Talk to a sales agent or distributor about your film and one of the first questions they’ll ask is, who’s in it?

Why? Traditional distributors are risk averse and gun shy. Faced with falling revenues, they want names. They want stars.  Stars are marketable. They’re a hook.

Audiences are more likely to watch a film with an actor they know. As a filmmaker, you’re trading off the reputation of your actors to reassure the audience they’re going to see a quality film. Casting can make or break your film when it comes to distribution.

So, what’s a star? If you want your film to go theatrical, the bar is high. You need big names. Let’s have a look at what some of the major players in distribution have picked up recently.

American Ultra – an action comedy with Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, John Leguizamo, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins and Bill Pullman.

Distributors: Lionsgate (USA), Infotainment China, Noori Pictures (South Korea) and Entertainment One (Benelux).

The Cobbler – a comedy with Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi and Dustin Hoffman.

Distributors: CDC United (Latin America), Pegasus Motion Pictures (Hong Kong), Pictureworks (India), Shoval Film Production (Israel), Able Entertainment (South Korea), Cine Video Y TV (Mexico), E.TV (South Africa) and Entertainment One (UK)

Everly – an action/thriller with Salma Hayek.

Distributors: Tandem Film (Bulgaria), Splendid Film GMBH (Germany), Koch Media (Italy), Korea Screen (South Korea), Key2Media Audiovisual (Spain), Noble Entertainment (Sweden), Calinos Films (Turkey), Top Film Distribution (Ukraine), Entertainment One (UK), Radius TWC (USA)

Source: Cinando. Some territories may be missing as Cinando relies on distributors declarations.

That’s the level of name expected for a theatrical release. With the exception of Everly with Salma Hayek, it’s not just about one star, but the package.

The reality is there are very few actors who can open a movie based on their name alone. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise can do it with the right projects, but for most films, it’s the strength of the ensemble with the right genre.

As an indie filmmaker, you’re probably looking at these names and thinking they’re out of your budget and unreachable. You might be able to get lucky if you’re an established filmmaker with a fantastic script with the kind of roles actors would jump at to play.

If you’re working your way up, names are still a necessity for traditional distribution.

Whatever your genre, cast is always an advantage.

Some genres are more forgiving than others. A strong no name horror can get distribution, but the odds are that a no name drama or a rom-com is going to languish in purgatory.

This is where conversations with distributors and sales agents are invaluable. Get their input. Find out who’s commercial for your budget range, from the up and coming to established actors.

There’s often a disconnect between actors producers like and cast can help you sell your film. Which actors are going to add value and help secure distribution for your film?

You also need to think about the big picture. Do your actors have international recognition?

From the Motion Pictures Association of America 2013 report, international box office accounts for 70% of the global box office takings, with China, Japan, the UK, France and India as the top five sources for international. You need names that will work globally beyond your domestic market.

The challenge is the goalposts keep shifting.

The commercial value of actors, like the stock market, can go up and down. There are no guarantees.

A name doesn’t guarantee commercial success. You can cast your movie based on advice from sales agents and distributors, but if an actor goes on to be in a series of flops and becomes over-saturated, then by the time your film is ready for distribution, your movie’s going to have less value than you’d planned for.

Case in point, when I was in Berlin earlier this year, I was chatting with someone from Lionsgate who told me they weren’t interested in picking up Nicolas Cage movies anymore, because his commercial value for distribution had dropped after too many B-movies.

Now, he might be in line for a Matthew McConaughy-esque revival thanks to Joe, which has been getting raves from the critics.

Alternatively, you might cast an up and coming actor who goes on to explode onto the scene and into stardom.

When the team behind House At The End Of The Street cast a post Winter’s Bone Jennifer Lawrence back in 2010, they knew she was talented but probably didn’t realise she’d blow up to become Hollywood’s newest A-List star.

Here’s the frustration. How do stars become stars?

There are child stars who grow up in the system, actors who break out after phenomenal performances in premium TV dramas, the Brits and Aussies who paid their dues in theatre, TV and films before heading to Hollywood, unknowns who get their shot in big budget franchises, and now, less and less common, are the actors who break through from indie films.

For indie filmmakers, my advice is to play the game. Think about your film. Who’s your audience? What are your hopes and expectations in terms of distribution? Who would dovetail in nicely that has that worldwide recognition and can add value?

Talk to sales agents and distributors for recommendations. Budget for a name and get a good casting director on board. There’s commercial value in having known actors, even if they’re just in a small role you can shoot in a couple of days.

Work it.  From a sales and marketing perspective, you want your named actor to be front and centre in the first five minutes of the film and featured prominently in the trailer and artwork, even if they don’t merit it in terms of actual screen time.

There are no magic formulas or easy solutions. But the sad truth is a bad film with names often has a better shot at distribution than a good films with no names. I’m encouraged by the films that do break out, but they’re the exception not the rule.

Give your film a fighting chance. There are hoops to jump through with traditional distribution and cast is one of them. Play the game.

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

Picture Credit: The Hunger Games

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