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The Road to Hell is Paved with Hugh Jackman’s Letter of Intent

by Jeff Steele

There really is no benefit to seeking letters of intent from actors (or their reps).  Producers hate asking for them, reps hate writing them, and financiers ignore them.  They’re usually out of date.  They’re not binding, nor are they conditional to anything that’s relevant.  And yet, they still rampantly persist within indie producing and packaging.

PRODUCER: Hey Jeff, I’ve got a great project with Hugh Jackman attached.

JEFF: Sounds good — who can I call to confirm his attachment.

PRODUCER: I’ve already taken care of that for you – here’s a letter of intent from his manager.

JEFF: Hmm, how old is this?  There’s no date on it.

PRODUCER: Not that long ago, and besides, the point is Jackman is VERY interested in my script.

JEFF: You don’t need a letter of intent for that.

PRODUCER: Why not?  I don’t understand.

Actors are paid to act; any agent can tell you that the script is the least important part to them.  When it comes to the  principal cast (which the sales and financing are predicated), unless I can call the agent or manager directly myself and verify, there is no real attachment. The exception being a Spielberg or a Scorcese whose stature in the industry could reasonably facilitate any star interest.

I had a project recently where the director was lifelong friends with a break-out star, who had committed to doing the film.  The agency was non-committal.  Why?  Because the agency didn’t want to tie-up a month of the actor’s time for a measly million bucks, when they could be getting 5-10x that from a studio for the same time slot.  At the end of the day, a lot of money and time was spent pre-selling territories and shoring up the financing, only to have the star drop out, under CAA‘s (‘er I mean a random agency’s) pressure.

I also had a project that was setup via a star’s producing partner (which is a slightly safer bet, but still not definitive); however, when a co-financier that I had sent it to called the agent to confirm, the agency denied it and ultimately killed the deal.  Agencies and management companies can wield tremendous influence and pressure over celebrities who in most cases are insecure about their careers.

I completely understand the smoke-and-mirrors dance producers have to perform to bring all sides to the middle, but when it comes to key talent attachments, if it’s not verifiable, it doesn’t exist.  Bottom line, ditch the letters and let us pick up the phone and verify Mr. Jackman.

25 Responses leave one →
  1. February 22, 2010

    The challenge here is that actors and directors need to wake up from their brain washed bubbles and take a look at around and realize that they need to be a little more self sufficient in getting films made. Its always fascinating that most talent as well as their agents, some who possess MBA’s and JD’s are clueless about film finance. While the indie film finance departments of most agencies have certain film festival rep value, I am always boggled how many clients put their projects in the hands of a team of 6 people who are also trying to service a few thousand other clients in getting their films made. Then when the agents tell the clients, well, we couldn’t get you financing, thats total b.s.. Its not that they couldnt get them financing, they simply dont have the time and resources to coordinate the sales agents, the soft money, the gap and if they were really any good at securing the finance, they’d be producers, not agents. The other challenge here is that agents have pretty much killed or in process of killing the careers and bankability of their clients by killing deals mentioned above. There just comes a point where producers and studios are gonna get sick of all the b.s. and games, continue to make no name actor films that are starmakers over and over again, and when someone gets a little too big, they’ll repeat the process with a new wave of actors. The irony is that agents make a commission and they are no different than real estate agents selling houses in Tuscon. The difference is, instead of manifesting a productivity goal every year where x amount of films may be paychecks, the rest are are indie financed with attachments needed for pre-sales, they’d rather pretend they are bigger than God and unleash their power to kill deals–and ultimately their potentially higher year end bonus checks

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  2. February 22, 2010

    Yuri, you are not entirely wrong here, you make some valid arguments. I agree that it is unwise to abdicate your career to somebody who only has a 10% stake. I also believe it is an agents role to find jobs not create them.

