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Why Having the Right Agent Could Make or Break Your Movie

During a panel conversation at IFP's Film Week, agents from Los Angeles and New York discussed the importance of packaging in getting movies made.

Submarine co-president Josh Braun, ICM agent Peter Trinh, APA agent Lucy Stille and Slated Editorial Director Colin Brown

Photo By Zhanna Kurmanova

While we often see headlines about spec script inciting studio bidding wars, the reality is most screenplays don’t sell themselves.  Attracting financiers to help turn screenplays into actual movies usually requires one or more agents who are highly skilled in the art of packaging — the process of attaching actors, directors or other essential ingredients to a project.

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During a panel conversation at IFP Film Week on Monday, two film agents and one sales agent shared examples of how packaging movie ideas or completed screenplays with other elements helped get projects off the ground fast.

One example from Los Angeles-based ICM agent Peter Trinh involved an actor with no writing credits named Scott Cooper who had written a script called “Crazy Heart,” based on the tragic story of an aging country music musician.

IFP Film Week Agents Panel

Josh Braun, Lucy Stille and Peter Trinh

Photo By Zhanna Kurmanova

“It was not the most internationally easy thing to set up,” Trinh said. “We had to create elements to make it appeal to financiers and studios.”

ICM attached Robert Duvall as a producer and supporting actor and Jeff Bridges to play the lead role, after which Trinh and a colleague were able to convince CMT, a TV company that rarely got involved in feature films, to contribute the final financing and get the movie made. After the film was completed, ICM helped negotiate a deal with Fox Searchlight, which released the film theatrically and generated nearly $40 million at the box office.

As Los Angeles-based APA agent Lucy Stille explained during the panel, packaging isn’t always about attaching well known actors to screenplays.

“If you have a young adult movie with special effects, it’s your director that’s going to drive the project,” Stille said. “Every time something comes in to us, whether it’s a book or a script, we evaluate it and ask, what’s the element it needs to drive it forward?”

Josh Braun, co-president of sales agent Submarine, explained that the upcoming documentary “Rats,” that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last week, went through a number of iterations before finally getting made. Braun and producers Stanley Buchthal, David Koh and Dan Braun originally pitched the idea of hiring a young director to make a documentary featuring New Yorkers telling stories about encounters with rats in the city.

IFP Film Week Agents Panel

Attendees at the “Working with the Right Agent” panel at IFP’s Film Week

Photo By Zhanna Kurmanova

However, after reading Robert Sullivan’s best-selling book, “Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants,” Braun combined the original idea for the doc with the book rights and brought them to director Morgan Spurlock, who he knew from working on Spurlock’s documentary “Super Size Me.”

“He absolutely loved it,” Braun said, adding that he then took the package of Spurlock and the book rights to an executive at the Discovery Channel, which helped produce the movie. “I just said, ‘Rats. Morgan Spurlock. Yes or no?’ And he said yes.”

For filmmakers, knowing when to seek partners or a buyer for your project and when to develop it further can impact what type of deal you ultimately make. While Braun’s Submarine signed on to the 2012 documentary “The Queen of Versailles” based on seeing just five-minutes of footage, they passed on the documentary “Weiner” after seeing 25 minutes of the unfinished film.

“Somehow it didn’t coalesce into something where you knew what the film would be,” Braun said. “Our position was, let’s stay in touch, we’re definitely interested and would love to be a part of this, but we’re not sure it’s the right time.”  After seeing the finished doc a year later, Submarine signed the movie.

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While some projects are ready to sell at the screenplay stage with no additional elements attached, making the job of an agent relatively easy, APA’s Stille said that’s rarely the case. “Sometimes it’s conceptually strong enough that it can sell itself,” she said. “More often than not, we have to think about it.”

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