When considering what films to make, producers have to make critical choices about selecting the genre, plot and the characters. Due to marketing and financing considerations, it often comes down to a choice between betting on a genre specific project such as a thriller, scifi, action or horror movie, without any recognizable stars in it, or going with a bankable movie star and/or director. So, do you bet on the horse (genre+plot+script) or the jockey (highly recognizable actor)?
Distributors can sometimes establish a market value for genre films before they are completed, thus making the likelihood for pre-sales far greater than ‘execution-dependent’ films. It is more difficult to assess the audience appeal of execution-dependent films based on the concept alone, as their success is contingent upon a number of unpredictable factors, such as reviews and release timing. Such films have historically achieved lower pre-sales as the market tends to wait and see the finished product; hence, the need to rely on bankable stars and/or a name director to promote these films at the markets.
Unfortunately, this has also resulted in a glut of low-budget, genre driven movies; so much so that the distributors/foreign sales agents are now starting to reject these projects unless they also have a movie star attached in a lead role. No longer will Eric Roberts or Gary Busey fit the bill. An oversupply of low budget films has pushed down demand and allowed the international buyers to be more selective.
I would have to also add that the person who bets on the horse and jockey also needs to consider what kinds of race they are running. Is it a steeplechase, quarter horse, or thoroughbred race? Different races call for different kinds of horses and jockeys. The bottom line is that money can be made in each kind of race, if you know what you're doing.1
Such is film. The films sold at Cannes are vastly different from those sold at Fantastic Fest. Direct to video horror movies may surpass an Oscar nominee with a small theatrical release in earnings. An Oscar winner may outpace the summer blockbuster over years of VOD and TV deals. It's all relative as long as you position yourself well in the race of your choosing. No matter what race you run, make sure you know what you are getting into. That way you can increase your chances of winning every time.1
Investors often see genre driven films as low risk, quick turnaround opportunities, but they are also drawn to the higher quality projects with internationally bankable stars and directors with an attractive risk/return profile. Everything depends on the distribution that the producers can line up.
So, do you bet on the horse or the jockey? Increasingly, the answer is both. Just like in horse racing, the handicappers are putting their money down on the combination of the two and comparing that to all the other horses and jockeys in the field.
Today, filmmakers run the risk of making that $250,000 scifi thriller, without finding any sales agent that will take it. It’s kind of like building a mansion out of cardboard, just because you could do it, does it mean that you should? That does not mean that a $100 million high concept film starring Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman is a sure bet either, just look at what a disaster Transcendence was for Warner Bros. As Mark Lágrimas says, “…money can be made in each kind of race, if you know what you're doing.”
1 Contributed by Mark Lágrimas, a former Disney, MGM & CBS film & television analyst. Now an independent filmmaker with Best Served Cold Productions.