Film Sales Agents & Distributors: A Guide

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For any aspiring film producer, the world of sales and distribution might seem a tad daunting. Jonathan Ash reports back from BAFTA and Film London’s recent event, BREAKTHROUGH – A Guide to International Film Sales & Distribution.

Thanks to YouTube, smart phones and the tumbling costs of digital cameras, anyone can make a film now, but how do you turn making films into a career? This BREAKTHROUGH event was particularly interesting to me as I’m currently producing my first feature, so a lot of this was new terrain to me as my background is mainly short films. 

When starting out in short films, you are unlikely to be working with distributors or sales agents, or even worrying about making any money at all for that matter, but once you move into feature films and the sheer amount of work and money involved in making it, then you really need to start thinking about the financial side. 

In 2009, the UK Film Council reported that the average budget for UK films was £3.3 million (down from £5.6 million the previous year), and fans of films and statistics can salivate over such figures here, but many films are made for a fraction of the cost. For example, £100,000 is deemed to be a micro-budget; Film London supports six filmmakers to create a film at this cost through Microwave. Therefore, when you’re dealing with such figures, any investors want a return. 

The traditional way films make their money is by being sold to a distributor who will then sell it to an exhibitor such as a cinema, DVD company or television broadcaster. To put it simply, this is how the cash might flow from the paying punters at the cinema back to the filmmakers:

Audience -> Cinema -> Distributors -> (Sales Agents) -> Filmmakers

But with so many films being made, how do you successfully seal the deal? Helena Mackenzie (Head of Inward Investment and Business Development at Film London) who chaired the panel, opened with a daunting statistic:

“There are over 1600 films screened at Cannes film festival over 10 days.”

So unless you know the right people, it can be difficult to get the right people into your screening. This is where the sales agents come in.

Here are some of the key things I learned on the day:

WHAT IS A SALES AGENT?

- They work on a commission only basis to sell your film to distributors around the world.

- They also place a value on the film, based on potential international sales and trends/fashions, but not on potential box office revenue. This can be really useful if you snap up a sales agent before you make you start shooting your film, as it can help keep your film on budget; you don’t want to be shooting a £1,000,000 film which has an estimated value of £500,000.

- Marketing – They will create the international poster/teaser/promo.

- Deal with the payment of any distribution deal and assist with the delivery (more on this later)

For more information check out the video on the Film London: Microwave website.

WHY MIGHT YOU WANT A SALES AGENT?

- While major studios can use their clout to release their films, independent filmmakers may need a Sales Agent to get a distributor to take them seriously.

- Distributors have a relationship with certain sales agents and therefore trust their judgement.

- They act a bit like an Executive Producer, they help make your film as commercially viable as possible.

- Getting a sales agent on board early could help you secure the investment you need.

While the sales agents do take commission, they take no money until the cash comes in. As Helena puts it, “It’s better to have 80% of something than 100% of nothing.”

FINDING A SALES AGENT

- DON'T LEAVE IT TOO LATE. Try and get them involved as early as possible

- RESEARCH. See what kind of films they’ve sold before, do they follow a similar pattern?

- SHORT & SWEET. Keep your pitch no longer than a paragraph. Useful tip from Natalie Bremner (Ealing Metro International): “If you can’t present your film in a line, there may something wrong with your project.”

- PRESENTATION. Try and be as creative as you can. Do you have a short trailer you can show? If not, maybe you can put together a mood reel made up of clips from other films.

- COMPARISONS. They like to hear carefully chosen film comparisons, but according to Julia Short from The Works if you don’t make sure they realistic you can do more harm than good.

- IT’S ALL ABOUT THE NUMBERS. Coming in with a weak financial plan could damage your credibility.

- WHAT’S IN A NAME? Don’t underestimate the title of your film.

FESTIVALS & GOING IT ALONE

What if you can’t get a sales company interested? Is your film dead in the water or do you have options? While having a sales company will surely make your life easier, festivals will be a key place to position your film to buyers if you don’t have one. You may also want to make contact with the British Council’s Film department who regularly host private screenings for international programmers.

- Try the major festivals first*. Your film must be a continental premiere, so if you’ve already screened it at a smaller festival, it could scupper any chance of picking up distribution through a major festival.

- If you’ve tried and failed to premiere at any of the major festivals, then try and enter smaller festivals.

*The panel considered major festivals  for securing distribution to be Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, Tribeca, and Rotterdam.

WHAT ARE THE DISTRIBUTORS LOOKING FOR?

Essentially, the distributors are looking at every revenue stream to see how they can make money from your film e.g. How much can they sell on DVD? Can they sell it to TV? They do this based on previous films.

It all starts to sound a little formulaic but Julia Short (The Works Film Group) simplifies: “Producers, writers, and directors are constantly looking forwards trying to tell new stories, while distributors are looking backwards to see how it could sell.”

IS THE FUTURE DIGITAL?

Currently digital sales of films only make-up 5-6% of the revenue of the British Film Industry, while Studios only budget 0.04% of their revenue to be made through digital sales.

Stephen Kelliher (Bankside Films) believes, “Once the film industry fully embraces the internet, and the studio model changes, which could take another 5 or 10 years, then there will be tremendous opportunities for filmmakers.”

The event was really insightful and I think it’ll help me to be more specific when it comes to pinpointing the key features that will make my films an attractive proposition for investors, sales agents, and distributors. Of course, it’s important not to rehash successful films of the past, but the event helped me think about filmmaking through the eyes of sales agents and distributors. While we want to tell original stories, or tell old stories in an original way – coming up with a product which is completely alien to anything else will be a hard sell, and if we can’t sell it to them it will never get to an audience. The key is finding the right balance.


BAFTA Youth Board member Jonny Ash graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in 2010 and is a freelance film producer specialising in comedy and comedy-drama. Find him on Twitter at @jonny_ash1.