This session was about the power and influence of the agent in advancing a producer’s project, and along the way it gave the audience goosebumps about how exciting lives seem to be in the big league of LA.
Richard Klubeck, Partner – United Talent Agency
Bec Smith, Agent, United Talent Agency
Ian Collie, Producer and Partner, Essential Media and Entertainment
Mark Morrissey, Founder and Managing Director, Mark Morrissey and Associates
The session was well moderated by Annabelle Sheehan, Senior Executive, Development and Production Services, Media Venture Partners, and a former agent at RGM.
Annabelle began with a suggestion that producers must recognise the power of talent, and agents must accept the significant driving force that is a producer.
The session covered connecting, or linking to the project, negotiating, or what is best practice, how to collaborate and achieve both the red carpet of film festivals and repeat business, and whether agents represent producers, and how does that work?
Mark Morrissey is an Australian agent who spends a lot of time in LA, having trekked over there regularly for over 18 years. He said that he always starts with the script, and reads between 6 and 10 per week. “I still enjoy the process of reading a great script,” he said. He reads them if it has attached producers or directors he knows, or if he can be introduced to them.
That was a theme of this session and others – that Hollywood operates by linking people to others through shared contacts. Several times, the comment was made that you can get through to anyone you need to, but you have to approach them via someone you know who also knows your target. You can’t approach them cold. “You can approach me through people I trust like casting agencies, or directors I admire,” said Morrissey.
“I start with a great script and build around that.”
“I’ve got excited about smaller projects like The Rover which has just finished shooting in WA. It doesn’t have to be a big project. It was the quality of the package that was presented. I got a clear idea of the director’s vision and the level of the actors they wanted on board. The director had some wonderful success here in Australia with Animal Kingdom,” he explained.
Annabelle – What’s the situation in the US? What gets you excited?
Richard – “In LA there is so much volume, so many scripts, projects, from so many sources, so for us the biggest challenge is sorting through all that volume. If it’s coming through the studio there’s a straightforward process. For material coming outside it’s trickier. You’re looking for something good or special.”
For projects coming from Australia, it’s about who the filmmaker is, and whether they have done well in the film festival circuit. “Every actor is looking for projects outside the studio system,” he said.
Richard added that the truth is there are scripts that simply find their way to the top. “We look at the blacklist for projects that rise on their own to the top, or get through via word of mouth.”
Bec Smith is an Australian now based in LA. For her, if you’re an Australian trying to attract a certain member of cast, the best thing is to have a sense of the artist you’re trying to approach. You should do your research, and try to be introduced to their agent by someone who already has a relationship with them. She said that while there are some people who never jump onto a type of project they haven’t worked on before, most directors don’t want to be pigeonholed and want to explore different genres.
Producer Ian Collee from Essential Media said that the success of getting Rake remade in the US came down to having a good package and the quality of the scripts. “The scripts that Peter Duncan and Andrew Knight wrote for Rake were fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to play Dogfucker?” Also having Richard Roxburgh as one of the producers gave the some cache, and he was able to get on the phone if need be.
Asked about the number of big stars playing cameo roles in the series, Collee said that some of the roles only needed one or two days max, so it wasn’t so hard to get someone like Cate Blanchett, who had worked with Richard Roxburgh in theatre a lot. “By then we were in the third season.”
However, getting a high profile Australian actor to commit to a role can be tricky as they will have other, more high profile projects waiting in the wings, and so sometimes you can’t get a format commitment, in case schedules change. Sometimes, you have to move on, said Collee.
For Richard, it’s incredibly important to understand what agents are doing. Agents like the producers who understand what agents are doing. “Every series director has two three five projects they are juggling. Every actor has two or three projects they are doing in a year. The problem for an agent is that if they suggest a project to a client that doesn’t come to pass, they are at risk of being fired. “So we want to know if the project is really going to happen. It’s vital that we do not overcommit, so that we make ourselves and our actors vulnerable. If a producer understands that, they can work with us and develop the trust, and we can commit to those producers and get the movie made.”
Annabelle commented that some producers and even funding bodies don’t get the word ‘attachment’.
