Jeanette B. Milio, a producer that also teaches Film Finance at UCLA, stresses my current topic’s importance: “I tell my students there’s three things that is important when selling your film: Cast. Cast. And Cast.”

Cast is the dominant topic when the sales agent, distributor or anyone talks about the commercial viability of a film. And with the plethora of films coming out, cast is set to take a bigger and bigger role. “Get someone in it!” cries Suzanne Lyons author of Indie Film Producing. “Be smart. Put someone in your movie. It doesn’t have to be Tom Cruise but someone that will help sell the movie.”

“That’s easier said than done,” said Edward, my Carolina filmmaker friend as we were discussing the best approach to get bankable cast for his next film idea. I explained his need to get someone in his southern drama in order for the film to be worth anything. Edward has a lot of company in thinking that casting a name actor in your film is just wishful thinking. The attitude that it’s not legitimately doable is the first challenge of getting someone in your film that brings value to the production.

There is a general rule among producers, distributors and agents that they would recommend would-be filmmakers to follow. It goes something like this: take your S250K. movie. But instead of spending S250K., make your movie for S200K. and spend $50K on a star to come in for a week onset and play a small role. Now you have a S200K. film (with a star in it) instead of a $250K movie (without a star in it). I guarantee you, the S200K. movie is worth far more (in every market) than the S250K. movie.

“Budget doesn’t matter anymore,” says a sales agent that has turned his company into a production company as well as sales. “Now you can, you must, make a movie for S250K. that looks like a $2.5M movie. Production value has to be so high and you can do it with these technologies but when you want your movie to look like $2.5M then you

have to get someone in it. If you want to look like a heavy-weight movie, get stars in it that will make your S250K movie look like a S2.5M movie!” Remember when I said that all filmmakers and producers want you to think their film has a budget of 2-3 times what it really was? Well casting is a big part of making that happen. A film’s perceived budget goes way up if you can get well-known actors in it.

One of the questions I was hoping to get answered from all my research is who needs to be in your film to make it appealing to buyers - foreign and domestic. Which cast is worth the money and which is not? Who do I need to get to sell a film? Is it Eric Roberts or Michael Madsen? Who has cachet in the markets these days? I did get a lot of input on this but generally the answer was: you should check in with a sales agent once per quarter or twice per year because it changes every year. A few years ago, Steven Seagal was hot. For a while, it was Michael Madsen and Eric Roberts but they have done so many movies in the last few years that they have diluted their value. If you’re talking to a European buyer that’s already bought two Eric Roberts’ films this year then they might take a pass on yours, giving you a zero in that column. If Eric takes a long vacation and hasn’t done a film in a while, by the time you’re reading this, he might be in demand again. The perfect candidate for stunt casting is someone that is currently being ignored by the bigger studios with the bigger budgets but has name recognition around the world - possibly from years past. And if they have a TV show in syndication in foreign territories, all the better. Luke Perry in Black Beauty (2015) was a great example of a well done film that sold very well in an otherwise slow film-sales year.

Moneyballing your cast

Moneyball is Michael Lewis’ 2003 book on how Billy Bean of the Oakland A’s - one of the poorest baseball franchises in the league -bucked all the traditions of recruiting baseball players to build teams that consistently outperformed teams with much larger budgets. The theory is that there are inefficiencies in the baseball salary market. That means that some players demand huge salaries disproportionate to the true value they bring to the team. Skills like stealing bases, running fast, diving catches might put a player on the evening news highlights and drive up their value in the market without helping their team win very much. Other players, that have a penchant for fouling off numerous pitches, not swinging at bad pitches, etc., therefore, drawing a lot of walks - could be cheap to bring on your team. Stacking your team with these cheap players (that generate runs) turns out to be a great way to win ball games without spending much money.