    Regarding agency packaging divisions, I find them to be very useful and helpful in providing insight and intel that I may not otherwise have access to, so long as you always keep in mind which master they ultimately serve, “The Agency.” Nonetheless, I think they are a wise ally for producers looking to finance their films, but ONLY to assist not to lead.

    But, as I said in this post, http://wp.me/pMHgy-1, an informed finance plan will always be any producers best offense!

    In the end, an agent can not kill a project, an agent can only influence their clients.

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    • February 22, 2010

      After 27 years in this industry, I still get people pitching projects to me saying an A-List actor has signed a LOI. Yet, for some reason they can’t disclose who this actor is because of an NDA. I like it better when I’m playing poker.

      I guess this is one of those true urban legends which will never die until those people get burned and stop saying they have a LOI.

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      • February 23, 2010

        PRODUCER: I probably could have gotten my movie financed if I was able to tell people Spielberg was directing it. Too bad it was under NDA.

        People have confused NDA’s with non circumvents.

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    • February 23, 2010

      Bravo Yuri! Well said, and thank you for standing up and speaking your mind on this subject!!! Wish there was more people like you!

      I am an inexperienced producer – but one that is learning as I go…I make the time, I work hard, study and I believe I can grab one’s attention but the problem I find is having the resources or I should say obtaining the resources in finding financing. I believe at one time I would not have had the problem I face now and it is because of people killing deals as you mentioned etc- has made the task harder.

      Something does need to change within the system….oh that is it, people need to broaden beyond the system!!!! Oh the other thing that ticks me off about an agency or I should say most Agency’s they wont look at your work or even talk to you unless you know somebody they know or once again you are within the system…

      ok I am getting off the point here sorry but still it IS very frustrating.
      I have much more to say but I am sure it is best I stop now:)

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  3. David Weinberg permalink
    February 23, 2010

    I think that’s why producers need to be able to bring equity to the table…dependent on getting someone like a Hugh Jackman. If you can get an LOI from a manager you need to be able to convert it with a ‘play or pay’ to lock that name in…or then you really do have nothing. Probably the best thing about this recession is that all the old bankability rules are broken. So if Adam Sandler won’t commit, maybe David Schwimmer will. Same picture, lots less money

    Yes, I know equity is hard to come by. But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. (I think they were in 2007) I can’t believe a random agency would pressure a client to drop out of a picture. I thought the agencies solely existed to make producer’s lives easier and to bring peace and love throughout the universe.

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    • February 23, 2010

      David, it’s no surprise that starting off with equity can smoothen out some of the bumps along with way, and for the rest, it’s the proverbial chicken and egg: you need equity to get talent, you need talent to get equity… Hence, the smoke and mirrors of producing. Relationships can cut through that smoke.

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  4. Daniel Noe permalink
    February 24, 2010

    Heelo jeff,

    Wow, what a wonderful discussion on an ole proverbial, systemic “catch-22” in this industry.
    Question Jeff?
    How much validity is given to an attachment, if the talent attached themselves, directly through the producer of XYZ production?
    And, would a direct conversation with the attached talent lend more credibility to the package?
    Not trying to circumvent management or agencies, here.
    In my case, to sharpen the focus, I have an attachment with a talent who is not only a lead, but also getting a producers credit for certain “things” they are bringing to the table and doing for the exposure of said production. [they requested to come aboard as a producer, as well]
    The talent is attached and once funding is in place, the schedules will be ironed out.
    Finally, yes, it is about relationships, and the talent and I have become close. They believe in me as I in them.
    And that can be said for the rest of the talent attached, [pay to play], our director, DP, and screen score composure.
    While most of the agreements have expired, everyone is still on board, and I am loyal to maintain their attachments.
    Referring to ND-NC, we are transparent to the point that the talent is engaging with any potential funding source, and I have the liberty to make their contact info readily available.
    Finally on a side note. Once the talent was attached the management agency couldn’t get their heads wrapped around the fact that a deal had been struck between the talent and myself. It took the talent to demand that paperwork be drawn up that reflected our agreement, after a week delay in getting any document. At the end of the day, the manager will still get their percentage, even though they had zero participation in engaging and striking a deal.

