How Sundance Stars Are Taking New Paths and Mediums to Success

Ben Whishaw is on the biggest winning streak of his nearly quarter-century film career.

The versatile British actor won a Gotham Award for BBC/AMC+ limited series “This Is Going to Hurt,” earned Indie Spirit and National Board of Review honors for his ensemble work in “Women Talking” and stars in two new Sundance films: the dark comedy “Bad Behaviour” with Jennifer Connelly and the romantic drama “Passages.”

“One of the deep pleasures of being an actor is that you get to move between different mediums. That it’s possible in the way it is now is just so wonderful,” says Whishaw, who won Sundance’s world cinema dramatic special jury award for acting with his 2020 drama “Surge.” “Each one offers a slightly different challenge. Watching films is my favorite thing, but making a TV show is so much fun because [you have] more time to explore a character. There’s a richness that you don’t often quite feel making a film. It’s wonderful now that there’s not so much snobbery, [or] a clear hierarchy. People will go wherever the good writing, directors and actors are.”

A closer look at Whishaw’s triumphs reveals the circuitous path many stars are now taking to success. It raises questions about the role of indie films role in getting them there when they can find equal acclaim, a wider audience and — sometimes — better pay from prestige fare in other mediums. The new choices they’re making may impact the future of Sundance films, which can live or die by the stars that help them get funded and seen.

“A lot of actors right now are much more independent and entrepreneurial, so they want to take risks, support innovative voices, become producers and help [projects] exist,” says Picturestart founder/CEO Erik Feig.

“It used to be that if someone was going to do an independent movie, that actor or their representative would say, ‘I need to know that this is set up at a bona fide studio, or this offer has to be at this metric, or forget it,’” Feig says. “But right now, in general, talent will say: ‘OK, you’re gonna sell it later? Fine, we’ll take a chance on that.’ Or, ‘You’re only paying scale, or only doing [a SAG-AFTRA] Schedule F [contract] on this one? OK, just as long as I know that I have a piece of the upside’ if there’s an interesting, creative talent behind it. That definitely has changed over the past couple of years.”

For stars without producer credits, or projects with limited budgets that don’t allow them to negotiate above SAG-AFTRA minimums, the choice of mediums can get more complicated. SAG-AFTRA’s Schedule F contract guarantees actors with starring or large supporting roles in many low-budget theatrical films at least $65,000 per project. Performers seeking a wider audience on many low-budget, high-quality limited series earn at least $4,650 per week, or a minimum $40,000 per series. But if they’re lucky enough to land a major role on a high-budget TV or SVOD limited series [with a budget of at least $1.3 million per half-hour episode, $2.5 million per one-hour episode or $3 million for long-form content], they’ll earn at least $32,000 per episode with overtime or $40,000 per episode without it under Schedule F.

Some actors who’ve joined non-limited premium cable or streaming series complain that they have the worst of both worlds: modest pay, and an inability to book other projects during long hiatuses due to exclusivity clauses. There’s some progress being made on this front: SAG-AFTRA recently negotiated new option and exclusivity provisions with Netflix for actors making under $65,000 per episode for half-hour episodes, or $70,000 per episode for hour-long ones. (These exclusivity thresholds and provisions are the same for all Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers [AMPTP] companies, except for the option language and other issues with children’s programming involving the AMPTP).

“Fresh Off the Boat” star Randall Park, who has a brief cameo in his feature directorial debut, the U.S. Dramatic Competition comedy “Shortcomings” (premiering Jan. 22), is another actor who segues between mediums with ease. On Netflix, he co-wrote, produced and starred in the great 2019 romcom “Always Be My Maybe,” and produced and starred in the 2022 series “Blockbuster.” He also appears in the bigger-budget Disney+/Marvel series “WandaVision” and Warner Bros./DC’s upcoming sequel “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.” He juggles all of this while running his production co., Imminent Collision, which has a first-look deal with Universal TV and focuses on Asian-American and Pacific Islander comedies.

How does he prioritize which projects and mediums to work in? “It’s tough for me. I still have a working actor mentality, because I’ve been at it for so long and struggling for so long that I see the value in any kind of opportunity,” Park says. “Every job seems appealing in some way, so it’s tough to turn anything down. It’s really a gut feeling. A lot of times, it’s based on the people that I get to work with, or that I might be able to work with. If it feels like it’s going to be a rewarding experience, then I’m down to try it.”