There is an analogy to film. There are actors in the market that are cheaper to hire than they should be based on the value they bring to a film. It’s your job - as filmmaker or budding producer - to find them. An actor might have had a successful TV series ten years ago and hasn’t worked all that much since. But if that TV series happens to be in syndication all over Asia and Europe right now, their face on a poster could be recognizable enough to guarantee those foreign buyers will break their piggy banks to get your film. And that TV actor might just be chomping at the bit to take on a beefy roll in a film even for a lower fee.

Moneyballing your cast usually involves at least some of the following.

Stunt casting

Stunt casting is the process of casting a “name” actor in a role that does not require a lot of time from them. Actors normally make a specific amount per day on the shoot. Reducing the number of days the big actor is on set is beneficial to both actor and filmmaker. It’s attractive to the talent in the first place (they are more likely to say “yes” if it’s a smaller time commitment) and it keeps the cost of the big star down. Plus, there’s the added, hidden costs of having a star on set. You might need to hire a better makeup or hair person for the star. You will probably not be able to put them up at Motel 6 like everyone else. There are costs in having a star on your set that are above and beyond the price you are paying the star. Therefore, with stunt casting, get a big name star on set for 5-10 days, max.

There are some rules to not screwing up stunt casting. One producer said that the star should be onscreen for, at least, 20-25 minutes. Another distributor commented that there is an art to stunt casting because you want the star in the beginning, the middle and the end of the movie. You want to make it feel like they are all over the movie. But they can’t be in every scene or carry the weight of the narrative since that would require them on set too much. The adversary or the bad guy is often a good choice for the star. They come in at the beginning, appear occasionally throughout, and they are often in the climactic scenes at the end.

If it’s good enough for a two-time Oscar winner

One of the greatest documentaries you can rent about filmmaking is Hearts of Darkness - a Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. The film is about the making of Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola. The documentary is largely based on the audio and written journals of his wife, Eleanor Coppola. The 1979 film was a massive critical and commercial success but it wasn’t until 12 years later, in 1991, that the documentary came out.

When he made Apocalypse Now, Coppola already had two Oscars on his shelf for the Godfather movies. And yet, watching him in action, you see that casting Marlon Brando as Kurtz was a genius example of stunt casting. It fit the model exactly. He offered Brando what would now be called a “pay or play offer” of $3M for just 20 days of shooting. For context, principal photography on the film was 15 months. Nonetheless, Brando’s picture was front and center on the poster and his name was above the title on several of the first posters. Martin Sheen, on the other hand, was a relative unknown. Sheen was in nearly every scene, carried the narrative, and was the main character, Willard. Marlon Brando was mostly featured in the final, climatic scenes. However, there were photos and recordings of his voice played in the beginning of the movie as well, so his presence is felt even early in the film.

Seeing Coppola stunt cast his bad guy is an enlightening lesson that these tools work. They work for first time filmmakers and two-time Oscar winners.

Rule #1 of stunt casting: it’s possible

The first trick to successful stunt casting is just knowing it’s possible. That was a theme that kept coming up.

“How do you get someone that has value in your picture? That’s the trick, right? How do you get them?” I asked.

“Oh, filmmakers would be very surprised how, um, ‘getable,’ a lot of these stars are,” says one distribution company that distributes a lot of mid-tier and low-budget films in the US. “In particular, that pay differential that you hear a lot of actresses complaining about? That’s real and while it persists, filmmakers should be aware of it. Hire actresses! You’d be surprised how well known of an actress you can get for very little money,” “Very little money,” of course, is relative. Stars are well paid, per day.

“How do you get a name actor or actress?” I asked.

“If you send an agent an offer with any money attached,” said one film consultant. “Even $1. They have to - legally - send that offer to the actor. They can’t just throw away your script. They need to give the offer and the script to the actor or actress. Actors want to work. That’s what they do. They want jobs. They especially want to do something they haven’t done a lot of already. Be smart. Offer them something they might actually want to do.”

“We got X actress by offering her a romantic comedy role. She was tired of being the femme fatale in a thriller. She wanted to play someone that everyone was rooting for and everyone wants to be friends with in something light hearted,” says a producer responsible for the casting of a low budget film that did some stunt casting in a key role.

