7 Tips for Celebrity Acquisition

Choosing a celebrity to sell products and services is an advertising given that predates electronic or cinematic broadcast in all its forms.

At the end of the Civil War, Gen. Robert E. Lee was broke but was a household legend nationwide and practically a god in the defeated South. He was approached by a consortium of businessmen to lend his name to all sorts of ventures in return for cash. He accepted only one of those offers, that of a college presidency. He thought it immoral to sell just his name without performing any meaningful services. How times have changed!

Celebrities sell. It’s axiomatic in the DRTV industry, as it is with general spot network commercials. The stars are paid huge amounts of money because they sell huge amounts of product.

Celebrity acquisition to sell a product via infomercials is an art form in and of itself. Jack Elam, a well-known Hollywood wall-eyed villain for years before turning his talents to comedy in westerns, said there were four stages to an actor’s celebrity. Producers first asked, “Who is Jack Elam?” Then, “Get me Jack Elam,” proceeding to “Get me a Jack Elam type.” And finally, “Who is Jack Elam?”

Fame comes and goes full circle in fairly short order for many types of celebrities. Knowing when or at what stage of their celebrity to acquire them and matching them to a particular product is part of the art. At the crest of their fame, celebrities are very difficult to obtain for something not directly related to their latest project. They are usually easiest to acquire when they have already peaked or find themselves in the third stage of Jack Elam’s little Hollywood homily. The lucrative offers are no longer pouring in, and their latest series or movie has come a cropper.

Robert Urich – “Spenser for Hire” and “Vegas” – was in that position and went through another, more severe crisis with medical problems on top of his professional one. To date, he has beaten both with help from his infomercial career and stars regularly in prime-time television movies.

I approach the process of celebrity acquisition with a carefully thought-out plan. Here are seven tips that I’ve found work for me:

Work with someone experienced in celebrity acquisition. Hire a broker, someone who knows the Hollywood or sports scene and all the players involved. The broker – for a fee, of course – will hook you up with a list of agents who have famous clients to sell.

Set a budget for your celebrity. If it’s a limited one, the celebrity sometimes can be persuaded to take a chance for a percentage of gross sales, just as they sometimes do in a commercial motion picture.

Many former prime-time television series stars have found new success with infomercials. Judith Light, for example, who starred with Tony Danza in “Who’s the Boss?” now stars in an acne product production and is doing very well with it. Connie Selleca alternates her prime-time movie career with infomercials touting a cornucopia of beauty products.

Normally, however, most middle-rank celebrities can be acquired for a reasonable and affordable guarantee against gross sales on the back end.

Make up a large list of all the celebrities you think may fit the product or service. Be open to all types of stars. Don’t limit yourself to a particular field. Remember, your audience may consider some sports star you’ve never heard of to be far more famous than some soap star your wife is crazy about.

Be sensible, though; if your product is makeup or related to beauty enhancement, listen to your wife. She’s part of your audience demographic.

Then fax your celebrity list to the broker. He will then screen out the ones you may have picked who are not amenable to such offers, who might not like your product or whose price would be beyond all reason.

Narrow the broker’s returned list to 10 names in descending order of preference. The broker thus saves you a lot of wasted time contacting celebrity agents who may not know you or your product and thus would not return your phone calls. However, they do know the broker and his reputation for steering fat infomercial and commercial contracts their way. The broker gives you instant access to the right people, and the fee is money well spent.

Don’t forget, many celebrities come with an entourage of agents and managers. The agent’s (and/or manager’s) cut is most likely to come out of your budget also, so tender your offers carefully. If the agent is not happy with his share, you’re not going to sign his star.

It helps to remember that the agent is not only the celebrity’s rep; he’s also your salesman. The star is going to hear about your deal from the agent first before hearing it from you. The celebrity will almost always follow the agent’s advice in such matters.

Make up signed offers for those on the short list – an offer somewhat below the price you’re willing to pay. Phone them each in turn, in sequence – not all at once obviously – giving each celebrity agent you’ve contacted 24 to 48 hours to accept or reject the signed offer. Most of the time you’ll get a conditional yes, which means they like the product, but the money’s not quite right. Then you negotiate. If the celebrity is high on your short list, you may pay a little more. Then it’s a question of how close you are to your scheduled shoot date as opposed to how badly you may want that particular one.

Put your best offer forward. Don’t nickel-and-dime the agents with a haggling contest. If the money demands of the celebrity are beyond your budget, say, “Thank you very much,” and move on to the next name. Be polite, even if you get off the phone thinking the agent is a money-grubber. Your next project may have a budget that can afford his demands. And his star might be just perfect for the part.

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