In Hollywood’s Golden Age, when actors were salaried employees, the idea of an “independent” film industry, with movies made outside the studio system, was an impossibility. It took antitrust laws to smash the old studio model, giving rise to indie cinema in all its messy glory.
But now, the studio system is making a comeback. Sort of.
As streaming companies, and studio-backed streamers like Disney+ and AT&T-owned WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, ratchet up production to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetite of online subscribers, they are block booking the most in-demand actors and directing talent making them unavailable for the independent market.
In 2021 alone, Netflix signed first-look or multi-year deals with Jennifer Garner and Jennifer Lopez, Pieces of a Woman actress Vanessa Kirby, Kevin Hart and French superstar Omar Sy, as well as first-look agreements with in-demand filmmakers Shawn Levy, Peter Berg, Gareth Evans and Noah Baumbach.
“It’s become a lot more challenging to get top talent,” says Jonathan Yunger, co-President of indie producer Millennium Media. “A major actor these days, when they roll out of bed in the morning, before they’ve brushed their teeth, they’ve got 12 great offers [from the streamers and the studios] in front of their face, good projects for lots of money.”
Pulling together the cast for The Expendables 4, the latest in Millennium’s action franchise — which features returning stars Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, and Dolph Lundgren alongside new additions Megan Fox, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and The Raid star Iko Uwais — was “a crazy puzzle” says Yunger. “Just think of someone like 50 Cent, who has to juggle not just film and TV offers but now concert dates as well.”
Indeed, one of the hottest indie projects of last year, The Blacksmith, a John Wick-style actioner from Taken director Pierre Morel, had to be put on hold after actor/singer Nick Jonas, who had signed on to star, pulled out citing scheduling conflicts.
More common are last-minute casting changes, as when Rocketman actor Taron Egerton came on board Wild Bunch’s Claire Denis-directed thriller Stars at Noon, replacing Robert Pattinson. Pattinson, a one-time indie darling who worked with Denis in her 2018 sci-fi movie High Life, recently signed a first-look deal with Warner Bros. Pictures. (Pattinson will star as The Batman in Warners’ upcoming superhero reboot).
“More and more producers are definitely having this problem, and it means producers can’t plan ahead anymore and they’re just having to go to the wire,” says Phil Hunt, founder and head of London-based financier Head Gear Films.
For his latest feature, the true-crime thriller He Went That Way, Hunt says the producer only secured Zachary Quinto for the starring role by going through a friend of the Star Trek actor instead of his agent. “But they’re shooting in three weeks and are still casting,” says Hunt. “And that’s just one example of most of the films we get involved in.”
For The Portable Door, one of the hot projects being shopped around this year’s American Film Market, which runs Nov. 1-5, producer and financier Arclight Films was forced into a casting change after Guy Pearce, initially set to star alongside Christoph Waltz in the fantasy satire, pulled out at the last minute.
“It was a massive scramble, but fortunately Sam [Neill] was available and he did an amazing job [in the role],” says Arclight CFO Brian Beckmann. “But we are seeing a shortage of talent availability across the board, not just from actors but all down the line. It’s hard to find cinematographers, it’s hard to find art directors, it’s hard to find everyone.”
“We are finding that people are booked out for the next few years, sometimes longer,” agrees Kristen Figeroid, managing director and executive vp at Sierra/Affinity. “The question becomes do you go for your second, third, or fourth choice, do you try out an unknown or a first-time director, or are you extra patient and wait for that first choice person?”
Hunt points to a positive flip side of the talent “shortage”: with the obvious names unavailable, indie producers are looking further afield and giving new talent, often from under-represented groups, a chance.
“And sometimes this is better for the film because you end up casting a person because he or she is the best person for a role, not because they are ‘a star,’” he says. “That’s kind of what’s happening now. Last-minute castings are turning up some really pleasant surprises.”