Letters of Intent: Don’t Trust, and Verify

A star may intend to participate in your project, but don’t rely on a letter of intent to prove it

Last Updated: March 15, 2010 @ 6:18 PM

There really is no benefit to seeking letters of intent from actors (or their reps). Producers hate asking for them, reps hate writing them and financiers ignore them. They’re usually out of date. They’re not binding, nor are they conditional to anything that’s relevant. And yet, they still rampantly persist within indie producing and packaging.

PRODUCER: Hey Jeff, I’ve got a great project with Hugh Jackman attached.

JEFF: Sounds good — who can I call to confirm his attachment?

PRODUCER: I’ve already taken care of that for you. Here’s a letter of intent from his manager.

JEFF: Hmm, how old is this? There’s no date on it.

PRODUCER: Not that long ago, and besides, the point is Jackman is VERY interested in my script.

JEFF: You don’t need a letter of intent for that.

PRODUCER: Why not? I don’t understand.

Actors are paid to act; any agent can tell you that the script is the least important part to them. When it comes to the principal cast (upon which the sales and financing are predicated), unless I can call the agent or manager directly myself and verify, there is no real attachment. The exception being a Spielberg or a Scorsese, whose stature in the industry could reasonably facilitate any star interest.

I had a project recently where the director was lifelong friends with a breakout star, who had committed to doing the film. The agency was noncommittal. Why? Because the agency didn’t want to tie up a month of the actor’s time for a measly million bucks, when they could be getting 5-10x that from a studio for the same timeslot. A lot of money and time was spent pre-selling territories and shoring up the financing, only to have the star drop out, under CAA’s (er, I mean a random agency’s) pressure.

I also had a project that was set up via a star’s producing partner, which is a slightly safer bet, but still not definitive. However, when a co-financier to whom I had sent it called the agent to confirm, the agency denied it and ultimately killed the deal.

Agencies and management companies can wield tremendous influence and pressure over celebrities, who in most cases are insecure about their careers.

I completely understand the smoke-and-mirrors dance producers have to perform to bring all sides to the middle, but when it comes to key talent attachments, if it’s not verifiable, it doesn’t exist.

Bottom line, ditch the letters and let us pick up the phone and verify Mr. Jackman.

Jeff Steele is a noted film finance expert and owns the website FilmClosings.com.  Most recently, Jeff was CFO of Magnet Media Group, an equity finance, production, and distribution fund for $10 million - $50 million feature films.  Before that, Jeff was the director of film finance for Screen Capital International and a producer for Sony Classics' "Who Killed the Electric Car?"