By Saskia Wilson-Brown, March 2nd, 2011

This is a series of posts delving into the gory details of what it takes to produce an independent film. Covering the entire process — from development to fundraising, production, distribution, online strategies and beyond — they will be written in real time, from first hand experience, as I go through the process of producing a feature-length documentary.


A few weeks ago I took my first trip to the European Film Market (EFM), which is hosted annually as a parallel event to the Berlin Film Festival.

My stated goal was try to gain support for a few film projects. But the moment I walked into the massive building that hosts the EFM and saw the teeming hive of people – all seemingly engaged in animated conversations with one another – I realized that this was no cozy, friendly, intellectual space. Indeed: The opposite. This was a place of Big Business.

Mulling over my approach & networking tactics, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I knew nothing of the ins and outs of the international film market, not to mention how to break into this group of long-established friends and colleagues without making an ass of myself.  I had to learn, and quick. I immediately set about the task of understanding what I was dealing with – and getting a measure of my ignorance of the ins and outs of the international film business.

As far as I could gather, the EFM was composed primarily of the usual types of people we see (or hope to see) at most film festivals: Filmmakers, distributors & acquisitions execs, financiers. Rarer at the indie fests and of great interest to filmmakers hoping to go big, the EFM is also the hub par excellence of that shadowy group of people who negotiate rights and broker territory sales: International Sales Agents.

Sitting at their booths or at the market’s numerous screenings, meeting with filmmakers, exchanging notes in the café, it became very clear to me that the ISAs rule the roost at EFM. In truth, they are most often the first point of contact for big distributors looking to pick up new titles. These are people, in short, that every aspiring filmmaker who hopes to launch into the business in a bigger way should at least think about, new strategies for distribution and fundraising notwithstanding.

I broadsided one of these ISAs – shivering outside on a subarctic German afternoon. What follows, then, is a short interview with the very savvy Miriam Elchanan, the Senior Vice President of Sales and Acquisitions of Los Angeles-based Fabrication Films, explaining the world of the International Sales Agent in nine questions.

What do international sales agents do?

International sales agents represent feature films in the international marketplace.  We are responsible for licensing specific rights to specific territories or countries. So for example, if you have produced a film and you have a North American distributor for the United States and Canada you would license the remaining worldwide rights to us. We would then license these rights to our buyers around the world. Our company offers established relationships with distributors and broadcasters and strategic marketing and promotional strategies.

What are the territories that you cover? What are the other territories?

Fabrication Films has buyer relationships in every country in the world. Major territories include Europe (UK , France , Germany , Benelux , Italy , Spain , Greece , etc), Asia (including Japan , China , Thailand , Indonesia , India , Malaysia / Singapore ), Latin America including Brazil, Eastern Europe including Russia, Australia , the Middle East, Turkey and Israel.

At what phase of the filmmaking process would you come in?

We prefer to get involved as early as possible in the production phase so that we can assist the Producer with creative and financial suggestions that will help bolster the value of their film in the global market. In many cases we become involved while a producer is in post-production or has just recently completed their film.

Do you deal with international presales for projects in development, ever?

Yes, however our decision to become involved in presales is usually strongly based on the cast and genre.

What do you, in particular, look for in the films you represent?

There are three things that I look for in an acquisition, the first is cast, the second is genre and the third is story/production quality. In the foreign market a film can be great but if it is a drama with no cast it will be extremely difficult for me to sell it. Action films traditionally are the easiest genre to sell and an action film with cast, great production values and a good story is a slam-dunk. However, I do keep my eye out for those special festival or art house films that have cache and documentaries that will speak to everyone.

What are some major no-nos, for you, from a creative point of view?

Films with a film industry story line can be particularly difficult. I am not a big fan of filmmakers who have their characters pull out a video camera in the middle of a scene and then go to a grainy gritty hand held shot.

I think there is a major difference between making a film for creative reasons and making a film that sells. There is a way to do both but you must consider who is going to buy your film when it is finished. A painter can paint an amazing piece of art but that doesn’t mean you would want to hang it in your living room and look at it every day.

It is the producer’s choice to make a film that is less mainstream and more for a specific group of viewers, but keep in mind the more you limit that scope the less return you will make on your investment.

How do you feel about the DIY strategies that many filmmakers are engaging in, in order to promote, distribute or sometimes even fundraise for their film?