An actor’s ability to get prominent prizes for theatrical films versus series work is also evening out. Since the Indie Spirits launched awards for best male, female and ensemble performances in a new scripted series in 2020 (updated to gender-neutral best lead, supporting and ensemble this year), and the Gothams began honoring the outstanding performance in a new series in 2021, the lines between acclaim for film and TV performances have blurred. Whishaw’s recent Gotham Award for “Hurt” came on the heels of his 2019 Emmy, BAFTA and Critics Choice awards for another one: BBC/Amazon Prime’s “A Very English Scandal.”

The importance of stars backing indie films, for dealmakers at least, shouldn’t be underestimated. In an unusual move, Jennifer Connelly and Whishaw have same-screen “diagonal” (lower left/upper right) executive producer credits on “Behaviour,” something that Whishaw was surprised to hear about from this reporter. “I’m not even sure I knew I was an executive producer on this one,” he laughs. “Sometimes I don’t read the emails properly. I was just very supportive of the whole thing for a few years [and] didn’t really do much more than that. I think [the EP credit is] them being sort of kind.

“The first time it happened was on ‘This Is Going to Hurt.’ I didn’t know I was an executive producer until I got to work one day, looked at the [script] sides and there was my name alongside bunch of other people — and I was like, ‘Oh, fuck,’” Whishaw laughs. “I called my agent and said, ‘What does this mean?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, you aren’t going to have to do anything extra to fulfill that role. It maybe helps them a bit in the process of getting the whole thing made.’”

Kindness is also a reason some stars join indie films, whether to support emerging talent, industry pals or both. The World Cinema Dramatic Competition entry “Behaviour,” premiering Jan. 21, follows a former child star (Connelly) on her rocky road to enlightenment with a spiritual guru (Whishaw). It came to Whishaw through a friend, first-time feature writer/director and star Alice Englert. “I’ve known Alice since she was 12 or 13 when I was working with her mom [Jane Campion] on [2009’s] ‘Bright Star,’” he recalls. “She even lived with me for a while in London, and I’d been in a short film of hers. When she sent me this script, I thought it was fantastic. It made me laugh so much.” 

Whishaw joined the bisexual relationship drama “Passages,” a Premieres entry debuting Jan. 23, after telling director/co-writer Ira Sachs he’d like to work with him. “He’s such a subtle, insightful observer of people, relationships and intimacy.” (Sales for “Behaviour” are repped by CAA/Verve and Protagonist; “Passages” is repped by SBS/WME.)

Actors are also creating their own short films to develop as potential features. Picturestart’s Feig says it was an actor (Molly Gordon) and a fellow producer (Gloria Sanchez Prods.’ Jessica Elbaum) on his other 2022 Sundance sale title, “Am I OK?,” who brought him the short that became Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s new U.S. Dramatic Competition comedy, “Theater Camp.”

“Molly, Nick, Ben [Platt] and Noah [Galvin] made the short,” Feig says. “They [invented] characters that they’d go on to play in the feature we made: comically passionate theater teachers.” During development, a 65-page script/treatment, or “script-ment,” was created as the basis for the partly improvised project. The four stars became the film’s credited screenwriters, and are now among the 11 producers of the project. They stand to gain from a big festival sale, another way actors can use an indie film to bet on themselves for a larger payday. (It debuts Jan. 21, and is repped by WME.)

Of course, all of these unconventional roads to success reflect a lack of prestige projects that showcase talents and pay well at major studios. The days when studio dramas like 1978’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” or 1983’s “Terms of Endearment” could win best picture, actor and actress Oscars and become the No. 1 and No. 2 top grossing films of the year, respectively, are long gone. With the potential for a strike as WGA contracts expire in May and DGA and SAG-AFTRA contracts expire at the end of June, many are now happy to book work in any medium.

And unless he’s giving another award-worthy performance, Whishaw seems fairly uninterested in any career machinations involving the business side of his field. “For an actor, it’s different making an independent film because, generally speaking, people are basically working for nothing,” he says. “What you gain from that is freedom. I really felt that on both of these [Sundance] films, they were exactly as the directors wished them to be. That kind of freedom is just heavenly.”

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