During the height of the studios' golden age, MGM used to boast that its movies featured "more stars than are in the heavens." But today that chant has been taken up by independent films. Traditionally, indie features provided opportunities for emerging artists to work with low budgets for next to nothing. But in the mid-1990s an influx of bankable actors invaded the scene, willing to work for scale wages on labors of love to prove their credibility or revive sagging careers. Many filmmakers now contend that getting an indie film made or seen today without stars is harder than ever before.
"It's gotten out of control," said five-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close, who has starred in three indies: The Chumscrubber, Heights, and Nine Lives—this year alone. "It's taking bigger and bigger names to make smaller and smaller films. I worry that important films without a big name attached won't get made at all."
Industry estimates vary, but at an American Film Market panel in November, Matthew Greenfield, associate director of the feature film program at the Sundance Institute and a producer of Chuck & Buck, said, "It's very hard to get more than $500,000–700,000 [in funding] without a name actor."
Other indie filmmakers say raising a $1 million–2 million budget requires at least one star. And because many agents are reluctant to take 10 percent of wages when their clients are bent on making a small-scale pet project, the bottom line is that many talented, first-time filmmakers without connections are simply priced out of the marketplace. As a result, the occasional success of homegrown films such as Miranda July's offbeat Me and You and Everyone We Know are more of an anomaly.
Part of the problem, some producers and directors say, is that private financiers who once were willing to put money into any project amid the1990s independent-film boom are becoming more gun-shy. "Most of my experience was from independent investors," said Chris Terrio, a first-time feature director with Heights. "It seems now that they're a lot more savvy about what names equal at the box office."
Terrio had a more fortunate situation than most: He had backing from diplomatic but tough producers James Ivory and the late Ismael Merchant to raise his $2 million Heights budget. "They fought to cast Emma Thompson instead of Meryl Streep in The Remains of the Day under some immense pressure. I mean, it wasn't Emma versus Carmen Electra," said Terrio. "That's what they encouraged in me."
Casting Close in Heights worked, he said, because she played a larger-than-life actor. But his next project is a gritty New York–based drama adapted from a best-selling nonfiction book with a well-known indie producer, and he is grappling with the dilemma of keeping the film authentic despite a star in a lead role along with a higher-than-Heights budget. "Will casting a star mean having more shooting days, or what you're able to show onscreen?" he said. "If it doubles your budget, it's a question."
John Cameron Mitchell—writer, actor, and first-time director of the cult hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch—decided to avoid the star route. His next film, Shortbus, features actors performing unsimulated hard-core sex. "Unconsciously it may have been a prophylactic against having to use stars," Mitchell said. "It was a way to avoid waiting four to five months for them to read or not read the script. Their agents are not saying, 'Read it.' I didn't have to run through the street finding the star.... To me, it's not worth it. I'd rather not do the movie."
Mitchell knows both sides of the camera, having had roles in several indies during the late '80s and early '90s. "Stars wouldn't really do them unless they were producing or directing," he said. "They were more like plays. Today it seems like the attitude is not just getting one star but how many can we get in?"
It's not just upcoming filmmakers who risk losing their big breaks under the new star-driven rules, either. As Edie Falco noted, "I know too many actors who would be right for films, and a lot of producers won't hire them. It's a very frustrating situation." She said director Eric Mendelsohn took a chance casting her in the title role of the drama Judy Berlin in 1999, just before she landed HBO's The Sopranos. "I spent a long time doing independent films, and I'd like to think I'm not getting cast because of the show, but because I'm right for the role," Falco said.
The lust for name actors can be traced to a combination of factors: The tidal wave caused by Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, which grossed more than $105 million on an estimated $8 million budget in 1994, and the willingness of stars who can command $20 million, such as Julia Roberts, to do comparatively experimental films, such as Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal or George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Many argue that such precedents have made investors, indie film companies, and studios' prestige specialty divisions more inclined to hold out for big names.
Stars have arguably become a double-edged sword. On one hand, a name actor such as Close can attract cast members and additional financing to independent projects like Robert Altman's comedy Cookie's Fortune, and Roberts can help put a small film into a suburban multiplex. But as more producers and financiers realize that, their determination to cast stars can hold a project up for months or years.
James Calleri, who won the Casting Society of America's 2005 Artios award for best independent feature film casting in Heights, described a low-budget indie he has worked on for a year in which most of the cast is in place. "They have some money but not as much as they want," he said. "And that's not going to happen until they get the right person."
While waiting to secure big stars, independent films often fall apart entirely. Speaking from experience—having seen situations where key cast members, financing, or other filmmakers' commitments failed to come together at the right time—Close said, "I've been in the trenches two or three times now and lost windows of opportunity."
Some indie studio heads acknowledge the problem. "In truth we're nervous about acquiring a movie without a well-known cast," Roadside Attractions co-President Howard Cohen said. "We're considering a movie now that we love, but it has no stars. We've agonized about it for an entire year.
"The movie has to be amazing if there's no one in it," he added. "[Phil Morrison's] Junebug is a good example of a successful narrative film without stars, but those successes are few and further between. The current marketplace doesn't give you enough time to keep films in theatres and develop word-of-mouth on them, and that's where stars help."
Other executives are less willing to admit that there is an issue with top-billed talent. Recalling the development of Jim Jarmusch's comedy Broken Flowers, Focus Features co-President David Linde said, "We didn't say, 'Oh, we love your project. Put Bill Murray in it.' [Jim] came to us with the film without any stars attached. Every one of those actors came onboard after we agreed to make the film."
Dylan Leiner, Sony Pictures Classics senior vp of acquisitions and productions, cited this month's Sundance Film Festival opener, Nicole Holofcener's Friends With Money, as a film his company financed from the script stage before Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, or Catherine Keener came onboard. And his boss, SPC co-President Michael Barker, said, "At our company, the directors are the stars."
But Focus and SPC, unlike Roadside or other smaller companies, are studio divisions armed with a much larger war chest. Even Linde acknowledges stars play a role in how a film is financed and ultimately plays. "It's a juggling act," he said. "You have to make an economic argument for the amount of money you spend on a film. The filmmakers and talent obviously adds to helping us distribute a movie. Stars add awareness, but ultimately the movie has to stand on its own merits."