“You’d be shocked. We paid Y actress S500K. for a movie eight years ago and now you can get her for $10K. Don’t say the actress name but that’s not unusual,” said another producer.

Rule #2: the pay or play offer

Use a pay or play offers. A pay or play offer is a hard offer of money to an actor or actress as soon as they accept the part. “They work,” says a successful Canadian producer that makes all their films in Canada with financial support from the government. When the money actually changes hands is negotiable. However, the commitment to pay them whether or not the movie is ever made happens immediately upon them accepting. Usually there is a date-range set. You are offering to pay them for 1-2 weeks of work in, say, August. S5K per day. Ten days, $50K. If they accept, they get paid whether or not the movie is a go. These offers work but obviously you need to be certain your movie is a go and you have the money.

Making a pay or play offer work can be a lot about the negotiation. These offers can absolutely be conditional. They can be conditioned upon getting the film fully funded. In these instances, your investors aren’t risking the entire sum paid to the actor but they usually risk something. Often, in these offers, the agent will need some percentage, say 10-15% paid as a holding fee and the rest is paid upon the date in question. The remaining sum can be contingent upon funding or some other “out” that the producer has. But some of these funds will be at risk, which is why getting most of your funding first is, by far, the better strategy.

Rule #3: balancing act

There is an interesting balancing act for a producer between casting and the monetization of the film. On the one hand, your buyer will want a specific actor in a specific role that the market wants to see them in. In other words, the market wants your actor in a role that is stereotypically theirs. They want Eric Roberts in a thriller. Sharon Stone as a femme fatale. “Get Sharon Stone as your femme fatale and I’ll sell it to every territory in the world.”

But the problem is, to actually get Sharon Stone, you want to offer her something different - something she doesn’t usually do. Something she’ll work for less money to do. Therefore, to get them, you put them in a role that makes it harder to market them. 1 would advise you not get lazy or cut corners with regards to marketing. Remember, how you market the film dictates the expectations of the viewers and buyers. If you don’t market the film and its stars in the right way, you get an Everything Must Go problem. I’m sure getting Will Ferrell for the role was made easier by the fact that he was attracted to a dramatic role (for a change). But that made the producer’s job harder in marketing the film. The producers decided to short-cut their marketing dilemma and simply promoted the film as if it were a comedy which, in retrospect, was probably unwise.

Rule #4: get a producer that can pull it off

Find a producer that has worked successfully with some cast at the level that you want. Even if they aren’t the main producer, you can pay them a co-producer fee if they bring important cast. There are casting agents that are looking to move into a producer role. Offering them an associate producer credit if they can arrange valuable cast is a good method to get them to work with you initially without a fee. An associate producer credit could come with a fee (once the project is funded) or simply help them launch into a new line of work.

Rule #5: get more than one

As one producer I spoke with put it: “You should cast: A) one social media star that’s never made a movie - someone with 4 million followers on YouTube so they will promote your film for nothing; B) get an older TV star that’s in syndication maybe in foreign territories; C) get a WWE wrestler because that’s all of middle America; D) get someone that resonates with the Lifetime channel or whomever you think is your backup buyer.”

Another successful director I spoke with uses a three-part formula in casting. First, the lead, isn’t usually the biggest star. They will need to carry the weight of the narrative and are in most scenes. Second, stunt-cast-A can be the villain or some other important character that is in the beginning and end of the film. Third, the director often plans a stunt-cast-B who’s just on-set for a single day but not just a cameo. The second stunt cast will be in multiple scenes and can be lower down on the casting sheet so no one expects them to be all over the film.

Moneyball was about building a full team. Get a set of talent that can all bring value to the production. Ashley (2013) producer Tom Malloy pulled established talent, a social media personality and TV syndication talent together. Michael Madsen was the biggest star in the film, and only had to come to set one day. Jennifer Taylor was an established actress in syndication all over the world for her role in Two and a Half Men. Nicole Arianna Fox had a large social media following and had just won America’s Top Model. You don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket in terms of star-power.

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