Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Friday, January 2, 2015

Writer Tip #12: Who's In it?



Every writer who reads this blog will object to the following statement, but it is true:  Who's in your film is more important than the quality of your script to the financial success of the film.

How can I say that?  Easy.  If you don't have a "name" in your film, no one is going to see it.  Period.  It doesn't matter how good your script is.  Or how compelling the drama.  Or how thrilling the action.  Or how witty the dialogue.  It's like the old question:  If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  The answer, when it comes to movies, is no.

What about "Napoleon Dynamite?  What about "The Blair Witch Project?"  What about this?  What about that?  Sure, there are exceptions, but they are extremely few and far between.  And all of those exceptions had something your film will almost certainly not have:  Millions of dollars in advertising support.

Take your film to the American Film Market.  Trust me, none of the distributors are going to ask who wrote it.  Or even who directed it.  All they want to know is who stars in it and the genre.  They don't even care about the plot.  They only need to know the genre.   When a friend of mine took his fine but name free indie version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" out to Hollywood, a distributor watched the trailer appreciatively, then said, "Looks good.  You should do an Eric Roberts film next."

Exactly.

I remember a conversation one of my producers had with a foreign film marketer, who is now a major Hollywood producer, about a film we were trying to put together in the late-1990s.  He listened patiently to our pitch, then said, "Get Jeff Goldblum and you have a movie."  "How do we get Jeff Goldblum?" my producer asked.  "Just give him a million dollars," replied the wise man.  "Then you have a movie."  And we would have.

When we made my first movie, "21 Eyes," we made the classic freshman mistake.  We thought we had a story so intriguing and unique that the film would garner an audience without the benefit of a name.  The sad thing is that we could have had the names.  Since our script was genuinely interesting and unique, we were offered some big names.  Also, since the leads were all voice over roles, the talent was very affordable.  We could have gotten our dream cast, which would have included a movie star from the eighties and nineties and the star of a hit new series for about fifteen-thousand-dollars.  If we could go back in time we would definitely do it.  We did, however, hire some recognizable character actors.  We also hired an actress that was deemed an up-and-comer, and she did rise to television success but too late to help our film.  We should have gone with the names.

Now you have to ask yourself:  Who is a name?  It's complicated.  The fact that an actor has appeared in a number of real movies and television shows doesn't make him or her a name.  Appearing in fifteen episodes of "Law & Order" or seven episodes of "Seinfeld" doesn't make you a sell-able box name.  Here's the rule of thumb:  If you mention the name to someone outside of the business and you need to mention more than one credit to identify them, they are not a "name."  If you're making a small independent film in most genres, you should aim for someone who won or was nominated for an Academy Award fifteen-to-twenty-years ago, or starred -- not just appeared -- in a hit television series ten-to-fifteen-years ago.  You will be surprised how inexpensively you can get actors of that sort.  If your budget is in the low-to-middle six figures, you can definitely afford one.  If your budget isn't at least in that range, maybe you shouldn't make the movie.

I have to give David A.R. White a lot of credit.  He has starred in over thirty faith-based films, most of which he produced himself.  However, David realizes that, outside of the faith-based genre, no one knows recognizes him.  That's why he always wisely surrounds himself well-known "secular" actors like John Schneider, Kevin Sorbo, Ray Wise, Stephen Baldwin, and, of course, Eric Roberts.  It makes the films much more marketable.

For example, let's take a look at my most recently released film: "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road," starring, of course, David A.R. White.  The film was produced and distributed by PureFlix, who seem to have spent very little money promoting the film.  The only mentions I saw of the film were on PureFlix's various associated Twitter and Facebook accounts.  I didn't see any internet banner ads.  No ads on Christian radio stations.  No ads at all, in fact.  Worse yet, it doesn't even look like they even bothered to send review copies out to interested bloggers to get some buzz going.  There were no reviews anywhere at the time of its release.  It looked like a total disaster, but, fortunately, we had a name:  James Denton, former star of "Desperate Housewives" and former Sexiest Man Alive according to People Magazine.  On the strength of his own fame and popularity, James was able to get on a number of network morning news shows to discuss the movie and his life.  Without him, the film would have utterly sank without a trace, and, with it, the hard work of all the people involved.



You need a James Denton.

And if you can get Kevin Sorbo with him, all the better.

I credit the success of my films as much to casting director Billy DaMota, who gets us gets us the best possible casts at our budgets, as anyone else in the process.

I know guys who earn a living making films without any names.  However, they have to be more than filmmakers.  They have to be full-time marketers.  They have to pick up their little film and carry it for years -- finding new ways to exploit it all of the time.  And that usually isn't what we envisioned when we decided to become filmmakers.  We became filmmakers to make films, not to market them.

"So what does this have to do with me?" you may ask.  "I'm the writer, not the producer.  I don't make those decisions."

Not so.

You decide whether or not to sell your script to a producer.  Don't be afraid to ask who they see in the roles.   Don't be afraid to ask about their intended budget.  If you don't like the answers, don't sell them the script.  I've been put in that position and that's exactly what I did.

I know it's hard to say no, especially if you never made a film before.  Just keep in mind that your first film may be your last one.   Especially if no one sees it.  If you have confidence in your script, wait and do it right.

And that's why it never pays to work for a producer for free.  If a producer can't afford to pay you for your work, he won't spend the money to get the cast necessary to get your film seen.

The longer you are in the business, the more you will realize that making the movie is the easiest part of the equation.  Nowadays, it is relatively easy to get a film released by a distributor.  There's lots of bottom feeders who will take your film for nothing to put into their catalog.  The hardest thing is finding a distributor who will invest sufficient marketing and advertising money to bring eyes to your film.

And nobody is going to do that unless you have "names" in it.

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