Film sales may occupy the murkiest parcel of the filmmaking landscape for most creators, and rightly so: film sales involve third party agents exploiting their relationships with distributors domestically and internationally, and may not directly involve the creative forces behind the film being sold. It's a world that, while essential to the filmmaking industry, is understood fully by a niche group of industry executives.
The NYWIFT panel, "Sales Agents, Producers, and Packaging" helped to demystify the film sales players and process. The panel featured Tara Erer (SVP of Sales, FilmNation Entertainment), Ryan Kempe (Founder, Visit Films), Adrienne Stern (Casting Director), and Jamie Zelermyer (Independent Producer), and was moderated by Kerry Fulton (Independent Producer).
Here are the three ways in which sales agents might be involved in your project:
1. Script Stage - sales agents will pre-sell the project based on creators, cast, territories to finance the film while still in development. Agents working in this stage want to package the film to yield the most value, perhaps especially to international territories, so that they can borrow a relatively low percentage of the budget against the pre-sold rights financing. Pre-selling like this typically requires name recognition and a creative track record.
2. Post Stage - agents will pick up a project to get it through the premiere festival circuit; success on the festival circuit will help the sales agent to sell through to distributors later.
3. Festival Stage - sales agents will work with a filmmaker and a project once the film has already been accepted into major film festivals. They'll then take the film to distributors at and following the festival to sell rights.
What does a Sales Agent actually do for your film?
A sales agent's involvement in your project's trajectory and lifespan depends, to a degree, on the stage at which they become involved. A sales agent who is packaging your film with cast and pre-sold international rights obviously has more input on the film itself, as well as where it will play once produced. A sales agent who picks up a film at a festival is working with the product as it is, and may have some markets in mind for your particular film.
In both cases, a sales agent will take a fee on deals made, not claim the rights to your film (which the distributor will do for a given amount of time per the deal you strike). It's the agent's job to know the buyers and sellers in the market at any given time, create a space for your film in the sales landscape, position your film for any specific buyers, negotiate the terms of the sales deal including rights, and compose the deal memo.
An domestic sales agent will work the domestic festivals to sell your film to outlets whose taste, slate, and ambitions can be serviced by your film.
An international sales agent is much more involved as the point of contact with the international distributor. An international sales agent will approve marketing budgets and campaigns, review and approve television deals, and be much more involved in guiding the film's release in international markets.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Your vision and ability as a filmmaker is integral to your relationship with a sales agent. Film is a relatively insecure commodity, so sales agents are interested in mitigating risk through consistency by forging strong relationships with vision-driven dependable creators.
- Likewise, sales agents' relationships with buyers are KEY to the sales process. Sales agents know their buyers - from taste to budget range to market needs - and maintain and nurture those relationships through the sales of films. Agents want to go to buyers over and over. Considering your film as a valuable product that will make someone look good and make another feel good may help you to position it for the best sales at any stage of sales involvement.
- American independent films can be viewed as "Sundance Films" to international territories, even if they're not. The international markets are essential for film sales in the current landscape, so it's worth considering how you might diversify your cast, universalize your story, etc. to make your film more attractive to sales agents and international territories.
Given all this, it's important to remember that not every sales agent is right for every filmmaker. As always, the right person for your film is someone who loves your film and can advocate for it. In the sales landscape, that means someone who will meet your goals as a filmmaker, has a track record with films like yours, and with whom you could imagine a relationship beyond the film at hand.