Negotiate like a movie star

Negotiate like a movie star

Have a lead negotiator, state your terms and remain silent and be prepared to end the negotiations if you can’t get the terms. Finally, all parties have to feel that the arrangement is fair


There comes a time, when the screenplay is ready, the director is on board, and your budget is set, that you must cast your movie star. This leads to the inevitable process of negotiation. There are two principal negotiation styles, and we’ll get to them in a minute, but first, to put this in context, as a consultant in many business sectors, I have learned that negotiating for a movie star is not very much different from negotiating for anything else that is large and important.

Every project has one key element—the element that makes the project a “go” or a “no go.” In other industries, the key element may be a strategic alliance, or a large contract; one significant acquisition or a superior executive; a partnership with a big supplier or a distribution commitment from a major retailer. Key elements all have this in common: they know that they are the key element. The project will not go forward without them, which means they have extraordinary leverage.

Which brings me back to movie stars. By the time you are ready to negotiate with a movie star, several things have already happened: the star has read the script, approved of the director, and indicated that it is time to start a negotiation. All of this has been communicated by the star’s agent, and that’s the first rule: stars do not negotiate for themselves. They always have an intermediary, usually an agent or a lawyer, negotiate on their behalf. This gives the star maximum power—because the agent cannot close the deal, there is always a waiting period from the moment an offer is made and when it is countered or accepted.

Here’s what happens. You get on the phone with the star’s agent. You probably already know the star has a precedential deal, and this is where you start. The agent says: “This is the star’s deal,” and provides the details. Then there is silence. The agent is waiting for you to speak next, and will patiently hold the silence until you do. Why? Because the person who speaks next loses the negotiation.

Perhaps the agent is lying about the star’s previous deals. Perhaps the agent is reaching too high. It does not matter. The person, who speaks after the offer is made, generally loses the major terms of the negotiation because in the silence, there is a contest of wills.

As the negotiation continues, which may take weeks or months, it will usually come down to a few make or break issues. At this moment there is another opportunity for leverage: one party or the other can walk away from the deal. This shows ultimate power—the willingness not to do the deal at all, unless it is on your terms.

If you want to negotiate in your business like you are a movie star, or like your company is a movie star, you can try following these three tactics:

Have someone else be the lead negotiator. That person must come to you for approval, but you do not get into the discussions directly.

State your terms and remain silent. Wait for your counterpart to respond. This shows strength and conviction.

Be prepared to end the negotiations if you can’t get the terms that matter most. Often the only deal you can close is the one you are prepared to walk away from.

If all of this sounds manipulative and Machiavellian, I must confess that most of the time, I do not use this technique. I find it needlessly confrontative. Instead, I prefer to strike deals with partners who wish to do deals with me. I set forth the parameters of the project, and explain, clearly, what the project needs to move forward. This isn’t what I want, and I’m not competing for the Olympic gold medal of deal-making; it is what the project requires. I’m simply trying to get a deal done so we can move on to the fun stuff. The best way to uphold a contract in the long run, in Hollywood and everywhere else, is to have all parties feel the arrangement is fair to begin with.

Adam Leipzig is the CEO of Entertainment Media Partners, an international firm that advises its clients how to get exceptional financial and creative returns and maximise the value and visibility of entertainment content. Adam has produced, supervised and distributed more than 25 movies, which have earned more than US $2 billion in revenue on US $300 million in production investment. He is the publisher of Cultural Weekly, and former president of National Geographic Films and senior executive at Walt Disney Studios.

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