A Different Take

In the article below, Jacques Thelemaque of withoutabox.com has a different take than most today on the idea of using "stars" in independent films. He doesn't think you need them. He cites examples of successful films that didn't have them (or they weren't stars at the time).

This is all great and I really like his list of "facts" - BUT it's really all based in theory and unfortunately not the case in today's real world marketplace.

For every "Napoleon Dynamite" success with "no stars" there are literally thousands of other "no star" failures.

Do stars actually help low budget indie films? Depends. If their performance is good, then yes, absolutely. If it's not good, then yes, absolutely. Why? It's all about getting attention for the work. Do I like this? Not really. But it is a fact.

We live in a celebrity driven culture and having a "star" in your film just gives it that extra "legitimacy" that some folks need (i.e. festival programmers, media outlets, distributors, etc.).

Here's Jacques article...

TIP OF THE MONTH: Avoid The "Star" Trap

I don't know how many financing and distribution seminars I've sat in on where filmmakers were sold on the importance of putting a "name" or a "star" in a film to make it more attractive to potential buyers/audiences. The logic of this is, of course, obvious. Until you break it down. Like much of the information (and people) orbiting around the filmmaking universe, the "star" thing is a superficiality embraced by the starstruck, naive, desperate and/or lazy filmmaker that doesn't hold up to substantive thinking.

Let me clarify that I am not saying there aren't benefits to having recognizable actors in your film. There are indeed. Many people in and out of the industry, including festival programmers, are star-obsessed. They put name actors on a pedestal and reward the film accordingly. But do you really want to pander to the "cult of celebrity" mentality? Especially when you do a cool-headed cost/benefit analysis (in terms of time, money, AND energy) of doing the "star" trip.

Fact #1: Very few stars can meaningfully affect a film's bottom line. Any distribution executive will tell you truthfully that there are very few actors that will significantly impact a film's potential revenue despite the widely held contrary notion. The film needs to be the star. The film needs to work.

Fact #2: Stars are hard to get. You can spend months, even years, trying to get stars interested in your project no matter how good your script is. Even if you figure out how to make contact, you are often sent from agent to manager to lawyer to publicist to dogwalker back to agent, and so on - with each one taking months to respond.

Fact #3: Stars can be expensive pains-in-the-ass. Even if you can get them to work for free (or practically free), they are still used to a certain level of treatment and perks that can wind up costing the production considerable amounts of money. Or, they just can't/won't meet the demands of your production - costing you more time, which equals money. Also, stars can often wield their experience and status to run roughshod creatively over a fledgling director and, in fact, over a whole production. Of course, there are many exceptions to this fact - known actors who are respectful and generous with their time and creativity. But there are many more horror stories.

Fact #4: Stars can upset the tone of a film. I don't know how many times I've been thrown out of the authenticity of a film by the sudden appearance of a recognizable actor - bringing with them the baggage of what we know about them from other stuff. I don't want to be lost in a film just to be pulled out when Paris Hilton shows up for a mise-en-scene-chewing cameo.

And really, what is a "star"? Or a "name"? Does it really benefit your film to have a world famous socialite or minor regular from a popular T.V. show (which is what most emerging filmmakers are lucky to have access to) in your film unless their acting ability truly benefits the film creatively? Answer: No. Instead reframe the whole star thing in your head.


First, make your film the star. Think of the film as a whole as the marketing hook that will attract investors and audiences. Your distinctive ideas and creative energy will "sell" the film. If you look at the Sundance successes over the past several years, almost none had "name" actors. From "Chuck and Buck" to "Blair Witch Project" to "Napolean Dynamite." Think of some the great films in world cinema history - DiSica's "The Bicycle Thief", Resnais' "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" or Lynch's "Eraserhead." Now, name the "stars" in them. Good luck.

Second, think in terms of casting the actor that will bring the most CREATIVELY to your film. Yes, there are plenty of "name" actors whose work you love and would be great for your film. If you can get 'em (and they won't make you pull your hair out), go for it. But always make the film, and the process of making the film, your priority in terms of deciding which actor is appropriate to cast. There are plenty of brilliant/and or perfectly appropriate actors for your film who are not "stars" or "names". Have the courage to champion them. Take advantage of their accessibility and collaborative energy. Keep your film authentic. Use them to make your film great and you will then have your "star."

Again, I completely agree with him in theory and wish it were the case. And I do definitely agree that cameos don't do much for a film. I also really like the idea of "making your film the star". But in today's marketplace it just makes sense to protect your investment by using at least a recognizable face, if not a "star", in one or more of the principle roles (if you can afford it and if the role is right for the actor).

Just use your head and don't cast the 60-year-old male cowboy "star" in a role written for a 25-year-old female lifeguard. :)

-Blake


1 comments to "A Different Take"

  • And when all else fails- just see if Scott Baio & Pam Dawber are available.

Who Am I?

I'm a filmmaker who's produced & directed five feature films including the comedy SPILT MILK (available on iTunes), the new horror/thriller PHOBIA (on iTunes) and the action/thiller KILLING DOWN (which you can buy or rent at pretty much all the usual places).

I also created the Streamy and Webby award-winning web series PINK, which to date has been viewed online around 10 MILLION times at places like YouTube, Hulu, Koldcast and TheWB.com. And speaking of TheWB.com, I also produced and directed an online thriller for them called EXPOSED. It was released summer 2010. And most recently I created a new online sci-fi series called CONTINUUM, which is part of the online indie TV network JTS.tv - Just The Story and NOW available via VOD through indie platform Distrify.

Oh, and I don't shoot weddings. Thanks for asking though.

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