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    • February 24, 2010

      Daniel,

      It is not unheard of for talent to attach themselves to projects they would like to be a part of on their own. Mark Ruffalo, recently admitted to writing a fan letter to Scorsese asking if he could be a part of “Shutter Island.”

      Actors are their own people, they are not slaves to an agent master. Agents and Managers work on behalf of their clients, they can only influence not mandate.

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      • February 24, 2010

        I once contacted an actor by email to do a charity event…..he was more than happy to do it and he gave me his telephone number and told me to call him the next day to set up the details. Well, I received a panic email from him the next morning saying don’t call me my agent is upset that you are not going through him first. This actor didn’t realize his agent would be so upset with him on how he handled this and of course when I went through the agent the fee doubled!!!! The only thing that matter to the agent was his money….he could care less that this actor wanted to support this charity!

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  5. February 24, 2010

    Jeff:

    While I agree that a meaningful attachment should enable the financier to confirm his attachment, the letters of intent do serve a limited purpose for the independent filmmaker. The most important of which is to separate the independent producers who would love a particular artist in their film from those independent producers who have an actual relationship with the artist.

    Everyone understands that even with the LOI, the schedule needs to work, the financing has to come together, the locations shouldn’t be too inconvenient, and nothing more important has arisen for the actor – but that list is still a lot shorter than the list of actors dreamed about but utterly rejected by producers. (Needless to say, the financier should be able to pick up the phone and at least confirm the general support evidenced in the letter.)

    Finally, the LOI generally comes from the highest caliber individuals available for the role, so if the investor doesn’t like those name, she is unlikely to be pleasantly surprised with the rough cut comes in.

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    • February 24, 2010

      Jon, if the LOI is dated within the previous 3 months then what you suggest certainly will carry some weight with “this” financier. Beyond that, it is about as reliable as a verbal commitment.

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  6. March 16, 2010

    Hey Jeff,

    Great stuff here. I think some of the readers need to understand the level at which you’re talking. It would appear that these are bigger films, and when I say bigger, I mean possibly tens of millions…please correct me if this is wrong.

    It would seem that your information here would seem to apply to a certain “type” of film or at least a certain minimum budget. It doesn’t necessarily apply to every formula or every budget.

    The thing people forget is that the higher the budget number, the less number of those films exist. I mean, how many Avatars will there be every decade and how many unsung, unappreciated and unheard of movies will be produced for under $1M? (I would say those would be the rest of them) :)

    What I’m getting at is that in my experience, a letter of intent can be procured, written, backed-up and verified by the talent, specifically. It all depends on who you’re talking to. A direct connection with a star at a particular level may not necessarily mean you can call them on the phone, but some, dare I say a lot of them, you can. And to reiterate some of the info above, the agents are designed to procure work for their clients, not oust them from work, so I would like to state that you don’t always have to go through and agent, nor go by what they say. They work for the talent, not the other way around, so if the talent likes the script and the potential package for the project is attractive, they will want to do the script. In most cases, its up to them to choose, not the agent.

    So for those of us that work in the realm of what used to be known as the “three-to-five’s” a letter of intent to jump-start the funding process can be like gold. In fact, a few years ago, I received a letter from an Academy Award Winner and her phone number was right on the page. Of course we kept that under lock and key and the number was erased depending on who was to receive the package. The point is that in this day and this market, actors at all levels have been affected. If the cream of the crop actors a few years ago had their next decade planned-out, they most likely do not anymore.

    So I say…get a letter if you can. Use it properly and use it to approach appropriate and qualified investors and keep plugging-away. What works one person might not work for another and vice-versa.

