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Star Power Is Anything But.

by Jeff Steele

....or Leatherheads Clooney?

Am I buying Oceans Clooney?

There have been occasional reports in the trades about falling star power, and declining star salaries, perks, and participations.  Going back to the 80s, star power was the undisputed driver of foreign sales and presales, and big stars commanded huge salaries and massive perk packages from over zealous indie “studios.”

Star power is based on predictability.  In the 80s, agents molded their star clients into massive sure-things, and viciously protected their trajectories.  Moviegoers and film buyers both loved it because they knew what they were paying for.

But as stars have spread their creative wings beyond the shackles of their established genres, they’ve become inconsistent, and this unpredictability has the unintended effect of making buyers uncertain about a star’s value.

PRODUCER: This is a George Clooney movie so I expect top dollar!

FOREIGN BUYER: Which George Clooney am I buying?

PRODUCER: (puzzled)THE” George Clooney

FOREIGN BUYER: Yeah, well, the Leatherheads Clooney tanker or the Oceans 11 Clooney blockbuster?

PRODUCER: Well, I don’t know. But, I can promise it’s not “The Facts of Life” Clooney

Still, the impression (more like resentment) persists among producers that a movie can’t get made without big stars.

With the extinction of super gap, the continuing decline of senior lenders, and the overall scarcity of equity, more and more dependence is being placed on foreign presales (and the credit-strapped buyers that back them).  Since films are still being sold and deals are still being made, somebody, somewhere is putting a value on projects that everybody can live with.  If stars are no longer the #1 factor, who is?  It’s not the director.  It’s not the producer.  It’s the writer.

In an uncertain world, certitude is king, so unless it’s a genre star doing what they’re known for (Vin Diesel with a gun, Van Damme kicking butt, or Cameron Diaz in a romantic comedy), the only thing certain in filmmaking is the script.  Everything else is performance risk.

Buyers have been burned repeatedly by stars no longer being a sure thing, and over the past five years, they’ve placed the quality and marketability of the script into the #1 indicator of a film’s commercial potential.

How far have stars fallen? Well, the producer is now the #2 indicator. Again, it all goes back to predictability. Producers tend to be more consistent in the production level of the movies they create than actors and directors. High budget indie producers ($20m+ budgets) don’t generally stray to the $4m space without a compelling reason. Producers

tend to stay within certain budgetary strata, hopefully with a steady incline.

If the script tells a buyer what story he can expect, and the producer is the best indicator for production value, where do stars and the director fit in?  (After all, a big star’s big salary is supposedly predicated on the reasonable assurance they can deliver the crucial opening weekend box office.) They are certainly critical factors in the valuation of a film package, but their importance only tends to increase if confidence in the script decreases.

I can’t speak for studios, but in the indie marketplace, this fundamental shift could be good news for producers. A solid script and a proven producer might be a bigger value to buyers than a star’s name.

What do you think?

23 Responses leave one →
  1. March 25, 2010

    This is true…

    For a great story that touches the souls of an audience…LINES will go around the block…and what EVERYONE forgets is it was a GREAT SCRIPT…that established these Actors…do your history …EVERY ONE OF THEM was Fortunate to be in a film that would have made ANY great Unknown Actor get a foot in the door…but what EVERYONE forgets is the 5 -10 -20 or 40 million used to promote those little films …without the Distribution and the promotion they would be on a shelf…as many others have before them…:)

    I am in post on 2 Features…I own them…yes…and one is a Film that makes this point very clear…there are 2-4 actors doing the same lead roles…yes…you will see a story told that allows you to see the power of the writing and the many ways you could cast it…in TALKING TO STRANGERS…

    Go to my Film Festival Update site For THE FILMMAKER DEAD OR ALIVE where you will see EXECUTION.Kill and TALKING TO STRANGERS (the film with the reality that the script makes a career…and my film updates…I suggest you make a great film…

    Actors worked with Woody Allen for very little money…because of his writing…it’s always about the work…the story…and Actors want to be in a project they can be proud of…

    Do your homework…learn about what brings great talent together…it’ s the shot to be apart of something that has substance and brings VALUE you their name as an Actor…meaning their work is excellent…when they get a chance to be in a project that is written for great acting…

    I wish you all the courage to create a project that really does bring people together…

    Sincerely,

    Michael Savage aka Sirtony
    http://www.TheFilmmaker.me

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  2. Andy Halmay permalink
    March 25, 2010

    Thanks, Jeff – you are my morning medicine that gets my brain cells into aerobics. This is a big subject, Star Power; as our vice president might say, “A big effing deal.”

    In reality, of course, what matters is the whole ball of wax. But that is really hard to fathom by potential buyers because it is too complex to be grasped by monosyllabic sales agents and distributors.