I like the idea of DIY distribution. If you make a film for less than 100K you can get your film seen and build an audience for yourself.

This is much harder to do in the foreign market. Most foreign distributors do not want to work directly with a one-time producer. [Rather] they want to work with a company they already have an established relationship with. They know that I can competently negotiate an agreement with them, we will follow through and deliver the picture and provide the necessary legal and financial paperwork they need to fulfill their obligations.

Recently I was representing a film where the producer had sent a trailer and artwork of their film to a number of foreign buyers about 6 months prior to us taking the film to market. When we began meeting with buyers they would immediately retort that they had seen the film and passed. This was due to the fact that the producers promotional materials were subpar and were not up to the standards these buyers were looking for. When we presented our campaign [for the very same film], it was much harder to engage the buyer in a dialogue.

Bringing in professionals in most cases is the best strategy to getting the best return and the most successful release. I would recommend that a filmmaker make a decision from the beginning how they want to release their film and stick by it. If a DIY strategy does not go well, don’t be surprised when a more traditional sales agent or distributor [has no] interest in stepping in after the market has been saturated.

Just ask yourself this question, if I told you that I watched ER everyday would you let me perform open heart surgery? Just because you read Variety doesn’t mean that you can do what someone with 10-20 years of experience can do.

How do you find the titles that you represent?

We monitor the internet, festivals, social networking, attend industry events.

The best way to get your film noticed by a good sales agent or distributor is to have a well maintained website with good up to date contact information. If your film is listed on IMDB or other industry sites make sure the information is correct and that you provide as much information as possible.

Do you have any advice for filmmakers looking to work with an international sales agent? Anything they should watch out for?

I would look for a well-established company that has been around for at least 5 years and has a catalogue of films that are good quality. Many sales agents have a certain genre focus some focus more on family films some on horror. You might want to see what they have sold before to get an idea if your film is a good fit. Look for someone that you feel comfortable with and try to negotiate a deal that works for you.

I think there is plenty of paranoia out there when it comes to distributors and sales agents. Look at your film in the most realistic way. If someone tells you that they have a studio relationship and they can get you a deal but they will not put that in writing that means they will do their best but cannot guarantee anything.

If a sales agent is representing a huge film and it doesn’t make sense [in the context of] the rest of their line up, make sure that they are representing the major territories on that film — and not just Indonesia.

If a sales agent tells you that their estimates are realistic and those estimates are twenty times bigger than your entire production budget I would be concerned. However, if a sales agent’s estimates are smaller than what you hoped but are more like what you expected I would say – in most cases – they are the real deal.

Check out Fabrication Films here and if you are curious about the international scene, may I recommend the very excellent blog ‘Sydney’s Buzz’ on Indiewire.

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Posted in Uncategorized biz distribution

Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

By Zeke Zelker, December 14th, 2010

As an indie filmmaker, to SAG or not to SAG has always been an issue when casting films. The paperwork, the fees, the obstacles that they place in front of you can be daunting. Having to work with them, not they trying to work with you. In the new world of cinema where creators are attempting to engage their audiences over a myriad of portals/devices in many innovative ways, the old actors guard have not embraced this new way of entertaining, in fact it is even more challenging to work with them. I have experienced a new dilemma with the professional actors union, how to explain my upcoming project in their “contract” terms and attempting to not break their rules.

My latest project Billboard an Uncommon Contest for Common People! has many moving parts, we are engaging and entertaining audiences in a plethora of ways. In the first phase of the project we have an opportunity for everyday people to get involved with the project as well as SAG actors. In fact some of the movie cast I need for this phases, happens to be based on around a website. RED FLAG, RED FLAG! What do you mean you want to use SAG actors for a website along with unprofessional actors? In an attempt to work with SAG I need to break the project into two different projects, one for the New Media side of the project and the other for the movie.

Okay, I understand. Got it. I will break the film up into two different projects under a bigger umbrella. Now I want to cast name talent who we will need to be in both projects. RED FLAG! RED FLAG! Try to have your casting director explain this to agents. WTF! I am trying to play by SAG’s rules, now agents think I’m trying to pull a fast one, confusing the process. No I really am trying to work with the old actors guard. Agents aren’t having it. I even offered to present my project to the agencies so they get what I’m trying to do, my casting director doesn’t feel they will be receptive, “do you really think a group of agents, at an agency will take the time to listen to you explain your project so you can hire their actors”. I’m willing to do anything for people to understand what I’m trying to do. CAA, WME, ICM, UTA call me, 610.597.7189, I would love to work with you! Maybe we can package the project with your talent?

