Sales agents are finding it increasingly difficult to close pre-sales, as cash-strapped buyers practice a wait-and-see policy.

A sales agent friend was telling me this week about a situation in which a film’s producer believed his film – as yet unfinished – to be so good that he wanted the agent to cancel a key pre-sale deal. It was worth taking the risk, he thought, to get a better deal once the film was finished.
The sales agent in question naturally balked. In a market where any pre-sale is a rare occurrence that has the power to trigger other sales or at least interest, the notion of jettisoning an existing deal on the offchance that a better deal could be completed later was lunacy.
Even if the footage looks promising, buyers these days can afford to wait, or rather they can’t afford to take the risk like they used to. It’s a time when any risk is minimized on both sides. Buyers and sellers both have never been more cautious.
It’s a bizarre lull in traditional behaviour because the sales game is essentially one of chance and calculated risk. Entertainment banker Adrian Scrope used to say that before a film was made, you were selling “the sizzle and not the steak.” Who knows what the end product will look like, but these elements – script, stars, director, production values, track records, footage – are all the sizzle that sets buyers’ pulses racing.
But these days, buyers are less manipulable and fully aware that a skillfully cut promo with rousing temp score and action shots does not necessarily mean the film will deliver.

Screen finally reviewed Menno Meyjes’ Manolete this week after it opened in Paris. The 2007 production from Spain’s Lolafilms features a pair of Oscar winners — Adrien Brody and Penelope Cruz, although, when it was shot, Cruz was only just emerging from the glow of Volver which would launch her career into the stratosphere. It was then locked in a post-production battle between producer and director which would keep it off screens until its half-hearted release now.
But when it was being sold – by Handmade – it was one of the most intriguing projects on the market and was widely pre-bought by key distributors on the basis of its two sexy stars.
It was also announced this week that Taylor Hackford’s latest film Love Ranch starring his wife and Oscar-crowned star Helen Mirren had emerged from the legal quagmire that is David Bergstein and Capitol Films. Worldwide rights have been picked up by E1 Entertainment and Hackford and Mirren will be in Cannes to show footage of the film, which shot in 2008. Hackford’s last film Ray was a worldwide hit and a best picture Oscar nominee.
Still locked up in the Capitol mess are Black Water Transit, Tony Kaye’s long awaited follow up to American History X starring Karl Urban and Laurence Fishburne, and the unfinished David O Russell comedy Nailed which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Biel.
All of course had their moment in the sun, before they were made, as buyers were wooed with pitches of how marketable they would be when finished.
For a distributor who has chosen to allot large chunks of acquisition budget to expensive propositions like these, the worst case scenario is empty slots and films which only emerge years later without heat and not much to market. Add to that the growing problem of films bought with the guarantee of a certain scale of US release that end up shunted to DVD or TV when the distributor goes out of business and it’s no surprise that many buyers are practicing a wait-and-see policy.
Which brings me back to pre-sales today. With Cannes just a month away, the market is waiting to see what prices independent distributors will willing to pay for that all-important “sizzle”.
Pre-sales still mark a film out as special. Another sales agent told me this week that if a film is pre-sellable to a distributor, it means it’s eventually pre-sellable to an audience.