    It is the combination of story, script, director and cast. Star power, more often than not, has led to inappropriate casting and unlike the process under the moguls who had the stars under contract and built their images, there isn’t enough tailoring done for stars today.

    I am reminded of a job interview in New York two hundred years ago when I sought work as an advertising copywriter-producer. I had started in Toronto with the world’s two biggest agencies, Y&R and JWT, but had come to Madison Avenue, the industry’s Mecca, for advancement.

    The copy chief who interviewed me loved my samples but needed a writer with automotive background. He would have hired me on the spot if I could claim any type of relevant experience, even work in a gas station. I had never worked on an automotive account and was honest with him. “When I buy a car,” I said, “I don’t even look under the hood because I know beans about cars and I assume it has an engine that will move the wheels.”

    He took a paternal interest in me and wanted to know what I was asking for in salary. I told him and he said, “This will sound strange coming from a guy with Scottish roots, but you’re not asking enough.” He went on, “We have a fair number of good writers here in New York, but very few good readers, and if you don’t put the right price on your own head, they won’t read your samples in the right light.”

    The ratio of good readers to good writers in Hollywood is considerably worse than that of New York.

    I once met a well established agent at a reading of screen plays in West Hollywood. The promoter of these readings was a bright black fellow who inveigled talented but starving actors to sit on a stage and do readings. A narrator of sorts would read the stage directions or action and the actors took various roles.

    The agent found the reading fascinating. He said, “You know, I never read those other parts in screenplays – I only read the dialogue.” The blithering idiot never would have grasped the story or flow of action.

    Screenplays are hard to sell. I went along for a ride with the late Bill Ficks, an old friend, who had managed a number of name performers but also got into representing writers. It was he, in fact, who had sold Martin Caidin’s book “Cyborg” to Universal which they made into TV’s “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

    Bill was delivering a screenplay to a production office and I asked, “What’s the story?”

    “What story?” asked Bill.

    “In this screenplay,” I said.

    “Oh, I haven’t got a clue. I didn’t read it.”

    “What???” I was astonished, and he explained. “If I read it and don’t like it, I’ll have a hard time selling it, but if I don’t know it, I can bullshit much better.”

    Star Power is all about having something to sell. It’s very hard to sell a project based on a script to folks who can’t read or who move their lips in the struggle.

    A buyer will block out unfavorable statistics about films that featured the star, much as I blocked out the unpleasant revelation o Rev. Wright’s association with Obama and made the mistake of my life by voting for him just the same.

    It’s very hard to impress potential buyers with the greatest script in the world. If you’ve acquired a huge best seller book, regardless of how inappropriate the story is for film adaptation, you’ve got yourself a form of star power. You simply need a known entity that will give them comfort without having to read a screenplay.

    When Hollywood became interested in Helen Gurley Brown’s best seller, “Sex & the Single Girl,” a collection of anecdotes of guys hitting on girls in offices, Helen’s husband, the late David Brown, said, “Grab the money before they realize that they are buying no more than a title. There is no story in there.”

    But that title had star power and that’s a passport to funding.

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    • March 26, 2010

      Thanks for sharing the parables Andy. Ultimately, it does come down to the package and if everything works then the whole will exceed the sum of its parts.

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  3. March 25, 2010

    Sounds reasonable, and it’s great if it’s true. Producers are always the ones that make or break a picture’s success, because they are there to package it in the first place, and screw it up it they over reach….But if a solid produce with good instincts can still make films in this market, that’s good for us.

    As for writers being the drivers of projects going into production, I think that’s where it should be.

    A long time ago I worked at Breakdown Services, reading 5 scripts a day and breaking them down for the morning bible delivered to about 860 agents and managers in LA, NY, SF, and London. I read alot of bad scripts, and sometimes they were made into blockbusters (which usually weren’t very good either).

    But a large quantity of the scripts I broke down were good or great ones. It gave me a perspective on the amazing creativity available in this town if we just hold out for it, savor it.

    Back in the late 40’s Lilian Hellman was making $140K a year writing scripts. She worked normal hours, took vacations mostly whenever she wanted to, and didn’t have to work on a project she didn’t like…then came HUAC, but that’s another story…

    Ah, the good old days…

    I’ve got a bridge I can sell you…

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  4. John permalink
    March 25, 2010

    Jeff your analogies are always so dead on and funny at the same time. I hadn’t thought about Clooney in that way as a star before, but you’re right.

    “At least it’s not The Facts of Life” Clooney.” I’d pay 10 bucks in the theatre to see that one again!

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  5. March 25, 2010

    Every deal is different. Actions speak louder than words.

