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Casting Doubt

Does a big-name star make any difference to the commercial prospects of an independent film?

For the director and producer of a film, getting the right actor for a role — someone who will bring the character to life, work well with their co-stars and help deliver the best possible final production — is a primary consideration.

Putting acting-chops to one side, however, there is an intrinsic value to casting decisions from a marketing and distribution point of view. Casting a particular actor can have a major effect on different points in the film value chain: all the way from pre-production to an airline sale. The right choice can help close a finance gap or even get a film financed in the first place. It is a massive consideration for any producer.

An actor may be cast to increase appeal to buyers in foreign markets, something that is becoming more commonplace and can be seen in the multi-national cast of 2015 film “The Last Knights”.

British star Clive Owen was cast alongside Payman Maadi, the US-born, Iranian star of “A Separation”, Cliff Curtis, the New Zealand star of “Once Were Warriors”, Norway’s Aksel Hennie, known from hit film “Headhunters”, Korean movie star, Sung Ki-Ahn, Israel’s leading actress Ayelet Zurer and Morgan Freeman, who cemented the deal in terms of North America, as well as rounding off the entire project with a global A-list appeal.

This example of canny casting would have seen strong support in key territories across the world, as well as ticking all of the acting boxes. Crucially, it also would have helped this largely non-theatrical release gain top-tier support on retail shelves and high-profile placements across VOD and digital transactional platforms.

Big-name casting does not have to break a budget and savvy producers have used big names for short periods of filming to keep costs down while maintaining a marquee name above the title.

A good example of this was the recent “Goosebumps” sequel in which Jack Black appears late into the last quarter of the film. A strong cameo can really help bridge a finance gap as well as lending marketers a strong selling point to focus on in the campaign materials.

Some casting decisions, however, seemingly add little to the commercial prospects of a production and this may come as a surprise to budding producers.

I was approached recently by a producer who was pitching the casting of a couple of well-known names from the world of TV drama for a film, which was in the early stages of pre-production. There was no doubt the actors would be good for the roles and it was quite feasible that their names might have helped attract some level of investment for the production but that is probably where the benefit ended. Neither name was strong enough for the film to have gained a theatrical release nor would they have been of interest to bookers of major chat shows and national press journalists. Retail buyers would also not have seen the casting as a reason alone to stock the DVD and similar leverage would not have been forthcoming at digital and VOD either.

For low-budget films that want to achieve a theatrical release, it is almost better not to take a known actor from a TV series like “Game of Thrones” and, instead, stick to good character actors with a lower profile. For example, recent theatrical release “Apostasy”, which was distributed by Curzon, was a stunning drama that was taken all the more seriously because it did not feature household name stars.

For a low-budget film to have a somewhat-recognisable cast (or a cast of unknowns alongside one well-known name) tends to place the release more in the realm of the direct-to-video market, it seems.

These days, a low-budget independent film featuring a supporting or even a lead actor from “Harry Potter” or “Game of Thrones” is much more likely to be aimed at a non-theatrical release, whereas a strong drama with a lesser known cast is more likely to be open to theatrical platforming. Good examples of this would be “Beast”, “Lady Macbeth”, “God’s Own Country” and foreign-language films such as “The Handmaiden” or “Toni Erdmann”. Here the film itself is the star and known-name cast is totally irrelevant. These are films that are successful despite the casting of well-known names.

In my own recent experience, the film “Edie” could not have achieved well over £500,000 at the box office if had not been for the central casting of Sheila Hancock, who not only gave a a stonking performance but also guaranteed high levels of press and broadcast media coverage.

The ensemble cast of the “Whisky Galore” remake really helped Arrow Films attain leverage with exhibitors and cinema-goers alike in Scotland and then later down the line on DVD, where the casting of comedians Eddie Izzard and Gregor Fisher helped shift DVD units off-shelves in the lucrative Q4 gifting period.

There is also a chance that over-familiarity with an actor can harm a film’s prospects. There was a time when any Steven Seagal film would be a guaranteed hit on DVD and there are other actors that come to mind whose presence could guarantee support for a film beyond simple box office performance. The more ubiquitous an actor becomes, however, the more his or her cachet fades.

So rather than concentrating on the casting of an independent film, I would argue that producers should put a number of other considerations to the forefront: They need to work within strong commercial genres; they should leverage local and diverse talent for regional support or pick one actor who will unlock a major promotional opportunity as well as deliver a knockout performance.

It may seem obvious to say but, most of all, the best starting point for an independent production is the need to concentrate on making the best possible film with the available budget is the best way to proceed in the current marketplace.

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