How I Made My First Feature Film
CHAPTER FIVE - Trolling for Stars
Since I couldn’t afford to hire a real casting director, I started developing a list of stars for the male lead, “Casey.” I’d write their names down on 3 x 5 cards and put them on a bulletin board. Then, I’d call SAG, ask for the representation department and find out which talent agency they were with. SAG would only allow me 3 requests at a time, so I’d disguise my voice and call back again. The answers I’d get were predictable: International Creative Management (ICM), The William Morris Agency, and what was to later become the Creative Artists Agency (CAA). The “Big Three” talent agencies controlled 99.9% of the “name” stars in Hollywood. As I soon learned, they’re not just the artist’s representatives, but more like Hollywood gatekeepers, unfailingly devoted to keeping insignificant filmmakers like me out.
Until you’ve actually tried, you have no idea how insulting and imperious some of these agents can be. Ego’s the size of Texas and as foul-mouthed as a drunken sailor - even the women. If I was lucky enough to get by the bitchy secretary, the agent would usually just hang up on me. Years later I developed a good understanding of the mysterious inner workings at the talent agencies, but I didn’t know that at the time. If you want the agent of a big star to pay attention, you must have one of two things they want: A “deal” with a major distributor, or several million dollars in a bank account. If you’re one of the few who has a studio deal, chances are the agent already knows about it (or they may have already called YOU). Or, if you’ve got millions of dollars salted away in a bank account somewhere, be prepared to prove it. Believe me, they will call the bank. Like Las Vegas, they want you to prove you’ve got what it takes to buy in before you can sit at the table. This shouldn’t seem unusual since it’s all a big gamble to start with. Sometimes, even millions of dollars is not enough. People have been trying to buy their way into Hollywood for years - always with disastrous results. The star you’d like won’t even read your script until you’ve made an iron-clad, "pay-or-play" offer in writing for their services.
Hollywood agents are not just sharks, they’re Great White Sharks. You may have to work with them, but never, ever, trust them. If they see an opening or a weak spot they WILL go for it.
Most people who make feature films know somebody at a major studio even if it’s an intern in the mail room or the guard at the gate. But I didn’t know anyone! Sometimes I would read about a major studio executive in one of the trade papers and send them a copy of the script. Every time I did this, the script would be returned with a letter saying, “Unfortunately we cannot accept unsolicited scripts.” (Years later, after one of my films got a flattering review in the trade papers, they started calling me.) The Hollywood studio rule is, they’ll call you but you shouldn’t call them. The talent agencies follow the same rule. Hollywood is an exclusive country club where they only discriminate against people they don’t already know. The few people I did get a chance to talk with always said nobody would take a chance with someone’s “first feature.” Later on that was amended to, “It’s only his second…or third, etc.” See?
With no studio deal and no money I was once again dead in the water. Hell, I expected it, I was getting used to it in a strange way. The fact was, I was trolling for a big fish but I had no bait on my hook.
So one day I’m walking down the sidewalk in my hometown of Santa Barbara looking for the next magic matchbook. I bumped into “Bob,” the handyman/manager of the building where I’d rented my small office. At first I assume he’s going to ask me about the back rent I owe him. Instead, he asked how the movie project was going. I told him about how difficult it is for a nobody to find a big star these days. Although big time producers like me weren’t in the habit of soliciting casting suggestions from handymen, Bob said, “You know who I really like? Timothy Bottoms.”
At the time, Timothy Bottoms was the well known star of “The Last Picture Show,” “The Paper Chase,” “The Other Side of the Mountain,” etc. He’d even been nominated for a Golden Globe for his acting in Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.” In fact, Timothy Bottoms was already on my list. I told Bob that he was represented by the William Morris Agency which meant he was untouchable.
Thanks to Bob, I got the big break I needed. Turns out that Timothy Bottoms was born in Santa Barbara and still lived there. Bob got me Timothy’s home phone number from a friend and the next day we’re having lunch at MacDonald’s! Timothy loved the script and told his handlers at the mighty William Morris agency to make the deal. A week later I drove home from Beverly Hills with a real star’s signature on a contract. Cool, huh?
Next Article: How I Made My First Feature Film - Chapter Six (Raising the Money)
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