In Features, Issues

THE 10% SOLUTION?
How and when talent agents help the indies.

BY SHARON SWART

PAUL HAGGIS’S CRASH, PACKAGED BY CAA’S INDIE UNIT, TOOK HOME THE 2006 BEST PICTURE OSCAR.

It might seem like a violation of the indie filmmaker ethos to ask a major Hollywood talent agency for a helping hand, but that’s how little films like Crash got made recently. Creative Artists Agency’s independent group was behind this year’s Oscar winner.

Crash is one of our best examples,” says Kevin Iwashina, who is among the roughly half dozen agents working in CAA’s indie unit, by far the largest of the breed. “The agency was involved in everything from finding the material to arranging attachments like Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock to ultimately getting the movie financed and selling it in Toronto.”

Indie divisions like CAA’s, sometimes referred to as an agency’s “packaging” or “financing” department, are now an integral part of every major talent agency. They’re not only there to help the agency’s clients get passion projects made; they’ve become revenue centers in their own right, with some serving as a gateway for the ongoing influx of financiers looking to invest in film. Indie units can offer a project access to talent and credibility, and they can help make connections for filmmakers and producers who are newer to the process. “I think [the indie divisions] are especially valuable when you don’t have a producer who can do the same thing packaging-wise,” says Sideways and Family Stone producer Michael London, who admits he’s never set up a project via an indie division.

But if enlisting a behemoth like CAA to put your film together sounds like a quick and easy solution to talent and financing woes, think again. Producers and agents interviewed for this article all stressed that collaborating with an agency’s financing division doesn’t relieve the producer of his or her primary responsibility to attach talent and generally push the project forward. “The agencies are excellent at making introductions and identifying financing — they know the foreign distributors and equity fund sources,” elaborates producer Michael Pierce, who is currently in Luxembourg working on Michael Radford’s indie crime drama Flawless, starring Michael Caine and Demi Moore. “But it’s up to you to do something with those contacts. The producer has to consummate the relationship by identifying projects that these financing sources would be interested in” and then put the financing puzzle together.

Crash writer-director Paul Haggis describes the process by which his film attracted its supporters and finally secured financing. “Kim Hodgert at CAA deserves a lot of credit for getting Crash made,” he says. “She championed the project and pitched it to any talent agent who would listen. [CAA agent] Rick Nicita read it, believed in it and sent it to Don Cheadle with his strong recommendation. Once Don came on board as an actor and producer, we became a reality in the eyes of a lot of other actors. At that point Kevin Iwashina, Manny Nunez, John Ptak and the other folks at CAA helped pull together the myriad of deals. It still took us another year to assemble the cast that got us the money, but without CAA’s support the film would still be a script on the shelf.” Iwashina further explains that CAA — which helped create Bull’s Eye Entertainment, Crash producer and financier Bob Yari’s company with Cathy Schulman — brought in DEJ to co-finance with Bull’s Eye.

“It’s never easy to make a movie, and it never will be,” says Arianna Bocco, a former Miramax acquisitions exec who launched the Gersh Agency’s indie division a year ago. “There’s this notion that if you get your script to a packaging agent and they like it, your movie is going to get made. It’s always a challenge. Filmmakers have to have a conviction and a confidence, but they also have to be realistic. It’s a balance. You’re either going to be the next big director or that stalker calling the agency.”

WILLIAM MORRIS’S CASSIAN ELWES, RENA RONSON, JEROME DUBOZ AND PHILIP ALBERSTAT.

All indie agents will tell you that what gets you through their door is the quality of your script, plus some kind of validation from a trusted professional — be it talent, an attorney, a veteran producer or another agent within their agency. “We rarely take on a script without some attachment,” says William Morris Independent co-head Cassian Elwes. “Ninety-eight percent of the projects we work on already have directors or a star involved.” Adds UTA’s indie division co-head Jeremy Barber, “The single most important thing is not to overstate what you have.” In other words, if Charlize Theron isn’t firmly attached, don’t insinuate that she is. Also, if you’ve written a good script, it doesn’t necessarily make you a filmmaker. “It’s incredible how many people think they are a filmmaker without having done a short,” says UTA’s other indie co-head Rich Klubeck, a former executive at Jersey Films with producing credits including Garden State. “It’s easy to get us to watch shorts. We watch them all day long.”

These may seem like basics, but all agents polled can’t stress these points enough. “It’s like how every level of Hollywood functions — it’s a personal relationship business,” says ICM packager Shaun Redick. “We all get massive amounts of query letters on e-mail saying, I’ve got this great script... We delete them as if they’re spam.” He urges those who want to cut through the clutter to get their project submitted by “somebody we know, somebody whose taste is meaningful to our business.” When Robin Wright Penn came to her agents at CAA with the script for Sorry, Haters, says Iwashina, “we all read it and fell in love with it,” and eventually got InDigEnt to bankroll the film.

ICM’S HAL SADOFF.

From small, digitally shot projects to studio-level films, most agencies say they’ll look a wide range of budget levels. WMI co-heads Rena Ronson and Elwes, a team since 1998, have made distribution deals for completed films with budgets as low as $100,000, but when it comes to raising financing for projects, they prefer not to work on “anything less than $1 million, unless it’s totally non-union.” “Bigger-budget projects are maybe easier in some ways because they can support a bigger cast,” admits Bocco, “but it’s not so much about the budget as it is about matchmaking. I take a more in-house producer’s approach to it. I can because I’m at a smaller agency.”

ICM’s indie division chief Hal Sadoff, who hails from the banking and finance world, says he prefers a minimum budget of $5 million when it comes to putting together financing for a film. “It’s about time management and resources.”

