How did you get started in the industry, and how/why did you become a sales agent?
I fell into it a bit randomly to be honest. I was working in the perfumery industry as a perfumer when I moved to LA. While I was working on a business plan to start a custom-made fragrances business, I needed to do something concrete to connect with people and stay active. Interning Deviant Films with producers David Hillary and Tim Peternel gave me this opportunity. The first film I ever worked on was Big Stan, starring Rob Schneider, David Carradine and Jennifer Morrison. I had the privilege of following the film from pre-production to post-production in such roles as office PA, set PA, stand-in, etc. It was a fantastic opportunity and I met wonderful people that kept me working over several productions. I was having so much fun that I pushed aside my perfumery project. Eventually I had to come back to Europe and chose to stay in the film industry, moving to London to join Seven Arts initially in a development and marketing role that progressively moved towards international sales. I then discovered the business side of the industry, where projects get crafted and financed before they become films. That’s how I learned that the best role for me in the industry was as a sales agent – the link between the business side and the creative side of our industry – where I could make use of all the knowledge I had gained.
What exactly does a sales agent’s job entail?
The role of the sales agent keeps evolving and to stay competitive we now need to expand on our skillset. The core of our activity is still to sell films or content to distributors all around the world. However, we now need to get more involved than ever before to help shape projects to make them as appealing to audiences as possible and in turn more attractive to buyers as we still operate in a B2B market. We contribute to the development of scripts, advise on cast and HODs, help to budget based on projected revenue, advise on marketing and positioning including poster, trailer or even the name of the film. We watch dailies and feedback on cuts. We can be involved all the way until the film is completed. At Film Seekers, we have started producing our own films, originating an idea then finding partners to work with us.
In the context of independent film, when is a good time for a filmmaker to start looking for a sales agent, and at what point in the film development/production process do you ‘prefer’ to come on board?
We like to come on as early as possible but that said, we might not commit to a project right way. It depends on what the filmmakers have done previously, if they already have access to financing, etc. We can get on board from script stage but we are also looking at completed films or films in post-production. In an ideal word, the project would come to us with an already advanced script, a producer attached, possibly a director, a finance plan and some financing already in place, and with a cast wish list. We could then feedback and help optimize the package.
Is there a best time of year to secure a good sales agent?
The best time to reach out to us is in between markets or at production events. During markets we focus on sales and take very few production meetings. We start putting together our line-up 6-8 weeks prior to each market. That would be the ideal time to contact us.
Why should a filmmaker go through a sales agent vs. trying to distribute themselves through an aggregator?
It really depends what the filmmakers are after. There are several advantages at working with a sales agent even if the film is completed. Not only can we help position and market the film to make sure it reaches its audience, we can also secure wider deals which might include theatrical releases and TV deals. We have relationships with all major SVOD platforms and can secure worldwide deals with them if this type of deal is in the best interest of the film and its financiers.
Is it a helpful for a filmmaker to cut together a trailer for their movie to secure a sales agent and distribution (even though that trailer will be recut later by the distributor), or would you rather only see key art and the film itself when making your decision?
If the film has already been shot, we would always prefer to see a trailer, even if we would recut a sales trailer for distributors who will in turn cut another one for the audience. What I don’t find very helpful are mood reels created with bits and pieces taken from other films. It is very likely that I would have seen these films and cut out of context like that does not work for me. I much prefer a mood board with locations, visuals and tones within a production pack.
I’ve heard that often times distributors will only watch the first 10 minutes of a film before choosing whether to pick it up or not. Is that accurate or an urban filmmaking legend?
There is a bit of truth in this! Well, I always recommend filmmakers do not attend industry screenings of their film during markets! I think the first 10 minutes are sufficient to demonstrate the production value. The following 10 are necessary if the film is a thriller/action/horror as something needs to happen before the 20-minute mark. The acquisition process has changed over the past few years. It has become a more collective decision. Buyers attend screenings to evaluate the overall quality of the film and will often request screening links for their colleagues to watch as well. One year in Cannes a buyer texted me his offer from the screening room within the first 20 minutes of the film and last year a buyer was sitting in front of me at a meeting when his colleague texted her from the screening room giving her the go ahead for an offer. They knew they wanted to license the film already. More often than not, we do watch films until the end and as sales agents – we watch a number of times.