    -Russell Hess
    Producer/Distributor

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    • March 17, 2010

      @Russell,
      Thank you for the thoughtful, thorough comment. All generalizations are disproven by their exceptions. If an actor’s LOI gets an investor off the fence, then absolutely go for it! After all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I’ve just found over the years that most talent LOIs don’t carry much weight after about 3 months. But I will concede that there are myriad producers whose experiences have differed from mine. Bottom line: whatever gets your movie made…

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      • Jon Stevens permalink
        June 27, 2011

        In my book Actors Turned Directors: On Eliciting The Best Performance From An Actor which featured interviews I did sponsored by the DGA with Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, Leonard Nimoy, the late Sidney Pollack, to name a few, they all agreed with William Goldman’s theory that in Hollywood “there are no rules”. Survival depends on individual creative thinking, initiative, followed with constructive action backed up by faith and persistence.

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  7. Michael permalink
    May 9, 2010

    Jeff,
    I agree with everything you’ve said about LOI’s, except one thing. They not irrelevent so along as potential investors keep asking for the damn things. Honestly, I haven’t met one private investor who has the slightest clue about what makes a good, commercial script. (maybe that’s why so much crap still gets made). The first three questions I get are 1) what’s the budget, 2) who’s going to be in it,3)how do I recoup. No one likes trying to get LOI’s. They’re stupid and meaningless. But until investors stop asking for them they’ll be part of the package. Just like my 7th grade history class. I don’t care what year the Spanish-American war started, but as long as it’s going to be a question on the test, I’d better have the answer.

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  8. May 26, 2010

    Jeff,

    I think the 3 month expiration date on LOI’s is a good thing all around. Whether that is with financiers, investors or just for the producer’s sake. After 3 months, if you’re not shooting the film, contact the agents, talents, etc and make sure everyone is still on board. It’s just the responsible thing to do. Imagine a producer attached a certain actress, but the film production was delayed by a year. The actress ends up pregnant, the producer isn’t in contact, and then after all investors get involved then they move ahead… but they find out she’s in the middle of her third trimester. Now I know that sounds comical, but the point is things change. LOI is ok, but your 3 month expiration date sounds like the best way to see them. They are a letter of “intent” not a contract.

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    • Green Miller permalink
      June 6, 2010

      @John W. Bosley…

      The “hypothetical” you concocted is not comical at all. In fact, it is exactly what occured during pre-production on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, in that Uma Thurman became pregnant, thus resulting in a much-extended pre-production and principal photography being pushed back an entire 12 months. However, despite the added pre-production time, it resulted in what the director considered a greater end-product, though that is perhaps a unique larger-budget benefit that may not be as (or at all) applicable to the smaller independent productions, which are topically apposite on this here blog.

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    • Jon Stevens permalink
      June 27, 2011

      A LOI is a good, and I think it’s best to keep agents and managers posted of progress, but one must be prepared to re-cast if an actor or below the line element is no longer available or interested.

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  9. Green Miller permalink
    June 6, 2010

    @ Jeff Steele
    I’m an young, aspiring writer/director/producer and just getting into film finance, but my experience w/ LOI’s from my previous M&A work is that the things are ALWAYS time-sensitive. Ergo, they should NECESSARILY be imbedded w/ an expiration date, after which the relevant parties should reconvene to address any changes (scheduling, etc.) &, if nothing else, re-sign a new/updated LOI w/ new expiry — even if they are not legally binding, this keeps everyone in the loop and should allow the holder of said LOI (producer) to remain somewhat apprised of the talents potential upcoming scheduling.

    And perhaps I am missing something, but what is the problem w/ including an expiration date on any LOI and subsequently obtaining (an) additional LOI(s) after the expiry of the inital one?

    P.S. Really, really digging the site, Jeff. So much great information. Don’t know if you have any thoughts on NYC vs. LA w/r/t indie film investor appetite (esp. equity investors) in the current environment — or if NYC vs. LA even matters — but if so I’d love to hear them. I’m in NYC, and this is something that I often wonder about. I’ve done a ton of historical research on NYC independent film/film finance of the 80’s and 90’s (Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, Ed Burns, Miramax, etc.) and it appears that the past decade has not had the successes of the prior two.

