Of Posters and Agents

In March 2013, I attended a Q&A with Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who’d just won an Oscar for writing The Descendants. When I asked them how an indie filmmaker could get a script considered by recognizable actors, Rash (aka the dean on Community) told me, apologetically, that you really need to know someone who can circumvent the system and get it directly into their hands. That wasn’t an option for me, but as I drove home, I decided to be optimistic. Yet I also knew I had to be realistic, and reconciling those two impulses would drive much of my spring.

For months, Cam and Dave and I had brainstormed dream stars. It helped us refine what “types” we were looking for, and though I knew Rash was right, that we had a slim chance of rising to the top of the piles of scripts considered by name actors, we needed to at least reach out to their representatives, to say we’d tried. But we weren’t sure how to sell our film to talent who could just as easily get a better paycheck elsewhere. A recognizable face on our poster would be a massive boon to our fortunes, and we needed to prove our film could be one to theirs, too.

The dearth of sweeping epic microbudget indies was a selling point, and we hoped that would be enough to get someone interested in cracking the script. But we also knew we’d need to hook people more quickly than my impassioned executive summary could. And that’s when we landed on the idea of a teaser poster, something to instantly convey what this movie was, and make you want to read on.

My search for an artist brought me to DesignCrowd, an amazing site for a situation like ours. I put up an ad seeking a poster of a car driving by a sunset desert, and I gave artists ten days to submit designs, with the promise that the winner would get $300. All I hoped was that maybe we’d get one great design ten days. If not, I was only out a few hundred bucks.

But the first design I got was stunning—Struzan-esque, saying with one image everything I’d tried to convey with 90 pages of text. We finished the submission period, gathering many other fantastic options, but the contest was over on day one.

We narrowed down our list of dream actors—we weren’t shooting for Jennifer Lawrence, just people who might cue the “Hey, it’s that guy/girl” response—and I signed up for IMDbPro, which provides contact information for actors’ representatives. I called their offices, connected with the representatives’ assistants, and mailed the packages with appropriate c/o on the front.

We knew it was a long shot, but I think there’s value in realistic optimism. We weren’t expecting rabid interest from every one of these actors, but in sending the packages, we were declaring that our project was worth these people’s attention. And, we told ourselves, someone would at least want to talk more.

A few weeks later, I started to get my packages back. Every single agency sent the same form letter: We don’t consider unsolicited projects, and we’re returning your materials unopened. It was a gut-punch. To put all that effort into our materials and send them across the country, only to have them come back to me without ever having crossed another person’s eyeline, was incredibly defeating.

A quick Google search put it in context. Agencies get so many of these packages that odds are one of them will look like a project they’re developing (“I’ve got an idea for a movie about two people falling in love, but get this…they’re mismatched!”) and they’re opening themselves up to all kinds of frivolous and time-consuming lawsuits if they even glance at my project. So I understood, but it was certainly put a ding in my realistic optimism.

But it didn't take long for us to realize the thrilling upside: we’d be heading into the frontier, finding new talent. Having convinced ourselves we were making a movie with roles recognizable actors would be interested in, we now got the pleasure of giving those roles to people who hadn’t been recognized yet. We were going to discover a couple of stars. Check back next week to meet them with us…