This is only half of my challenge. The other half is working within SAG’s rules when it comes to narrowing down what budget contract we fall under. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about; what you pay SAG actors is based on your budget. Each budget limit has a contract with a different set of rules. After reading SAG contract after contract and trying to figure which one worked best for my project I determined the Ultra Low budget would work best for us, it’s the most flexible. You can work with SAG and nonSAG actors, you don’t have to use SAG extras, you only have to pay the actors $100/day (although I have budgeted more than that for my name talent) and the budget cap is $200k, although we will have more money than that. The real reason is the ability to work with anyone I would like to. My daughter is not SAG, do I really need to Taft-Hartley her?

I made this business decision and I am willing to work within SAG’s rules. Now I would really, really like to work with Actor/Actress X. My casting director pitches the project to their agent. Agent’s response, “no way in hell will I let my Actor/Actress work on an ultra low budget project.” They won’t let her explain further. We have our reasons, we have a ground breaking project, we have money to pay more than $100/day, we are only trying to play by the old actors guard’s rules. I cut my hair short so I can’t pull it out.

I have thought about scrapping SAG all together but I really want to work with some particular actors. Working with these actors will also make the project more marketable when we distribute the movie. Thus I need to and am willing to work with SAG, but will they work with me? Will agents take the time to understand what we are doing? We have a way that our key actors will be compensated handsomely for taking the risk with us. Risk reward right?

I can’t wait until we unleash Weiler’s transmedia project at Sundance, maybe the industry will understand what we are trying to do more easily. Sundance has embraced us and this new form of entertainment, Academy Award nominee Guillermo del Toro just announced his new transmedia studio in Marina del Rey, CA and the marketing execs of brands get it. When will SAG? Agents? I guess time will tell, but I’m on a schedule.
Maybe I should reach out and partner with a Hollywood established production company who have embraced technology to help tell their stories. Maybe that will make this casting situation easier. Anyone have any suggestions?

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Posted in INDIE FILM CAPITALSIM biz casting transmedia

Zeke Zelker – an award winning filmmaker, blends art and commerce in all that he does. His latest film InSearchOf is not only creating buzz about the content of the story line but also for his business techniques. Always creating new revenue streams by blending traditional distribution outlets, adapting others to suit his film’s needs, and pioneering some of his own Zeke has been forging a pathway to profitability. He is currently developing on a transmedia project that will begin unraveling 2010.

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By Janine Saunders, December 6th, 2010

We had a chance to catch up with Producer Scott Macaulay (Raising Victor Vargas, Gummo) and editor of Filmmaker Magazine which has been supporting independent vision since 1992. This past week Filmmaker Magazine kicked off a special subscription drive. In an effort to support out friends at Filmmaker we’ve asked Scott a few questions about indie film trends, the future of Filmmaker Mag and what he liked in 2010.

What are some emerging trends in independent film that you find interesting and why?

Scott Macaulay: I’m not sure this counts as a new trend because it refers to people going back to doing what they’ve done before, but established producers going back to older, leaner and meaner production models is a good thing. As any producer knows, it can be hard to go backwards in terms of budget. It can also be hard to switch gears from a feature-film mentality to a web or transmedia one. You develop a crew base and that crew base gets older with more financial obligations and can’t do the low-to-no-budget thing anymore. And you get set in your ways too. Today, though, most of the best work is being done at the micro or very-low levels, and new platforms are just beginning to be explored by independent filmmakers. So, recently, you are seeing people like Ted Hope get involved with the kind of productions they started their careers with — in Ted’s case, it’s executive producing Sean Durkin’s Sundance-bound feature. I know I’m also beginning to open myself up to lower budget work than the $2 – $5 million films I’ve been involved with over the last few years. Another development that I hope will turn into a trend: filmmakers working instead of stewing in development hell. So many filmmakers in the ’90s sat around while waiting for their mini-major films to get green lit without a lot to show for themselves. There’s a new group of filmmakers for whom that kind of stasis is an anathema, and some established veterans too are figuring out ways to stay productive, whether through short films, blogging, webisodes, etc.

