Everyone knows that Star Power drives the film industry. And, if you've ever tried to sell or distribute a film, you'll be familiar with the oft-asked question of "who's in it?" If your answer includes explaining who your lead actors are, and the small parts they played in big films ten+ years ago, then chances are you've been rejected because your film lacks Star Power.
When working on a low budget, it can be difficult to overcome the star hurdle. But let me suggest my own method that has worked well in the past. The secret is to start casting early.
Many actors work for a paycheck. Others are more professional, and are more interested in the role they are taking and the direction it will push their acting career. But all actors want to be cast in roles. Take a look on IMDB. Actors do maybe two, maybe three, and rarely four films a year. And most of those are not lead roles. Consider an average work time of one month on a film (two months for a leading role, 1-2 weeks on a minor role). That means an actor works maybe three months of the year. They would like to be cast in more films. Making offers to name actors, even very low-budget offers, will, eventually, yield results.
Make one offer a week (making an offer means sending the actor's agent an offer letter which includes the dates of the shoot, the role being offered, the amount you'll pay them...). Tell them they only have a week to decide. When they pass on it, immediately make the next offer. Start with the biggest names on your list, and move down. Eventually, someone will probably engage in a discussion and take the role. You do have to offer money, but different actors with the same Star Power will take very different pay levels, depending on how much they want to act in more films (it's hard to get roles, and many actors just want to be in more films) and how much they take personally to the role being offered.
At some point down your list, an actor will fit the combination of traits that you've been waiting for. They don't care about the money, they just want a role that will get them started in the kind of roles they're hoping to land on a bigger film (Mila Kunis took a role in our film Moving McAllister because she wanted to get into romantic comedy leading roles as That 70's Show was winding down). They like the script, for some reason. They have an open schedule and nothing to do for the next few months, and they are ready to act in a leading role, even in a small indie production... when this combination happens, an actor will take a role for surprisingly little money up front.
You can't responsibly offer to more than one actor at a time. Agents hate that (and it's a small world, word gets around about your project), and you need to give them a "first position" offer each on the role, i.e., if the agent takes the effort to have the actor read the script and make a decision, there had better be no one else ahead of them in line. That's why you do one a week, it allows you to give each a first position, one at a time.
Low-budget producers often wait to cast a film until the month or two before the film goes into production. Recognize that this inevitably results in a decreased chance of getting anyone worthwhile. Start casting early, and one day you'll be pleasantly surprised by an actor saying 'yes'.
Later this week, I'll suggest another option if you're dead set against Stars in your film, or if your budget is so low you can't even offer the $20K or so that you need to even get the agent to read the offer!
There are other forms of Star Power... follow this blog and check my post later this week.