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.

UNDERSTANDING THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET: INTERNATIONAL SALES AGENTS & THE EFM.

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.

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