Actors have always been a crucial component of indie cinema. Historically, independent film financing was based on foreign and video pre-sales "driven by the presence of washed-up TV actors who could move videoboxes," as Focus CEO James Schamus told me for this Variety article. (paywall protected):
The international marketplace may still be star-driven. As Cross Creek's Brian Oliver, a producer on "Black Swan" and "Ides of March," told me, "The reality is there's a model that you have to put together to make these movies without a studio, and the model requires pre-sales, so none of these movies would have been made had they not had a movie star involved."
But some insiders aren't sure actors ensure anything nowadays.
"At the end of the day, if the movie isn't good, it doesn't matter if it is jammed full of movie stars," said Schamus.
Ted Hope, Schamus' former partner at Good Machine, was even more skeptical. Casting name actors may give the appearance that a project is mitigating risk, "but," said Hope, "tell that to the investors of that Nicolas Cage-Nicole Kidman thriller." (The movie "Trespass" tanked in theaters, grossing only $24,000). "There's no such thing as quantifiable economic indicators -- which is what actors were," he added.
There's no doubt that actors can lend credibility and a level of quality to indie films. You've got to praise thesps like Michelle Williams, Woody Harrelson, Ryan Gosling, Tilda Swinton and others for slumming it on low-budget productions. But then again, you could argue that the demand to cast A-list talent reduces the authenticity of a movie.
Would "Martha Marcy May Marleen" have worked with a more recognizable star in the lead? What if the gay romance "Weekend" had starred two notable celebrities? It's impossible to know the answer, but as indie film has become more of a business, I think it's a question that continues to be worth asking.
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