Indie Money

ar Tombudsman:I am a documentary filmmaker who often works on a limited budget. Sometimes I make a film that requires narration. Most often I hire narrators who do only narration, but on occasion I want to bring on a well known actor who might be just right to narrate a certain subject. I've often heard that actors are constantly looking for parts or projects that really intrigue them, and sometimes perform or narrate for scale or sometimes on donation. Martin Sheen comes to mind. On my present project, I wanted to bring on a well known actor who would be a wonderful addition to the documentary. In making calls, I always hit a wall when it comes to the agent. "How much are we talking here?" "We won't talk unless we are taking thousands, and I mean thousands." And the best one is, "I know Mr. So-And-So won't be interested." I understand the job of agents is to get the best bucks for their client and themselves, but why don't they just present the idea to their clients, rather than just asking, "How much are we talking here?" David WittkowerLos Angeles, Calif.Dear David:When dealing with celebrities and their talent representatives you have to figure you're going to hit a lot of brick walls when it comes to low-paying or nonpaying documentary projects. In fact, this doesn't apply to just documentaries but also to any projects on the budget/visibility lower ends. Unless you have an in, and unless a particular celebrity is historically associated with a particular cause, movement, or charity, it's going to be a long shot for any independent documentaries to land a major voice for the project. Still, as we all know, it isn't uncommon at all to hear very familiar voices on a variety of documentary projects, many of which have smallish budgets for talent. So celebs do these projects, and it's up to you to get their attention. So how do you land a heavy hitter for your project? You have at least two choices: either through the traditional agent/manager contact route or, if you are very fortunate and have any personal recommendation/connection to the artist, by making a more direct contact. Obviously for many filmmakers, it's going to be the former route in trying to get a celebrity voice, and, yes, it is often going to be very tough to get a sympathetic ear, or any ear for that matter, if you are not well known or don't have a successful track record (i.e. your films have made money) in documentaries already. A third possibility might be to see if the celebrity works with any organizations that focus on areas similar to your film's subject matter. If so, you should try to get your film in front of high-level sources within the organization and pray that they'll take up the cause and approach the celeb for you. Of course it's the agents' job to look out for quality projects for their clients, and quality means not only a good script but also a good pay rate. When agents get calls from documentary filmmakers, they usually think it means little pay and taking their clients off the market (and away from potential paying gigs). How do you overcome that? Well, it won't be easy, but you'd better do your research. Does the actor you mentioned you wanted for your film have a history, like Sheen, of doing documentary narration? Is the subject matter something you know he is interested in already? If so, then you have a shot, and you must implore the agent to at least present the idea to his client. I'm sure in most cases an agent or manager of a celebrity knows what types of projects his or her client is looking to do and will present genuine opportunities to them. As a filmmaker, you must make sure you have the most polished script, story, and presentation if you hope to have any chance in attracting that voice. It's your job, if you do get a kind ear to pitch to, to make sure you've done your homework and have a few good reasons the busy celeb should even consider your project. I suggest you put any offer you might have in writing. There's something about a written presentation that adds legitimacy to any project. With that done, you may still get a flat-out no from the talent rep, or no response at all. Don't take it personally.If your film is already shot you're way ahead of the game and can send a copy of it to the agent. That speaks highly of your intentions and should increase your chance of at least getting a response. Obviously if your project is backed by a major producer, has corporate sponsorship, or can employ any angle to attract a name, you should go that route. In your case, I imagine you wouldn't be writing to me if you had that setup right now. Don't forget, you live in Los Angeles, so it's not impossible that you'll see your first-choice actor at a restaurant or walking on Melrose. Perhaps it's hardly the ideal scenario for making your pitch, but imagine how much you'd be kicking yourself later if you didn't at least introduce yourself to that person when appropriate. If you get a receptive individual you might make a quick pitch, or at the very least ask if you can send a script or copy of the film to his or her office. Be respectful, brief, and professional, and then be on your wa