Being based in the UK, do you rep a lot of American and Canadian projects as well or mostly UK films?
We are representing English speaking feature films, but these can come from anywhere. Our current lead line-up movies are ‘Edie’ directed by Simon Hunter, a UK production shot in Scotland and ‘The Witch in the Window’, a US production directed by Andy Mitton. We are always looking for Australian films as well as Australian filmmakers that have a visual style which connects with us. Nowadays it is no longer relevant where the sales agent is based. We travel all year long to all the film markets. Our business is global, and we adjust our office hours to be available for certain parts of the world when necessary. It matters more that your sales agent understands the film and your vision and has a clear idea of how to present it to buyers.
Can a sales agent help with foreign pre-sales?
Absolutely, although pre-sales are now reserved for a selected few. You will no doubt have noticed that the distribution industry is struggling all around the world with major companies failing. Theatrical distribution has become a hit or miss business and pre-acquiring films has never been riskier. Unless the proposed project fits the perfect formula, I wouldn’t rely on pre-sales to close the financing of a film.
When is it best for a film to “go to a film market” vs a sale with a distributor independent of a market?
We sell our films all year round during and in between markets, but we need a launch platform for the film to go out to the industry with a bang and there is no better place than a market, if the film is in the early stages or at a festival if the film is completed. Choosing the right time to bring a film to the market is part of our strategy. You can “burn” a film by announcing it too early and going through rounds of markets with nothing happening on the project. And you can also miss opportunities by not presenting early footage to buyers to build interest and momentum.
What are mistakes that you often see filmmakers make?
One of the most common mistakes we see is the misuse of actors. Just because an actor is famous doesn’t make him right for the film. Filmmakers should think first about who the target audience for the film is and then cast within that pool of actors. There is no need to over pay for an actor that is not relevant to the film’s audience.
Another mistake often made is locking picture without showing the film to the industry. Sales agents will be able to spot a scene that is not important to the story arc but will trigger censorship in several territories and advise accordingly.
Often underestimated is the use of the stills photographer. To create marketing materials distributors will need proper stills that are not screen grabs. We request all our filmmakers to create a set of publicity green screen shot of the actors. Filmmakers too often use their onset photographer for behind the scenes which are of no use to anyone.
We regularly see films with too many establishing shots used to transition between scenes. While the audience needs to breathe, there are other ways to connect scenes which should already be built into the script.
At the moment, we see a lot of films with drone shots. While the technology is fantastic and cheaper than a helicopter, filmmakers should keep in mind that the quality of the drone shots should not be compromised. Even a good grade can’t hide a low res drone shot.
If I could give filmmakers a piece of advice it would be: you are not alone. Ask for advice, share, keep learning, surround yourself with talented people and feed off their expertise.
Examples of things that filmmakers have done in the past that make your job easier and/or helped them secure strong distribution and even an up-front buy?
We have a collaborative approach. We like to involve filmmakers in the process. They like to introduce them to interested distributors, we encourage them to travel to festivals and always try to get them invited to the premiere of their film, we require their help for the promotion of the film on social media and as a general rule, they should get out there, meet people and act as the spoke persons for the film. A film release that has the support and help of the filmmakers is always more successful. Filmmakers can help create a buzz around the film that will pique buyers’ interest.
Are there trends you are seeing in 2018 and going into 2019? Things that an indie filmmaker should take note of?
While each film should be unique and its own piece of art, the industry still follows trends as we are still in a consumer led industry. We saw the trend of social realism a few years back that only an elite group of directors still succeed with. For the past couple of years, we saw a focus on diversity and equality, slowly moving towards immigration during the last year or so.
It is almost impossible to make a film that will appeal to everyone and every territory, but character and story led movies will always find an audience.
What do you love about your job?
The best thing about my job is this opportunity to be creative within a business focused role. We get to travel and meet incredible people from all around the world that share the same passion and drive. There is something thrilling about finding a film you believe in and see it being released around the world connecting to its audience. When you sit in this screening room surrounded by spectators and you know that you contributed to making it happen. It’s such an empowering feeling.