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This article was originally published on the Film Independent blog and has been republished here with permission.
With the glut of independent films nowadays, it is essential that filmmakers consider foreign markets that may have an interest in American indies. Times are tough, the playing field is crowded, so exploring other territories is now considered necessary. Film Independent recently hosted a financing how-to panel for those interested in foreign sales opportunities for American independent film. The featured panelists were Ildi Toth Davy, Senior Vice President of Sales and Acquisitions for Odin’s Eye Entertainment; and Ricky Margolis, Vice President of Future Films USA, with moderator, Adeline Monzier, the US representative of Unifrance Films.
Each brought forth a different perspective to the questions raised in the session, yet all agreed on a general approach to the market in order to get films up and going and seen.
Here’s a rundown of the three biggest lessons of the night and what the experts said about each.
1. Find a sales agent.
The first and most crucial step is to find a sales agent to represent you. Filmmakers often feel that the journey to distribution is an individual one and that it will take shape in its own way. However, all the panelists agreed that looking for sales representation sooner rather than later is key to successfully navigating the foreign market.
Margolis: In a producer’s world, they have more than enough to do. So contracting with foreign sales agents, who will then meet on their own with foreign distributors, is essential. Agents are essential to recoup any investment into a movie. When I was working with sales, I always said find a sales agent as late as possible. When I was a producer, I said as early as possible. And I think that now. It’s good to have the input of sales agents early on to guide you along that way — to tell you what cast members are valuable and so on, before looking for someone and investing time.
Davy: Normally we like to get involved when the producer has some sort of attachment. What we absolutely do not do is specifically develop a project. We advise on some directors, some cast. During the negotiation process, we provide you sales estimates, marketing strategies, and investment possibilities.
Margolis: A lot of sales agents won’t be able to develop your film if you don’t have a director or a cast. Find out early which ones will take on what [and] which will only take a complete package.
Davy: Sales companies research what they’re marketing. Will this film work in the lineup? Find out what you have which will seduce.
2. Understand the challenges of competing against home-grown films.
It’s obviously more beneficial for foreign distributors to dish out their own locally developed projects. Monzier confirmed that for American indies, in Europe it’s harder because you’re competing against European films that have support from the local government and that have channels that require broadcasting of European material. Margolis and Davy agreed that selling your stuff by proving its desirability in the US and hoping that transfers over to foreign sales agents works in your favor.
Margolis: What a lot of people don’t know is that a lot of European films are subsidized by European distributors. If you have the same content, same market, they will choose European. So, if you promote US sales rights, it is a better incentive to have. We’ve had American movies sold by European sales agents and vice versa. If you have good content and a good package there shouldn’t be anything standing in your way. But more and more sales agents will sort of appear as you keep looking. More and more you find agents internationally. They all have to fill a slate. They need to have content just like distributors need content.
Monzier: If you’re European and you go the US, or vice versa, and believe that you have something great, you have to think about how distributors usually want something they have worked on before. That’s why you need to get in touch with sales agents sooner rather than later. Because once the premiere is done, it’s done. So tell sales agents, “I want to market to this market, go to this festival, and I need to be represented there,” and see how that goes. Yes, sometimes agents do their homework and find you but you still have to reach out to them. Because there are 300 films selected for festivals that they see.
Davy: I started in this business during the video era, when each distributor created their own marketing campaigns. Now they expect you as sales agents to give them the campaign. So now distribution is left less to people with passion as it is to in-the-know members of that community.
3. Understand the distribution landscape—and how your film fits into it.
Davy mentioned knowing of a distribution company that utilizes a computer system to filter through submissions of material, meaning that basically a lot is left out of the control of the sales agents and filmmakers.
Margolis: But when you learn to embrace that it is actually happening like that, it’s a good thing. If a computer is deciding distribution, as independent producers, you have to understand it, to know that and embrace that. Distributors are just thinking about marketing. You won’t have time to tell them your family’s history. But that can help you. Any film with Eli Roth, for example. Eli Roth is a brand himself. So if you have a movie advertised as a horror movie, but then another as a horror movie but produced by Eli Roth, that already is a brand. That’s your marketing right there. The computer may recognize the worth of an Eli Roth film out there. And if you embrace that, it’ll help you.
Margolis: Obviously, number one: know the film festivals. Know where your sales agent should be selling you. A sales agent should be giving you a sales estimate. They’ll look at every territory they will sell your film to and for how much. Sales estimate, lows and highs, are essential to get from them because it gives you an idea of where your film’s going and what they have planned and how they’re thinking. And you need to accept that the higher cost estimates could be the best ones. They’re much more realistic. You know you could give them to an investor and that they could work. And know that cheaper isn’t better, when you’re paying agents. You do need to keep sales agents incentivized. You shouldn’t just take the lower offer or higher offer.
Davy: Know that there’s a hierarchy of films that sales agents have. On the third level there are the films that have marketable interests that we sales agents see beneath the surface. The second are those that are easiest to sell. The first are the ones with the biggest commissions. So yes, incentivizing is really important.