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Sales: Pitch Perfect

First-time producers should understand the commercial appeal of their film and know when to approach a sales company. Andreas Wiseman speaks to key industry sellers about what newcomers need to know about working with them

For new producers, getting a foot in a sales company’s door can be a challenge.

Sales veterans are continually sifting through a deluge of scripts and e-mails from experienced producers, so for relative newcomers soliciting interest in projects can be even more difficult.

Moreover, sales companies are as likely to hear about young talent from their industry contacts as they do from working through submissions. “We often hear about young talent through recommendations,” says FilmNation CEO Glen Basner, echoing a familiar sentiment.

“For those outside the industry who want to connect with financiers, it’s about getting involved in the film-making community. We congregate at festivals, markets and events and it’s about trying to become part of that community. It’s also about meeting other young producers and sharing experiences with them. So it’s not only about meeting top decision-makers but starting out among your peers.”

New-York based Basner — who says “the key factor for us is whether we believe we can pre-sell a movie” — highlights a collaboration with fledgling producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb on JC Chandor’s survival film All Is Lost, which screens out of competition at Cannes, as an example of a successful recent interaction.

Dodson and Gerb had only one feature producer credit between them before they partnered with Chandor on 2011 Oscar-nominated thriller Margin Call, but their knowledge gained from those features, a string of shorts and other industry roles led to a smooth partnership with FilmNation.

“I knew the film-maker socially,” Basner says. “But we worked well with that team because they had been through the process before, they knew what they did and didn’t like about the process and could communicate that with us, which enabled us to tailor our approach to work in a collaborative, fruitful way. It’s been a great experience.”

For those producers who have not necessarily been through the feature process before, understanding the taste of the company you are approaching and your film’s potential as a marketable commodity are fundamental.

“Knowing what works on the international market and being brief on the film’s selling points are vital when approaching us,” says TrustNordisk CEO Rikke Ennis.

“Sending out scripts and finance plans with your first e-mail can be optimistic. A lot of people pitch the projects from A to Z but that’s not interesting. Underline the selling points. If you have a book adaptation, for example, you need to be very sharp on its selling points. Where has it sold? How many copies have sold? How many languages has it been translated into?”

The Iron Lady producer Damian Jones agrees with Ennis’s sentiments when discussing his earliest films. “In hindsight, I would have got more early feedback from a sales company on what would have made my film more attractive, such as knowing its position in the market better before I formally attached the cast.”

Script and director

Talent attachments remain key. But for many companies a promising or established director holds more weight than acting talent, especially in a project’s earliest life.

“Too many producers write in with only cast attached. Get the director on,” says Jeremy Baxter, head of acquisitions at Protagonist Pictures, sellers of Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, all of which were produced by first or second-time producers.

“We are not a development or a production outfit. At this point we’re not looking for a producer with a hot idea who needs seed money. They need to come with a relatively well-prepared script and director. If you’re a young producer, team with a young director. Those are often the best partnerships, which then go on to grow from there.”

Sales companies increasingly want to be involved in projects at an early stage. But the timing of the approach is crucial. “The biggest mistake is for a new producer to approach too early or far too late,” continues Baxter. “Most sales partners want to be involved as early as possible. It’s very rare a company like ours would take on a completed film once it has been taken on by a festival, especially the wrong festival. We’re inundated with those kinds of e-mails. Part of our business is building buzz, before it has dissipated. We have to be involved in the launch of the film.”

Visit Films president Ryan Kampe agrees: “Producers with finished films often don’t understand what they have to deliver to us in terms of marketing materials. Even taking still photos on sets is something that seems to have disappeared completely from a lot of the younger US producers.”

That being said, in the UK at least, young producers are increasingly in tune with the business, says Baxter. “New producers often seem savvy about the changing distribution models and VoD, too. They are far more adventurous about challenging the traditional distribution model.”

Learning curve

New producers can often rely on learning about the industry through networking and training events at major markets such as Cannes and Berlin, a growing number of sophisticated post-graduate film courses, as well as the programmes of industry organisations such as ACE and those of national film bodies.

“There are some good universities where you can study film,” says Tanja Meissner, head of international sales and acquisitions at Memento Films.

“Producers can also learn a lot by attending co-production forums. Rotterdam’s CineMart is a great one, for example. You meet a lot of people there, depending on the type of film. And organisations like ACE run a great atelier. Everyone should try to apply to that. That being said, if a young producer hasn’t also done an internship at a production company, I would struggle to take them seriously.”

US sales executives appreciate there is perhaps less of a support structure for domestic producers than in Europe. “There isn’t much of a formal support network in the US,” says Kampe. “The support network is working your way up and working with people that take an interest in you and your career. So when bigger producers are doing smaller projects you get more responsibility and we meet these people.”

Above all, be prepared, concludes Basner, who boils it down to three key ingredients for producers keen to get sellers’ attention. “First, be prepared to talk about your film in a concise fashion. Second, know the company you’re talking to and what their films are like. Third, in terms of understanding the business, it’s about asking questions, reading the trades, tracking the box office and working out what films are working where.” 

SALES TIPS FOR NEW PRODUCERS

“If you have a script with no cast or financing, don’t come to us. I can’t sell that. Understand what we need.”
Ryan Kampe president, Visit Films

“If you’re a young producer, team with a young director. Those are often the best partnerships, which can grow from there.”
Jeremy Baxter, head of acquisitions, Protagonist Pictures

“Young producers often think a film will increase in value after a good berth at a festival, but it won’t. You can’t create the same interest in a film after its launch. Pre-sales are still so important.”
Rikke Ennis, CEO, TrustNordisk

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