February 23, 2023

Do You Need a Star to Sell Your Film?

Chris Cullari
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Of all the tools a film producer can utilize to get butts in seats, the movie star is traditionally the most powerful. A star’s power to hold the screen; to make audiences feel for the characters they play is more valuable than any plot twist or special effect. There’s a reason the idea of making a film without a movie star was unthinkable for nearly a century.

But that’s all started to change.

On the studio side, the rise of IP (intellectual property - think Marvel, DC, Star Wars, etc.) has changed the relationship of audiences to the stars on screen. They might like Chris Pine, but they love Captain America. This, combined with independent films being produced smaller, faster, and cheaper than ever before, has changed the movie star game. 

Starting with the indie boom of the '90s (think Pulp Fiction) and holding strong today (with films like Skinamarink), independent directors and producers have found a myriad of ways to make films with or without star power at the center. 

But which direction is right for your next film? Does your indie film need a movie star to get your movie made? To sell it? To find an audience?

You might be surprised by the answer.

How a movie star can help you finance your film

The first way a movie star can help your film is financing. 

Unless you’re one of those unicorn producers already working with financing in place (in which case, what are you waiting for? Go make your movie!), you’ll probably need to find what are called “attachments” before someone will cut a check.

These attachments come in many forms, most often a big name director or a movie star with a proven track record at the box office. One or both of these goes a long way to reassuring investors that they will make their money back when the film is completed. 

Potential financiers may present you with a list of indie film movie stars they’ve calculated will make their investment worth it. These names and numbers are usually based on the way certain stars’ films have performed in the past. 

Sometimes, these lists might even be based on how much the investor knows they can get by selling stars’ movies overseas. This is a practice known as pre-sales, and is a common way of financing indie films with a movie star. 

It works like this: a financier or distribution company knows that by approaching overseas distributors with a movie featuring Star X in the lead, those distributors will pay Amount Y. They add up the value of all those deals to find out how much money they are guaranteed to make back when the film is finished - and that number often becomes the basis for your film’s budget. Star power at work!

Considerations like these are why an investor’s financial interest usually varies based on the size of the movie star you can attach. If you get Robert Downey Jr., they may be willing to make the 40 million dollar version of your film. If you get Cuba Gooding Jr. they might only be interested in making the 5 million dollar version. 

It’s important to remember that while these conversations about an indie film movie star’s worth might be artistically frustrating, they are a necessary part of the business calculations. 

The numbers are divorced from how you might perceive a movie star’s talent or appropriateness for the role. They speak only to what kind of return on their investment a financier might be able to expect. 

Even disregarding pre-sales, it can still be advantageous to find a movie star during this financing stage. Their presence may not only increase the chances of a film’s success in the future, but the glamor of working with a star can act as a lure for investors. 

Who doesn’t want to take meetings with movie stars? Who doesn’t want to brag to their friends that they’re financing a movie star’s next picture? 

(No one. The answer is no one.)

How a movie star can help you sell your film

What is star power in a film for if not to catch the attention of audiences around the world?

Here’s the part where it can really pay off. 

Hitting the festival circuit

It’s hard to get into major festivals (though our guide on how to crush your festival run can help with that), and it can be highly advantageous to have a star who drums up excitement around your film. Not only will a big name catch programmers’ attention, but it could pay huge dividends if the star is open to traveling to the festival. 

Whether it’s for an official Q&A or a meet and greet built into the film festival schedule, organizers are always looking for ways to draw more people to their event.  

If you’re able to use your film’s star power to kick down the doors of major festivals and land good reviews right out of the gate, it’s all the more likely that domestic and international distributors will come calling and you might make a sale before the curtains close.

Your film’s star power can kick down the doors of major festivals and land great reviews right out of the gate. It makes it all the more likely that domestic and international distributors will come calling.

You might even make a sale before the curtains close.

Going straight to market

Let’s say you have an exciting festival run, but sales agents and distributors don’t come calling. Or maybe you’ve decided the festival route isn’t for you. Either way, it’s time to take your film directly to buyers. And good news: casting your indie film with a movie star gives you an advantage! 

