Bidding for Stardom

Goodbye, casting couch. Hello, online auction. Yahoo is offering movie roles to the highest bidders. but early reviews of plan may dash would-be stars' dreams.

June 29, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

For Jason Hunley, it seemed like the chance of a lifetime. His wife, Joy, had been a child actor years ago, and even though she had long since taken up work in the insurance business, she'd never abandoned hopes of a return to Hollywood glamour. He just never realized that making that dream come true might be as easy as logging onto a Web site.

Hunley, a Wells Fargo Bank executive from Richmond, Calif., was surfing the Internet one night when the tag line caught his eye: "Who Wants to Be A Movie Star?" It seemed a consortium of Hollywood filmmakers and entertainment executives was auctioning parts in a feature film to the highest bidder.

"My wife is talented," says Hunley, "and this looked like a great chance to get her some new exposure in the business."

So he secretly entered a bid of $701.10 for a speaking part, and says he is prepared to raise his ante as high as $4,000 to get his wife the part.

But don't buy your tickets to see Joy Hunley's cinematic comeback yet. If the office of the California labor commissioner has its say, her reborn career might be over before she even learns it began.

The unique film project is the brainchild of Hollywood director Tony Markes and his friend Adam Rifkin, a screenwriter. Markes most recently directed "Welcome to Hollywood," a film starring John Travolta and Sandra Bullock, which premiered at Utah's Sundance Festival. Rifkin is the brains behind such movies as "Mousehunt" and "Detroit Rock City."

The two were attending a film festival when they decided to take the independent-film concept of casting unknowns in a potential major movie and exaggerate it. They would cast everyday people via an online auction.

"We're taking Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame, making it 90 minutes, and guaranteeing distribution," Markes says.

The bidding began this week. Three speaking parts - two for supporting actors and one for a "fifth lead actor" - and three off-camera positions (executive producer, assistant to the producer and production assistant) are up for grabs through Yahoo! Auctions. Two more acting roles are available in a sweepstakes sponsored by Blockbuster Inc., the video-rental giant.

The project is a reversal of film-business practice in more ways than one.

Whereas most films are scripted long before casting begins, for example, in the case of "Who Wants to be a Movie Star?" Rifkin will create an original screenplay tailor-made to the relative strengths of the actors chosen. The movie, sponsors say, will be written and filmed by January 2001, should appear in theaters within a year and would be bankrolled in part by proceeds from the auction.

As of yesterday, bidding was hottest for the "Fourth Supporting Lead Actor" job; by midday, one contestant had offered $2,520 for that slot. The "Fifth Lead Actor" role, likely a meatier part, had drawn a bid of just $2,010.

For his wife, Hunley was secretly angling for a more modest "Five Lines and Under" role. "She hasn't acted since the late 1970s," he says, "and I know she's been gradually thinking about maybe getting back into it."

BeBe Lerner, a publicist for Bumble Ward & Associates in Los Angeles and a project spokeswoman, was, not surprisingly, optimistic about the auction.

"Anyone who has ever practiced an Academy Award acceptance speech in front of their mirror," she says, "now has a chance to make their dream a reality." All a potential screen luminary must have, she points out, is access to the auction's Web site -www.whowantstobeamoviestar.com - and the willingness to keep upping the ante.

But despite the auction's potential to create a classic Hollywood rags-to-riches tale, last-minute legal squabbling may mean would-be stars and producers never get the chance to show their talents. According to an industry publication, Joy Hunley and others like her - including Jim McCarthy, a Yahoo! operations manager who couldn't resist entering a bid himself - may have to mothball their dreams of glory.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the auction project ran afoul of California labor laws almost the moment it was launched. Shortly after the Beverly Hills press conference that ballyhooed the enterprise on Tuesday, the office of the California labor commissioner began an investigation into what it termed the "totally illegal" practice of selling film jobs to the highest bidder.

Based on information contained on the project's Web page, Miles Locker, the commissioner's chief counsel, said the office wants the film partnership to announce an immediate end to bidding. If the auction is not stopped, Locker said, "there will be legal action taken." As of late yesterday, executives at both Yahoo! and Bumble Ward were convening to settle on a response.

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