How do you see Filmmaker Magazine growing in the next year? Any plans to go digital?

SM: We’re working on a number of things, some we can talk about and some we can’t. We’re obviously figuring out the best way to get our print edition on the iPad and, following that, how to develop for mobile platforms apps that would appeal to our readership. (Interested mobile developers, feel free to drop me a line.) We should have a dedicated VOD page up soon — a monthly round-up of our picks. Our Sundance coverage will be a lot more extensive this year and will encompass daily newsletters throughout the festival. (Sign up for our newsletter here) We also hope to be involved with more events, including ones we do with the IFP, our parent organization. Also, I’m working harder these days to draw good writers to Filmmaker, both on the print and web sides. It’s really important to me that the magazine presents information that you can’t find elsewhere, and that our writers bring strong points of views to their pieces. I’ve been happy to have writers like Nicholas Rombes, Zach Wigon, Lauren Wissot and Mary Anderson Casavant contribute original web-only pieces, and I hope to develop our online roster even further in 2011. Beyond all of that…. we’ll see.

Any words of advice for filmmakers who are about to embark on making a new project?

SM: First, make sure your script is tight. If you’re working on a low budget, don’t waste time shooting stuff that won’t make your final cut. And by being rigorous about figuring out what that extraneous material is, you’ll make your screenplay a lot more focused and its drama clearer. As a related point, think about the scenes you want to spend your time and resources on. If you just let your A.D. do the schedule without much input from you, the nuanced scene you want to finesse with your actors may share a day with your biggest stunt. The converse is also true. Think about what you’re willing to let go of, or shoot in a one-r, if time is tight. Don’t fall into the mindset of thinking that every scene has to be realized with the same level of perfection. Unless you’ve got the kind of more leisurely shooting schedule that comes with higher budgets, you’ll wind up shorting the scenes that need time the most.

What’s in your playlist? What are you watching, reading, or listening to?

SM: One of my favorite books this year was Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, which I’ve extolled on the blog and was recently happy to see selected by the New York Times as one of its Best Books of the Year. I think it’s essential reading for anyone interested in content, including filmed content, in the age of Web. 2.0 (and 3.0). I’m currently finishing Ander Monson’s “experimental memoir,” Vanishing Point. I’m about to start the book it’s usually linked to, David Shields’ Reality Hunger. This year I read books by Brian Evenson and Stephen Elliott. The latter’s was The Adderall Diaries, which James Franco just optioned. (I’m also a big fan of Elliott’s literary website, The Rumpus.) I recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It doesn’t need any more praise from me, but it’s a gorgeous book, both bigger (in terms of its scope and ambition) and smaller (in terms of its intimacy) than I expected.

As I type this I’m listening to the new Kanye West, which I’ve become kind of obsessed by. While a lot of years what I listen to is pretty obscure, this year I liked most the two big mainstream works that reaffirm the value of the long-playing, thematically-developed album: Kanye’s record and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. I recently downloaded Blix Bargeld’s anbb collaboration with Alva Noto. This year I also began to catch up with TV. I just finished Season One of “Mad Men” and have knocked off three seasons of “The Wire.” In terms of current TV, I liked “Walking Dead.” I recently saw the Abstract Expressionist show at MoMA, which is great, and there’s also an amazing iPad app for it that has a lot of the artwork as well as video interviews with the curators and other stuff.

Might be too early for a best of the year list but what are five independent films that shouldn’t be missed from 2010?

SM: These are both foreign and independent:
“The Oath” – Laura Poitras
“Carlos” – Olivier Assayas
“Exit to the Gift Shop” – Banksy
“Tiny Furniture” – Lena Dunham
“Daddy Longlegs” – Josh and Benny Safdie

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Posted in biz movies production

Janine Saunders is a producer, media collaborator, and DJ living in NYC.  She has worked as a producer since a very early age, in music, video and publishing. She has worked closely with writer/ documentarian/ graphic novelist Douglas Rushkoff, and directed and edited Life Inc: The Movie.

By Zeke Zelker, September 10th, 2010

It’s been awhile! As politicians are heavily campaigning, attempting to add constituents money to their political coffers in return for “favors” or “supporting” their political agenda, there are many lessons to be learned on the fund raising front. Some of which I have done in the past and will be doing in the future.

