Sales agents and financiers have never been more conservative in their demands for cast, script and budget changes. It’s a complicated problem for film-makers striving to keep their project’s integrity intact.
The American Film Market kicked off in Santa Monica yesterday with a slew of new project announcements and a frantic round of bids and meetings to secure any number of new Jason Statham or Matthew McConaughey titles.
It’s not all action movies, and there is a range of hot projects from A-list directors like Joel & Ethan Coen, Steve McQueen, Ron Howard, Spike Lee and Phillip Noyce, but, behind the announcements, the independent market has never been more conservative.
Sales agents, struggling to score deals in a market damaged by declining DVD and TV sales, have rarely been this averse to risk, and producers striving to maintain integrity in their projects are facing heavy pressure on casting and budget like never before.
It may sound like the age-old conflict between finance and art, but the desperation by sales agents to have presellable elements on the table represents a problem at a time when audiences have never cared less about movie stars. In a year when Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts grossed less than Zoe Saldana action vehicle Colombiana, when Woody Allen’s latest film outgrossed big budget Statham and Nicolas Cage movies, it really is a time to re-evaluate the traditional sales modus operandi.
Of course in some ways the independent sales market is even more reactionary than the studio world where the bets are now being placed on high concepts and franchises, and directors who can realize them. Sellers by their very nature don’t like taking a punt on creative risks, and I am often reminded of the example of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting – a Scottish movie about drug addicts – which was hardly presales gold but, after it became a hit, sparked a too-late surge in hip druggie movies that all failed to take off.
So should sales agents take more risks and support the film-makers? Of course they should, but that is easier said than done in today’s climate.
At least they should be cautious about forcing inappropriate actors into a film or distorting its narrative integrity, only for buyers, critics and audiences to reject it. There’s also the prickly issue of overly conservative sales estimates and demands that budget be lowered, which itself can compromise the final product.
Therein lies the rub. A film package is a sensitive thing and the balance between the film’s needs and the sales agent’s needs is an ever delicate one. Some films can pre-sell based on script and director, and cast is not so important. Oscar champions The Hurt Locker or Slumdog Millionaire are fine examples. Other films are cleverly cast to balance a newcomer in the lead role with well-known supporting players. Take Lone Scherfig’s An Education which went to market with a brand newcomer Carey Mulligan in the lead, but comfortably padded by seasoned cast like Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper and Olivia Williams. Ironically Scherfig’s next film One Day was compromised by the casting of US movie star Anne Hathaway in a role which would have benefited from a fresh face like Mulligan.
There are plenty of other examples where a project can generate sales heat without cast which is perceived as “sexy” by the conservative forces of finance. Think District 9, Juno, Whale Rider, Winter’s Bone, Precious, Maria Full Of Grace, Hotel Rwanda or The Visitor.
The best films are the ones which work first and foremost from a creative standpoint. The challenge is that, in many cases, those creative packages are a hard sell in the marketplace, and sales agents are invariably tempted to tamper with the elements before taking them on. The dilemma has never been more pressing.