UTA’S RICH KLUBECK AND JEREMY BARBER.

Elwes, who notes that WMI worked on 32 films last year, adds, “We have to assess what the risk/rewards are, what to spend our time on and how we bring prestige to our agency and clients.”

A-lister stronghold CAA, which one would presume might scoff at the little pictures, also is open to a range of projects. “We can finance and package at any budget level,” says indie team member Roeg Sutherland, citing films financed from $300,000 and up, and from documentaries to multimillion-dollar features. Among the recent docs CAA has helped finance are Sundance competitor The World According to Sesame Street and a lottery doc to be made by Spellbound director and CAA client Jeff Blitz. Former Cinetic Media partner Micah Green — who exited attorney John Sloss’s financing and sales company Cinetic last year and moved to Los Angeles to join CAA — adds that another Sundance doc, God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan, was handled by the agency for sales. Plus, he says, CAA helped get client Nicole Kidman on board as narrator.

That brings us to the almighty T word. Can an agency such as CAA promise indies access to their talent? “We can offer the opportunity,” says Sutherland, who notes that the agency’s A-listers “usually won’t read anything unless they have a pay-or-play offer.” And even then, of course, there are no guarantees. “If we get a script to George Clooney, we can’t say what he’ll do until he’s read the project.”

However, having a project vetted and endorsed by an agency’s indie packaging department — which, in CAA’s case, also represents a large number of people able to bankroll production — could make an actor’s rep more disposed to take an indie film seriously, says Green. “Talent agents take comfort in the financing group’s support of the material,” he says. “We can get a movie going versus development.” Conversely, working with a specific agency’s packaging department doesn’t mean you can only work within that stable. ICM’s Sadoff, among other indie agents, says he wouldn’t limit the projects he helps package to his agency’s clients.

Of course, stacking a project with multiple agency clients does mean more opportunities for the agency to collect more fees. When it comes to the various costs involved in engaging an agency’s services, packagers say that their fees are tailored to the project and don’t vary wildly from agency to agency. The standard 10 percent is charged on commissionable elements (writer, director, actors who are clients) as well as a packaging fee if the film was financed with the help of the agency. Packaging fees are generally calculated at a small percent of the budget (1 to 2 percent) with a floor. Agencies normally represent films they package — as well as select completed films — for domestic distribution and place them with a foreign sales agent, if necessary. The sales fee, a percentage of the sale price, can vary depending on the type of film and the rep. While several years ago sales fees hovered well under 10 percent, that figure is now considered pretty standard. Some agencies admit to charging less than 10 percent, and some have asked for more, particularly when selling documentaries where the minimum guarantee might be lower than that of a narrative feature. Says CAA’s Green, “We can’t talk about specific fees, but they’re not onerous. We take a long-term approach in terms of fees and picking material to work on. We want to make sure that investors keep returning to the table.”

“I’m not interested in setting up financing so people can just collect fees,” adds Endeavor’s independent packaging agent, Graham Taylor. “It’s about the artists owning their films and truly benefiting when the films work. People have the misperception that packaging is only about attaching talent and finding financing. It’s a much lengthier process. It’s about development and taking it all the way through ancillary markets. Even on the indie side, you have to be connected to the marketing and distribution for the life of the film.” Taylor says he tries to build possible sequels, TV applications, stage adaptations, game and mobile content options into deals. “We’re not myopic about packaging,” he says. “I’m more interested in what works creatively for the filmmakers. We combine our clients with other agencies’ clients. I think I push that more than others. I try not to be precious about it; I’d just like to see more films get made.”

AGENCY

INDIE AGENTS

RECENT CREDITS

CREATIVE ARTISTS AGENCY
9830 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, California 90212-1825
Phone: (310) 288-4545 Fax: (310) 288-4800

Micah Green, Rick Hess, Kevin Iwashina, Emanuel Nunez, John Ptak, Roeg Sutherland, Bart Walker

Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, The New World, Lord of War

ENDEAVOR
9601 Wilshire Blvd., 3rd Floor, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Phone: (310) 248-2000 Fax: (310) 248-2020

Graham Taylor, Modi Wiczyk

The Air I Breathe, The Good Night, The Flock, Stephanie Daley, Harsh Times, Nine Lives, Down in the Valley, Be With You, Babel

THE GERSH AGENCY
41 Madison Ave., 33rd floor, New York, NY 10010
Phone: (212) 997-1818 Fax: (212) 997-1978
232 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Phone: (310) 274-6611 Fax: (310) 274-4035

Arianna Bocco

Alone With Her

INTERNATIONAL CREATIVE MANAGEMENT
8942 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Phone: (310) 550-4000
40 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019
Tel: 212-556-5600

Hal Sadoff, Shaun Redick

Flyboys, It’s a Boy Girl Thing, Danika, Last Time, Unknown, You Kill Me, Fragile, TV Junkie

UNITED TALENT AGENCY
9560 Wilshire Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Phone: (310) 273-6700
Fax: (310) 247-1111
Email: indiefilm@unitedtalent.com

Rich Klubeck, Jeremy Barber, Stuart Manashil

Friends With Money, Right at Your Door, Science of Sleep, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, The Night Listener, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Thumbsucker, Factotum

WILLIAM MORRIS AGENCY
151 El Camino Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Phone: (310) 859-4000 Fax: (310) 859-4462

Cassian Elwes, Rena Ronson, Jerome Duboz, Philip Alberstat

Thank You For Smoking, 16 Blocks, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Hard Candy, Bobby, Half Nelson



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