    Time and again, these are the two sentences I have learned in Hollywood that ring true amidst the fog, noise and clutter which surrounds film production on all levels.
    Yes, certain parameters/factors/elements ring true with bigger budgeted films, no question. Lower budgeted films tell stories that are usually more personal.
    But the creativity is equal on all budget levels.
    Generally speaking.

    “Since films are still being sold and deals are still being made, somebody, somewhere is putting a value on projects that everybody can live with.” – Jeff Steele.

    This is the key statement in your post, in my opinion, Jeff, particularly the “somebody, somewhere” phrase.
    And therein, it seems to me, lies the essential rub.

    Because every deal is different, whoever finally puts up the money, generally speaking, is the one that determines which element is more important, on that particular film project.
    On some projects, it’s the producer that drives the financing. On others, it’s the talent. Still others are driven by the director. And, of course, there are actor-driven properties.

    I think today, marketing platforms are arguably the most significant element that drives the financing.
    There are always exception, of course.

    Are big stars being paid less these days? On a general level, yes.
    Why?
    Tough to say with exacting precision. There is less money around, which is definitely a factor. But it’s probably mainly because of the Attaching Big Name Because It Will Drive The Box Office theory no longer applies as much as it once did in years past.

    Make no mistake, though. Big Names will still drive the financing. But, the script is now more important than ever. But because it’s necessarily a Great Script; but, is it is a marketable script?

    A good producer these days understands this. (At least if the producer wants his/her film project to make money. ) Good directors can make an average, but really marketable script, look and play better than it’s actually written.
    But only to a point.

    But I would say, in this current environment, it’s the marketing platform that really drives a project.

    Point of clarification anybody: did Andy vote for Rev. White for president? (Just joking. Can we please leave Washington politics out of this discussion?)

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  6. March 25, 2010

    Juri,
    Where’s the bridge and how much are you asking?
    Is is too far?
    Are there any producers or actors attached to it?

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  7. craig Shell permalink
    March 25, 2010

    Jeff I’m in complete agreement with you.
    It is true you can’t swing a dead cat with out hitting a writer.
    But finding a good script, well that’s another matter.
    It’s the hardest piece of the puzzle. With financing coming in at a close second.
    However I don’t think the mindset of the indie industry as a whole has caught up to this fact yet. Financiers are especially reluctant to give up the security blanket represented by a Big Name.

    Craig Shell
    Producer

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  8. March 25, 2010

    Typo correction in my first comment. It should read: “The script is more important now than it’s ever been. Not because it’s necessarily a Great Script, but, is it a marketable script?”

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  9. March 25, 2010

    Scripts don’t become great until they’re on the screen. The performances of the actors, guided by the director, are crucial elements in a script’s final quality determination.
    I learned in the theater the vaule of the expression: It plays better off the page.
    And most scripts should play better on the screen. That’s what they were written for.
    Hence the word ‘screenplay’.

    I can’t tell you how many industry film screenings I’ve been to where, in the Q&A afterward, the producers, director, lead actors rave about the great script.
    And the film itself pretty much sucks.
    More importantly, it can’t get theatrical distribution.

    Of course, getting theatrical distribution doesn’t mean the film is great, or even good.
    This is why the marketing platform is so important.

    Great performances often make geniuses out of writers.
    But a great script can be undermined by lousy performances.

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  10. mark irvingsen permalink
    March 25, 2010

    Jeff,

    as you have so often stated the importance of foreign pre-sales in getting a film financed can not be overstated. Bearing that in mind, what do foreign sales agents hang their hat on when making their sales pitch? You are correct sir! It is the stars attached. So as much as a brilliant script and director are needed to ensure that the film is worthwhile, what really greases the wheel in raising the funds to get it made to begin with is still Star Power, whether they be inappropriately cast or not.

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    • March 26, 2010

      I’m going to differ with you on this one Mark. Star Power is indeed important, but Brian nailed it on the head in his comment that buyers needs to be convinced that a film can be marketed to their respective audiences. So unless it’s a genre actor in their known genre, you’re going to need a compelling, marketable story to close the deal.

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      • mark irvingsen permalink
        March 26, 2010

        Jeff,

        I think you need both a compelling marketable story AND star power meaning a genre actor in their known genre. You must have the good script, but after that is established the next question is going to be “So, who’s in it?”

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  11. March 26, 2010

    Thank you for the invitation…to comment…I have left a few comments but they have never been included…so I wanted to mention I was grateful for the opportunity to participate but was unaware they would not be shared…

    If you were unaware…then I hope this update helps…

    Either way …

    I sincerely thank you for the information you share…

    All the best

    Michael Savage
    aka Sirtony

    htp://www.TheFilmmaker.me

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    • March 26, 2010

      SirTony,

      comments are moderated and may not appear instantly at first for new commentors.