    Either way, thanks a bunch.

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  10. John Green permalink
    June 13, 2010

    To Jeff, and to all of the insightful bloggers shared wisdom, knowledge and experience that I’ve been reading regarding the topic of film financing. This is like being a fly on the wall, in a master class. Wow! I, like other emerging screenwriters, also in the process of developing/structuring an indie production company, am grateful just to be able to “listen in” on really great and informative “how-to’s.” Again, thank you Jeff, and all you “experienced-ones” for demystifying the film-financing process.

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  11. David Garcia, Jr. permalink
    June 17, 2010

    For those producers concerned with the potential issue of an agent/manager killing the project (or at least the LOI) by refusing to confirm the LOI over the phone when the financier calls, what would be wrong with having both talent and the rep sign the LOI at the appropriate signature lines? This should be more important to a Letter of Intent than to a Letter of Interest, the latter of which is the most amusing, if you know what I mean.
    If the rep refuses for whatever reason, then the producer should exercise his own discretion and make his/her next move. If the rep refuses, the producer should have 2 drafts of the doc prepared, one with and the other w/o the rep’s signature line, because it won’t look good if there’s an empty signature line.
    My question to those who do this often: is it industry practice that reps simply won’t sign?

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  12. LfO permalink
    January 31, 2011

    What I have experienced is that if you do have LOIs, then at least your project gets pushed up the priority pile.

    Whether it’s for other talent agents, distributors or potential financiers.

    If all you have is a script and a finance plan … they dont really want to waste their time, until you have “attachments”.

    I have a project with 4 interested actors with IMDB ranks 160, 250, 330, 500, respectively and another 6 with ranks up to 1500.

    All available for a May-July 2011 shoot.
    We have two more cast to get – and they may be the hardest because they are required for short periods, agents hate to commit their actors too far out for short periods.

    She who is currently ranked 330 (but has been as high as 50) got the ball rolling with her LOI 20mths ago. I speak with her agent regularly, and have done since she first came on board. I never say – film will shoot on this date. But I do keep tabs on her commitments, and will prioritise my schedule around her accordingly.

    It’s great material, something that is both commercial but topical.
    A director with a track record in the genre.

    We have access to high tax offsets 40%.
    Post prod investment deals 5%.
    And expect we will nail around 20-25% in presales.

    However in the current market, I’m finding the equity really hard going.

    Everyone who starts off sounding interesting, ends up being a flake deal. If I hear another person talk about a SBLC I think I’ll shove it back down their throats. Such a waste of time and energy.

    I’m about to hit the time honored “funds” with the project.
    However, concerned that their turnaround for processing a project wont meet the current window of opportunity.

    Curious to hear what people’s experiences have been with those “funds” … the good the bad and the ugly. Slow / fast etc

    I know Jeff has previously worked with MMG …

    Anybody else’s experiences ??

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  13. J.C. Young permalink
    March 21, 2011

    Jeff,

    Great stuff. Wonderful insight. Thank you, endlessly for the sage advice.

    Let me but forth a dirt basic question…

    As a co-producer of a project, I currently have some supporting roles committed to – but I am just about to gear up and go after the big game I need attachment-wise.

    The financier I am working with wants to start presenting the package to their investors relatively soon and while I’m a good talker on the phone, I know there are going to be trip ups or certain words etc, that will doom me when talking to an agent.

    Personally, I feel like if I can get quotes based on our working budget and the role an agent may be more willing to work with me as opposed to simply beg for the LOI.

    Any advice or even an example of good way to present myself? This is a modestly budgeted project ($10-15) but does have broad appeal and a good potential for international sales. The script’s been more than well-received and we have a director attached already….

    Thanks for anything you can give me… advice wise.

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