Mark Morrissey agreed. “It’s a difficult process. We’re about wanting our clients to work. A working client is a happy client. You need to co-ordinate opportunities for our clients. We try to make it clear that until the contract is signed and all the ducks are lined up, it is only then that the actor can commit to it. Before everything is in place you can’t commit.”
OfOf course one of the conundrums is that if the client happens to be an A+ actor, his or her commitment may make the project happen.
The panel agreed that they appreciate preparation and research. Mark said one director approached him and he came along with a vision board of exactly how he planned to shoot it.
Richard said that if a book that a movie is going to be based on is already out there, then the producer should do the work and put in the reviews, and a statement on why Wes Anderson may wish to direct it.
Moving onto negotiating, Annabelle wanted to know how Ian Collee managed television finances with a marquee cast, like the Jack Irish series, which starred Guy Pearce.
Ian told the audience that before the project was locked off he approached the agent (Shanahans). “We had a brand to sell in Peter Temple. There’s a great Aussie Rules and Guy used to play for Geelong juniors. He’s a Melbourne boy and likes to be back.”
Ian added that once Guy was attached, they had to negotiate his fee, but once that was done they were able to raise more money in the market, as they had something to sell, namely Guy Pearce doing TV.
Annabelle – How do negotiations break down? Cut to the chase!
Mark Morrissey’s definition of negotiations breaking down is when he estimation of the value of his client doesn’t equate with theirs.
Bec Smith agreed. “Sometimes it just comes down to economics. In Australia everyone knows each other, and sometimes the producer just goes around you and goes directly to the client. They don’t understand that the agent isn’t trying to obstruct the deal.”
Richard blames the lawyers. “Lawyers make deals break down more than the agents do,” he offered. But he said that sometimes people aren’t clear up from about how the deal will play out. “Sometime there’s a devious approach.”
“We try up front to be clear about it – is it a money job, or is it a cut rate job, and if so how deep a rate cut are we talking about?”
Everyone has their price. Apparently.
Other considerations are, how big do they think the movie is, who else is in it, and how much of the back end is available.
Annabelle – are producers resistant to finding the back end?
Richard – Producers love to move fees into the back end. We know the projects where that is going to happen. If it’s a 10 million movie and the writer is a 2 million writer, he’s not going to get to 2 million up front.
The panel discussed the trend where actors ask for a producer or co-producer credit. While some wanted to discourage that trend, Richard spoke in defence of it, as sometimes it’s justified. As well, he said that sometimes the director wants a producer credit, because they then have more chance at the Academy Awards. “If you’re a director, it’s incredibly tough to get a nomination for Best Director, but if you’re a producer as well, you’re eligible for Best Film.”
Richard added that sometimes an actor gets involved very early on, and they are taking a risk, so they should get a producer or co-producer credit. Bec said that the actor may be the lead actor who attracted a number of other actors to the project, and giving them a producer credit may be a way of acknowledging that.
“Attracting an actor to an unfinanced project is a big deal,” said Richard. “It’s emotional, because the actor may develop an attachment to the director, and then if they can’t do it because the schedule changes, it can get messy and the agent may get blamed.”
In concluding the session, Bec said that there is a lot of ‘white noise’ in the industry in the States, and an agency can help you cut through that to what is real. “Also the US is so much a culture of advocacy, so it helps to have someone who can introduce you or put you together with someone they think you should be working with.”
Mark Morrissey said that producers sometimes falls into the trap of believing that the relationship is over once the deal is signed. “If there’s ever an issue with one of my actors, I’m the one to call,” he said. “If there’s a problem on set, I don’t want any standoffs or issues for my client. I want it to be as good as it can be for our client.”
Richard said that most people try to sell a script to a big studio if they think it has a chance there. If you can’t sell to a studio, or don’t want to, then it’s a different process, and that’s where packaging comes into play. Packaging can work if the screenplay is a very good one, or if it’s a genre that sells, like The Sixth Sense or The Others.
“I think it comes down to whether the director can convince the actor to do the project.”
Annabelle had a final suggestion for Australian producers who can’t get the green light from a local distributor. “You can get them to tell you which cast members they would need to approve the project,” she suggested. “Then you take their list and work down it via their agents. Once you get the cast that’s been preapproved, you can go back to the distributor and say ‘we’ve got your cast.’