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      • March 27, 2010

        Thank you… Jeff

        I really respect your help and willingness to open the conversation so CLARITY and Insight can be shared and better understood…Wisdom is a valuable gift and when the details of this business are shared…it is sincerely helpful…and Valuable…
        and priceless…:)

        It would be great to work with you on a project or many…:)

        Sincerely
        Sirtony

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  12. March 26, 2010

    The great Triumverate of financially successful filmmaking is, in no particular order: Talent, Script and Marketing Platform.

    The Other Two: Director and Producer, are also major considerations, perhaps even equal to the Triumverate Three. However, the Other Two can’t be included in the Triumverate because of the definition of the term, which allows only three.

    Given a choice of the three in the original Triumverate, and ALSO the Other Two, I would take the Marketing Platform.

    Because a great Marketing Platform gives your film the true primary element/attachment necessary for financial success.

    This opinion, of course, is based on the supposition that a film’s value is measured by it’s financial success. If financial success is not the measure, then it doesn’t matter what the components are.

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  13. March 27, 2010

    I prefer the script as number 1 factor.just like the hurt locker film.it’s the script that makes the movie so entertaining. :-)

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  14. March 27, 2010

    I, too, prefer the script but most distributors would prefer a savvy marketing platform. Especially in today’s economic environment.

    In smaller, niche markets, Name Talent will help make the deal, of course. Especially in foreign sales. But I’m pretty sure foreign sales are driven by genres, once you get past the studio tentpoles. (Jeff would probably know more about this.)

    The script doesn’t become truly entertaining until the production values are added. Acting Performances and Cinematography are the primary production values.

    Again, for me, a script is written for the screen. In other words, it should be written to play better off the page. So I think producers should be careful in assessing a script simply by the words on the pages.
    Particularly if they want their film(s) to generate serious revenue.

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  15. June 18, 2010

    Amazing article and compelling comments.

    I am thinking (aloud) really hard as to why I go see the films I do… It has to first be the marketing. I see the trailer and the commercials, the posters, the ads on facebook… these things introduce me to the films. Without this marketing, or compelling marketing I wouldn’t be made aware of the film.

    For me at least, then I want to see a great story. So what’s the story? Is the plot going to original, creative, show great despair/ triumph… How is the hero going to deal in the new world, what are the rules of this strange new place.

    Then it may be a tie between “director” and “actor”. So hard for me really say. I want to say director – but then again I do want to see a star I recognize dealing in the elements the story provides. No – its director/ producer. It has to be. The visual story telling, the production value, the performances by no name actors and stars alike.

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  16. Randy V permalink
    February 3, 2011

    Boy, am I coming to this late, but I just recently found this blog (and it is AWESOME!) and I’ve spent the last two hours reading every word of it (up to this point), including the comments. A lot of very smart, very reasonable and helpful people here. Okay, enough sucking up.

    I thought about this comment thread for a while, ran it through my experience filter and realized, much to my chagrin, that BrianMathewKowalchuck (hate to see his LAST name) was right, it is the marketing that’s most important. But here’s the thing; in my limited experience, the buyers don’t want to see YOUR concept of the marketing platform, they want to see something that THEY can market. You’re not going to be selling the movie in their market and they believe that they know their market better than you possibly could, you stupid American.

    And since buyers tend to be pretty unimaginative, sadly, the thing they can market usually turns out to be the star. As a writer, I can say without hesitation that they don’t give a rat’s ass about the quality of the script – half the time they don’t even need to know what the story is, as long as it’s in what they consider to be a hot genre. But the attachments are everything. And by attachments, I mean actors. And it doesn’t have to be an A-lister either. For some reason, Woody Harrelson (a good actor, no doubt, but c’mon) is money in Europe.

    I want the script to be more important, but it just hasn’t been, so far. Maybe – and I wouldn’t doubt this for a minute – Jeff hangs with a much more sophisticated breed of buyer than I’ve been exposed to. I hope so, mainly because I hope they exist, but so far, that vaunted, sophisticated European taste hasn’t really shown up; in looking at American movies, they seem to assume the worst, and just plan to market them to the lowest common denominator of their audience.

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  17. February 11, 2011

    Hi Jeff,

    I have really enjoyed reading through your site. I have not commented before, but this post hit close to home and I am proof that what you say is true.

    I wrote, produced and directed my first feature, The Significant Other, which is a super micro budget rom com with no big name talent. According to most, this should have been the kiss of death, but it was picked up by Imageworks Entertainment and is actually doing pretty well. It should release Xmas 2011.

    It received several other offers for distribution and the general feed back was that the story and the production value was solid and the movie was commercially appealing on a very wide basis.

    Based on this experience, I encourage other indie producers to really focus on the story, the production value and the actual talent (rather than the name) that they cast and make a good movie rather than a bad movie with a big name star. So good to hear you reinforce this.

    Shalene

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