Their name and face on the poster often translates into money. How much may fluctuate depending on the star, but if you walk into the American Film Market trumpeting an indie film movie star, you might find yourself walking out with a deal. (Especially if you’ve read our guide on how to make the most of AFM!)

Stateside, star power can help your film sell to streamers who know which stars are popular on their service, and internationally, distributors are always looking to feed audiences hungry for American movie stars. 

Speak to the fans

Ultimately, whether your film is pre-sold, picked up at festivals or at market, or if you decide to release it yourself, you’ll learn what star power in a film is when their fans show up. This is the whole reason stars wield such power: they draw in paying customers. 

Though casting an indie film with a movie star is no substitute for a 100 million dollar national ad spend, access to their fans - especially in the age of social media - is a huge plus.

It’s common for the distributor or their PR team to set up press for a star when your movie comes out, but - depending on your relationship - don’t be afraid to ask your star if they’re comfortable doing more. Are they willing to post behind the scenes photos on social media? Links to rent or buy the finished film? Or sign a script to give away as a prize to ticket buying fans? 

Whatever you decide, remember that the star power that results from casting your indie film with a movie star is one of the most effective tools you have to sell tickets. 

Use it!

When you might not want a movie star in your film

What is star power in film? It’s a hook, it’s enticing. It’s an image for your key art. It’s something to raise eyebrows and make someone click “rent” on Amazon. But it isn’t always necessary. 

There are multiple reasons you may not want a movie star in your film. Some of these are creative reasons, and some are financial, but they are all important elements to consider.

Seize creative freedom

The reality is that an indie film and a movie star might not always be the best match. The bigger the name, the more power they wield - and not just in the marketplace. 

A big star can make life on set difficult if they don’t see eye to eye with the producers and director. It doesn’t mean they will, but it’s a risk that should be understood before moving forward.

And being difficult doesn’t mean being a diva! It could just mean a difference of opinion on how an actor is playing a role, or even a scene. If the money financing the film is dependent on the star’s participation, they have a lot more power to put their foot down.

It’s also possible that a movie star of note may ask for approval over the casting of other key roles in the film - something that will further shift the power in their favor. 

Save money

It’s also important to remember that indie film movie stars cost money. Movie stars are a double edged sword: they attract money, but they’ll also eat up a big chunk of that budget. A recent indie film with a movie star cost about 2 million dollars - but half of that went to one line item: its big ticket star. 

There are hidden costs of working with an actor of blockbuster caliber, too. They may demand perks in their contracts, special meals, or expensive lodging. None of those costs contribute to what’s on screen, and you may find that money is better spent elsewhere. 

Consider your genre

Depending on your film, you may have a way around needing to cast your indie film with a movie star. 

Genre films - like action, sci-fi, and horror - often rely on their thrilling, futuristic, or horrifying elements to get people interested in watching the movie. Take a film like “Smile,” for instance. While that was a film produced within the studio system, the producers knew they didn’t need a recognizable lead because the creepy smile was the star!

Or take the aforementioned Skinamarink - a horror movie so evocative and strange it created buzz without a monster ever even appearing on screen. 

In cases such as these, stars only move the needle with audiences so much. In fact, it’s possible that casting your indie film with a movie star could detract from the feelings of excitement or terror you want an audience to feel. Imagine if the leads of The Blair Witch Project were Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Not quite the same movie, is it?

Even without star power, these kinds of films are also popular internationally because audiences want to see the explosions, spaceships, and monsters promised on the posters. 

Wrapping Up

Since as far back as the 1990s, indie films and movie stars have gone hand in hand. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: small films get the attention of a big star’s fans and their built in financing power, while the stars get the opportunity to stretch their creative muscles. 

If you’ve ever wondered “What is star power in film?” wonder no more. It’s the ability to get your movie made. It’s the ability to sell to audiences who will be thrilled to see what their favorite star is up to next. 

Who knows? If you’re smart and you cast the right star, you might be one of the next low budget films to make millions!

Last Updated 
February 23, 2023


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Chris Cullari

Chris Cullari is a writer/director based out of Los Angeles. His most recent film, THE AVIARY, is available for streaming on Paramount Plus and Showtime. You can find him tweeting about monsters, pro-wrestling, and horror movies.

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