BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Rules of Attaching Actors

Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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It’s said that you don’t get your picture made in Hollywood without having a star or two attached. The assumption is that there’s much less financial risk when stars are officially involved. Their pricey names on a one-sheet or TV ad or above a neon marquee practically guarantee ticket sales in both the U.S. and abroad.

Conclusion number 1? Movie stars mean something. Though what that something is can sometimes be vague in the development process. Oh. And it’s just a matter of how you define “attached.”

BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Rules of Attaching Actors by Doug Richardson #scriptchat

In my career, I’ve had loads of stars attached to my movie projects. At the risk of appearing like a shameless name-dropper, let me list a few. I hope by the end of the paragraph you’ll get my point. The attach-ees have been: Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Edward Norton, John Travolta, Sean Penn, Catherine Zeta Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle, Eric Bana, Katherine Heigl, Patrick Swayze, Vin Diesel, Nicholas Cage, and probably a load more if I had a better memory. However, if you look at my humble list of picture credits, you will easily ascertain that none of those mega-watt marquee names above have yet appeared in anything I’ve written.

And you thought I said movie stars mean something. Fact is, they do. But only if you explain things back to front.

First, the obvious. A studio or financier loves my screenplay, has a director in mind as well a budget. Offers are made to the star via his/her appointed representatives. The star and/or agent show interest, prices and terms are negotiated, contracts sealed, and production dates set. Into speedy production we venture forth. Though the preceding can sound laborious and potentially full of pitfalls, it can actually move with a surprising efficiency. This is due to a simple axiom. The money is both in place and liquid. The time-tested profit incentive is not only hard at work, it’s cranking overtime as other agents, managers and lawyers—and of course, their valued clients—queue up just in case the negotiations with the current star don’t come to contractual fruition.

Conclusion number 2? If your money ain’t real, a star’s attachment is dubious. They or their reps have read my script, waved their magic wands across it as something they approve of and, if circumstances and stacks of cash in the correct amount find their way to the table, a movie might come from it.

Emphasis on might.

But why the hell not? A movie-star-maybe is a sight better than a flat-out rejection. And now, with the famous name attached to my screenplay, reps can shop it to producers, studios and money men anxious to sink their dollars into the next big hit.

Seems simple enough. The aforementioned process is kind of sexy. If Nicole Kidman or Scarlet Johansson were perfume, my screenplay might have been infused with a scent musky enough to attract foreign investors. A movie might actually come out of this if the game wasn’t so inflexibly slow.

How slow? Like sucking crude oil through a cocktail straw kind of slow. And here’s why.

In-demand actors and directors generally keep two separate stacks of scripts. Sometimes metaphorically. Other times, I’m talking actual stacks in their offices or bedrooms or beside the lounger by the pool.

Imagine it this way. Some years and two residences ago, the War Department and I lived in a San Fernando Valley bungalow that was across the street from a house rented by director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld). One afternoon, Kevin invited me over for a beer or two. I recall noticing what was clearly his reading seat; something like a worn tartan armchair that was flanked by two stacks of screenplays; a short collection of maybe five or six scripts and a much taller heap that appeared to contain twenty or more.

“What’s that?” I innocently asked. “Read and unread?”

“No,” drawled Kevin, first pointing to the small pile. “Bona fide offers on this side, not-offers on the other.”

“So the big stack is just to see if you’re interested?” I clarified.

“Yeah,” he said. “Attach myself. See what happens.”

Kevin went on to point out his preferred scripts were often found in the bigger pile. But the real offers required his priority attention because they were go or near-go movies and demanded a speedy response.

I’ve never forgotten that image. It almost always comes to mind when a producer or agent suggests that we send out my newest screenplay to actors to see who might jump aboard. It’s a game that is laborious and seems to drag on forever as my precious screenplay starts on the bottom of someone’s very tall mound of non-offers, hoping and praying for conscious and copious consideration.

Truth and conclusion number 3? Let’s imagine the best case scenario. My script is so awesome and unavoidable in its storytelling, despite the eons it took to worm its way to the top of an agent’s or manager’s mountain of non-offers, when (or if) the actor eventually gives the screenplay a read, he leaps from his sofa, moved and more-than-willing to lend his multi-million dollar name to my movie-in-waiting. And why not? It’s not hard for the high-dollar skin puppet to imagine himself or herself playing the title character. I wrote some ass-kicking action, speeches that speak from the heart, and moments so chockfull of cool that if James Dean could come back from the dead, he’d pay to fill those boots.

Yessiree. This would be a happy-dance occasion if actors weren’t more often as fickle as the average teen girl. That and quite often their expenses and cash flow are such that no-sooner did they say yes to my movie than they’ve agreed to a pay-or-play deal in the next Marvel franchise flick.

But let’s say the attachment sticks for more than a few months. Once again, my screenplay is doing the rounds with a notch more topspin because of movie star interest. However, because no real money has yet been applied it lands once again in someone’s passive pile. The waiting game continues. For another star or rep to read. Or maybe a director. More weeks pass. Then month after month. In the meantime, my priceless shooting-star has become attached to other projects. Not necessarily better. Only newer and shinier.

You’re probably ahead of me here. You can see what I’m losing. Momentum. The forward steam my movie has lost is bound to reflect on the script itself. Maybe this is when the producer decides that the real problem must lie with the screenplay itself—or even me, the author. Maybe it’s time to rewrite or simply reassess. Somehow those who so loved my screenplay can’t quite rekindle that first blush of affection. In the lack of action which surely follows, my screenplay withers and dies.

As one might expect, I no longer seek star attachments. If there’s no money behind the movie to make an offer, then it’s not real and I’m no longer interested in using my good work as bait for agents or managers’ busywork. I’d rather seek sources for lower budgets and chase exceptional actors who haven’t yet broken out into a stratospheric trajectory.

Yup. There’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. That is of course unless Bruce Willis dials me up and asks what I might have stuffed in a drawer.

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