch-22. They can’t get money for their project without a known cast, and they can’t get a cast without a bunch of money. This is indeed a conundrum, which is all but inevitable with the financial limitations in making independent films. Five or ten years ago, budgets for indie feature narrative films were generally between $1-3 million. This budget, though low by Hollywood standards, allowed some money for above-the-line performers, especially where distributors would pay advances that justified the budget.
Unfortunately, those days are long gone. Due to a number of factors (lack of monetization for digital distribution coupled with digital distribution replacing market share of traditional platforms, and an absolute glut of independent films in the marketplace), distributors are paying far less than they used to. As a result, budgets have been forced down to under a million, and more often than not, under $500,000. The good news is that thanks to technological advances, your dollar goes way further—most filmmakers I know already have a good digital camera and a Final Cut system to get them started. Because of current marketplace conditions, films need to be made on this lower budget, and a film on this budget has very little room for flexibility, including in casting.
You most likely will not have a large budget for your performers, and going through a casting agent will probably not be financially feasible. I always advise my clients to hire a cast that will give the best performance, not just a name. If someone is in your film because it’s a paycheck, they probably aren’t right. You want performers who are doing your film because they share your passion for the material. It is OK if your film has a bunch of no-names, so long as they are right for the part and are passionate about the project. As far as getting names, there are two kinds. On the one hand, there are the bankable stars, your Brad Pitts of the world. This level of talent almost guarantees a sale. Unfortunately, there are very few performers that are actually bankable, and it is highly unlikely you will be able to get them to be in your film for free. Then there is a large group of performers who range from Oscar-winning actors to porn stars. These people bring some familiarity and credibility to your project, but aren’t necessarily bankable. If one of these folks brings a masterful performance and will work for free, you will be golden.
An incredibly common mistake is to cast names that don’t necessarily make sense for your project, and pay them too much because your perception is that they bring credibility to the project. Sure, the audience will recognize the name from some canceled sitcom, but you may as well have cast someone from the community theater if the performances aren’t right. Additionally, having that mid-range performer does not necessarily mean a larger sale, but almost always means a larger budget. That being said, having a name may help you raise money with your un-savvy film investor. For example, your Silicon Valley high-tech guy may think it’s pretty awesome that you have a washed up member of a ’80s boy band and may invest because of that, but a distributor generally won’t care at all, unless that performer gives a great performance. If you do get some weird name, do not pay them very much. It won’t help your sale.
If you’re lucky enough to find a named actor who is passionate about the project, you are going to want to convince that individual to work for as close to scale as possible. Scale you ask? If you are shooting a narrative, it is very likely at least one of your performers is a member of the Screen Actors’ Guild. In order to hire them, you’ll have to sign one of SAG’s agreements which will dictate the minimums your performers are due. Luckily, SAG is very aware that budgets for indies have been heading south, so they have recently come up with two new agreements. Traditionally, there has been the SAG low-budget agreement for budgets under $2.5 million. The day rate for each performer was $504, which can add up pretty quickly. Recently, they introduced the modified low-budget agreement and the ultra-low budget agreement. The modified low-budget agreement is for budgets under $625,000 and the day rate is $268. Your budget can increase to $937,500 if you qualify for SAG’s diversity program (50 percent of speaking parts to racial minorities, disabled, women or seniors). Pretty good deal so far! If your budget is under $200,000, you qualify for the ultra-low budget agreement and you pay your performer $100 a day. You can qualify even if you have an additional $300,000 in deferrals, for a total budget of $500,000!
These are actually very good developments, though there still is a downside to working with SAG. When you get distribution under any of these agreements, SAG will be due residual payments for television, home media and digital for all worldwide distributions. It isn’t too bad of a downside if you can convince your distributor to take care of this (easier said than done). The residuals are a small percentage of your distributor’s gross, so it is always better for the distributor to deal with this, as distribution deals are notorious for making your possibility of seeing a profit very remote. But keep in mind that whether you see profit or not, SAG expects their residuals to be paid, and will take legal action against you if you don’t comply. The SAG office in San Francisco is very helpful and very indie-friendly, so don’t be bashful about this process. It sounds more complicated than it is.
So you sign the SAG ultra-low budget agreement, now how do you get that Hollywood cast attached to your script where they will work on it as a passion project at $100 a day? Well, as you may have guessed, it isn’t easy. My experience is that you must either have a personal connection (e.g., you saved Sean Penn from a sinking ocean liner) or you have a project that people are just dying to do (e.g., J.D. Salinger wants you to adapt Catcher in the Rye). Generally, for indies it is the personal connection, and if you don’t have one, maybe one of your producers does. Some people who get a producer credit are there solely because of their relationship with talent. But either way, if you want good people, you’re going to have to have a good, well-developed project, and be somewhat familiar with the SAG agreements. It also helps if you legally adopt Brad Pitt as your son.
Attorney George Rush can be reached at email@example.com.
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