I could cover a wall with the political meal invites I have received this season from my politician friends. Throw a party, EVERYONE loves a party especially if there’s a good reason. Over the years I have held cocktails parties, sit down dinners and “get canned with Zeke” (parties specializing in amazing canned beers) blowouts to raise funds for various film projects. Some have been successful, others not. The lessons learned: invited cast or a special guest, people need a reason to fork over their money and to get them excited. Know who you should be inviting. Aunt Lulu may not drink canned beer, she’s a draught sort of gal so invited her to the cocktail party featuring vodka X. Get brands or restaurants involved. People can identify with these things and they bring more excitement to the event. Don’t be afraid to ask just make sure there is some sort of return for them on their investment aka booze donation. Send out invitations, via mail, email, facebook events. The way you invite people should be a reflection of the type of event it is. I have raised as little as $380 to over $7,000.

There a couple of crowd funding sites out there where people can donate at various levels in return for perks. I really like indiegogo. They have an amazing tool kit and innovative ways to help artists achieve fund raising success. They’re also approachable and hands on. I plan on using them on my next project which I will be announcing very shortly. A friend of mine is currently using kickstarter for his innovative project the 8mm Film Project. My biggest suggestion; when it comes to crowd funding, give away perks that are unique and worthwhile and have a project that resonates with people. My wife and I were shocked when someone we did not know from California donated $500 to her Hand-Some Journey campaign.

Do not be afraid to ask for money outright. Send out a donation pamphlet describing your project and the different levels that people can support you. Remember fund raising is a campaign it’s an uphill battle and you need as many tool in your arsenal as possible. Be a little bold. If you believe in your project, you are the best salesperson to pitch your project and raise money for it. I have had politicians personally ask me for my financial support and I didn’t get much in return. Go to public events where you might run into people that you sent information to, follow up with them, ASK them.

Often times politicians will call on certain supporters to help them raise money by holding sales: bake sales, hunting trips, car washes, etc. Be different. Hold a Ballyhoo for a Kazoo sale! Sell kazoos outside your local supermarket. Kids will love ‘em and it will drive the shoppers crazy, thirty kids playing their kazoos in the store, imagine the sight. Really there are so many ways to sell things to raise funding.

Every town or city have different resources that could be used to tap into your fund raising efforts. Grants, scholarships, access to public equipment, etc. Make a list of things you will need in your budget and try to obtain the use of the item through your local community. Let’s say you need passenger vans, ask your local YMCA. You need a condor for a shot, ask your township maintenance department. It never hurts to ask and be creative in your ask, always give something in return.

I’m certain there are so many ways that politicians are raising money that we all can learn from. Over the next couple of months I will be writing about how I’m raising money for my next project. I know it isn’t going to be easy but I will share my insights and lessons as they are happening.

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Posted in audience biz crowdfunding

Zeke Zelker – an award winning filmmaker, blends art and commerce in all that he does. His latest film InSearchOf is not only creating buzz about the content of the story line but also for his business techniques. Always creating new revenue streams by blending traditional distribution outlets, adapting others to suit his film’s needs, and pioneering some of his own Zeke has been forging a pathway to profitability. He is currently developing on a transmedia project that will begin unraveling 2010.

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By Lance Weiler, August 17th, 2010

TCIBR returns with a special podcast featuring Ted Hope (21 Grams, Adventureland) and Katie Holly (producer of One Hundred Mornings ). Topics covered include creative producing, community curation, making films you’re passionate about as well as what it takes to sustain as a filmmaker in today’s changing landscape.

The WorkBook Project is proud to present One Hundred Mornings the winner of the WBP Discovery and Distribution Award. One Hundred Mornings opens Sept 16th at the Downtown Independent Theater in LA and will run for a week. Special thanks to our partners IndieFlix, Slamdance, The Downtown Independent Theater, Cinema Speakeasy, and CineFist.

Download Adobe Flash Player.

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Posted in audience audience-building audio award biz biz dev distribution distro interview podcast

Lance Weiler is the founder of the WorkBook Project and also a story architect of film, tv and games. He's written and directed two feature films THE LAST BROADCAST and HEAD TRAUMA. He's currently developing a number of transmedia projects.

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